Our final installment of “The Ronin” sees two stories, one from a 1986 issue of the anthology Doomsday Squad, and another from Critters. This is notable as it brings Usagi’s anthology period to an end, as he would be given his very own series from Fantagraphics.
Critters #6 – “A Quiet Meal”
Summary: After days of travel, Usagi ventures to a small in for a meal. While there, a group of gamblers enter the establishment and demand to be seated. Throughout their meal, they are repeatedly rude and obnoxious to the innkeeper, constantly asking him to bring them more sake. Eventually, the innkeeper asks that they try to keep their voices down as to not disturb the other diners. Rather than listen, they throw the innkeeper out of his own establishment. They then target the other patrons, throwing them out for “ruining their fun.” Eventually, they get to Usagi, who continues to quietly eat his meal despite their yelling and demands of him. Finally, they attempt to throw him out as they have done the others, but instead Usagi brandishes his sword and begins swiping feverishly. While they initially unimpressed by his swipes at the air, they are stunned to realize that Usagi had actually cut several nearby flies in half. Terrified by his skill, the gamblers retreat outside, watching from a safe distance as Usagi finishes his meal in peace.
Notables: Usagi doesn’t speak for the entire story. Also, the opening page of this story is absolutely gorgeous.
Musings: A Quiet Meal is enjoyable for its simplicity and great use of the Usagi Yojimbo premise. As a wanderer, Usagi travels all over and has likely had many encounters like this one. It also demonstrates Usagi’s maturation as a character, as in the past he has been portrayed as slightly hot-headed. But here, he remains calm and composed when it would be very easy to lose his cool. Instead, it is only when he is physically threatened when he chooses to act. While there are some characters that do find a way to get under his skin (Gen), going forward Usagi is a much calmer, introspective character.
Critters #7 – “Blind Swords-Pig”
Summary: A blind pig wanders into a village, musing to himself that he might finally be able to live in peace. However, the local citizens immediately recognize him as Zato-Ino, an outlaw with a large bounty on his head and attack. Hours later, Miyamoto Usagi enters the same village, noting that it’s been completely ransacked and in a state of upheaval. He quickly stops one of the villagers, asking what happened. It is explained to Usagi that Zato-Ino caused the destruction – completely unprovoked! Continuing on his way, Usagi comes across a fellow wanderer who has fallen into a hole. Being a man of honor, Usagi helps them out of the hole, unknowing that it is actually Zato-Ino. Usagi warns Zato that there is a fierce outlaw on the loose, to which Zato chimes in that he doesn’t care for outlaws and would welcome Usagi’s company. The two eventually make camp for the night, but while Usagi sleeps Zato continues on his way. Usagi eventually catches up with Zato, who has just killed three attackers. Usagi is able to surmise that Zato is the outlaw, and expresses that although he sympathizes with his desire for peace, he must also be brought to justice. The two duel, and Usagi emerges victorious having sliced off Zato’s nose. In the epilogue, Zato gets a replacement nose from a woodcarver.
Notables: First appearance of Zato-Ino, the Blind Swords-Pig. Zato-Ino himself is a direct reference to Zatoichi, the famed “Blind Swordsman” notably portrayed in Japanese cinema by Shintaro Katsu.
Musings: It’s never really stated how Zato-Ino becomes an outlaw. Based on how the villagers act to his presence and then explain the events to Usagi, it would appear that his status is built on legend and hearsay rather than any actions taken. It is interesting to see Usagi acknowledge Zato’s perspective, but still say that he needs to be brought to justice. It shows that Usagi isn’t always right, and can be fallible. The result of that fallibility is a duel that will leave Usagi with a formidable adversary should their paths cross again.
