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Graphic Novel Review: Usagi Yojimbo Book One: The Ronin by Stan Sakai

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Usagi Yojimbo is the ongoing saga of a lone ronin (a masterless samurai) by the name of Myamoto Usagi. The story takes place in Edo period Japan, a feudal period of harsh realities: the shogunate has been established, but the lords of several clans undermine it; the land is governed by law but still overrun by brigands; the hard steel and hard training of swordsmen is still much appreciated, but other weapons, easier to master but just as deadly, are entering the scene; and anthropomorphic animals roam the land.

Well, what did you expect? "Usagi Yojimbo" means "Rabbit Bodyguard", after all, and the protagonist is a, well, a rabbit. But no fuzzy-eared, tame-natured, wide-eyed rabbit is he! Myamoto Usagi may be a rabbit, but his ears are tied in a topknot and his mastership of the katana and wakizashi is legendary.

In Usagi Yojimbo Book One: The Ronin we are introduced to Usagi the best possible way: by his actions. The book collects several stories that follow each other in time, and in the first of these Usagi seeks shelter in a cabin that is plagued by hideous goblin and recounts the tale of how he lost his master. The following stories introduce most of the supporting cast: Tomoe Ame, the beautiful feline vassal and bodyguard of Noriyuki, the young lord of the Geishu clan, both of which Usagi helps in their time of need; the treacherous Lord Hikiji and his snake-like (well, actually, really a snake) counselor Hebi; Murakami Gennosuke, Gen for short, a good-natured if immoral rhino of a bounty hunter; and the blind swordspig Zato Ino, who so wants to live in peace that he'll kill whoever tries to stop him. Each character is well defined, most of them revolving around the strict conduct code of bushido, governing every aspect of the samurai's life. Usagi, in particular, will never break this code – but he doesn't forget that people, even if they are simple peasants, come first.

The stories are action-packed, but Sakai takes his time to show us the scenery, add reliable dialogue, and slowly demonstrate and develop the characters and their relationships. His attention to detail and meticulous research are a constant source of joy and information – from the vegetation, through the clothing and up to the political plots, everything is inspired by accurate historical information. Sakai's attention to detail is also showcased in the beautiful black and white art (and everything here is done by Sakai – pencils, inks, layouts and lettering) which uses clean lines and functional paneling to tell the story in the most effective way, paying homage to the characters and the society they live in.

Usagi is alert as ever, but we can enjoy the view
Usagi is alert as ever, but we can enjoy the view

Usagi Yojimbo has been published continuously since 1985, first by Fantagraphic, then by Mirage (where he was published in color) and finally by Dark Horse. In comics, this by itself is no mean feat for a creator-owned character inhabiting an original universe, but there's more: all of the regularly published Usagi comics have been collected into trade paperbacks, and are still in print and available for purchase. In other words, if you like Usagi all you have to do is buy the books and read them – and not, say, dig through used book stores, hunt for issues online and generally go insane trying to follow the history of an independent character you like.

Usagi Yojimbo Book One: The Ronin has already gone through eight editions, and rightly so – it offers a unique and entertaining mix of a straight-forward story with a background of solid research, exquisite art that's never there just to impress but remains impressive, and wonderful characters that may have large ears but have even larger hearts.

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About Adam Klin Oron

  • Steve Hubbell

    Very nice article!

    I just wanted to add that Usagi Yojimbo (and Stan Sakai) will be celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2009, with some cool books being concidered for release in honor of the occassion.

    And for more information on Usagi Yojimbo and Stan Sakai, visit the Usagi Yojimbo Dojo: Stan Sakai’s Official Usagi Yojimbo Website and Fan Club.