Following his dealings with the supernatural and the strange, Miyamoto Usagi’s journey would see him return to with more grounded stakes storytelling. This trio of tales from Usagi Yojimbo #7-9 run the gamut of emotions, while a short story appearance in another publisher’s book offers readers a dose of pure, unadulterated fun.
Usagi Yojimbo Vol.1 #7 – The Tower
Summary: A hungry tokage steals some food from an inn, and the angry innkeeper chases it up the town’s watchtower in the center of town. This causes much of the townspeople to gather in curiosity, which is the scene that Usagi arrives to. After confronting the innkeeper, Usagi climbs the tower to calm and befriend the tokage. Meanwhile, the innkeeper uses his cleaver to break several rungs off the watchtower’s ladder. As the weather turns cold and begins to snow, Usagi offers up a rice ball to the tokage, who continues to be leery of the ronin. Soon, the wind begins to sway the tower, and Usagi accidentally drops his canister of tea on the innkeeper below. Even more angered, the innkeeper takes an axe from a couple of woodcutters and begins to chop at the tower’s legs. Sensing the danger, Usagi urges the tokage to jump into his arms, which it does. The tower falls onto the inn, with Usagi and the tokage safely landing through the straw roof, though Usagi is knocked out from the impact. The innkeeper bursts in and is ready to kill Usagi when the tokage springs to the defense, knocking the innkeeper down. After naming the tokage Spot, the two leave town together.
Notables: First appearance of Spot, the faithful pet tokage. Also, the first time that Sakai numbers his pages.
Musings: A criticism I’ve seen from Usagi Yojimbo readers is that Usagi himself lacks personality, and is the least interesting of the book’s many characters. “The Tower” is a great counterargument to that. The majority of this story is spent with Usagi and a tokage, leaving the rabbit to carry this issue himself. And you know what? He does. Perhaps a reflection of the time we live in, but Usagi’s calmness, kindness, and compassion despite the situation are deeply enjoyable – especially when it pays off at the end of the story. The touch of slapstick provided by the angry innkeeper is not necessarily needed, and could have been jarring as it is weaved into the story. However, Sakai manages to thread the needle by making its inclusion feel organic, which in turn gives the story great tonal balance.
Turtle Soup #1 – Turtle Soup and Rabbit Stew
Summary: Leonardo, falling inexplicably through time and space, lands within the world of Usagi Yojimbo and is immediately attacked by bandits. Nearby, Usagi is attacked by members of the Neko Ninja Clan. Soon, the two battles intersect, and with all their foes defeated Leo and Usagi are the only two standing. Assuming each other to be their final foe, they charge at each other. Suddenly, Leo pops out of existence and back into his world, causing Usagi to clumsily run into a tree and lament the existence of ninja. Back in New York, Leo ends up knocking over his brothers in the process, who give him a good ribbing for trying to fight a bunny.
Notables: First crossover with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, albeit only Leonardo.
Musings: Stan Sakai warns readers in collected editions that these early crossover stories with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (“TMNT”) were just for fun, and knowing that makes the playfulness of this tale understandable. What is perhaps most remarkable is Sakai’s initial interpretation of the Ninja Turtles. When not in battle, Leonardo (and the other turtles in the final panel) are given full eyes complete with pupils. But as soon as they are engaged in battle, the eyes turn stark white, similar to the Eastman and Laird Turtles or other masked heroes. This is something that would be a prominent feature of the 2012 TMNT animated series. But in summary, this is a simple, fun, 6 page story that serves as a milestone for both Usagi Yojimbo and the TMNT.
Usagi Yojimbo Vol.1 #7 – A Mother’s Love
Summary: After sharing a meal on the road with an old woman, Usagi offers to carry her into town with Spot alongside. Upon arriving to the town, the old woman is horrified at the sight of a large man named Bunjuro beating another while demanding payments. Bunjuro works for the old woman’s son – a cruel money lender who has the townspeople under his thumb. After a brief confrontation with Bunjuro, Usagi (and Spot) is allowed to stay as a guest. The old woman’s son, Atsuo, arrives and orders her to get rid of Usagi before striking her across the face. A strong stand by Usagi implores Atsuo to apologize and allows them to spend the night.
