Publisher: Dark Horse Comics (Paperback – March 2001)
Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 14
Length: 224 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read. In this latest Throwback Thursday I once again dive into the awesome and elaborate world of Usagi Yojimbo as I check out the 14th epic volume, Demon Mask.
It feels good to be on a Usagi Yojimbo review streak here at The Unseen Library, and I have been having a lot of fun diving into some of the awesome middle volumes of one of my absolute favourite comic series. My last two Throwback Thursday reviews of the 12th Usagi Yojimbo volume, Grasscutter, and the 13th volume, Grey Shadows, were really fun to pull together, and I really had no choice but to also have a look at the 14th volume this week with Demon Mask.
Demon Mask is another excellent addition to the Usagi Yojimbo series that unsurprisingly gets a full five-star rating from me. Exclusively written and drawn by Stan Sakai, this impressive entry once again follows the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi as he continues his action-packed adventures through the anthropomorphic animal filled version of feudal Japan this series is set in. Containing issues #31-38 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the series, as well as a few additional issues from associated magazines, Demon Mask continues the trend of featuring several shorter stories, while also leading back towards the next volume, Grasscutter II, which will contain a big crossover story. I deeply enjoyed all the cool stories in this volume, and there are some real classics here.
The first story contained within Demon Mask is the entertaining and elaborate tale, The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill. In this story, a travelling Usagi comes across a mysterious inn surrounded by strange sights and an unusual group of patrons. The land surrounding the inn is apparently haunted, filled with all manner of monsters, demons and obakemono (haunts), which attracts many wealthy individuals to the safe inn to watch. However, Usagi is soon drawn into a hefty wager with an arrogant merchant and must travel outside the inn to encounter the haunts and the forces behind them.
This is quite an amusing story that perfectly combines Sakai’s fantastic humour with his love of classic Japanese monsters and haunts. The entire story comes together really well, first introducing the situation, and then forcing Usagi outside to face the ghosts after making a bet. The subsequent reveal of the various monsters and creatures is pretty spectacular, and Sakai goes out of his way to include as many uniquely Japanese legendary creatures as possible, especially in one breathtaking and elaborate panel. I really enjoyed the fun twist that occurred here, especially as it allowed Usagi to win his bet with the merchant, and his over-the-top explanation of what he experienced was pretty damn amusing with all the exaggerated facial expressions and reactions from Usagi and his audience. This ends on a very satisfying and entertaining note, and The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill ended up being a fantastic and light-hearted start to the entire volume.
Following on from the first fun story is the touching tale, A Life of Mush. In this story Usagi encounters a brash peasant boy, Eizo, who wishes to become a warrior to avoid the farmer’s simple lifestyle (a life of eating mush). However, Eizo soon grows tired of Usagi’s honourable warrior philosophy and attempts to befriend a group of bandits, only to discover that there is more to life and battle than brashness and toughness. This was a great shorter story that presents an interesting outside perspective on the life of a warrior in this setting. I liked the comparison between a child’s view of a warrior to Usagi’s intense dedication and spiritual thoughts, which in fairness, does seem a little more boring. The subsequent events provide a fantastic lesson on perception and life choices, as Eizo and the bandits he encounters discover just how tough a true warrior like Usagi can be. A compelling and thoughtful addition to the volume, A Life of Mush was a powerful and clever read.
The next story is a shorter entry, Deserters, which brings us back to the iconic Neko Ninja and their leader, Chizu. Deserters examines a tragic tale of two Neko Ninja, Take and Saruko, who attempt to leave the Neko Ninja and start a new life together. Captured by their fellows, they are taken before Chizu for trial, and must soon face the treachery and manipulation of Chizu’s ambitious second in command, Kagemaru. This was another excellent shorter entry in Demon Mask, especially as it combines some quick, but efficient, character introductions, with some inherent tragedy and betrayal. The result of the story, while a little predictable, ends up being very moving, and you can’t help but feel for the star-crossed lovers. I also really like how this shorter entry turns out to be an interesting bridging story between several of the plot lines in the 11th volume, Seasons, and some of the big storylines in the next few volumes. A surprisingly important and powerful story, Deserters is a great read that adds a lot to the overall volume.
Up next, we have the rather entertaining and fun story, A Potter’s Tale, which makes great use of amusing coincidences to create a fantastic and hilarious story. A Potter’s Tale sees the notorious thief, Samo, steal a precious jewel from a wealthy merchant and have to stash it. Choosing an unfired pot in a small pottery shop, Samo makes the vessel distinctive before he is brought in for questioning. Unfortunately, Usagi is staying with the same family of potters and chaos ensues when Usagi and his friends take a liking to Samo’s inadvertent innovation.
