Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 11: Seasons by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Seasons

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 11

Length: 198 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of 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.

It has been a while since I have done a Usagi Yojimbo Throwback Thursday, but after doing a Waiting on Wednesday for the next upcoming volume in this epic series, Homecoming, I was in a Usagi mood and decided to write something extra.  As a result, I check out the 11th Usagi Yojimbo volume by the legendary Stan Sakai, Seasons.

Seasons is a fantastic and spectacular entry in the series that presents the reader with a series of great Usagi Yojimbo adventures that follow the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi as he traverses his version of feudal Japan during the various seasons of the year.  This is a key entry in the series as it sets up a number of storylines for the next several volumes while also introducing some great new characters.  Needless to say, I had an incredible time reading this volume of the series and I have a lot of love for a number of the stories contained within it.  Seasons contains issues #7-12 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, as well as stories taken from the Usagi Yojimbo Colour Special.  This results in 11 separate stories throughout the volume, made up of single-issue entries and a couple of shorter tales, all of which contain an impressive and deeply enjoyable story with beautiful artwork.

USagi #7

The first story featured within Seasons is The Withered Field, an epic story of samurai honour and the warrior’s way.  In this story, Usagi is visiting a famed fencing school with the hope of challenging some of its instructors to test his skill.  However, before he can issue his challenge, all of the school’s instructors are beaten by another ronin, Nakamura Koji, a skilled swordsman who demands a fight with the school’s master.  As he waits for his challenge, Usagi befriends him and discovers that he was once a famed sword master himself, who began the warrior’s pilgrimage after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of a mysterious and unconventional swordsman.  Now determined to find this swordsman and rechallenge him, Nakamura Koji shows great interest in Usagi, especially when they must content with treachery from the fencing school.

The Withered Field is an outstanding story that serves as a compelling and powerful start to this volume.  I really enjoyed the amazing narrative that examined honour and martial prowess, with Usagi encountering a famed warrior who is even better than he is.  This great story does an excellent job of introducing the character of Nakamura Koji, who becomes a major figure in some of the future volumes in this series and who has an interesting connection to Usagi and his past.  The entire storyline around the two ronin facing off against the fencing school is extremely cool and action packed, and it appears to take a lot of influence from the second entry in the iconic 1950s Samurai film trilogy (which follows the adventures of Miyamoto Musashi, the historical samurai who serves as an inspiration for Usagi), Duel of Ichijoji Temple, with the students attempting to stop the wandering ronin from defeating their master.  There are amazing action sequences throughout this story, with Usagi and Nakamura Koji engaging in several awesome duels.  I particularly loved the opening sequence where Koji goes through the pre-fight forms before facing off in his sparring match against a fencing school instructor.  The eventual reveal that the samurai who defeated Koji when he was younger was Usagi’s mentor, Katsuichi, comes as little surprise, but it sets up an amazing story later in the series which makes this great story a must read for fans of Usagi Yojimbo.

Seasons’ second story is the thrilling but haunting A Promise in the Snow, which sees Usagi travelling through a snowy mountain pass during the height of winter.  As he trudges along, he comes across bandits attacking an innocent merchant and his servants.  Intervening, Usagi is able to slay all the bandits, but not before they severely wound the merchant.  Usagi finds the merchant’s young daughter and promises to save her father, carrying him back to his village.  However, the mountain passes are treacherous, and Usagi must contend with harsh weather, a pack of hungry wild tokage lizards and a dangerous avalanche.  But no matter what the mountain throws at him, nothing will prepare Usagi for the great shock awaiting him at the end of his journey. 

Usagi #8

This is a great entry in this volume that features a desperate struggle for survival in a dangerous location.  Sakai came up with an epic story for A Promise in the Snow, and I really love seeing Usagi power through great trials and tribulations to keep his promise to a young girl.  There are some beautifully drawn scenes throughout this story, and Sakai does a fantastic job bringing the snowy landscape to life in all its wondrous, deadly glory.  I also loved the way in which Sakai’s drawings highlighted Usagi’s struggles to get through the tough terrain; you can see him get more and more weary with each obstacle he encounters.  This story has a fantastic ending that is reminiscent of a lot of classic ghost tales, and looking back you see that Sakai set this twist up brilliantly, with tons of little clues.  Overall, this was an exceptional story which is a true highlight of this volume.

