This is a big one folks. While this installment of our journey through Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo features only 3 issues, these issues have great significance to the series going forward. We are introduced to Usagi’s greatest foe, a vicious enemy claimed to be charged with a mission from the gods. We also see much deserved character development for one of Usagi’s best friends.
Usagi Yojimbo Vol.1 #10 – Blade of the Gods
Summary: A group of samurai confront a lone figure who had killed their lord. The figure claims that he was instructed to do so because the lord was “evil,” and that his followers must be so to. Swiftly, the figure kills all of the samurai and continues on his way. Later, Usagi is caught in a terrible storm. He makes his way to a hovel, and is greeted by Jei’s vicious grin. The two exchange introductions, and Jei allows Usagi to shelter. After a brief exchange about how the owner of this hut was executed for being – in Jei’s word – “evil,” the two decide to turn in for the night.
Jei is suddenly awoken from his sleep, and attacks while claiming that the gods have determined Usagi to be evil in nature. While Usagi parries Jei’s attacks, the latter continues on that by slaying Usagi, he’ll be one step closer to joining the gods. Their fight continues, and the two make their way outside as the harsh storm rages on. Usagi is sent flying backwards from a lightning strike. Jei takes this as a sign from the gods and prepares to deliver a killing blow. However, he is struck by lightning, and his body is completely destroyed. In the aftermath of the fight, Usagi wonders what Jei’s true nature was.
Notables: First appearance of Jei, the most well known of Usagi’s foes. This issue also contains a back-up story by Peter Laird with Usagi once again meeting the TMNT.
Musings: Before tackling Jei, the backup story by Peter Laird deserves some recognition. It’s always weird to see Usagi drawn by anyone other than Stan Sakai, but Laird does it better than most. As for the tale itself, it’s a fun, enjoyable story. Yes, it’s of little consequence to the overall narrative, but it’s worth checking out.
Conversely, Blade of the Gods is one of the most important Usagi stories as it introduces Jei, in my opinion Usagi’s greatest foe. Yes, Lord Hikiji may be the villain that casts a pall over the entire series, but he has very little to no interaction with Usagi and his allies throughout the entirety of the series. Meanwhile, Jei is a force of nature with a singular purpose – to eradicate “evil.” The problem is that what he perceives is “evil” runs contrary to the expectations of the reader and the characters in the book. This is a running theme that will be explored again throughout the series. It’s also worth noting that Jei is an anthropomorphic wolf – a natural predator to rabbits. This is one of the few times that the choice of animal has a genuine storytelling purpose, as Jei will continue to pursue Usagi over the years in his quest to eradicate “evil.”
This first Jei story is not unlike 1940’s Batman #1, where the Joker was first introduced. Like the Joker, Jei seemingly meets his demise at the end. But as the passage of time has proven, you can’t keep a great villain down for long. Jei’s tendency to die and come back is not dissimilar from Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th film series. It has even been acknowledged by Stan Sakai that the character’s name is a direct homage to the horror icon, with “Jei-san” being very similar to “Jason.”
Usagi Yojimbo Vol.1 #11 – The Tea Cup
Summary: As Usagi wanders the land, he has the realization that he is entering the Geishu province. Suddenly, he happens upon his old friend Gen battling a bunch of brigands. Gen eventually dispatches his attackers while an amused Usagi watches and cheers. Gen explains that he has been hired to transport a tea cup to the Geishu tea master, Hokuse, but a rival tea master named Okii Hana is attempting to prevent that. As Usagi accompanies Gen on a boat, the two are ambushed by more brigands. Though they easily fend them off, their boat is punctured, leaving the two soaked and bickering. They make their way to an inn to dry off, and soon they are accompanied by two orphans for whom Usagi buys a meal.
While camping at night, the group is once again attacked by brigands. Gen gives Usagi the tea cup and tells him to get away, but all the brigands follow him. Backed up against a cliffside, Usagi fends them all off, but the tea cup is broken. Feeling shame for his failure, he meets up with Gen in town and confesses. Gen can only laugh, as he gave Usagi a fake to cause a diversion. Gen always had the real cup, and was able to safely deliver it to town. As for the reward money, Gen gave it to the orphans, showing a softer side to the brutish bounty hunter.
Notables: The initial and concluding pages of this story are a not-so-subtle reference to Groo the Wanderer, the absent-minded barbarian comic by Sakai’s good friend, Sergio Argones.
