After the “anthology era,” Stan Sakai’s saga would get its very own series from Fantagraphics Books. Running 38 issues, the first Usagi Yojimbo ongoing series further fleshed out the world of anthropomorphic Japan, as well as enabling Sakai to dive deeper into his characters’ histories – starting with Miyamoto Usagi himself. With “Samurai,” Stan Sakai would reveal Usagi’s path to becoming a ronin, including the tough choices he has to make along the way.
Usagi Yojimbo Vol.1 #1 – Samurai Parts 1 & 2
Summary: Usagi engages with another in a duel for honor, claiming victory and his opponent’s life. As he is cleaning his swords, he is surprised by the appearance of his old “friend,” Gen. Usagi explains to Gen that his opponent’s name was Gunichi, and he had portrayed Usagi’s lord, Mifune. This begins a segue into Usagi’s past, beginning as a child with his old playmate, Kenichi. Usagi’s father, the town magistrate, sends both Usagi and Kenichi off to learn at the esteemed Dogora Fencing School. On their way, they come across a conflict between Dogora students and an older man named Katsuichi. After trading insults, the Dogora students rush Katsuichi, who adeptly subdues them all. Usagi is impressed, and decides to follow Katsuichi, while Kenichi thinks that to be a fools’ errand, and continues on his way to Dogora.
Now a student of Katsuichi, Usagi laments that over the course of six months, he has yet to even yield a bokken. Instead, the master continues to give his student unexpected bonks on the head – even as he sleeps. More months continue to pass, and Usagi has grown more cautious and aware of his surroundings, but still is kept performing menial tasks. At one point, he realizes Katsuichi is behind a tree, and after waiting for 15 minutes, finally goes to look. Katsuichi unloads his disappointment on Usagi, as the student knew his teacher was behind the tree and went ahead anyways. More months pass, and Usagi is chopping wood when Katsuichi launches a surprise attack with a sword. Prepared, Usagi is able to successfully parry away his master’s attacks. Satisfied, Usagi is given a bokken (wooden sword) by Katsuichi, who announces that his training will begin in earnest. After two years of training, Usagi finally manages to strike a blow on Katsuichi, who expresses his pleasure in Usagi’s progress. At this point, Usagi decides to pause on the storytelling, much to Gen’s chagrin.
Notables: First appearance of Katsuichi and the Dogora Fencing School
Musings: First of all, it’s amusing that Usagi tells Gen that Gunichi betrayed Lord Mifune only to then go all the way back to when he was a child. Then again, given how much they enjoy annoying one another, this seems pretty much in line with Usagi’s character. Given Gen’s characterization, it’s even more amusing that he’s so enraptured by Usagi’s storytelling. It’s a characteristic of the rabbit that will pop up again and again throughout the series. As for the story itself, the opening salvo is a great bit of Usagi Yojimbo action, and pulls readers immediately into the story.
Sakai kicks the storytelling up a notch once the flashback begins. We’ve had stories that highlight the differences between Usagi and his childhood friend, Kenichi. However, their differences are even more noticeable here. When Katsuichi takes down the Dogora School students, young Usagi is awestruck while Kenichi remains dismissive. Their childhood selves are reflective of their adult ways, with Usagi willing to follow whichever direction the wind takes him, while Kenichi will not waiver from his assigned duty. As a teacher, Katsuichi seems to borrow from The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi, giving Usagi a strong foundation through repetition of menial tasks. While somewhat predictable, it was nonetheless satisfying to see Usagi put together the different lessons and grow as a student.
Usagi Yojimbo Vol.1 #2 – Samurai Parts 3 & 4
Summary: While still interested in the story, Gen pushes Usagi to tell him specifically about his history with Gunichi. After being with Katsuichi for four years, he was entered into a tournament hosted by the Dogora Fencing School. While initially turned away by one of the Dogora instructors, Genjiro – the head of the school – allows Usagi to enter to tournament. Though pleasantries are exchanged between Genjiro and Katsuichi, it is revealed that the former only allowed Usagi’s entrance to prevent the school from losing face in front of Lord Mifune. The tournament progresses, and Usagi makes his way up the ranks. Eventually, he is pitted against his childhood friend, Kenichi, in the tournament final. After a tough battle, Usagi is able to strike a victorious blow on Kenichi and win the tournament.
After his victory at the Dogra tournament, Usagi takes the advice of Katsuichi and moves to the mountains for a period of meditation and to acquaint himself with his newly acquired daisho. It is here where he is approached by a stranger, who challenges him to a duel as a test of skill. This stranger is revealed to be Gunichi – Lord Mifune’s bodyguard. During their duel, they are ambushed by students of the Dogora School, who seek revenge for being embarrassed in the tournament. The two are able to fend off their attackers, and decide to rule their duel as a draw. Gunichi leaves, saying that he will recommend Usagi for service under Lord Mifune. Back in the present, Gen continues to rib Usagi, saying that he’ll allow Usagi to buy him a drink since he can’t listen to the rest of the story sober.
Notables: Usagi’s first meeting with Lord Mifune
Musings: Sakai has many times credited Japanese cinema as his major creative influence, but this issue had a clear Hollywood inspiration – specifically 1984’s The Karate Kid, which is fitting as that classic movie debuted the same year as Usagi Yojimbo. Usagi’s journey during these stories mirrors that of Daniel LaRusso, who under the tutelage of a wise but overlooked master develops great skill through the performance of repetitive, tedious tasks before winning a championship against the students of a powerful and prestigious school. These little pop culture references often crop up in Usagi Yojimbo, yet the manner in which Stan Sakai uses the comics medium never allows them to overtake the story.