Next up with have the action-packed, intriguing story, The Conspiracy of Eight.  In this entry, Usagi is visiting the temple of his friend, priest Sanshobo, when an injured samurai wearing the crest of the notorious Lord Hikiji arrives at the gate.  The samurai bears a dangerous letter that names eight conspirators who are plotting against the Shogun.  As Usagi and Sanshobo debate what to do with the information, a large force of ronin arrives at the temple, determined to claim the injured samurai and kill all witnesses. 

This is another fantastic entry in Seasons that once again sees Usagi drawn into a major conspiracy impacting the realm.  There are a lot of cool elements to this story, such as Usagi and Sanshobo being forced to mount a defence of the temple from a dangerous siege.  This is a great, fast-paced story, and I really liked the unique battle scenes, especially the monks with staffs facing off against sword-wielding bandits.  Many of the plot elements contained within this tale come into play in several later Usagi Yojimbo stories, including one featured later in this volume, and I think Sakai did an exceptional job introducing them in The Conspiracy of Eight.  I also liked seeing the return of Sanshobo, the wise and noble priest and former samurai general.  Sanshobo serves as a good foil to Usagi’s more impulsive nature, cautioning him about acting in the affairs of great lords and counselling him that his proposed actions could lead to the death of many people.  While mainly a figure of wisdom, Sanshobo also serves as a great leader, utilising his experiences as a general to defend his temple and keep his monks alive.  The Conspiracy of Eight ends up being a very solid and enjoyable entry in this volume and I very much enjoyed seeing Sakai solidify a great new side character.

Usagi #9

Right after The Conspiracy of Eight comes another intriguing story that is primarily set within Sanshobo’s temple, Snakes and Blossoms.  In this entry, Usagi tells two short tales to Sanshobo: one that describes a crazy misadventure he had, and another that describes some important lessons from his past.  This two shorter tales work as sub-stories to Snakes and Blossoms and ensures that it is a distinctive entry in Seasons.  The first of the shorter tales is titled Hebi, which is set shortly after the events of the final story in Volume 7: Gen’s Story and sees Usagi and Gen once again lost following one of Gen’s shortcuts.  As the two ronin wander the unused paths, Gen saves Usagi from a wild snake that attempts to kill him.  However, Gen’s heroic actions has unexpected consequences when the two travellers are confronted by a mysterious nun at an abandoned temple later that night.  This was a rather cool horror story that exemplifies the sort of weird situations that Usagi can find himself in.  I loved the way in which Sakai plays Usagi and Gen off each other, and there are some very humorous interactions between this oddball pairing.  There is also some really insane artwork in this short story, and I loved the fantastic and scary sight of a giant snake emerging from its disguise to try and kill the protagonists. 

The other short story contained within Snakes and Blossoms is the cute tale, The Courage of the PlumThe Courage of the Plum takes place during Usagi’s childhood when he is training with his master, Katsuichi.  As the two walk through the snow, Katsuichi attempts to teach his student the various hidden aspects of nature around them, including the trees, each of which can represent human virtues.  The young Usagi is particularly intrigued by Katsuichi’s description of the humble plum tree as brave, and Katsuichi schools Usagi on how this smaller tree can be braver than the mightiest of oaks.  I always enjoy the depictions of Usagi’s unorthodox training under Katsuichi, as the student and teacher have a very amusing dynamic, and The Courage of the Plum turned out to be a delightful shorter entry with some intriguing philosophical discussion and some lovely drawings of the winter landscape.  Overall, Hebi and The Courage of Plum make for a fantastic combination of tales and I quite enjoyed seeing these two unique, short stories come together.

Up next in Seasons is an amazing shorter entry, Return to Adachi Plain, which sees Usagi journey back to the site of his greatest defeat, Adachi Plain, the battlefield where his lord Mifune (named after actor Toshiro Mifune, who starred in multiple classic samurai films that Sakai references in his works, including as Miyamoto Musashi in the Samurai trilogy), was killed in front of him.  Flashing back to tragic events that started his wandering lifestyle, Usagi remembers the battle in greater detail and the reader sees not only the role he played in saving the head of his lord from mutilation but also the first time he came directly in conflict with the villainous Lord Hikiji. 