Musings: As is the case for most Usagi-Gen stories at this point of the series, Sakai gives readers a fun romp akin to buddy-cop movies that were popular at the time. The chemistry between these two characters is very strong, with each of them given the opportunity to be either the fool or the straight man. However, neither of them are proven to be outright incompetent, as the two managed to fend off wave after wave of enemies. This in itself seems to be a running joke. Though it would never happen, it’s easy to image either Gen or Usagi saying “Oh no, another horde of baddies for the two of us to beat.”
But despite how lighthearted and fun this story is – and how overpowered the characters are – Sakai is still able to give the story real stakes. Usagi and Gen’s survival is never in question, but the tea cup is. A small piece of porcelain will determine their success. When it appears shattered, Sakai makes readers feel the full weight of Usagi’s assumed failure.
There is also the growth of Gen as a character. While portrayed as a money-loving bounty hunter, the introduction of orphaned children in this issue gives the character an opportunity for much needed development. At first annoyed that Usagi is bringing the children along with them, Gen eventually finds himself in the role of their sole protector. While it would normally be to the story’s benefit for their bonding to be shown, by leaving it out Sakai makes the reveal at the end more effective – especially as it comes on the heels of Gen once again pulling a fast one on Usagi with the tea cup switcheroo. This is just the beginning of more development we’ll see from Gen.
Usagi Yojimbo Vol.1 #12 – The Shogun’s Gift
Summary: Lord Noriyuki plans to give a sword, the Muramasa Blade, to the Shogun as a gift, when it is stolen during the night by a member of the Neko Ninja clan. Tomoe Ame, Lord Noriyuki’s bodyguard, goes out searching for the thief and comes across Usagi. She informs him of the situation and continues on her search while Usagi goes to see the lord. Usagi comes across the thief, who he mistakes for a woodcutter. With the night having grown cold, Usagi asks to join the “woodcutter” by the campfire. Usagi pretends to go to sleep, and the thief abandons him in the night. Noticing that he’s traveling away from the castle, Usagi follows him to the border town.
After seeing that the border is guarded and setting down his bundle of wood (with the concealed sword) among the other woodcutters’ bundles, the thief is surprised by Usagi, who offers to buy him a meal as repayment for the previous night’s hospitality. They are soon joined by a woodcutter couple, and the thief turns in for the night only to swim across the river under the cover of darkness. Across the river, he is once again confronted by Usagi, who drops all pretense and accuses the thief. The thief, who reveals himself as Shingen of the Neko Ninja Clan, engages Usagi in an evenly matched battle. Eventually, Shingen grabs the sword from his wood bundle and runs off.
Back in town, the woodcutter couple discover the Muramasa Blade within their wood bundles. Fearing that they’d be accused of theft, they turn it over to the just-arrived Tomoe Ame. They plead for mercy and insist that they didn’t steal it and that the “long-eared ronin” must’ve put it in their bundles. Tomoe Ame accepts their pleas and expresses gratitude for Usagi’s help.
Notables: This final issue of “The Wanderer’s Road” puts the pieces in play for the series’ first major arc – “The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy”
Musings: In many ways, this issue perfectly encapsulates the typical Usagi Yojimbo experience. Miyamoto Usagi wanders and stumbles upon a form of trouble, there’s fight, some form of resolution follows, and he continues on his way. This is a pattern that in lesser hands would feel repetitive, but Stan Sakai manages to add a wrinkle here, a change there, and suddenly this story feels fresh. With this issue, I’d like to call special attention to the expressiveness of Sakai’s characters. Throughout, Sakai’s use of expression adds character introspection and sets the tone of various sequences throughout. Shingen’s continued displeasure with Usagi’s presence is a great running joke throughout the issue, adding levity to the story. Conversely, Usagi and Tomoe in separate moments show much warranted suspicion, not only proving their situational awareness but also giving the story necessary stakes and tension. Using the expressiveness of characters as a storytelling tool is something that few comics are able to successfully execute, and Usagi Yojimbo does so to perfection.
More importantly, there are indications that a story such as this will have ramifications down the road. Usagi was going to see Lord Noriyuki, but ultimately does not. Lord Noriyuki is seeking the Shogun’s favor, while Tomoe is more wary of potential attacks on her vassal. We are introduced to a specific member of the Neko Ninja, who are at the employ of the series’ overarching villain, Lord Hikiji. Usagi Yojimbo is in many respects a comic book form of chess, and Sakai has positioned the story for a big move.