Evil Geek Book Report – Usagi Yojimbo, Book 2: Samurai
When I was a boy the Fantasy genre was something I couldn’t escape. I found it fascinating; it was able to capture a young Biff Tannen’s imagination. The older I got though and less I was able to suspend my disbelief, the more I moved away from it. In adulthood I stumbled into classic period Samurai movies. They seemed almost like the real world equivalent to Fantasy movies. It’s such an interesting time period and culture that’s filled with ancient mysticism.
While Book 1 of Usagi Yojimbo rounded up all the one offs and random appearances of the character Miyaomoto Usagi prior to his own series, Book 2 focuses on the first six issues of the inaugural Usagi Yojimbo series originally put out by Fantographics in 1986. It picks up on many of the threads and characters introduced in Book 1 but is not necessary to have read prior to this. Rather than focusing on individual tales of Usagi, Book 2 paints a portrait of his past.
As the story opens we see Usagi locked in a duel with a warthog looking Samurai, whom Usagi defeats. He is then approached by Gen (a character from Book 1) a bounty hunter Rhinoceros with shifting morals that Usagi had formed a tentative relationship with in the past. Uasgi explains that the Samurai Gunichi he just put down was a good man and former friend. They were both personal bodyguards to the Lord Mifune until Gunichi had betrayed them. This brings the story into the past with occasional shifts into the present as Usagi explains to Gen the story of how he came into Lord Mifune’s service.
It’s a story that’s classic, whether you’ve read it here or not. Even if you’ve seen the Karate Kid you’ve got an idea of how it goes. As a youngster, Usagi and fellow rabbit Kenichi are of age to leave and attend a school to learn the discipline of the Samurai. On the way there, they see an old man harassed by students of the school who feel he has insulted them and their sacred school grounds. The old man coaxed into it, throws down a serious ass kicking and leaves them bruised and helpless in a matter of seconds. Usasgi swears allegiance to the old man and asks him to be his sensi and train with him. He declines but Usagi follows him any way and Kenichi continues on to the school.
What follows next, simply put is wonderful. As the old man Katsuichi ignores Usagi and gives him menial tasks around the house for months. As a student, before he can learn martial arts and sword play, he has to learn patience. We see Katsuichi physically and mentally beat on him until he is ready to be taught the way of the blade. It’s a classic Japanese Samurai training montage. If you’ve seen Luke training with Yoda on Dagobah in the Empire Strikes Back you’ll get the gist of it.
After years of training, you can probably guess what happens next. Usagi becomes worth in the eyes of Katsuichi and is entered into a sword fighting tournament against the very school he did not attend. He defeats all of his challengers, even their best offering, his friend Kenichi. After his victory he is courted by Lord Mifune as a personal bodyguard. That’s a decent bulk of the story but I won’t reveal all of it in case you want a little mystery left if you decided to read it yourself. This particular story takes up most of Book 2 but there are 3 individual standalone stories that go back to Usagi’s wanderings. They are but slight compared to the main feature but enjoyable never the less.
After putting 2 books behind me, I must say that I think Usagi’s story works and is more interesting told as anthropomorphic animals rather than actual people. I kind of glossed over it in the review but Stan Sakai’s attention to Japanese cultural detail and the way of the Samurai is wonderful. His research and love must be thorough because it definitely shows. This series is a must for anyone who is a fan of Samurai culture or genre of movies. With Usagi’s past divulged, I can’t wait to see where his future takes me.
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