Inspirations Ramblings Usagi Yojimbo

Rediscovering the Ronin Rabbit: The End of an Ear-a

My third reflection on Stan Sakai's Yojimbo, looking at the final books of the Fantagraphics Era.

This is my third 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 two parts of the series? It’s okay, this piece will be waiting for you when you’re done.

Some days you have to take a stand, and today is such a day. I unequivocally refuse to apologise for the pun in this article’s subtitle. Sure, it may be terrible, but it was irresistible.

The “ear-a” I refer to in the title is the Fantagraphics era of Usagi Yojimbo, which came to a close with the publication of Usagi Yojimbo volume one, issue 38; or for those of us reading the collections, Usagi Yojimbo, Book 7. From here, our favourite ronin would briefly hop (another pun I refuse to apologise for) to the then home of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mirage Studios, before spending the majority of his time at Dark Horse Comics, then jumping to the current publishing home of those rascally Ninja Turtles, IDW.

It’s been about seven months since my last look at Usagi Yojimbo, and in that time, another era is drawing to a close. Dark Horse has announced that Stan Sakai is taking his creation back to Dark Horse. The ongoing comic is no longer being published, and will resume at some time (presumably this year) from its new-previous home. Not only this, the comic will fall under the banner of Sakai’s own imprint, Dogu Publishing, where it’s promised readers will get more Space Usagi and Chibi Usagi, and something resembling a universe of titles. I imagine it’ll be the core series and the occasional spin-off miniseries, but who knows exactly what it’ll look like.

The next crossover

The first movement in all this will have Usagi reteaming with his old TMNT pals in another crossover, published by IDW, but with Dogu being the co-publisher. Whether there’ll be any overlap between this and the next volume, I don’t know, but once the latest crossover is collected, I might jump ahead and write about that, linking it with the original Chibi Usagi tale.

In the seven months since my last post, the second season of Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles has hit on Netflix. I haven’t yet caught it with my son, but we’ll get there at some point, and I’ll mention my thoughts about that after the fact. There’s no word on a season three, but given the streaming implosion that’s hitting Netflix among other services, I’d say it’s unlikely.

After spending a little over four hundred words looking to the future, it’s time to move back to the past. The distant past, those heady days of the 1980s, where the stories chronicled in Usagi Yojimbo volumes four to seven were originally published.

Book 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy

Usagi Yojimbo, Book 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is the only volume we’re looking at today that tells one story throughout its entire length. Comprising seven chapters (originally published in six issues, 13-18, but I’ll get to that later), “The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy” tells an epic story about feuding lords, and Lord Tamakuro’s conspiracy against the Shogun, with the use of guns. This is a story that foregoes much of Sakai’s sense of humour, with the stakes feeling real for not just Usagi, but his allies, as well as the other characters caught up in the conspiracy.

The volume includes the return of a number of characters who have had an impact on the still fledgling protagonist’s world. Bounty hunter and self-proclaimed best friend, Gen, samurai and staunch Lord Noriyuki loyalist, Tomoe Ame (along with that adorable panda or a lord), blind swordspig Zato-Ino (and naturally, pet tokage, Spot), and the head of the Neko Ninja clan, Shingen. They all play to the sweeping scope of the story, something that feels both big and important. It doesn’t hurt that the story itself is fantastic.

As big as “The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy” is, it doesn’t stop Sakai from having fun with the serialised format. The threat is largely resolved within the first five chapters, where the sixth issue features two separate stories serving as epilogues. The first epilogue deals with the broader story, while the second, aptly named “The Fate of the Blind Swordspig,” serves as a coda to Zato-Ino’s story. Sakai’s affection for Zatoichi, who served as the character’s inspiration, is clear, both here, and in Book 8.

Continuing the tradition of including forewords, this book includes an introduction by Chilean-French filmmaker / comic book writer / recording artist / psychomagician (magic designed to heal psychological wounds), Alejandro Jodorowsky, one of the more obscure names to introduce Sakai’s works. Jodorowsky uses the space to discuss his hatred of Walt Disney, particularly Mickey Mouse, while commenting on the depth of Sakai’s stories.

