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.
This samurai bunny looked familiar to me. I searched the recesses of my mind and realized I had seen him in the 80s TMNT cartoon when I was a kid. After doing a little research I found out that Usagi was the longest running comic book series that Dark Horse ever had. Written and drawn by Stan Sakai, it stars a Samurai rabbit in feudal Japan. Given my interest in Akira Kurosawa’s films and samurai culture as well as all the high praise for the series, checking it out was a no brainer.
I decided to start right at the beginning with book 1 that collects all one shots and stories published prior to the start of the ongoing series in 1987. From cover to cover this was a refreshing read. All crisp black and white art, light on dialogue and simple tales of morality.The book centers around Miyamoto Usagi a samurai whose master he was sworn to protect died during a battle in a war. Usagi bound by the Japanese honor code bushido was left to wander and offer his protection for hire as a bodyguard (yojimbo).
Each story in the collection is episodic and doesn’t necessarily need to be read to understand the next one. Usagi’s past isn’t delved into but we do pick up bits and pieces during flashbacks. All of the characters in the book are different kind of anthropomorphic animals which really helps create its own strange world. The fight scenes depicted don’t always work out on the printed page. Samurai movies (or if you’ve ever seen the Kill Bill movies) the battle scenes are full of lighting fast kinetic fluid action that is hard to duplicate on the page. Sakai does an admirable job though, all things considered.
This book does an excellent job introudcing Japanese folklore and fables to western audiences. It can be read by a teenager or someone who is 60. Both would enjoy it but on different levels and get something completely different out of these tales. Which is the mark of something truly great, isn’t it? Most reviews I read said to skip this volume and start with the second one that covers Usagi’s origin story in full. If that’s the case, I really liked book 1 I sure as hell can’t wait for book 2.
All images and characters depicted are copyright of their respective owners
Yojimbo is a black and white samurai movie made by the master, Akira Kurosawa in 1961. Kurosawa mainstay, Toshiro Mifune portrays the main role. Before I get into this this article, I’d like to point out that there are definite distinctions between the samurai and kung-fu movie genres. Now that that is out of the way, let’s roll on.
The story of Yojimbo involves a no named wandering lone samurai (aka a Ronin) who enters a small village where rival gangs have a strangle hold over everything. Our ronin joins both gangs and performs a series of double crosses and lies that eventually pits each gang against each other. Sound familiar? Of course it does! It’s the exact plot to the classic 1964 Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western, Fistful Of Dollars staring squinty, angry eyed Clint Eastwood. This movie was remade again in 1996 as Last Man Standing, this time with Bruce Willis. The setting was moved from the old west to prohibition era Texas. These three movies were all based on the 1929 novel, “Red Harvest” by legendary Film Noir author Dashiell Hammet. Confused yet?