Publisher: Dark Horse Books
Publication Date – 10 July 2018
After a year I have finally gotten the new volume of Usagi Yojimbo, one of my favourite long-running comic series. Now I and other fans of the long-eared samurai can finally enjoy another set of exhilarating adventures in Stan Sakai’s version of feudal Japan.
Usagi Yojimbo is a great series that has been running since 1987, three years after the character was originally created. In a world inhabited by anthropomorphic animals, the series is set in the early Edo period of Japanese history, during the time of the Shogun and the wandering samurai. The series was originally supposed to feature human characters and a protagonist based on the famous historical samurai Miyamoto Musashi. However, the series was changed to feature animals after the artist drew an early version of the hero with rabbit ears and created the series’ titular yojimbo, Miyamoto Usagi.
The Usagi Yojimbo series follows the adventures of Miyamoto Usagi through feudal Japan. After the death of his lord, Usagi has become a ronin, a masterless samurai, and has spent the last few years wandering the country seeking employment as a yojimbo, a bodyguard. Throughout his travels, Usagi finds all sorts of danger and adventures, and is often drawn into a range of conflicts throughout the troubled landscape, facing threats both natural and supernatural in origin.
With 32 collected editions over 30 years, as well as the two additional graphic novels and the spin-off series, Space Usagi, Usagi Yojimbo has developed a dedicated fanbase. Those who have not read this series may be familiar with it due to its frequent crossovers with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Characters from both franchises have crossed over into each other’s respective comic book series several times. In addition, Usagi has appeared in all three Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television shows, often with some side characters. One of my first exposures to the characters of Usagi Yojimbo was during The Big Brawl arch of the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, and I’ve been a fan of the character ever since.
Stan Sakai’s series is a hybrid of western graphic novels and Japanese manga. The style and format of the comics come across as more of a classic western style, but the story content and the series’ art is heavily influenced by Japanese culture and history. Every issue is filled with incredible depictions of Japanese customs, history, folklore and mythology, and includes realistic and historically accurate illustrations of feudal Japanese weapons, clothes and buildings. In addition, the dialogue includes a number of Japanese words which are translated in text, and the characters are all named using traditional Japanese naming conventions, with the family name presented before the given name.
Mysteries is the 32nd collected edition of this series, and contains issues #159-#165 of the Usagi Yojimbo series. These issues see Usagi reunited with his friend Inspector Ishida as they investigate a series of mysteries in Ishida’s jurisdiction. There are four main stories, including The Hatamoto’s Daughter, Death by Fugu, the two-part series The Body in the Library and the three-part series Mouse Trap. Mysteries also contains two of the shorter Chibi Usagi stories that Sakai writes with his wife, Julie, which feature cute versions the franchise’s characters.
Readers of the latest volume of Usagi Yojimbo are in for another visual treat as Sakai continues to highlight the delicate beauty of the Japanese landscape and fantastic architecture of its towns with his spectacular artwork. Each of the portrayals of the anthropomorphic characters in their period accurate clothing is amazing, and the reader will be astounded by the author’s desire to make his comic as aesthetically realistic as possible. However, the real visual highlights of this comic are the action sequences that see the protagonists engage in a series of elaborate sword fights against a variety of opponents. The artistic styling of these sword fights is both exciting and intricate, which allows the reader to imagine how these battles would occur in real life. Mysteries contains some great examples of this series’ fantastic art form, and the reader will love the creativity that inhabits every panel of this book.
While most Usagi Yojimbo stories are standalone episodes, the separate stories featured within Mysteries share several connections with each other. All of them are set within the same town and feature the character of Inspector Ishida. In addition, several of the cases are connected by a shadowy crime boss, although the full nature of this connection isn’t fully known until the final story in the volume.
