Publisher: IDW (Paperback – 22 March 2022)
Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 36
Writer and Artist: Stan Sakai
Art Assist: Randy Clute (The Master of Hebishima)
Colourist: Hi-Fi Design
Length: 192 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
It is that amazing time of the year when I finally get my hands on the brand-new volume of the long-running Usagi Yojimbo comic series, written and drawn by the legendary Stan Sakai. Fans of this blog will be well aware of my all-consuming love for this amazing series that follows a roaming rabbit ronin, Miyamoto Usagi, as he traverses an intriguing alternate version of feudal Japan inhabited by anthropomorphic animals. Not only is this one of my favourite all-time comic book series but I have been steadily reviewing some of the older volumes as part of my Throwback Thursday series (see my recent reviews for Volume 12: Grasscutter, Volume 13: Grey Shadows and Volume 14: Demon Mask). Unfortunately, Sakai only releases one volume of this epic series a year, so it is a very big deal when I finally get my hands on the latest volume (this latest volume has been one of my most anticipated releases for 2022 for a while now).
This latest volume is Tengu War!, an intriguing and powerful comic that contains some awesome and clever new tales. Tengu War! is the 36th overall volume in this series as well as the third volume printed by the publisher IDW (other IDW Usagi Yojimbo releases include Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories and Volume 35: Homecoming). I have been rather enjoying these more recent Usagi Yojimbo volumes from IDW as not only do they contain Stan Sakai’s usual impressive storylines, characters and artistic work but they are also packaged into a fantastic new format of booklet, which is slim and more aesthetically pleasing. In addition, the IDW volumes are also released in colour, which is an interesting change of pace from the previous volumes, which were initially released in black and white.
Tengu War! ended up being another great volume that makes use of Sakai’s skill and art to tell several complex and entertaining tales. Set immediately after the final comic of the previous volume and continuing several overarching storylines and themes, Tengu War! contains four unique new stories which were set out in issues #15-21 of the IDW run on the Usagi Yojimbo series. All four stories are fun and compelling new additions to the series that each present the reader with something different and distinctive.
The first entry is the volume’s main multi-issue story that sees Usagi return to visit an old teacher only to find himself embroiled in a deadly supernatural war. Made up of the first four issues of the volume, this entry actually consists of two stories, Sojobo and Tengu War!, which act together to tell one entire story, with Sojobo containing flashbacks to Usagi’s past, and Tengu War! featuring the current issue he and his friend are facing. Due to how closely linked these two stories are, with Sojobo providing the background to the longer Tengu War! story, I decided to talk about them as a single entity in this article.
These stories are set right after the events of the last volume, and swiftly tell the story of Usagi and his mostly hidden second sword master, the tengu warrior Sojobo. Years after his first meeting with Sojobo (see Volume 18: Travels with Jotaro) but before the events that would see him become a wandering ronin, a young Usagi returned to the tengu and convinced him to take him on as a pupil, enhancing his knowledge of the sword with Sojobo’s unique teachings. Now, years later, Usagi returns to Sojobo’s clearing to pay his respects, only to discover his former master in grave danger. A horde of guhin (lesser-tengu) are ravaging the mountainside, determined to claim the territory for themselves, and they have Sojobo and Usagi in their sights. To survive, Sojobo is forced to return to from his self-exile and reclaim leadership of his clan. But even with a tengu army at their back, can Sojobo and Usagi survive the onslaught of the guhin?
These two stories were an excellent start to this volume, especially as they contain all the best elements of a great Usagi Yojimbo story, with great new characters, compelling Japanese supernatural elements, and another intriguing glance at Usagi’s complex past. The first story, Sojobo, serves as a great introduction to the entire volume, perfectly continuing from the previous Sojobo story, and redefining the relationship between the two characters, showing their mentor-mentee bond. This sets up the rest of the Tengu War! story extremely well, as you have a good basis for Sojobo’s and Usagi’s stakes in the narrative. From there the story evolves into a classic Usagi Yojimbo tale, with Usagi getting involved in someone else’s fight, this time involving some unique and compelling supernatural foes. This extended story continues some brilliant character moments as Sojobo becomes reacquainted with his wife and clan, while also showing off the intractability and intense honour of the tengu. You also get to see the evolution of the bond between Sojobo and Usagi, and there are some great discussions as the wiser and battle-hardened Usagi discusses some recent changes in his life, such as the discovery of his son. It was also quite fascinating to see the apparent impacts that Sojobo’s training had on Usagi’s skill as a warrior, and I found it fascinating that Usagi’s fighting style is described as a combination of mortal and tengu techniques. The subsequent fights are pretty awesome and you get some fantastic and intense battle sequences that really highlight Sakai’s artistic skill. This all leads up to the big conclusion which contains a great mixture of action, satisfaction, camaraderie and tragedy, as victory is achieved at great cost, and the reader is left extremely satisfied with how this story turned out.