Critters #10 – “Homecoming”
Summary: Wandering through a storm, Usagi comes across the Mogura Ninja Clan, who have terrorized a nearby village. In self defense, Usagi quickly strikes down one of the ninja, while their hostage, a young rabbit named Jotaro, manages to escape. Soon, the other villagers arrive, forcing the Mogura to retreat. Among the villagers is Usagi’s childhood crush, Mariko. It is revealed that Jotaro is the son of Mariko and Kenichi, who welcome Usagi into their home. Kenichi, Usagi’s childhood playmate and rival, is now the town magistrate, having assumed the role after the death of Usagi’s father. It is revealed that Usagi’s father died at the hands of Lord Hikiji’s forces. Still bitter over their childhood rivalry, Kenichi demands Usagi leave in the morning before excusing himself. While Usagi and Mariko catch up, they hear a scream as the Mogura Ninja once again take Jotaro hostage.
Notables: First appearance of Markiko, Kenchi, and Jotaro. Also, first appearance of the Mogura Ninja.
Musings: While this is the first real glimpse at Usagi’s past, Sakai makes the relationships between the issue’s core three characters rich, believable history that immediately draws the readers in. Usagi refers to Kenichi as his “old playmate,” but were they really friends? Why does Kenichi harbor such resentment for Usagi? How much does Usagi’s history with Mariko play into things? There is so much to unpack, it’s a good thing there’s a part 2 to this story.
Critters #11 – “Homecoming Part 2”
Summary: While held hostage, Jotaro manages to free himself by biting the hand of the Mogura, allowing Usagi to deliver a fatal blow. While distracted by the hostage situation, the villagers are unaware as the other Mogura clean out the village storehouse. Kenichi notes that the red clay on the ninja garb comes from nearby mountains, and so he gathers volunteers – including Usagi – to retrieve the stolen supplies. Tracking the Mogura to a nearby cave, a battle ensues in which Kenichi and Usagi take turns saving each other’s lives and recover the stolen goods. Back in the village, Mariko and Usagi reminisce on the past and what might have been between them had circumstances been different. As they retreat to their separate rooms, they both pull out a keepsake from the past, saddened by feelings that can never be acted on.
Notables: The final pages are bittersweet and emotionally impactful.
Musings: The resolution with the Mogura is effective, though seemingly rushed to get to the true heart of the issue – Usagi and Mariko’s relationship. From the moment the issue shifts focus to their relationship, Sakai manages to elevate his storytelling ability to another level. The emotional pain and anguish that these characters endure is so emotionally affecting to the reader, that by the final page it will be a true struggle to hold back tears. Sure, the action is great, and the uneasy alliance of Kenichi and Usagi is entertaining, but the final sequence overshadows everything else.
Critters #14 – “Bounty Hunter 2”
Summary: Usagi is finishing up a meal when the innkeeper informs him that his bill has been taken care of. It’s none other than Gen who picked up the tab, in order to get Usagi to listen to a business proposition. Gen has been hired to recover a stolen statue of the goddess Kwannon from a local temple. Usagi agree to help for a fifty-fifty cut of the reward. Gen begrudgingly agrees, and tells Usagi of his plan. Gen will create a diversion, and while the thieves are distracted Usagi will grab the statue. Unfortunately when put into practice, some tokage alert the thieves to Usagi’s presence, and he is forced to fend them off while Gen is able to sneak in and grab the statue. When they meet back up at the inn, Usagi is furious and chases Gen with his sword unsheathed. A week later, we see that cooler heads have prevailed, and Gen gives Usagi his cut of the reward. Usagi in turn leaves, sticking Gen with his tab.
Notables: It took Usagi a week to cool off. No one gets him worked up like Gen.
Musings: After the emotional weight of “Homecoming,” this story acts as a nice palette cleanser in ending “The Ronin” on an upbeat note. There is a great amount of chemistry between these two characters, and Sakai brings a ton of energy to this story. Because of Usagi’s contempt for Gen, there’s so much expressiveness in this issue. That goes equally for Gen, who brings smug arrogance to every panel he’s in. If you’re looking for a short, quick, and fun story, this is it.