Usagi #10

Return to Adachi Plain is a fantastic entry in this series as it is essentially one big war sequence, showing Usagi amid a violent battle from his past.  This story expands on the war sequence that was shown in Volume 2: Samurai, and it was really cool to see more of this battle, especially the combat scene between Usagi and Hikiji, which serves as the origin for Usagi’s distinctive forehead scar.  A fantastic shorter story that provides greater depth to Usagi’s role in this major defeat, this battle sequence was later reused in colour in Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories, and the events disclosed within is likely to come up in the upcoming Volume 35: Homecoming.

The next story in this volume is a relatively short entry called The CrossingThe Crossing is set aboard a small passenger ship where a group of rowdy peasants sing and dance to a fun folk song on deck.  However, during the climax of the performance, one of the peasants accidently bumps into an arrogant samurai who takes offence and moves to kill the transgressor, until a fellow passenger intervenes.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Good Samaritan isn’t Usagi; instead it is the demon spearman Jei. 

This is a captivating darker story that once again highlights just how dangerous and deranged Jei, one of the best antagonists in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series, is.  Sakai has written an extremely clever tale here that does a wonderful job showcasing Jei’s compelling nature as both a defender of the innocent and a raging psychopath who views nearly everyone as evil in form or another.  It’s fantastic watching the expressions on the peasants’ faces turn from relief to absolute terror as they slowly realise just how crazy Jei is, and you have to love that entertaining ending with the unsuspecting dock worker.  The Crossing serves as an excellent follow-up to several other shorter Jei stories that appeared in recent volumes, including The Nature of the Viper (which appeared in Volume 9: Daisho) and Black Soul (which appeared in Volume 10: The Brink of Life and Death), and this ends up being an impressive and compelling filler story in this volume.

Usagi #11

The shorter entries keep on coming! The Patience of the Spider introduces a new compelling character, General Ikeda.  Ikeda is a famed warrior and general who led a revolt against the Geishu Clan years ago (when the clan was ruled by the father of Usagi’s friend Lord Noriyuki).  When his revolt fails and his army is vanquished, Ikeda and two of his retainers flee to an abandoned farm and determine that their next course of action is to hide and wait.  Using a patient web-building spider as inspiration, Ikeda and his comrades show fortitude and restraint by disguising themselves as peasants and farming the land as they wait for the opportune moment.  However, as the years pass and Ikeda gains a family and faces the many harsh trials and dangers that await a peasant farmer, he begins to see the world differently, until the once notorious general is a completely new person, one with very different desires and dreams.

The Patience of the Spider is an outstanding example of how Sakai can quickly build up an intriguing and powerful character and ensure that the reader is utterly transfixed by their tale.  While this entry is relatively short, it is very impactful and may be one of the best stories in Seasons.  The tale of General Ikeda, as he faces the many different hardships of peasant life, including drought, bandits, floods and great personal loss, while also experiencing great joy and community, is extremely well written.  It proves to be extremely captivating to see this resolute man slowly change his nature as life overcomes him.  This also proves to be an excellent introduction to the character of Ikeda, who will go on to have a substantial role in the two big Grasscutter storylines, and his amazing character arc has an exceptional start here.  A very impressive and powerful tale, The Patience of the Spider is an amazing character-driven narrative from Sakai that is an absolute treat to read.

The next story featured in Seasons is the curious tale, The Lord of the Owls, which sees Usagi encounter a strange fellow traveller.  As Usagi stops at an inn, he witnesses a group of ruffians follow after a mysterious hooded samurai walking the road with the intention of robbing him.  Following them, Usagi witnesses the figure quickly kill the bandits after first startling him with his hypnotic and powerful gaze.  This man is eventually introduced as Oyama Tadanori, the mysterious Lord of the Owls, who reputedly can see the future and who claims that his destiny is intertwined with Usagi. 

Usagi #12

This was an interesting story that presents the reader with a lot of curious and unanswered questions.  While the main story is rather good, especially when it comes to the fate of the greedy bandits, the reader is left extremely mystified by the Lord of the Owls and his powers of prediction.  This entry opens up a rather fascinating storyline that is still not complete; despite an appearance in a later comic, Usagi is still waiting to uncover more about this figure and their combined destiny.  While I am hopeful that this story will pay off somewhere down the line, but in the meantime this particular entry has some great action sequences, a fun new character and some stunning landscape shots, which makes it really worth checking out. 