I have said many times before that some of the best Usagi Yojimbo stories are those where Sakai makes brilliant use of monsters, creatures or spirits from Japanese culture or mythology, and Tengu War! is a great example of this. This cool story provides one of the best looks at the tengu, a fantastic and unique Japanese yokai (supernatural entity), in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series, and I really enjoyed the cool dive into the mythology surrounding them. This story contains multiple different types of tengu who act as either allies or enemies, depending on their caste. This includes the main supporting characters, Sojobo and his wife, Nozomi, who are dai-tengu, with the classic long-nosed, red-faced, humanoid-appearance that most people would associate with tengu, and who act as master warriors and wise sages. These tengu are supported by their followers, the ko-tengu, bird-like creatures who act as samurai retainers in this comic, and I loved the cool combination of corvid features and samurai garb and mannerisms. The final group of tengu featured within this comic are the guhin, a lesser form of tengu who act as mysterious spirits of the hills and lesser peaks. Sakai depicts the guhin in this story in the more recent style of giant dogs (they are traditionally unseen spirits, but many modern depictions give them a canine physical form), and they come across as werewolf-like creatures, determined to take their rightful place at the top of the mountain. These different form of tengu are explored in compelling detail, and I loved seeing the awesome scenes featuring all of them, especially as it results in some excellent fight scenes between classic tengu goblins, sentient samurai crows, and giant werewolves. I loved this brilliant exploration of this unique part of Japanese culture (especially with the author’s comprehensive summary at the end), and it helps to enhance the outstanding overall story.
We next have the dark and captivating tale, The Master of Hebishima, which provides a chilling look at the evils of revenge, obsession and fear. In The Master of Hebishima, the wandering Usagi chances across a couple of peasants who specialise in trapping and removing the local pests, the tokage lizards. Upon meeting them, Usagi is intrigued to discover that the trappers sell most of their catch to a mysterious hermit on the island known as Hebishima (snake island), who lives amongst the local snakes. When one of the trappers is injured, Usagi volunteers to transport the captured tokages to Hebishima for them. However, what he finds there will shock and haunt him, as the hermit has a surprising history with Usagi, one that lies all the way back in the infamous battle of Adachi Plain. Faced with this surprising threat from his past, Usagi is unprepared for just how dangerous his opponent is, or what they are truly capable of.
The Master of Hebishima is a tight and powerful one-issue comic that may be the best entry in the entirety of the Tengu War! volume. Perfectly set up and executed, this tale is deeply interesting and powerful, especially with its unique and intense focus. Sakai has come up with an excellent story for this entry that not only ties into one of the key moments of Usagi’s life but which also shows the full impact of someone’s obsession and desire for revenge. The introduction of a mysterious stranger who has a connection to Usagi and the battle of Adachi Plain (which has been such a cool part of several volumes, including Volume 2: Samurai, Volume 11: Seasons and Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories), is handled perfectly, and I loved his unique backstory and the fact that you never actually find out his name. This villain’s entire history is tied to Usagi’s, and I liked the interesting symmetry in their loyalty, sense of honour and desire to serve their respective lords. The horror elements around this mysterious hermit are just great, especially with that snake reveal, and he proves to be an excellent opponent for Usagi, who could potentially come back in some future comics (I’d be keen for that). I was slightly disappointed that this story had nothing to do with distinctive Usagi Yojimbo villain Lord Hebi, a giant snake who serves as the principal lackey to the series’ main antagonist, but Sakai more than made up for this with all the other inclusions. This was an extremely well-paced story, and Sakai manages to do a lot with a single issue, producing one of his more memorable stories in recent years.
One of the most notable things about The Master of Hebishima is its exquisite art, some of which bears a slight difference to Sakai’s usual work. Parts of this issue are drawn sharper and in a slightly different style to the rest of the Tengu War! volume. This is particularly clear in the earlier panels of this issue, with some noticeable and intriguing stylistic changes to the characters and landscapes, which I thought looked like a well-enhanced version of Sakai’s usual drawings. I assume that this is because of the influence of artist Randy Clute, who is credited as giving “art assist” for this issue. Whatever the reason, I quite liked how this comic looked very early on, and it was interesting to see it change back to Sakai’s more typical style as the comic continued. The rest of the art in the comic also really needs to be highlighted though, as there are some extremely memorable and shocking moments drawn within. Not only do you get a notably spooky island of snakes for the main story but The Master of Hebishima also features a detailed flashback sequence that looks awesome, especially some of the battle sequences. I particularly liked how the antagonist’s face was constantly obscured by shadow during these flashbacks, as it helped to make them seem more sinister and mysterious while also ramping up anticipation for the final reveal, the best part of this story. This extended panel reveal is pretty damn freaky as the artists present a gruesome visage, accompanied by a Medusa-esque twist. This shot of the face is particularly well drawn in impressive detail and ends up being one of the most haunting panels I have ever seen in a Usagi Yojimbo comic. All this beautiful, if somewhat creepy, art really works to enhance this brilliant story, and it ensures that The Master of Hebishima really sticks in the mind and is well worth checking out.