The next morning, Usagi learns from the old woman, who he respectfully calls “Mother,” how her son has grown cruel and corrupt, crippling the town with his high rates and boorish enforcers. She sadly reflects on how Atsuo was once a sweet child, but upon thinking about what he’s become she asks Usagi to kill him. Usagi is upset and declines, but upon cooling down he agrees to spend one more night.
Upon arriving at the home, Usagi is attacked by Atsuo’s men. Concerned for the old woman’s fate, he fights through the henchmen and searches the building for her. Meanwhile, Bunjuro tries to kill Spot, but the tokage manages to strangle the brute with its tail. Usagi finally find Atsuo, who has been fatally stabbed by his mother. She confesses that she did so because she couldn’t bear to see him become any more evil, and then begs Usagi to end her life. Tearfully, she sings a lullaby to her slain son before she is suddenly silenced. A distraught Usagi emerges from the home, continuing on his journey.
Notables: Anyone else feel that punch to the gut?
Musings: All of the Usagi Yojimbo stories to this moment have been very good, but “A Mother’s Love” is the first that is truly great. From the beginning, Sakai tweaks his formula just enough to keep readers on edge. Usagi has shared meals with others, but never before on the road. Usagi has dealt with corruption, but it hasn’t had the opposition from a familial elder before. The dichotomy between the old woman’s sweet temperament and her son’s vile corruption gives the story’s pacing an ebb and flow that in less capable hands would be jarring.
Once again, Stan Sakai demonstrates a willingness to make Usagi a fallible protagonist. While he continues to be kind, compassionate, and principled, he is also susceptible to deception. The manner in which the old woman’s trickery is presented, Usagi becomes a reader surrogate. As each instance of deception catches Usagi off-guard, it does so for the reader too. There is also much attention paid to character development. Even though they are all new characters (save for Usagi), their backstories and personalities are built up so that even though we’ve just met them, they are familiar. It’s because of these multiple factors that the ending has such a strong emotional impact. With good reason, this is often considered among the best stories of the entire series, and is a great example of storytelling within the single-issue format.
Usagi Yojimbo Vol.1 #9 – Return of the Blind Swordspig
Summary: Zato Ino is wandering and lamenting the smell of fertilizer when he is ambushed by several brigands, thanks to a tokage alerting him to their presence. Though Ino tries to befriend the creature, he gets angry as it runs away. It turns out the tokage is Spot, and he is returning to Usagi who is finishing up a meal. The ronin comments that perhaps the wandering life isn’t suitable for Spot, and a more permanent residence may be in order. Soon after, Ino arrives at the same inn and immediately catches Usagi’s scent, following him to an abandoned temple.
Despite Usagi’s pleas to avoid fighting, Ino puts out the temple’s lone candle, plunging the room into darkness and giving the pig the tactical upper hand. After exchanging several blows, Spot jumps in between the two. Ino yields, recognizing Spot as the tokage that warned him of the earlier ambush – effectively saving his life. As Ino leaves, Usagi realizes that Spot seeks the same peace. After an emotional goodbye, Usagi sends Spot off to be Ino’s companion. After catching up with Ino, Spot give one look back at Usagi before continuing on with his new friend.
Notables: As the title indicates, this is the second appearance of Zato Ino.
Musings: Zato Ino is such a perplexing character. He claims to want a life of peace and quiet, yet he chooses to pursue Usagi to exact revenge. While his motive for revenge – getting his nose chopped off – is justifiable, it flies in the face of his stated mission. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, but merely an observation as Sakai continues to add depth, layers, and noticeable flaws to all of his characters – which in turn makes them more interesting.
Like “A Mother’s Love” before it, “Return of the Blind Swordspig” takes the series down a more melancholy path, hitting the reader with an emotionally resonant tale. Though not the gut punch of the previous story, Usagi saying goodbye to Spot comes surprisingly quick as he only joined Usagi a couple of issues ago. Still, their goodbye is written and illustrated in such a manner that it comes across as a much longer, closer relationship. The result is an emotionally charged finale to a relatively straightforward story.