Book 5: Lone Goat and Kid

Usagi Yojimbo, Book 5: Lone Goat and Kid, is in many ways the antithesis of the previous volume. In Jodorowsky’s place in the book’s introduction is comics’ most famous Stan, Stan Lee. Lee’s someone I have complicated feelings about (taking more credit than was due for his impact on Marvel Comics and a knack for shameless self promotion, yet someone who left a genuine impression on the comics industry), before his life came to an incredibly sad end. Lee’s foreword comes with the requisite Stan Lee energy, while ensuring nobody forgets who he is as he pays Sakai his dues, noting their past working relationship when Sakai lettered Spider-Man comic strips for him (though I note that like many authors of comic strips, Lee had ghostwriters for periods of time).

Collecting issues 19-24, the five stories contained within chronicle Usagi’s travels on his way home, where he plans on retiring, which is explored in the following volume. It starts with “Frost and Fire,” one of the morality tales Sakai’s so fond of. It tells the story of Usagi being charged with retrieving swords that belonged to a widow’s husband, a samurai. The story soon twists to have Usagi wrestle with what is honourable, and what is right. Equally beautiful is the next story, “A Kite Story.” Told in four vignettes, it provides a look at the history of Japanese kite festivals, while telling the story about Usagi dealing with gamblers, and the issues that gambling raises.

The next story, “Blood Wings” is a two-part tale. Following the events of “The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy,” the Neko Ninja are in disarray and Lord Hebiji retains the services of the Komori Ninja, who are bats, instead of cats. It’s a fairly simplistic action story where Usagi is attacked by the ninja. But if you look at the book’s cover and think the bats bear a resemblance to Batman, you’re not alone; Sakai makes a joke in the text, where a character exclaims, “It’s bats, man!”

The following story, “The Way of the Samurai,” tells the story of Usagi crossing paths with fellow samurai, General Oyaneko. Oyaneko’s health is ailing, and he seeks an honourable death. Like “Frost and Fire” at the beginning of the book, it poses questions about what’s right and what’s honourable.

The final story in the collection is the tale this book was named after, “Lone Goat and Kid.” And yes, for any Lone Wolf and Cub fans out there, this is a homage to Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s seminal manga. I haven’t read it, but it’s a reminder that I need to—I may start it when I’m done with this series. It’s a fun tale about an assassin and his baby crossing paths with Usagi. It’s nothing revelatory, and a small part of this collection, despite its title.

Book 6: Circles

A longer collection than what came before (though with fewer pages than the next volume), Usagi Yojimbo, Book 6: Circles collects seven issues, 25-31, as well as a story from Critters issue 38. This collection is introduced by Jeff Smith, best known for another adorable black and white indie comic book, Bone. In possibly the shortest foreword of any Usagi collection, he discusses Sakai’s innate understanding of the comic book medium and his expert weaving of serialised stories.

This skill is evidenced throughout this book, which continues Usagi’s trip home in the shorter stories, “The Bridge,” “The Duel,” “Yurei” (itself a shorter story, presumably from Critters), and “My Lord’s Daughter.” It culminates in the tale from which this book takes its name, the four-part “Circles.” Playing with the serialised nature of the individual issues, Sakai split part three across two issues, with the fourth filling the second half of the fourth.

Throughout its history, Usagi Yojimbo has dabbled in supernatural stories, based on Japanese myth. This theme is more prevalent than throughout Book 6. “The Bridge” is the first story in the collection, where Usagi ventures into a town via a bridge, which is said to be haunted by a hannya, or female demon. Despite some mildly haunting imagery, it’s a fairly straightforward story where Usagi sets about slaying her. The third and shortest story in the collection, “Yurei,” named for the Japanese ghosts of folklore, sees Usagi visited by one such being in a dream, requesting he avenge her death. Promptly forgetting all about the dream, a series of events transpire that ensure her wish is met. The fourth story, “My Lord’s Daughter,” is predominantly set before the events of Usagi Yojimbo, as he recounts a tale of daring adventure, where he fought swathes of demons. A story being a story, it is entirely possible it isn’t true.

