It’s been a while since I’ve written an article for this little website, so I figure that should change. And rather than using this space purely to discuss writing-related topics, I figure I can write about stuff I enjoy. And since stuff I enjoy influences me (as I’m certain it does for anybody embarking on their creative endeavours), you can still make the argument that it’s related to writing.
Like many people in my age group (and, I am sure, many younger than me; my son being one of them), I first discovered Usagi Yojimbo thanks to his appearances in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For me, this was the 1987 incarnation that took the world by storm. For my son, this was the 2015 iteration. And of course, there are all those kids in between who discovered Usagi through the 2003 iteration of TMNT.
If you discovered Usagi through your iteration of the Ninja Turtles, you would be forgiven for thinking he was a TMNT original, but you’d be wrong. By way of a brief history lesson, both franchises were originally created as independent comic books way, way back in 1984. Where Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird are the creators who birthed those Heroes in a Half-Shell, Stan Sakai is responsible for Usagi’s creation, in a completely different comic book universe. Where the turtles are mutants, Usagi is simply an anthropomorphic bunny living in an anthropomorphic world.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles exploded in the mainstream, and Usagi… didn’t. Usagi Yojimbo comics have been published more or less consistently since ‘84, to this day still written and illustrated by Sakai, where TMNT has since been sold to Viacom, relaunched and rebooted. Despite the different trajectories these properties have sailed, a friendship by these comic creators was born, and these characters have mingled, both on comic book pages, and on TV. Usagi has appeared in every TMNT cartoon aside from the short-lived Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, though, had that continued, I imagine it would have only been a matter of time.
You may be aware (but quite possible are just being made aware, thanks to a distinct lack of promotion) that Usagi has inspired the recent Netflix animated series, Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles. As both my son and I are fast fans of the character, we obviously needed to check this out. This is not an adaptation of Stan Sakai’s ronin rabbit, Miyamato Usagi; instead, it tells the story of his descendant, Yuichi Usagi, a teenager determined to live up to Miyamoto in a far more modern setting (a futuristic version of Feudal Japan, in a city known as Neo Edo, naturally).
Samurai Rabbit isn’t my Usagi. It’s aimed squarely at children and prides itself on comedy as much as the action and story. Personally, I’d have loved to see Ciro Nieli and the producers of the 2012 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series take on a faithful adaptation; the Usagi Yojimbo episodes were pitch perfect (no doubt helped by Stan Sakai himself writing one of the episodes). But that’s not to be, and I’m not here to complain about it. With Sakai onboard as a producer, he’s expanding the mythology, and hopefully it will bring some new fans. And my son digs it, and he is very much a kid; the show’s key demographic. So it’s obviously doing something right.
My son hasn’t picked up any Usagi comics to read yet, so he hasn’t drunk all the Kool-Aid. It also took me a little while to get to the comics, which I’ll get to shortly. But just as we both fell in love with Usagi through the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series we were each addicted to, our love of Usagi Yojimbo was also cemented via video games. For me, it was 1988’s Samurai Warrior: The Battles of Usagi Yojimbo; for him, 2013’s Usagi Yojimbo: Way of the Ronin on Android.
Other than simply reflecting on my childhood love of Usagi, the release of Samurai Rabbit has inspired me to finally re-read the Usagi Yojimbo comics. Or, read the complete works, from start to finish. I’ve read these on and off over the years, mostly off. But Sakai’s world is a beautiful one, loosely based on the real life Miyamoto Musashi, and taking inspiration from samurai films and manga. But with anthropomorphic animals, which make everything better.
Rather than starting from the beginning, though (I’ll get there next time), I instead decided to jump into the Usagi Yojimbo side content. Namely, Usagi Yojimbo/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Complete Collection and The Usagi Yojimbo Saga: Legends.
Usagi Yojimbo/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles collects the comic book crossovers between the franchises. The bulk of these were written and drawn by Sakai himself, with one of the included tales, “The Crossing,” written and drawn by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Peter Laird. The only one of these I had previously read is “Turtle Soup and Rabbit Stew,” the first crossover. It’s a brief, comedic tale written for the TMNT series collecting funny shorts, Turtle Soup.
The bulk of these tales were originally published between 1987 and 1993. The exception to this is “Namazu,” a colour story originally published by IDW, who had taken control of the Ninja Turtle comics, in 2017 (more recently, IDW has started publishing Usagi Yojimbo—now in colour!). All of these stories have a common through line, with continuity between the stories. As TMNT was relaunched under IDW, telling an entirely new story with an entirely new continuity, “Namazu” takes the time to establish that these turtles are different, and not the ones Usagi knows. A cute little flourish maintaining Usagi’s 30-plus year continuity while having this be the first meeting for these “new” Turtles.
As a collection, it’s fun for anyone who’s a fan of either franchise. The stories are short, and of its 214 pages, 70 of these are purely supplemental material. Given its length, there isn’t room for a substantial amount of depth in these stories, even given Sakai’s knack for economical use of space and maximising the returns from it. As fun as it is, it’s pretty disposable fun.
Legends is also full of stories I haven’t read, but it opens with the collection of the Space Usagi trilogy, as well as some short stories. The first Space Usagi, Death and Honor, is the very first Usagi comic I read; something I constantly pored over. It’s been decades since I last read it, but as soon as I started, it was a trip down memory lane, reminding me of my time spent reading and re-reading it. I was surprised by just how much of that comic remains etched into my brain to this day.
Much like Yuichi in Samurai Rabbit, Space Usagi tells the tale of one of Miyamoto’s descendants (this one also conveniently named Miyamoto), but despite its even more futuristic setting is unmistakably an Usagi story. While this is a space opera, its characters and story are told with a similar tone and with the same heart as the core Usagi Yojimbo books. The other entries in the Space Usagi trilogy, White Star Rising and Warriors are new to me and are highly entertaining stories with some fun (and heartbreaking) twists and turns, as well as some genuine heart. The short stories “Under the Same Sky” and “Hare Today, Hare Tomorrow” are fun diversions, with the latter featuring both versions of the character meeting.
With “Hare Today, Hare Tomorrow’s” appearance of the classic Usagi Yojimbo, it makes for a fun transition to the rest of the collection. Senso is a fun tale set in Usagi’s future, where aliens, inspired by War of the Worlds no less, attack Feudal Japan.
Finally (with the minor exception of the incredibly short “Gagged” before the collection’s supplementary material), comes Yokai. This is the shortest inclusion of the book’s major features, but it brings this collection to an end on an incredible high. Originally published as a standalone graphic novel celebrating Usagi Yojimbo’s twenty-fifth anniversary, it is a fun story featuring an altercation between and those spirits of Japanese mythology, the yokai.
This story may be reasonably short and light on detail, but (discounting the latest iteration of the series) is one of the few examples of an Usagi story in colour. And what colours these are, watercolours that really make this story pop, resulting in art that is nothing short of beautiful.
And so my first article about my rediscovery of Usagi Yojimbo draws to an end. I’ll read the rest of these books, starting with volume one, The Ronin, but there’s a way to go. At the time of writing, there’s thirty-six of these to go through. As I find logical (in my mind, at least) breaks, I’ll post new articles regarding this wondrous ronin rabbit.
I’ll also watch the rest of Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles and provide my full thoughts in the next edition.