The final story in the volume is the two-issue long story, Yukichi, another excellent character-driven narrative that introduces a fantastic new supporting character for the series. In this story Usagi encounters a fellow rabbit samurai, Yukichi Yamamoto, on the road. It is quickly revealed that, years ago, Yukichi was a disrespectful student at a prestigious sword school who insulted Usagi when the ronin attempted to meet his master. Now a more mature warrior, Yukichi is delivering the sword of his dead master to the school’s successor and, after he apologises to Usagi, the two decide to travel together. However, a rival school is determined to stop them delivering the sword by any means necessary, and they will use Usagi’s recent misadventures to justify their actions.
Yukichi is an amazing and fantastic story that serves as a great ending to the Tengu War! volume, especially as it combines an excellent Usagi Yojimbo story with some cool new character introductions. This story is another one with an excellent pace to it, smartly bringing in Yukichi, revealing the history between him and Usagi, before revealing the story’s villains, the members of a dishonourable sword school. From there the story intensifies as, after an initial confrontation, the students and instructors from the rival school attempt to kill Usagi and Yukichi, while also trying to claim a bounty on Usagi (a consequence of the main story in the previous volume, Homecoming). This results in a brilliant climatic scene where the two protagonists take on a horde of underlings before Yukichi engages their leader in an intense duel. This duel comes across as pretty awesome in the artwork, and you get the sense it is a real battle between master swordsmen. The conclusion of the fight, which highlights Yukichi’s naivety compared to the more jaded Usagi, is very cool, and I liked the conclusion of the story, where Yukichi is forced to make a big decision and eventually decides to travel with Usagi.
While the action, artwork, and story are great, the real highlight of this comic is the introduction of new character Yukichi, who Sakai is obviously setting up to be a big supporting figure in the overall series. Yukichi gets an excellent and comprehensive introduction here, and you swiftly get a grasp on his personality, history and relationship with Usagi. I mostly liked this character and his design, especially as he is a good foil to Usagi, given their divergent training history and life experiences, and his fighting style is awesome as well. His strong sense of honour, especially when faced with the poor successor to his master, was a great inclusion, and it does bring in some similarities with Usagi. I did think that the sudden realisation that they were cousins was a tad too coincidental, and wasn’t particularly necessary, but it does bring in a certain connection between the two which will bond them for the rest of the series. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Yukichi’s facial design either, especially those overly large and expressive eyes. It kind of made him look cartoonish and somewhat undercut the seriousness of some scenes. Still, this was my only real complaint about this new character and I am very curious to see what happens with him in the future Usagi Yojimbo volumes. I am predicting similarities to Usagi’s previous travels with Jotaro in volumes 18 and 19, and it will be interesting to see Yukichi interact with the other supporting cast members like Gen or Kitsune. An overall excellent and impressive end to this amazing volume that wraps everything up nicely.
As always, I really need to highlight the fantastic and awesome artwork featured with this incredible volume as Sakai continues to enhance his excellent stories with some gripping and powerful scenes. I have already discussed some of the best bits of art of each respective story, especially the amazing art of The Master of Hebishima, but every panel in this comic is drawn in exquisite detail. Not only does Sakai present some great character designs, especially around the new supernatural creatures in the Tengu War! story, but you have his always impressive setting shots that perfectly highlight the beautiful Japanese natural landscape or the historical buildings. You also must love the excellent battle sequences scattered throughout the stories. Sakai has always excelled at conveying movement and combat with his minimalistic style, and this is brilliantly highlighted in the various comics of Tengu War!, including in elaborate group fights or one-on-one duels. I am also really enjoying seeing these stories in colour from the get-go as part of the IDW release. While I will always be extremely fond of Sakai’s usual black and white style, having these adventures appear in colour is also amazing, and I feel that the colour enhances some of the art, especially in The Master of Hebishima, which came up beautifully. All this art brilliantly combines Japanese influences with western art styles and is such a joy to behold, especially as it always makes everything about the Usagi Yojimbo comics just a little bit better.
Another year, another exceptional Usagi Yojimbo volume as Stan Sakai once again produces a masterful and impressive new comic. Tengu War! is another awesome volume that presents the reader with three excellent stories that combine brilliant character work with unique narratives and outstanding artwork. I had so much fun reading this excellent comic, and it gets another easy five-star rating from me and comes very highly recommended.