Following the “Samurai” arc, Usagi Yojimbo would return to its roots, with a done-in-one, feature-length story in one issue, and three short stories in the next. These two issues would see Miyamoto Usagi take on several monsters, both literally and figuratively. From bridge guardians to big-screen icons, Stan Sakai would infuse these stories with a balanced blend of fun and pathos.
Usagi Yojimbo Vol.1 #5 – Silk Fair
Summary: As is often the case, while traveling Usagi happens upon a group of bandits attacking a man, named Jiro, who works at the nearby village’s silk mill. After being escorted into town, Jiro introduces Usagi to the silk mill’s owner, Kaiko. Unfortunately, Kaiko is not pleased that Jiro nearly was killed as his absence would have cost him earnings. Likewise, is disgusted by his own assumption that Usagi would like a reward for saving Jiro’s life, especially when he has his own ronin on retainer, Matsutaro. After leaving Kaiko’s, Jiro invites Usagi to stay in his home for the night. Despite their limited means, Jiro’s family is happy to have a guest – especially his children.
The next day, Usagi runs into Matsutaro and shares a drink with him. Matsutaro continues to be annoyed by Usagi’s presence, much to the rabbit ronin’s amusement. However, Matsutaro’s tone quickly changes to anxious as he is made aware that the town’s silk fair is tomorrow, and that bandits have arrived. With the bandit’s arrival, Matsutaro runs out the back door. Meanwhile, Usagi calmly continues to sip on his drink, and after much begging (and negotiation) agrees to give protection to the town. Usagi then confronts the bandits in the nearby forest. While seemingly outnumbered, Usagi has actually planned a trap for the bandits by collaborating with the silk workers. With the bandits tied up and turned over to the authorities, the silk fair is a big success.
Notables: Usagi is known for his stoicism, but with this issue Stan Sakai injects him with a ton of personality.
Musings: We’re really starting to see how Usagi’s wandering nature allows for a wide range of stories, and “Silk Fair” is at its heart a morality tale. We see the town’s silk mill owner is extremely wealthy, but miserable. Meanwhile, the local villagers live in poverty, but find themselves to be rich in things beyond material possessions. They have love, affection, and joy. But it’s not all rainbows and sunshine, as Sakai’s story also cautions that sometimes it’s worthwhile to spend a little more. Matsutaro boast that he only charges one ryo for his services. When Usagi retorts that a samurai knows his worth, it’s at first glance a remark that showcases the character’s quick wit. However, as the story progresses it does not come to be an insult as much as it is prophetic, as one ryo might in fact be all Matsutaro is worth.
Usagi Yojimbo Vol.1 #6 – Kappa
Summary: On his eternal pilgrimage, Usagi comes across wild cucumbers, which he finds odd given the season. Still, he is not one to pass up a chance for a meal and grabs some. This would prove fortuitous as he comes across a bridge guarded by a kappa. Using the newly found cucumbers as payment, Usagi is able to cross freely. Coming to a house on the other side of the bridge, the old woman inside offers Usagi refuge. While sharing a meal, Usagi mentions encountering the kappa and the cucumber offering. The woman becomes suddenly distraught, as she is the one who planted the cucumbers for her son’s expected arrival that day. Rushing back out, Usagi and the kappa battle for the life of the old woman’s son. After a skirmish, Usagi is able to gain the upper hand and the kappa agrees to release his victim. With the kappa gone, the man thanks Usagi, as he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to make the pilgrimage to his mother’s gravesite.
Notables: A kappa is a creature of Japanese folklore that resembles a turtle, with a bowl containing water in the top of its head. They are also known to be fond of cucumbers. In the 2012 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series, the titular turtles are mistakenly identified as kappa upon their arrival to Usagi’s world.
Musings: This is a great bait-and-switch by Sakai, who sets the reader up for an old-fashioned monster story but ends up telling an old-fashioned ghost story. When told effectively, these stories can be chill inducing, even if the result is predictable. And truth be told, I got chills. Beyond the effectiveness of the story’s spook-factor, Sakai does a great job of introducing readers to this piece of Japanese folklore. The kappa itself has a grotesque yet mesmerizing design which aids in making him an effective foil to Usagi. While short in length, “Kappa” is a solid story that is great to revisit whenever you’re in the mood for things that go bump in the night.
Usagi Yojimbo Vol.1 #6 – Zylla
Summary: A husband-wife team of woodcutters come across an impossibly large egg, and decide to bring it to the local hot springs to boil and hopefully feast on. Meanwhile, Usagi enjoys a meal at a nearby inn and, after expressing how sore his back is, is directed by the innkeeper to take a dip in the same hot springs. However, several drunken patrons follow Usagi, hoping to rob him while his guard is down. At the springs, the woodcutters are frightened away as the egg hatches. Usagi later arrives at the hot springs, and gives rice balls to what he suspects is a tokoge lizard hiding in the nearby brush. Based on the sounds it makes, Usagi names the unseen creature Zylla. Eventually, the drunks catch up with Usagi, and one of them falls into the hot springs in a failed attack. Usagi quickly kills him, but is still greatly outnumbered. Just then, Zylla emerges from the nearby bushes and burns the remaining drunks to a crisp with his fire-breath. Usagi thanks Zylla for saving his life, and jokingly suggests he try his luck in the big city one day.
Notables: From his design, Zylla is clearly meant to be a young Godzilla. The creature will eventually take Usagi’s advice and visit Tokyo in 1954. It won’t end well.
Musings: As a Godzilla fan, this story is sublime. Being able to see a young, baby Godzilla that isn’t insufferable is something that I didn’t think possible until now. Also, it’s worth pointing out that this is the first time we’ve Usagi fight topless, and he is an intimidating figure. Overall, this is a pretty straightforward story that’s just good fun and a fan favorite.
Usagi Yojimbo Vol.1 #6 – The Test
Summary: Usagi recounts to Gen how Katsuichi taught him that he must strive to learn something new every day. While lecturing him on the virtue of restraint and that a samurai’s sword is a reflection of his soul, they encounter a group of bandits. The young Usagi is boastful of his master’s ability, but Katsuichi remains reserved until the bandits’ leader threatens Usagi. With unparalleled speed and skill, Katsuichi slays the leader, scaring off the remaining bandits.
Notables: In subsequent reprintings, this story has been attributed as “Samurai Part 3.”
Musings: Much of my thoughts here echo what was said about Issue #2 (Parts 3 & 4 of “Samurai”). It’s a great story that showcases the lessons Usagi learned to become the skilled swordsman he is today. In a situation not too dissimilar from what he’s experienced in the present, Usagi and Katsuichi are vastly outnumbered by bandits. Usagi’s skill is not borne out of god-given ability or plot conveniences, but because the character spent years developing his craft. It is much easier for readers to continue following and identify with a character that has earned his strengths – both physical and emotional. Sakai ensures that readers are aware that Usagi’s time under Katsuichi did just as much to develop his personality as it did his sword skills. Seeing the skill that Katsuichi possesses here, Usagi’s own abilities make a lot of sense.