As you may be able to guess from the title of the volume, all of the main stories featured within Mysteries feature a murder and the following investigation by Inspector Ishida and Usagi. Inspector Ishida is a high-ranking member of the Shogun’s police and is renowned throughout Japan as one of country’s most effective detectives. Usagi has teamed up with him before in a number of adventures, including a great story, Murder at the Inn, back in Volume 29, which featured Usagi, Ishida, and Usagi’s frequent companion Gen investigating murders in a locked-down inn. There are some great stories in the Mysteries volume, especially as Sakai has crafted together some intriguing mysteries in such short entries. Several of the big mysteries and crime stories are connected into an elaborate overarching narrative that examines the criminal underworld of feudal Japan. Two of the stories feature some really complex murder mysteries that flit back and forth between a number of suspects and contain motives that are very unique. The final entry, Mousetrap, is the longest story in the volume and features an excellent tale about a thief getting caught in a middle of a fight to control the area’s organised crime and the sinister figure that has been manipulating the events of the previous stories.
Sakai ensures that his examination of feudal Japanese society carries through to each of these stories and their investigative arcs, affecting the characters’ investigations. For example, only members of a lower caste are allowed to touch the murder victims’ dead bodies, which hinders the protagonists from properly examining the bodies to work out the cause of death. There is also a fantastic investigation of the role of the inspectors in feudal Japan and how they bear the authority of the Shogun. It also allows Ishida to show off his fighting skills with the jitte, one of my favourite Japanese weapons.
In addition to the returning Inspector Ishida, this volume of Usagi Yojimbo sees the return of several characters from previous stories. Our favourite thieving duo of Kitsune and Kiyoko make a return in the middle story, The Body in the Library. The fox thief Kitsune was first introduced in 1992 and has become one the series’ main recurring characters, adding significant amusement to the stories she appears in through her schemes, humour and continued casual theft of the other characters’ valuables. Her young companion, Kiyoko, was introduced in a later story and serves as her apprentice in the life of crime while taking up many of her mentor’s bad habits. Their inclusion in this story adds significant comic relief to an otherwise dark story of murder, and it is always fun to see what this mischievous duo are up to. The mysterious masked thief Nezumi returns for a second adventure and is a major player in the book’s longest story, Mouse Trap. Nezumi was introduced in the Volume 20 story After the Rat, and acts as a public Robin Hood character in Inspector Ishida’s town. He is used to great effect in this new story, being framed for murder in a way reminiscent of his first appearance in the series. Sakai continues to taunt his audience with the mystery of Nezumi’s identity and motives, and it is great to see this interesting and formidable character interact with Usagi for the first time, especially with their differing definitions of honour. Readers should also keep an eye out for a certain recurring snitch who has played a similar role in a number of prior Usagi stories, despite the main characters failing to remember how treacherous he is.
One of the best parts of the Usagi Yojimbo series is the incorporation of intriguing and unique parts of Japanese culture into amazing action based comic issues. Throughout the series, the author has utilised a number of great Japanese cultural elements in various stories, including giant kites, giant drums, pottery, swordsmithing, tea ceremonies, seaweed farming, games of chance and a huge number of mythological creatures and legends. These stories often contain descriptions and informative depictions of the cultural activities in question, and the author works them into a fun adventure or creative mystery. Mysteries contains two of these stories. The main one, Death by Fugu, focuses on the preparation of fugu, the meat of the poisonous pufferfish. This story contains an excellent description of what fugu is and the preparation required to eat it. Death by Fugu is a powerful and tragic tale that prominently uses the art of fugu in its mystery, and definitely one of this volume’s standout stories. The other entry, The Body in the Library, takes a brief look at the examination and trade of western medicines in Japan. While this is not examined in as much detail, it is a fascinating to see what impact western medicines could have in feudal Japan and to see it used as a motive for a series of murders.
Once again Stan Sakai has produced a powerful and fantastic new volume of his iconic Usagi Yojimbo series. Fans of this series can look forward to seeing Sakai’s iconic art style and detailed cultural insights that are a love letter to Japan and its fascinating history and society. Mysteries contains a range of outstanding new stories, and readers will enjoy unwrapping their mysteries with Usagi and the fan favourite Inspector Ishida. I wish I didn’t have to wait a whole year for the next volume of this amazing series.