This is a great story that always gets a good laugh out of me when I read it. While a rather quick story, Sakai manages to achieve a lot with it, setting up the base of the humour quickly and ensuring that the reader becomes invested with both the potters and the caddish thief. The subsequent fantastic use of surprises, reveals and coincidences results in some amusing scenes, especially when the unlucky thief discovers that he must give up all his ill-gotten loot to fix his mistake. The reveal that all his endeavours are for naught and his loot has returned to its original owner, in a roundabout way, is pretty entertaining, as is the ironic comeuppance he gets for his actions. Sakai makes sure to enhance this story by featuring a compelling look at traditional Japanese pottery making (I love it when he examines authentic Japanese industries or art forms), and there are some beautiful sequences drawn as a result. Easily one of the most entertaining stories in this volume, I deeply enjoyed A Potter’s Tale, and it is always guaranteed to crack me up.
Sakai follows this funny story with another shorter entry, The Missive, which sees Nakamura Koji’s request for a duel reach Usagi’s master, Katsuichi. Reflecting on the matter of honour brought before him, Katsuichi remembers a moment from Usagi’s childhood and the lessons it contains. This was another quick but excellent entry from Sakai, which once again highlights how much he can do with only a few short pages. Not only do we get an excellent bridging storyline between a good entry in the 11th volume, Seasons, and another future volume, but you also get an interesting reveal about a major supporting character. Throw in an amusing childhood tale about a young Usagi, and you have an entertaining and unique entry that helps to break up the flow of the overall volume.
Now we get to the main event of the volume, with the three-issue story, The Mystery of the Demon Mask. After receiving a dire warning about his future, Usagi ventures into a new town, only to witness a deadly duel between a fellow ronin and a mysterious opponent wearing a demon mask. Encountering the police, including the venerable Inspector Kojo, Usagi soon learns that the killer, known as Demon Mask, has been targeting and killing ronin around town. Helping with the investigation, Usagi encounters all manner of potential suspects as he also finds himself firmly in Demon Mask’s sites.
The Mystery of the Demon Mask is probably the best story in the entire volume, and Sakai has put a lot of effort into developing a powerful and elaborate murder mystery storyline in this unique Japanese setting. The entire story has a great flow to it, quickly introducing the villain, the murderous Demon Mask, and then introducing Usagi to the various players involved in the investigation. From there Usagi is thrust into several dangerous situations as Demon Mask stalks him and other masterless samurai around the town. There are several complex and intriguing characters introduced during this story, each of whom is a potential suspect. This story ends on a big finale, with Demon Mask exposed as he faces off against Usagi in a deadly duel. Sakai does a brilliant job of revealing who the killer is, and I really appreciated the various subtle clues scattered throughout the story to set this up. This ended up being quite a fantastic murder mystery story that works extremely well despite the limitations of the shorter comic form. The motivations behind the killer are pretty heartbreaking, and I really appreciated Sakai’s portrayal of their madness and grief. There is an excellent focus on fighting and duels throughout this story, especially as Demon Mask engages several skilled samurai in personal combat, and I loved seeing all these fights unfold. An excellent entry that has a brilliant balance of mystery, complex characters, classic Japanese elements and comic book action.
Following on from this awesome murder mystery story, we have another intriguing dive into Japanese mythology and monsters with the spooky story, Kumo. In this story, Usagi, who is eager to reach his friends, takes a shortcut across the mountains and finds himself in an isolated village, surrounded by an unusual number of spiders and an insane amount of webbing. When the innkeeper’s daughter is kidnapped in an improbable attack, it becomes apparent that something more is haunting the village, and that Usagi’s only hope might be another traveller in town, Sasuke.
This was another particularly good entry in Demon Mask; I always love Sakai’s more supernatural narratives. The story premise is somewhat typical, with Usagi arriving in a troubled town that needs his help, this time in defeating the monsters haunting them. The subsequent conflict with this threat gets pretty wild, not just because of the cool monster (in this case a Spider Goblin and her giant spider minions), but also because it introduces the intriguing side character of Sasuke. Sasuke, also known as The Demon Queller, is a mystical monster hunter who travels around Japan taking down supernatural threats (no doubt with Kansas blaring in the background). Sasuke goes on to become a major recurring character within this series, having most recently appeared in the 34th volume, Bunraku and Other Stories (where he does some cool Demon Slayer-esque sword fighting). However, he gets a very awesome introduction here in Kumo, with Sakai perfectly setting up the character’s mystique, as well as his powerful magical abilities. This story literally sees Sasuke summon up a giant frog to fight a Spider Goblin, which has so many levels of awesome to it, and I loved seeing the magic on monster fight that ensures. Another fantastic story that makes excellent use of Japan’s rich spiritual and mythological past, I always have an outstanding time reading Kumo.