Up next with have a clever story, The First Tenet, which deals with the machination and inside politics of the Neko Ninja clan.  In this entry, Kagemaru, the second in command of the Neko Ninja, makes a move to betray his commander, Chizu, by reporting some of her recent personal missions to Lord Hebi, Lord Hikiji’s chief advisor.  Hebi, who is enraged by the news that Chizu is moving the Neko Ninja against the interests of Lord Hikiji, considers supporting Kagemura but is reluctant, especially as “deceit is the first tenet of the ninja”.  However, Kagemaru has subtle ways of getting what he wants, and soon Hebi finds himself in a dangerous situation that will change the future of the Neko Ninja forever. 

The First Tenet is a great story that masterfully shows of the duplicitous internal politics of the Neko Ninja and the supporters of Lord Hikiji.  The storyline started here will eventually have some interesting implications for major side character Chizu, and Sakai does a fantastic job setting it up.  I loved all the plotting and subterfuge that appears in this story, and it proves to be a fun and clever read.  I also love the massive battle scene that occurs in the middle of the tale, and it was particularly cool to see Lord Hebi, a massive snake, finally get into a fight.  Hebi is a terrifying figure to behold in combat, and it is worth reading this story just to see that.  An excellent and exciting addition to Seasons, I really enjoyed The First Tenet, especially as it leads to a lot of outstanding ninja storylines down the road.

Usagi Colour Special - Green Persimmon

Seasons’ penultimate story is The Obakeneko of the Geishu Clan, a chilling supernatural tale that sees Usagi and his companions face off against a malignant spirit.  As Usagi draws closer to the lands of his friends in the Geishu Clan, he stops outside a ruined mansion where he suddenly recalls the last time he was there.  Flashing back to shortly after the events of Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, Usagi, Gen and Tomoe are travelling back to Geishu lands and attempt to seek shelter at a beautiful mansion.  The mansion belongs to the Lady Takagi, a mysterious woman who provides them with rooms and food and seems quite happy for the company.  However, as the night continues, Tomoe grows suspicious with their host and attempts to investigate, eventually revealing that Lady Takagi is a demon who is determined to kill and eat her guests. 

This was a very fast-paced and exciting tale that provides an awesome horror edge to the stories contained with Seasons.  I love it when Sakai features iconic Japanese supernatural monsters in his tale as they always prove to be outstanding and fearsome opponents for the protagonists.  The monster featured within The Obakeneko of the Geishu Clan is no exception, and I loved the freaky tale based around her and the desperate fight for survival that Usagi and his friends are forced to undertake.  While Sakai mostly focuses on the horror aspects of this story, I liked how he included a few humorous moments, such as including a great reference to Sakai’s prior comic, Groo the Wanderer: “did I err?”, as well as the funny concluding moment that sees Usagi fleeing in terror from a couple of woodcutters.  This was a really fantastic supernatural tale and it is always cool to see Sakai’s amazing depictions of these inventive Japanese monsters.

The final story in this excellent volume is the intense and action-packed Green Persimmon.  In this story Usagi, who is on his way to the Geishu lands, comes across a dying Geishu retainer who entrusts Usagi with delivering a mysterious package to his lord.  Opening the package reveals a simple and seemingly unremarkable ceramic green persimmon.  However, moments after receiving the persimmon, Usagi is attacked by a band of armed samurai who are desperate to reclaim it at all costs.  Managing to defeat his attackers, Usagi continues along the rough and windy coast road to the Geishu lands, but he encounters even more men determined to reclaim the persimmon and is soon forced to fight for his life as his attackers employ ruthless means to kill him.

Usagi-Yojimbo-Book-11-Seasons-Print-

Green Persimmon is an awesome and fantastic story that I deeply enjoyed, and which holds a great deal of significance for me.  This was actually the first Usagi Yojimbo story that I ever read, as a colour version of this story appeared in a magazine aimed at younger teens down here in Australia when I was a lot younger.  This story really stuck with me over the years due to the exciting story and cool action sequences, and it was one of the main reasons (along with Usagi’s appearances in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons) that I decided to check out the Usagi Yojimbo comics in later life.  Needless to say, I am still very impressed with Green Persimmon years later; it is an enjoyable and memorable story to end this 11th volume.  I love the fluid combat sequences in this issue, including Usagi throwing the persimmon into the air and killing all his opponents before deftly catching it, and there are also some great banter scenes between Usagi and his attackers.  I also enjoyed the epic scene where Usagi finds himself trapped within a field of flame thanks to a flurry of fire arrows around him.  Not only is it cool that Usagi successfully survives by utilising the lessons of the legend of Prince Yamato Takeru and the Grass-Cutting Sword (the full events of which are drawn by Sakai in the next volume), but when he emerges from the ground covered in soot and dirt, he looks particularly demonic and enraged as he faces his opponents, making for an epic and amazing scene.  All of this is set to a fantastically drawn background of the rugged coastal landscape, which proves to be a fantastic setting for the various combat scenes.  If I had to offer any criticism about this story, it would be that the conclusion and reveal of the purpose of the ceramic persimmon did not really go anywhere and there were no mentions of this victory over series antagonist, Lord Hikiji, ever again.  However, I still really love this entry as Green Persimmon has so many cool and impressive elements to it and it is a great end note for this volume.

