Publisher: IDW Publishing (Paperback – 13 April 2021)
Writer, Artist and Letterer: Stan Sakai
Colourist: Tom Luth
Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 35
Length: 192 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
It is that time of the year again when I absolutely gush about the latest volume of the epic and outstanding Usagi Yojimbo comic series by the infinity talented Stan Sakai. This time I look at the 35th volume in this incredible long-running series, Homecoming, which presents the reader with a rich and emotional tale of regret and loyalty as Usagi returns home.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time reading my blog will already know of my deep love for the amazing Usagi Yojimbo series. Following the adventures of the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, this series is set in an alternate version of Feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals, and features incredible stories about samurais and honour. Homecoming, which contains issues #8-14 of the IDW run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, is the second volume printed completely in colour, and features the work of colourist Tom Luth in addition to Sakai’s writing and drawing. This latest volume follows on shortly after the events of previous volume, Bunraku and Other Stories, and continues three intense and powerful unique stories.
The first story in this volume is the two-issue entry Tatami. Tatami sees Usagi return to the lands of his former master, the late Lord Mifune, now ruled over by nefarious series villain, Lord Hikiji. Journeying through a now hostile countryside, Usagi finds himself following an armed procession who are transporting high-quality tatami mats to the castle of one of Lord Hikiji’s rivals. Usagi finds the caravan under attack by the Neko Ninja, who are determined to destroy the tatami. When Usagi’s long-time ally and former Neko Ninja head, Chizu, appears, it soon becomes apparent that Hikiji has dispatched the ninja to destroy the tatami in order to damage his rival’s reputation. Determined to defy Hikiji, Usagi and Chizu travel with the caravan to help guard the tatami from attack. However, Chizu soon comes into conflict with her rival, Kagemaru, as they fight for leadership of their clan. Can Usagi and Chizu disrupt the plans of Hikiji and Kagemaru, or will the dark lord continue to reign supreme?
Anyone who thinks it impossible to write a compelling story with death, politics and ninja around tatami mats has clearly never had the joy of reading one of Sakai’s stories before. Throughout the Usagi Yojimbo series, Sakai has written some thrilling and intense stories around unique elements of Japanese culture, including seaweed farming, pottery making, sake brewing, and giant kite making, just to name a few. This latest example, Tatami, is no exception to this, as Sakai crafts together a fascinating story that not only highlights the importance and prestige of tatami mats but which also perfectly ties into the wider Usagi Yojimbo universe. Tatami starts strong, with a fantastic and exquisitely drawn sequence that shows the crafting process behind the tatami, from harvesting the reeds, to the lengthy weaving process. The story then introduces Usagi to the narrative, also providing some key background for the main storyline in the Homecoming volume. The action swiftly follows with the tatami caravan under attack from cunning ninja, and Usagi is convinced to help guard the tatami with the help of Chizu. This all leads up to an epic night fight as Usagi and his allies face off against a horde of ninja. This fight scene is particularly well drawn and features some great examples of sword play, a beautiful scene of fire and intensity as Usagi appears to stand alone in front of a swarm of ninja, and several massive explosions as the ninjas detonate black powder bombs. This all leads up to a rather poignant finale, as Usagi suffers from a rare and moving defeat and people he respects are called upon to sacrifice everything for their samurai sense of honour.
In addition to the main story surrounding the tatami, there is also a rather interesting side-plot surrounding Chizu and her battle with Kagemaru for control of the Neko Ninja. This has been a long-running conflict going back all the way to 11th volume, Seasons, and it was great to see some more progress on it, especially as it ties Tatami into some of the wider Usagi Yojimbo storylines. This subplot proves to be pretty damn cool, as Chizu works to manipulate Kagemaru and her former followers, using the catspaw of Usagi and the other tatami guards. This ends up in a fun ninja duel, as Chizu faces off against Kagemaru and another ninja, Kimi, above the plain where Usagi is fighting. This is a fast-paced and deadly fight which makes use of several different ninja tricks and weapons, and which proves to be an exciting and cool addition to the plot. There are a couple of intriguing, if slightly predictable, developments within this narrative, although it does hint that we are getting closer to a conclusion of this long-running Neko Ninja plot line.