The final major story in this volume is the intriguing tale, Reunion. Usagi returns to the monastery of his friend, priest Sanshobo, only to discover it under attack by brigands, apparently after a rich merchant sheltering inside. Working with Sanshobo and a recovered Gen, Usagi must find a way to overcome the brigand horde and save the monastery from attack. However, the real threat may already be inside the walls, and soon Usagi, Sanshobo and Gen must overcome a dangerous enemy determined to take the most precious treasure, the legendary sword Grasscutter.
Reunion was another fun entry which ended the main Demon Mask stories on a compelling and interesting note. While a distinctive story itself, Reunion is primarily focused on setting up the events of the following major volume, Grasscutter II. This presents a fun scenario where Sanshobo’s temple is attacked (again, it honesty gets attacked a lot), while the real danger remains inside the wall. There are several fun parts to this story, from Usagi’s attempted infiltration of the gang, the many fight scenes against to the bandits, to the dangerous confrontation against the disguised adversaries within the temple. This proved to be an excellent story, and it was great to see Sanshobo and Gen again, especially as they prepare for their next epic adventure.
While Reunion concludes the main stories, this volume also has a couple of shorter stories that were contained in other publications, such as Dark Horse Presents (vol. 1) #140, Dark Horse Presents Annual #3, Wizard Magazine #3, Oni Double Feature #11, and Dark Horse Extra #20-23. These short stories provide a couple of quick, highly amusing tales which leave the reader smiling as they close the volume. Sakai achieves a lot in these shorter stories, and each has an entertaining or moving story, even if they only last for only a page. The most detailed of these was the entertaining Death and Taxes, which sees Usagi fighting bandits for a conniving and amusingly clever peasant. There is also the sweet little story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Tournament, which shows a young Usagi meeting his future friend (and love interest) Tomoe Ame when they were children. The short but powerful Netsuke sees Usagi reflect on a former comrade, while The Leaping Ninja has a hilarious one-page tale about an acrobatic infiltrator who leaps before he looks. The final story was the intense Tsuru, which sees Usagi encounter a member of the Koroshi assassins with a love for paper cranes, who has a contract out on Usagi, resulting in a fantastic duel. Despite their length, each of these stories features all of Sakai’s usual attention to detail and excellent story writing, and it was great to see these excellent examples of the creators shorter writing style.
I must once again highlight all the incredible artwork featured in this impressive volume, as Sakai continues to showcase all his amazing artistic talent. Pretty much every panel in this volume is filled with some excellent and powerful art, as Sakai tells his complex tales. There is the usual brilliant focus on Japanese landscapes and towns, and Sakai has such a talent for capturing all the elaborate cultural elements of the period, as well as the beautiful locations that dotted Japan. While all the art is really well drawn in this volume, I definitely have to highlight a few panels in particular. The first story, The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill, has so many great drawings of creatures and haunts from Japanese folklore, and there is one brilliant panel were all of them are they facing Usagi at once. The spider goblin and her minions in Kumo are also very cool and spooky, and the various scenes where they fight a samurai like Usagi and the magical Sasuke are pretty extraordinary. I also loved the awesome character design on the antagonist Demon Mask from the main story. Not only does it bear an interesting similarity to Usagi’s main foe, Jai (who himself is based on a character with distinctive mask), but it looks so dangerous and intimidating, especially when they silently engage in battle. I deeply enjoyed the exceptional artwork in Demon Mask, and Sakai has once again shown how much feeling and emotion he can portray with his brush and ink.
Another week, another epic and incredible Usagi Yojimbo volume reviewed on my blog. The 14th volume of this outstanding series, Demon Mask, was another awesome comic as Stan Sakai provides his usual blend of impressive writing, stunning artwork, and powerful characters. Featuring several memorable and exciting short stories, Demon Mask serves as an excellent and wonderful entry in this wider series, and it is one that I always look forward to reading. A highly recommended read, Sakai really can do no wrong with this exceptional series.