Seasons is another fantastic and incredible comic by Stan Sakai that sees Usagi engage in some captivating and intriguing adventures.  Featuring a cool mixture of different Usagi Yojimbo tales, Seasons is an amazing entry in the series.  I absolutely love a lot of the stories contained within this volume, which are once again anchored by outstanding character and breathtaking artwork.  This volume gets a full five-star rating from me and comes highly recommended.  On a side note, I am very glad that I decided to do another Usagi Yojimbo comic in a Throwback Thursday article as I have a lot of fun reviewing them.  I might have to skip ahead a volume for my next Throwback Thursday, as I cannot find my copy of Volume 12, Grasscutter.  However, I will either find it or get a new copy soon, as Grasscutter is too major a storyline to miss.  I hope you enjoy the review and make sure to check out some of the other reviews I have done of this epic and amazing series.

We are the Dead by Mike Shackle

We are the Dead Cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 8 August 2019)

Series: The Last War – Book One

Length: 18 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Honour, loyalty, service and death! I finally get around to checking out one of last year’s hottest fantasy debuts with this review of We Are the Dead by Mike Shackle.

Generations ago, the nation of Jia was protected by powerful mages who wielded amazing magic that could shape the world around it. But when the magic faded, the people turned to the Shulka, their revered warrior caste, who held back the barbaric northern Egril tribes with their tactics, superior weapons and skills in combat. For hundreds of years the Shulka have successfully defeated the Egril raids, but their many victories have led to complacency.

During the latest raiding season, the Shulka are surprised when an organised and well-armed force marches upon them. Supported by demons and magic, the like of which has not been seen in an age, the Egril swiftly defeat the Shulka armies and conquer all of Jia in days. Their conquest is quick and brutal, and few are spared the bloody wrath of the Egril and their monsters. Those who do survive are forced in servitude and must worship the Egril’s terrible god or else suffer the consequences.

Now, six months after the invasion began, the country appears beaten, but there are always some heroes who are ready to fight back. In the capital city, Tinnstra, the disgraced, cowardly daughter of Jia’s greatest Shulka general finds herself drawn into a plot to save the royal family and soon finds the fate of the entire Kingdom resting in her hands. Elsewhere, a crippled Shulka warrior and his wheelchair-bound son attempts to lead an organised rebellion, but he soon finds that his greatest assets may be a young terrorist and a widowed mother who is trying to provide for her son. Can this unusual group of damaged heroes turn the tide against an all-powerful army or is it already too late to save their country from the control of a dark death god?

We Are the Dead is an intricate and impressive dark fantasy debut from talented new author Mike Shackle, which forms the first book in his The Last War series. This fantastic book came out last year, and it was one of the books I most regret not getting a chance to read in 2019, especially after I saw some of the very positive reviews being written about it. I really have been meaning to check this novel out for a while now, so I went out and grabbed the audiobook format of We Are the Dead a few weeks ago and started listening to it. I am extremely glad that I ended up reading this book, as I fell in love with this novel and its compelling character-driven story.

This novel contains an outstanding and exciting narrative that follows five unique and intriguing characters across eight days of rebellion and bloodshed in a conquered nation. We Are the Dead’s story starts off big; after a quick introduction to the world and a couple of the characters, everything soon blows apart as a destructive full-scale invasion occurs. The story than jumps forward six months and explores how the world has changed, and what has happened to the central group of characters. What follows is five intriguing and exciting separate storylines, each told from the perspective of a different character involved in various parts of the first major attempt from the Shulka resistance movement to strike back and restore their country. Each of these five storylines starts off by examining the unique adventures and experiences of that character and showing how they are brought into the latest round of fight. Each of the storylines starts off exclusively focusing on one point-of-view character, but they quickly start to connect as the plot of the book unfolds. All five separate storylines eventually come together exceedingly well into one extremely enjoyable and action-packed narrative that proves hard to put down. I really liked the way that all storylines all joined together, and it was fantastic to see the quicker narrative jumps between the various characters at the end of the book. I also enjoyed how the main story focused on eight days of conflict and adventure, with the various character arcs running concurrently with each other, as this allowed for a tight, powerful narrative. The various characters go through a lot of big and life-changing moments in the span of these eight days and there are some major cliff-hangers and surprising deaths that leave the reader in wild suspense. All of this makes for some great reading, and you will be on the edge of your seat for the entirety of this book.