The real highlight of the Chizu subplot, and indeed the entire story, is the outstanding epilogue where Kagemaru meets with Lord Hikiji’s main advisor, the giant serpent Lord Hebi. While Kagemaru is initially expecting praise for his actions, it becomes apparent that Hebi and Hikiji are displeased that Chizu continues to disrupt their plans when Kagemaru is offered unique sake, brewed using poisonous serpents. There is an incredible amount of menace in this entire sequence, especially once Hebi pours out the dead serpent from the sake, and then proceeds to eat in front of Kagemaru (nothing is more intimidating that some light cannibalism). Hebi’s simple warning: “Do not ever fail us, Kagemaru,” is an amazing way to end this scene, and the mighty ninja leader is left absolutely shaken as he leaves Hebi’s presence. This epilogue was perfectly written and drawn, and it proves to be an outstanding way to end this story arc, while also hinting that the Chizu-Kagemaru rivalry is about to heat up. I absolutely loved this great first story, and Tatami proves to be an exceptional start to the entire volume.
The next story in this volume is the moving and intriguing Mon, which also follows Usagi’s travels through the land of his former lord, Mifune. However, Usagi soon encounters much fear and resentment from the people he encounters, many of whom try to avoid his attention. He soon discovers that they are shunning him because he still wears the mon (crest) of his former lord on his clothes, reminding people of the costly war that Mifune fought and lost against Lord Hikiji. The tense situation gets even worse for Usagi when several Hikiji soldiers notice him and attempt to take their anger and resentment out on him, which does not go well for them. Further, when a desperate innkeeper and former Mifune soldier works out who Usagi truly was, various ambitious Hikiji soldiers gather to claim the substantial bounty of Usagi’s head.
This was another fantastic entry, and one that proves to be rather touching and dramatic. Sakai does a wonderful job setting up the main story around the Mifune mon and why it is currently feared and hated throughout his former lands. The impeccably loyal Usagi is forced to deal with unexpected hatred and concern from those he encounters, which once again makes him think about the past with great regret and concern, especially as he continues to battle with his own conflicted loyalties about whether he should continue to serve a dead master. There are several fantastic references to Usagi’s role in the war’s final battle, as shown in Volume 2: Samurai, and it was interesting that there is still fallout after all these years. It was also great to learn more about mons and the importance that they can have to the people wearing them. This is explored to a degree within the story itself, but Sakai also includes a detailed author note at the end of Mon which describes the history behind mons in general and their current role in Japanese society, while also discussing Usagi and the Sakai family mons. I particularly liked the story surrounding the innkeeper, who, after years of desperation, finally loses his loyalty to the Mifune cause by informing on Usagi. The final encounter between Usagi, the Hikiji troops and the bartender is also amazingly drawn, and the dramatic cliffhanger helps turn this into a pretty impressive story.
The final story in Homecoming is the powerful tale, The Return, which finds Usagi in the one place he has been trying to avoid the most, his old home village. After the conclusion of Mon, Usagi washes up in his village and soon finds himself in the care of the love of his life, Mariko, and her husband, Kenichi. As the usual feelings of regret, anger and resentment quickly grow between the childhood friends once more, Usagi finds himself forced into a far more serious conflict. A cadre of former Mifune samurai have arrived in town and captured all the villagers. Led by the fanatical Kato, these samurai seek vengeance for their lord and plan to destroy Hikiji’s influence and power by attacking an emissary of the Shogun as he travels through the village. Torn between loyalty to his dead lord and the survival of his village, Usagi must work with Kenichi if there is any chance to save the people they love most in the world.
The Return is an exceptional and moving story which serves as the centrepiece and main entry of the Homecoming volume. There is a lot going on in this final story, and Sakai manages to craft together an outstanding narrative that continues the dramatic and touching arc surrounding the failed love between Usagi and Mariko and the multiple complications accompanying it, and which also places Usagi and everyone he loves in great danger. The Return continues immediately after the events of Mon, and Usagi is quickly engulfed in both the drama surrounding Mariko and Kenichi and the overall danger of the former Mifune samurai. This soon results in a conflicted Usagi forced to bluff his way through the encounter in order to try and save his village from the samurai’s deadly revenge plot. Working together with Mariko and Kenichi, Usagi’s plan eventually results in a bloody, extended battle against the invading samurai. This proves to be a pretty epic and intense narrative, and Sakai really amped up the action and the stakes of the entire story by setting Usagi up against some of his former comrades. There are so many great elements to this story, although you have to love the extended battle sequence at the end, especially once recurring characters Katsuichi and Jotaro make their appearance. The final parts of this entire story are pretty touching, as the various characters say their goodbyes, and Sakai leaves this entire volume on an intriguing note, as for the first time it hints at another fencing master Usagi trained after, and which makes me eager for the next volume in this series.
