Ramblings

Rediscovering the Ronin Rabbit: Usagi Yojimbo’s Past and Future

With the debut of Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles, I take a new look at Stan Sakai's beautiful creation.

This is my second exploration into the world of Usagi Yojimbo, or, if translated to English, “Rabbit Bodyguard.” Before reading on, why not click here and read the first part, Usagi Yojimbo Diversions? It’s okay, this piece will be waiting for you when you’re done.


To start my second piece about Usagi Yojimbo, I’ll direct you to Netflix’s Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan, which chronicles Japanese history between 1551 and 1616. Granted, Usagi Yojimbo is a fictional world and Age of Samurai is a nonfiction account of the closing years of Japan’s Sengoku period and chronicles the lead-up to the country’s unification following more than a century of civil war.

Which one’s Usagi? Wait… none of them?

Age of Samurai starts with the rise of daimyo (or warlord) Oda Nobunaga, who waged war against many other daimyos in a bid to unify Japan, a polite term for placing the entire country under his control. While Oda fell short of complete control, following his death and civil war throughout Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi seized control and completed the country’s unification. Following Hideyoshi’s death, he designated succession to his son Toyotomi Hideyori, under the tutelage of a council of five elders, chosen by himself. One of these elders, Tokugawa Ieyasu, took control, leading to the Siege of Osaka, which eventually resulted in Hideyori’s death and ushered in Japan’s Edo period.

Age of Samurai is a wonderful six-part documentary series exploring a period beset by civil war, and the various daimyos’ battles for control of their opponents’ clans as they sought increased power as they attempted to unify Japan under their rule. It’s a grizzly series which reenacts the violence in visceral detail, so be warned, if you’re squeamish, it could be a bit much. If not, it is a captivating glimpse at sixty-five years of Japanese history.

Usagi’s inspiration, Miyamoto Musashi, does not feature in Age of Samurai, but he is believed to have fought for Hideyori during the Siege of Osaka. While Usagi Yojimbo is a fictionalised account that is loosely based on Musashi, as the story opens, it is under the spectre of its version of the Siege of Osaka, and Japan’s unification. Starting Usagi Yojimbo in earnest just days after finishing the documentary is beautifully serendipitous.

Book 1: The Ronin

In some ways, it may have been worthwhile reading Usagi Yojimbo, Book 1: The Ronin as part of my first article, where I focused on diversions, i.e. the stories that sit outside of the regular continuity. The Ronin doesn’t collect any issues from the core Usagi Yojimbo series; the collection predates this with stories that appeared in Albedo, Critters and Usagi Yojimbo Summer Special.

What results is a collection of short stories about the Ronin Rabbit. However, while these are short stories, rather than telling an overarching narrative, they do start the story in earnest.

The first of these stories, “The Goblin” (if you were to guess it was a story about Usagi Yojimbo facing a goblin, you’d be entirely correct), takes place in the aftermath of the Battle of Adachigahara, which creator Stan Sakai uses as a proxy for the Siege of Osaka, while the Japanese fairy tale, The Goblin of Adachigahara works as this tale’s basis. If you feel like reading something else, I’ve provided this handy link to an online copy of the fairy tale. “The Goblin” is a simple morality tale, but serves as an introduction into creator Stan Sakai’s anthropomorphic Feudal Japan.

The next two stories, “Lone Rabbit and Child,” followed by “The Confession,” bring this collection into more traditional Usagi Yojimbo fare, as it introduces readers to close friend and potential love interest Tomoe and the young Lord Noriyuki, as well as the constant threat of the Neko Ninja and perhaps the series post prominent villain, Lord Hikiji. Each of these characters will go on to play huge parts in the Usagi Yojimbo mythology.

These are followed by two stories that showcase Sakai’s sense of humour; amusing tales that build towards a punchline. At some point, though I don’t recall where, I had previously read the first, “The Bounty Hunter.” This story introduces the rhinoceros who would proclaim himself Usagi’s best friend, Gen (I’ll jump ahead to touch upon “Bounty Hunter II” here, which rounds out the collection; another amusing story, which plays on the first’s punchline). The second, “The Horse Thief,” tells a story where after having acquired a horse, Usagi is led from one set of trouble to the next, and struggles to get rid of this creature that is causing him so much grief.

“Village of Fear” tells the story of a shapeshifting monster terrorising a village. It’s an interesting glimpse into Usagi Yojimbo’s mythology, and no doubt Sakai has taken inspiration from somewhere in Japanese mythology, but I’m not aware of it. “A Quiet Meal” is another fun short story whereby Usagi tries to simply enjoy a quiet meal while ruffians try—and fail—to intimidate him.

The next two stories, before “Bounty Hunter II” brings the collection to a close, are my two highlights. The first, “Blind Swordspig,” introduces readers to Zato-Ito, a foil seen occasionally during the Fantagraphics era. It’s a fun tale, and one of many that demonstrate Usagi’s sense of honour. “Homecoming” is the longest entry in the collection, and brings Usagi to his home, where he is reunited with the love of his life, Mariko and her husband, Kenichi, with whom he has a tumultuous relationship. Usagi also meets Mariko’s son, Jotaro, who will form a pivotal role in Usagi’s history in decades to come.

Book 2: Samurai

Usagi Yojimbo, Book 2: Samurai ushers in the series’ tradition of including forewords in its collections. The first foreword is written by Mark Evanier, best-known for writing Groo the Wanderer, a quite hilarious Conan the Barbarian parody, which Sakai provides the lettering for. In his youth, Evanier also worked as a production assistant for the late, great Jack Kirby (a visionary artist, yet I’m a particular fan of his writing, which was well and truly ahead of its time), and has since served as a scholar about this comic book great. I must confess to being disappointed by the foreword; Evanier is a funny man, but he uses the platform to discuss his vast history in writing forewords, rather than discussing either Sakai, or his works.