Shackle chooses to tell his exciting story through the eyes of five separate point-of-view characters, all of whom have their own viewpoint and adventures within We are the Dead. Each of these characters have a fascinating character arcs, especially as most of the characters grow through adversity as they experience the horrors of war and learn the necessities of sacrifice, duty and loyalty.

The character who got the most focus within this novel was Tinnstra, the daughter of a legendary Shulka warrior who has a lot of high expectations weighing on her shoulders. Despite her heritage and her skill with a blade, Tinnstra starts the book dropping out of the Shulka academy, because she is a blatant and obvious coward. Managing to flee from the invasion, Tinnstra attempts to forge a new life for herself in the conquered capital, but eventually finds herself in the midst of the Shulka rebellion, with a particularly important package that could change the course of the war. At the start of this book, I really did not like Tinnstra, mainly because every second sentence in her chapters involved her pathetically doubting herself or calling herself a coward. Thankfully, this led to a rather good storyline about finding one’s courage and stepping up in a big way, and she eventually came across as a real badass with some fantastic and enjoyable chapters towards the end of the book.

Another great character is Jax, a former Shulka general who, after losing his arm during the initial invasion, becomes a determined resistance leader with his wheelchair-bound son. Jax is probably the most consistent protagonist throughout most of the book, serving as a steady and wise figure who is forced to face the reality of failing his country. Jax is an extremely likeable character, which makes it really hard for the reader when he goes through some incredibly dark moments that have the potential to break him.

Next up we have Dren, a teen terrorist who, after witnessing his family dying during the invasion, becomes a rabid killer, brutally attempting to take out any Egrils (or Skulls, as they are known, due to their distinctive helmets), not matter the collateral damage. Dren is a pretty unlikeable kid at the start of the book due to his overwhelming anger towards the Egrils, any Jian who associates with them and the Shulka resistance, who he hates just as much as the Egrils due to the way that they treated the peasants before the invasion and because of their failure in stopping the slaughter. However, as the book progresses, the reader gets more and more invested in Dren’s compelling story, especially when he starts spending time with Jax. Jax is a terrific mentor figure for Dren, who eventually learns the error of his ways and starts to take more responsibility for himself and the band of child terrorists he has recruited.

The final Jian character who the book focuses on is Yas, a single mother who attempts to earn a living working as a maid for the invaders. Yas is recruited as a spy by the Skulka resistance and ends up becoming more and more involved in their plots and schemes. Yas’s storyline is another fantastic arc, and there are some interesting similarities to Tinnstra’s arc, in that she finds her courage to fight back and do what is right. However, Yas’s story is more tied into the love of her family and her son, and how she wants a better world for her child to grow up in.

In addition to Jian characters, Shackle also tells a portion of the book from the perspective of Darus, an Egril Chosen, an officer who has been granted a magical ability by their powerful leader. Darus is a psychotic torturer with severe sister issues, who delights in causing pain and torment and who is determined to win glory and power. Darus’s powers are ironically that of healing, meaning that he is essentially an immortal antagonist who can also heal people that he comes into contact with. He uses this power throughout the book to heal his victims, bringing them back from the brink of death, so that he can torture them again and again in order to break their spirits. As you can probably guess, Darus is a rather reprehensible and unredeemable character, but one who offers an intriguing counterpoint to the protagonists. It is always cool to see something from the villain’s point of view, and I felt that Darus was a perfect antagonist for this dark and twisted novel.