The second story, “The Duel,” is the only short tale in the collection without a supernatural basis, and it also happens to be the highlight of these. Once again, Sakai uses his fondness for morality tales, in another story that looks at the evils of gambling. As people (or various anthropomorphised animals) gamble on duels, Usagi is unwittingly thrust into a duel where his opponent, convinced he can defeat him, is conspiring with the bookkeeper. It blends the comic’s sense of fun and heart, resulting in a story that, above everything else, is heartbreaking. Embracing the serial nature of the story, remarks made in “The Duel” pay off in “Circles”.

As mentioned earlier, “Circles” is the book’s major event. It sees Usagi returning home, where he intends to retire, and in heartbreaking fashion, explains why he is unable to retire there. The reason is a revelation that will impact the story going forward, and one that is not only telegraphed throughout this story, but was way back in “Homecoming,” from Usagi Yojimbo, Book 1: The Ronin (covered in my previous article, “Usagi’s Past and Future”). There’s a lot happening in the story. The return of Jei, who believes he is destined to ascend to godhood the day he defeats Usagi, is just the beginning of it. Usagi also discovers his Sensei, Katsuichi, is alive, and for all the emotion that elicits, his reunion with the love of his life, Mariko, her husband and Usagi’s rival Kenichi, as well as her son, Jotaro, is what makes this story so special.

Book 7: Gen’s Story

The last book we’re looking at is Usagi Yojimbo, Book 7: Gen’s Story. Sergio Aragonés, the man responsible for the irrepressible Conan the Barbarian parody, Groo the Wanderer, opens the book with a wonderful introduction. Aragonés, who has worked closely with Sakai as the letterer of Groo, discusses comics as an art form, the beauty of independent comics and their similarity to independent film, and Sakai’s mastery of the art form in his Usagi Yojimbo work.

This is the longest collection of the four I’m including, collecting the last seven issues of the Fantagraphics era, 32-38, and from Critters issue 38, apparently taking more from this issue and adding it in a separate book to the previous story. While this book is called Gen’s Story, and Gen plays a major part within its pages, including the three-part story titled only “Gen,” it is also notable for introducing Usagi’s friend and thorn in his side, the thief Kitsune. First, in a story titled “Kitsune,” where she first encounters our hero, and again, in the penultimate story, “The Return of Kitsune,” another amusing tale where Gen falls for her charms.

The second and fourth stories are particularly short episodes that provide a look at Usagi’s earlier years. The second, “Gaki,” is a humorous story about Usagi’s childhood years under the tutelage of Katsuichi Sensei. The fourth, “The Tangled Skein,” is set in the immediate aftermath of the battle of Adachigahara Plain, where while trying to evade enemy forces, Usagi is confronted by an obakemono, or shapeshifting demon. The third story, the standard length for a single part one, also harkens back to that battle and dabbles in the supernatural, as Usagi meets the spirit of a felled ally, and must lay him to rest.

“Gen” features the return of, perhaps unsurprisingly, Gen, who plays a pivotal role in the remainder of the book, including the fourth story which I touched upon earlier. With such a simple title, it explores Gen in the most depth so far by a wide margin. As it tells the story of Lady Asano, who Gen’s father once served, he refuses to retain her services. While the plot has plenty of twists and turns, it’s Gen’s backstory and his complicated relationship with his father that truly make this tale shine.

I subtitled this article The End of an Ear-a, as is closes off the Fantagraphics era of books, the first volume, and because the IDW ear-a is coming to a close. But the final story in this collection also ends the ear-a of the blind swordspig, Zato-Ino. The aptly named “The Last Ino Story” is a bittersweet tale that closes his story, following on from his interactions with Gen in “The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy.”

Thanks for the books, Fantagraphics

As all good things must come to an end, it is time to close the book on not just the Fantagraphics ear-a, but also the “ear-a” pun. While I’ll get to the second season of Samurai Rabbit one day, I don’t know if it’ll be before I start chronicling the Dark Horse years.

With thirty-eight numbered books now existing (up from thirty-six the last time we did this thing), I now have just thirty-one to go, plus Usagi and his next crossover with the Ninja Turtles, and anything else that comes up before I reach the end.

But until then…


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