Publisher: Dark Horse Books (9 July 2019)
Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 33
Length: 200 pages
My Rating: 5 out of stars
While there are a number of great books and comics coming out this year, one of the releases that I have been most keenly looking forward to was this year’s volume of Usagi Yojimbo. Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai is a fantastic comic book series that utilises Japanese style, characters and history into an excellent series. This series is one of my favourite bodies of work, and I will move heaven and earth to get each instalment, and I especially loved last year’s volume, Mysteries. I was pretty darn excited to get the 33rd volume, The Hidden, and powered through it the afternoon that I received it.
The Hidden continues the story of Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering ronin samurai who lives in a version of medieval Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals. Usagi’s life occurs in the early 17th century, during the Edo era of Japan. This is a pretty interesting time period to set a story, as with the land mostly at formal peace thanks to the rule of the Shogun, many samurai have been forced to roam the land without a master to serve. Usagi, a highly skilled samurai based on the legendary historical warrior Miyamoto Musashi, has been forced to live the ronin lifestyle after the death of his lord. Wandering the roads and seeking employment as a Yojimbo (a bodyguard), Usagi encounters all manner of rogues, bandits and criminals, as well as a number of supernatural foes from Japanese folklore.
The Hidden is made up of issues #166-#172 of the series and is actually one of the rare Usagi Yojimbo volumes to feature just one single adventure rather than multiple interconnected or standalone stories. This volume also continues to pair Usagi with Inspector Ishida for the entire volume. Ishida, who is essentially a Japanese Sherlock Holmes (although based on real-life Honolulu policeman Chang Apana), is a recurring character within the Usagi series who has appeared in multiple volumes, often for just one issue or adventure. However, after teaming up to investigate a murder a couple of volumes ago, Usagi has been living in Ishida’s town and assisting him with his investigations. As a result, Ishida has become a secondary protagonist for the last two volumes, with Mysteries, for example, focusing on the two solving several different crimes.
This new volume starts with a brand-new case, when two samurai are pursued into the city and brutally murdered. When Usagi and Ishida discover crucifixes on the dead samurai’s bodies, they quickly realise that both the victims where Kirishitans (Christians). Christianity, which has been bought into the country by European missionaries, has recently been outlawed in Japan by the Shogun, and his agents are hunting down all practitioners. It soon becomes clear that the dead samurai were killed by agents of the Shogun who were attempting to recover a mysterious book of foreign design.
However, in a twist of fate, a petty thief manages to steal the book off the corpse of one of the samurai. This thief is now the most wanted man in the city, as the Shogunate agents and their hired killers attempt to find him and the book at all costs. As Usagi and Ishida work out what has happened, they are determined to bring the killers to justice. Hunting for both the book and the criminal who stole it, Usagi and Ishida, with the help of the masked master-thief Nezumi, manage to locate part of the book, and what they discover could rock the entirety of Japan. As they attempt to come to terms with their discovery, the Shogunate agents determine that the two investigators are a threat and decide to eliminate once and for all.
While I may have had to wait a whole year to read this latest volume, it was definitely worth it. Sakai has once again produced an outstanding comic book that I could not have put down for anything. Not only has Sakai written an intriguing and clever story with a great mystery and an informative look at a new aspect of Japanese history, but he tells it through his beautiful Japanese-inspired artwork that really brings the characters and the landscape to life. Together this results in another exceptional piece of work that I absolutely loved.
The main story focuses upon Usagi and Ishida’s investigation into the murders of Christian samurai and the hunt for the mysterious book the Shogunate agents are searching for. This was a really interesting story, and I liked how Sakai took the entire volume to really flesh out the investigation. The two characters go on a compelling adventure in this book, running into a number of colourful characters, dodging political restraints, interrogating a number of suspicious characters and getting into several deadly fights. However, what starts out as an intriguing investigation soon turns into a deep and powerful tale of convictions, belief and faith, and the things one must do to preserve all three. This is shown by a number of characters, including Usagi and Ishida, who risk everything to find the truth and more. There is also the amazing character arc of new character Hama, whose heart-rending sacrifice is one of the most memorable parts of this book. There is also a fairly major revelation about one of the other characters towards the end of the volume that actually changes the way you see the story and is guaranteed to make you look back to see the various things you missed the first time. Several recurring Usagi characters are used exceedingly well in this book. The mysterious masked thief Nezumi makes a great return, helping the protagonists with their investigation. It is always cool to see Nezumi in action, and I enjoy seeing the grudging respect build between him and Ishida, despite them living on opposite sides of the law. Everyone’s favourite snitch, Toady, makes another appearance, adding a lot of humour to the story as he attempts to weasel his way into more gold. Overall, this was another well-written and captivating story that was a real pleasure to read.
One of my favourite aspects of the Usagi Yojimbo books is that Sakai often uses them to explore some fascinating piece of Japanese history, culture, mythology or industry and present them in a way that his western audience can appreciate. I was really glad that he continued this trend in The Hidden, as this time he takes an intriguing look at the role of early Japanese Christians in 17th century Japan. These Christians, who are the titular hidden ones of this volume, were an outlawed minority, due to Christianity directly contradicting a number of traditional Japanese beliefs and therefore challenging the authority of the Shogun. This latest volume shows this persecution in action, as the city is locked down by agents of the Shogun who are hunting for a valuable Christian item. The reader gets a sense of the illicit and hidden nature of these Christians and the way they were hunted, and Sakai also shows certain unique parts of this hunt, such as the fumi-e (trampling image). The fumi-e was an image of a cross that the Shogun’s enforcers placed on the ground in front of the gates of barricades that were set up at key points of the city. In order to pass through the barricades, pedestrians were forced to stamp on the image, showing their disdain for the Christian religion, and those who refused to step on the image were arrested as Christians. This was a fascinating part of Japanese history that I found incredibly interesting to see in action, and one that Sakai was able to cleverly work into the book’s plot. There were also a few fun scenes which looked at a black-market dealer who sold items which originated outside of Japan. Due to the Shogun isolating the country, these were incredibly valuable items, and I liked seeing what items this dealer considered valuable (the dealer’s European dress also made for a stunning visual as well). All of this was really cool to learn about, and I cannot wait to see what aspects of historical Japan the author explores in his next volume.
Sakai’s fantastic artwork is once again one of the major highlights of this volume. Sakai is a particularly skilled artist who always does a fantastic job bringing the beauty and grace of Japan and its culture to life. The artwork on the surrounding landscape is just spectacular, and I always love attention to the historical detail on the buildings and people inhabiting his towns. One of the highlights of The Hidden that I particularly liked was the consecutive prayer gates leading up to a shrine that the characters visit. The visuals on all these gates were just amazing and very distinctive. I also really enjoyed the way that Sakai portrays his battle sequences in his series; he has a real talent for bring multiple high-energy battle scenes to life. I especially like how he manages to convey so much action and intensity in his still frames, and it really shows off some cool aspects of Japanese sword play. This was another beautifully illustrated volume, and the great art goes exceedingly well with the fantastic story Sakai has devised.
Volume 33 of Usagi Yojimbo, The Hidden, was another excellent addition to this amazing series. Sakai once again produces a compelling story in his unique comic-book universe which results in a spectacular volume that I know I am going to read again and again in the future. While this was an outstanding Usagi Yojimbo story, I now have the downside of having to wait a whole other year to get my next Usagi fix. Make sure to check back next year when I will no doubt gush about how much I loved volume 34 of this series.