The most intriguing elements of the entire story are the complex antagonists that are former comrades of Usagi who are willing to commit atrocities in the name of their dead lord. For years, the former followers of the late Lord Mifune are seen in a bit of a tragic light, with most of them, especially Usagi, portrayed as extremely honourable men, much in the vein of their deceased lord. As a result, it is extremely jarring to see former Mifune samurai engage in such vile actions, especially as they justify as part of their oaths to their lord: “A samurai cannot live under the same sky as the killer of his lord!” There are some clear 47 Ronin inspirations here, with former samurai gathering after many years to achieve a final vengeance, even if this story is a little darker than the classic Japanese tale. There are also some deep and compelling discussions about honour and loyalty throughout The Return, especially as Usagi is forced to balance his loyalty to his late lord against his own personal honour, feelings about his childhood village, and his own memories about Lord Mifune’s character. The inevitable confrontation between Usagi and his former comrades is pretty harsh, and it was interesting to see a fight between two different groups of Mifune supporters who believe that their way is the right way. I felt that the use of colour was particularly effective in The Return, as it made the final battle sequence really pop. It was also very memorable to see Usagi face off against samurai dressed in the same Mifune clothes and colours that Usagi has worn in every comic. Seeing a group of similarly coloured and clothed characters facing off against Usagi makes for a very different battle sequence, and it was really interesting to see.
Easily the thing I was most looking forward to in this volume was the emotional fireworks that would occur when Usagi eventually returned to his home village. This has previously happened in two separate occasions, in Volume 1: The Ronin and Volume 6: Circles, both of which proved to be utterly heartbreaking. Much of this revolves around the complicated love triangle between Usagi, who is still deeply in love with Mariko, who is married to his old rival, Kenichi. While Mariko still has great feelings for Usagi, she is bound to Kenichi by her honour, and will not leave them, especially as it will shatter her whole family. At the same time, Kenichi, who has always resented Usagi for his talent and luck, knows that Usagi and Mariko have feelings for each other, which breaks his heart, as he has also always loved Mariko. All this is further complicated by the fact that Mariko and Kenichi’s son, Jotaro, is really Usagi’s child, who Kenichi willingly raised as his own son. This has resulted in much conflict and despair amongst the three in the past, and it honestly does not take long for the anger and resentment to build up once more in The Return, especially as Kenichi is angry that Usagi encouraged Jotaro to seek out his old fencing master rather than go to the school Kenichi learned from. While there are several great sequences where Usagi and Mariko once again display their unspoken love, much of the focus of The Return revolves around the intense rivalry between Usagi and Kenichi. The story starts with their usual resentment and anger towards each other, but the two eventually start to work on their differences, especially as they prepare to save their villages. There are several fun flashbacks to some of their adventures as children, which showed their early rivalries, as well as the two of them achieving great things together. This comes to the fore as the story progresses, and the two are once again able to set aside their differences for the greater good. This was an amazing thing to see, especially as they have been mostly antagonistic to each other throughout the entire series, and I liked how Sakai worked to resolve their conflict. There were also several touching scenes between Jotaro and both of his fathers, which really represented one of the most important things the two former rivals have in common, and I loved that Sakai included Jotaro in this story.
There were some amazing moments in The Return, and I was deeply impressed with the incredible story that Sakai used as the centrepiece of this volume. I really liked how Sakai successfully blended together so much action and intrigue with a powerful character-driven narrative, and I loved the cool examinations of honour and loyalty as a formerly bitter rivalry started to come to an end. This final entry really delivered on all the potential of Homecoming and Sakai has done an exceptional job here crafting this story together. I also really appreciated the way in which the other stories within Homecoming served as prequels to The Return, with key plot elements introduced in the earlier entries in the volume. This was some extremely clever storytelling, and it really helps Homecoming to stand out as an exceptional and fantastic volume in this epic series.
As usual, the art of this Usagi Yojimbo comic was absolutely exquisite, and Sakai has worked his typical visual magic, creating several striking and powerful sequences throughout the entire volume. In addition to some of the impressive action sequences and scenes I have mentioned above, Sakai produces some outstanding shots of the iconic Japanese landscape, with some incredible drawings of forests, mountains, towns and plains. Each of these is pretty breathtaking, especially now that they are in colour, as the recently introduced colour work of Tom Luth really adds some new depth to the already awesome drawings. I absolutely love the way in which Sakai matches his simple yet beautiful drawings with the complex storylines contained within Homecoming, and readers are in for a fantastic visual treat when they check this volume out.
Even after 35 outstanding volumes of the Usagi Yojimbo series, the amazing Stan Sakai continues to show why he is one of the best comic creators in the business with the incredible Homecoming. Featuring several touching and powerful stories, which are backed up with some exceptional character work and stunning artwork, Homecoming is another superb collection of Usagi Yojimbo tales. Fans of this long-running series are going to have an absolute blast reading this latest volume and it is very much worth checking out.