All five of these characters proved to be extremely interesting to follow, and I really liked where all of their arcs went. Shackle does an impressive job making their portrayals and emotions seem realistic, and you can almost feel the fear, anger and hatred that several of the characters exude. I appreciated how none of the protagonists were perfect heroes, and most of them are victims or products of the war and the circumstances they find themselves in. I found it rather interesting to see how the various characters saw each other throughout the course of the story, such as when some of the characters viewed Tinnstra for the first time and mistake her expressions of terror and apprehension for looks of determination and impatience to get towards the enemy. I also have to highlight the raft of cool and likeable side characters featured throughout the course of the story, many of whom steal several scenes from the point-of-view characters. These are a fun collection of side characters, although readers really should not get too attached to them, as they tend to have a rather short lifespan within the course of the book. Overall, We are the Dead contains some excellent and enjoyable characters, and I really appreciated the complicated and captivating storylines that Shackle wove around them.

In addition to the impressive story and excellent characters, Shackle has come up with an awesome new fantasy world for We are the Dead. The entirety of the story is set within the nation of Jia, a cultured land with a proud warrior tradition, which is somewhat reminiscent of feudal Japan. Shackle does a fantastic job of setting up this landscape in the initial couple of chapters, before everything changes thanks to the invasion. The new Jia, six months after the brutal conquest, is a vastly different place, filled with hunger, fear and desperation as the survivors are forced to adapt to their new way of life. Shackle did an amazing job portraying a nation completely under enemy occupation, and I was put in mind of Nazi-occupied France, due to the round up of civilians, the inclusion of collaborators and snitches, retaliations against the populace and the careful resistance movements relying on help from a nation across the sea to survive. The Egrils also proved to be a great antagonistic nation for the plot of this book, and I loved how they were able to fool the conceited Shulka warriors by pretending to be tribal savages for years, before invading with an organised and advanced army, utilising magical and demonic assets to perfection. There were some distinctive Nazi elements to the Egrils, such as the way that they swiftly conquered all of Jia in a few days with Blitzkrieg-like tactics, their absolute devotion to their anointed leader (who is totally going to turn out to be the lost brother of the mage Aasgod, right?), their stormtrooper-like appearance and tactics, as well as the fact that the narrator of the audiobook format gave all the Egril characters a distinctive Germanic accent. All of this proved to be an excellent background for We are the Dead and I loved seeing the story unfold in this recently conquered fantasy nation.

Those readers who like some action in their stories will be extremely satisfied with We are the Dead, as Shackle has loaded his book with all manner of fights, battles and gratuitous violence (the best type of violence). This is an extremely action-packed novel, and I personally enjoyed all the cool fight sequences, from the small-scale battles between trained warriors, the brutal hit-and-run tactics of Dren’s fighters, and several larger fight sequences between opposing forces. Shackle proved to be very adapt at bringing these action sequences to life, and I found myself quite pumped up as a result of reading this book. Readers should be warned however that We are the Dead does feature a number of vivid and disturbing torture sequences, which are made even worse by the fact that the torturer, Darus, can heal his victim and keep inflicting pain, over and over again. As a result, if intense torture scenes make you uncomfortable, then you are probably better off avoiding this book.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to an audiobook version of We are the Dead, rather than grabbing a physical copy. The audiobook format has a run time of just over 18 hours, and it is narrated by Nicola Bryant. This is a lengthy audiobook and it took me a little while to get through it. Part of this is because the story is a tad slow at the start of the book, although I did end up absolutely powering through the last six hours extremely quickly in comparison to the first two thirds of the novel. I really enjoyed the audiobook version, and I found it to be an incredible way to absorb We are the Dead’s clever and detailed narrative. I was also impressed with Bryant’s narration, as she brought some real passion to the audiobook. You could hear the intense emotions in Bryant’s voice as she narrated the story, and you can tell that she was trying to emulate what the characters were feeling with her narration. Bryant also utilised a fantastic and distinctive set of voices for the various characters featured within the novel, and I think that she had an excellent grasp of their personalities and emotions. This proved to be an exception audiobook, and I would definitely suggest checking out this format of We are the Dead.

We are the Dead is an outstanding and deeply enjoyable fantasy novel from Mike Shackle, who really hit it out of the park with his debut novel. I had an amazing time listening to this book, and I loved the blend of compelling story, fantastic setting, complex characters and intense action sequences. This book comes very highly recommended, and I am regretting not picking up a copy of this book last year. I will not be making the same mistake later this year when Shackle’s sequel book, A Fool’s Hope, comes out in December, and I am looking forward to seeing where the story goes next.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Bunraku and Other Stories Cover

Publisher: IDW Publishing (Paperback – 21 April 2020)

Writer, Artist and Letterer: Stan Sakai

Colourist: Tom Luth

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 34

Length: 178 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is once again that wonderful time of the year when the brand-new volume of the ongoing comic series, Usagi Yojimbo, comes out. Legendary comic creator Stan Sakai returns with the 34th volume in this series, Bunraku and Other Stories, which contains four epic and entertaining stories taking place in the unique setting of a version of feudal Japan inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.