Collecting the first six issues of Usagi Yojimbo volume one, the major part of this collection is “Samurai,” which formed the first four of these. From the outset, it shows Sakai’s talent for longform fiction and serialised storytelling. Being the first salvo in the character’s ongoing adventures, it features Usagi telling Gen a story from his past, outlining his training with his Katsuichi, his sensei. While not an origin story, per se, it kicks off the series in earnest with some wonderful background detail about Usagi and his world.

The remaining stories return to the short form style as seen in The Ronin. “Kappa” sees a return to exploring Japanese mythology, with Usagi coming face to face with the turtle demon of Japanese myth. “Zylla” is a cute, if mildly bizarre, story where Usagi meets an infant (and adorable) kaiju—if the implication that this is a baby Godzilla isn’t clear, Usagi asking, “Are you a god, Zylla?” puts all doubt to rest. Finally, “Silk Fair” is the kind of morality tale that Sakai is so fond of, with Usagi meeting a silk works owner who underpays his staff.

Book 3: The Wanderer’s Road

Usagi Yojimbo, Book 3: The Wanderer’s Road, collects issues 7-12 from the Fantagraphics run, in addition to “Turtle Soup and Rabbit Stew” from Turtle Soup. If you haven’t read my first article and ignored my link to it above, here’s another link to it; because I covered this meeting between Usagi and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles there. This is long enough without me recounting stuff I’ve already written.

The foreword is written by Robert L. Aspirin, an author I am unfamiliar with. In it, he discusses his fascination with comic books, and the history of comics and cartoons populating themselves with anthropomorphic characters. It’s a great introduction which discusses how we view these as characters, rather than as animals.

The Wanderer’s Road kicks off with “The Tower,” a story about the importance of kindness to animals. It’s a cute story about Usagi meeting and befriending a tokagē (a small, dinosaur-like lizard that populates the Usagi Yojimbo world), whom he names Spot. If you’re familiar with Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles (which I’ll touch upon below), you’ll recognise Spot as Yuichi Usagi’s pet/companion. Spot plays a similar role here, albeit far from the permanent fixture of his animated counterpart. Spot’s adventures with Usagi continue into “A Mother’s Love,” a heartbreaking story of a mother distraught by the type of man her son has grown into. Spot bids Usagi farewell in “Return of the Blind Swordspig,” a sequel to the story included in The Ronin. Zato-Ito returns seeking revenge against Usagi, in a story that is humorous with a bittersweet ending.

“Blade of the Gods” is a creepy tale that introduces readers to a character who will become one of Usagi’s greatest threats, the dark, wolven samurai, Jei. Here, Usagi meets Jei for the first time, where the villain proclaims he has been chosen by the gods to destroy evil. They soon come to blows when he declares Usagi, himself, to be such evil. As with most tales about Gen up to this point, “The Teacup” is another amusing tale, with Usagi helping his rhinoceros friend escort a priceless teacup. The penultimate story before the collection wraps up with “Turtle Soup and Rabbit Stew,” is “The Shogun’s Gift.” Featuring the return of Tomoe and Lord Noriyuki, the story introduces the kashira, or leader, of the Neko ninja clan, Shingen, in an entertaining story about the theft of a sword.

Samurai Rabbit: Pretender to the throne

After titling this entry “Usagi Yojimbo’s Past and Future,” I have dedicated almost 1,200 words to the past, with an additional 300 words to a documentary series that has nothing to do with anthropomorphic animals. As I draw this to a close, it is time to discuss Usagi’s future, of which I am referring to Netflix’s animated series, Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles, which takes place in a futuristic version of Feudal Japan, in the city of Neo Edo.

While Usagi Yojimbo is indeed suitable for most readers (there is violence, there are deaths, but none of this is graphically presented), the subsequent eight episodes (currently, only the first, ten episode season is available), Samurai Rabbit has cemented any doubt that remained that it was created specifically for children. It is an entertaining series, starring Yuichi Usagi (a descendent of the comic’s Miyamoto), Spot, Gen, Kitsune and Chizu (are they descendents of their counterparts, too?), the latter two who play a large role in Miyamoto’s story, even though they haven’t been introduced as at The Wanderer’s Road

It’s a story of friendship with a wacky sense of humour designed to keep the kids amused—and if my ten-year-old son is any indication, it succeeds in this mission. It simplifies the path to becoming a samurai (which is an amusing juxtaposition to the training covered in The Samurai); though, Yuichi’s training comes via the yokai, Karasu-Tengu. The yokai presented here are a great blend between Japanese mythology and family entertainment, with some being dark spirits, others simply mischievous, and some, simply presenting people—and objects—in need.

It’s an entertaining series with some pretty animation. If you’re an Usagi Yojimbo fan, it isn’t the source material, and nor does it pretend to be. It is squarely positions itself to be the story of the source material’s ancestor, which will no doubt have fans obsessed over official canon debating it. In positioning itself this way, it features plenty of callbacks, from the aforementioned characters, to the threatened alien invasion coming from aliens lifted directly from Senso’s aliens, themselves taken from War of the Worlds (again, if you haven’t read Usagi Diversions, scroll up to one of the links).

With three numbered books down, I only have another thirty-three to go. Unless the world is gifted another spin-off suddenly, until Samurai Rabbit season two hits (if indeed it does, with Netflix being Netflix), future instalments will likely be focused on the future entries. My next look back will cover the remainder of the Fantagraphics years, Books 4 to 7. I’ll get to them when I can, but in the meantime, I’ll bid you adieu (unless, of course, you’re here for the rest of this site’s content. Check the homepage, there’s a bit to keep you occupied).

TTFN,

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