The story itself gives readers an explanation for how Usagi is seemingly unequaled in skill throughout the series. Sure he has occasionally been outmatched by a pure numbers disadvantage, but more often than not he is the most skilled swordsman and capable fighter in a given issue. The backstory given to this point in “Samurai” demonstrates that 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.
Beyond the Usagi and Gen sequences, this is probably the lightest issue of the “Samurai” arc. It mostly serves to set up Issue #4, but it does finally answer Gen’s original question of how Usagi knew Gunichi. Their duel, prior to its interruption by Dogora students, is a demonstration of these character’s flaws. This younger version of Usagi is arrogant with regard to his abilities, and is much more eager to spill blood than the character we know today. Meanwhile, Sakai lays subtle groundwork for Gunichi’s treachery. His goading and willingness to kill Usagi on what should be a simple recruiting mission demonstrates that he is comfortable subverting Lord Mifune’s word if it suits his personal preferences.
If there is one gripe, and it’s a minor one, it’s that the final showdown between Usagi and Kenichi was a touch predictable, not only that they would cross paths in the tournament’s final round but that Usagi would come out on top. Thankfully, the fallout from this encounter will go on to play a bigger role down the road. But overall, for a Hollywood inspired issue, a Hollywood ending seems appropriate.
Usagi Yojimbo Vol.1 #3 – Samurai Parts 5 & 6
Summary: Gen and Usagi do make their way to an inn, where Usagi informs the innkeeper of Gunichi’s body up the road. After Gen and Usagi have an exchange about the morality of robbing the dead, Usagi continues with his story. Deciding to journey home before starting his service under Lord Mifune, Usagi stops at an inn where he runs into a very drunk Kenichi. Kenichi explains that his arrogant vow during the tournament forced him to leave the Dogora School in disgrace, but he is too ashamed to return home. Just then, word comes that a nearby village – Kenichi and Usagi’s home village – is in trouble, and the two set out to help their friends and family.
At this point, the brigands have taken over Usagi and Kenichi’s home village. After some resistance from the town magistrate – Usagi’s father – the brigands end up taking most of the village supplies. In addition to stripping the town bare of supplies, the brigands’ leader also takes Mariko as a hostage. It is at this moment that Usagi arrives at the town gates, staring down the enemies that vastly outnumber him. However, Kenichi has stuck around back and begins launching arrows at the town’s assailants. Eventually, the townspeople are able to take down the brigands, with Mariko delivering the fatal blow to her would-be captor. Much later, the trio of Usagi, Mariko, and Kenichi share a meal and discuss the future. Usagi explains that he will be staying for a few weeks before going to serve Lord Mifune. While this new disheartens Mariko, she is happy to hear that Kenichi will be staying. Back in the present, Gen and Usagi lament this turn in the story, and Usagi orders a couple more bottles of sake.
Musings: While it is a framing device for Usagi’s origin story, the sequences between the titular rabbit and Gen are arguably this story’s most entertaining. The two share an odd couple, love-hate relationship that showcases Sakai’s underrated comedic skill. Give me an issue of just these two talking, and it’ll be gold.
Beyond that, the rest of the issue, is well done, albeit predictable. We know why Kenichi is in a drunken stupor when we see him because of what was shown back in Issue #2. We know Usagi will go on to serve under Mifune. We know Kenichi and Mariko will marry. A few glances between Usagi, Mariko, and Kenichi tells you everything you need to know about their dynamic. Because of that, the outcome of the siege is already known to the reader. Despite this, Sakai’s pacing an layouts manage to draw the reader in and forget all of that, instead enabling them to get lost in the story.
Usagi Yojimbo Vol.1 #4 – Samurai Parts 7 & 8
Summary: Usagi’s story jumps ahead 3 years, where his is in the service of Lord Mifune. Having quickly risen up the ranks, Usagi became one of Mifune’s personal bodyguards, and therefore became close not only with the lord, but his wife and son too. Unfortunately, things would turn upside down with the assassination of Lord Mifune’s family by Neko Ninja, controlled by the rival lord, Hikiji.
In the war that followed, the final battle on Adachigahara Plain was looking promising for Lord Mifune. However, the forces led by General Toda betrayed Mifune, and the lord’s forces were suddenly overwhelmed. Gunichi and others abandoned Mifune to save their own skin, while Usagi stayed loyal until the end. With Mifune slayed, Usagi took his lord’s head and buried it in a hidden location in order to prevent it form being displayed on a spike with disgrace. Back in the present, Gen remarks how now Mifune is avenged. But Usagi calls it a hollow victory as Gunichi was once a friend, and that’s how he prefers to remember him.
Notables: The full details of how Usagi became a ronin are revealed here.
Musings: It’s only in this final issue where we see Usagi’s time as a samurai, but it is all too brief. This arc could have benefited from another issue to expand on Usagi’s adherence to bushido, and how it wasn’t necessarily followed by Mifune’s other samurai. There also could have been more time dedicated to Usagi’s interactions within Mifune’s clan. Seeing the bonds he forms with Mifune and his family would go a long way to explain Usagi’s strict and unwavering loyalty to the lord for all of these years.
Now that I’ve explained what I wanted to see, there’s a good amount here that is done really well. Sakai’s style often flies in the face of modern, decompressed comics. Instead, he has mastered the art of giving readers exactly what they need to know or what to feel while using as little space as possible. A splash page implies how close Usagi has grown with the lord’s family. And then there’s the big, sweeping battle scenes with are a sensory feast, even in black-and-white.