Usagi Yojimbo #1

Those who are familiar with my blog will know that I am a massive fan of the Usagi Yojimbo series, having read all of the comics that have been released, and this is easily one of my favourite series at the moment. I have been eagerly reading these comics for years, and since starting this blog I have been enjoying reviewing entries in the series, such as the prior two volumes, Mysteries and The Hidden (Mysteries was actually the first comic I ever reviewed on this blog), as well as some of the older volumes of the comic. As a result, I was extremely keen to get a copy of the new volume, and Bunraku and Other Stories was one of the top books I wanted to check out this autumn.

This latest volume is a rather special one, as it contains the first Usagi Yojimbo issues that Sakai has written for IDW Publishing. This series has been published by Dark Horse Comics since 1997, and their style was similar to that of the publisher before them, Fantagraphics Books. This move to IDW Publishing brings with it some very intriguing stylistic changes, namely that fact that each issue is now completely in colour. This is a massive departure from the previous entries in the series, each of which were originally released in black and white, and it brings the stories to life in a whole new manner. In order to do this, the series now employs a colourist, Tom Luth, who previously worked on Groo the Wanderer with Sakai. In addition, this latest volume is also physically different from all the previous volumes, as Bunraku and Other Stories is noticeably taller, which surprised me a bit when I saw it the first time, and which is seriously going to mess up aesthetics of my bookshelf. However, having the taller volume allows for slightly bigger panels than were typically featured in the previous Usagi Yojimbo stories, which I quite enjoyed.

Usagi Yojimbo #2

However, even with some of these physical changes, this is still the same old Usagi Yojimbo. Sakai has once again produced some outstanding and deeply enjoyable stories, equipped with his trademark art style and his fantastic and loveable characters. Bunraku and Other Stories contains Issues #1-7 of the new, IDW Publishing, run on the series, and is made up of four separate stories.

The first of these stories is titled Bunraku, and it is the main story of this entire volume, made up of the first three issues. In this story, Usagi is enjoying a bunraku, a traditional Japanese puppet play, when he encounters an old acquaintance, Sasuke, the Demon Queller. Sasuke’s endless hunt for demons and monsters has led him to the bunraku theatre, where he senses that a new evil has taken hold. Despite his reluctance to get involved in another one of Sasuke’s dangerous missions, Usagi agrees to help, especially after they find a corpse that has been supernaturally drained of its life energy. Together, Usagi and Sasuke find that a dangerous and malevolent being has infected the bunraku theatre, and they must do everything in their power to end it.

Usagi Yojimbo #3

Bunraku serves as an exciting and compelling first story in this volume, and I quite enjoyed its supernatural storyline. The Usagi Yojimbo series has a rich history of featuring Japan’s various supernatural monsters and demons in its narratives, and this is easily one of the better ones they have done. The antagonists of this story are rather creepy, and they serve as extremely deadly opponents to Usagi, who finds himself dramatically outclassed at several points throughout the story. I also liked the return of Sasuke, who has shown up in several supernatural storylines since his first appearance back in volume 14. Sasuke is a rather distinctive and intriguing character in this series, as he has dedicated his life to hunting and destroying demons and monsters, many of whom are opponents far beyond normal samurai like Usagi. Despite his tremendous magical powers, Sasuke often finds himself severely drained after each fight, but his drive to complete his mission spurs him on, despite how weary or physically weakened he becomes. Usagi and Sasuke have some interesting interactions throughout this story, as Usagi has become more wary of Sasuke after their last several encounters. Sasuke insists that Usagi helps him once again, and even guilts Usagi into working with him, which makes for a very unusual team dynamic. I thought it made sense that Usagi would be reluctant to get involved, as he or someone he loves has nearly died each time Sasuke has appeared so far. There was also a rather interesting moment when their antagonist asks Sasuke if Usagi was being groomed to replace him, a question that Sasuke does not provide an answer to, and which makes me think we will be seeing a lot more of this character in the future.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the story of Bunraku is the fascinating examination and depiction of the bunraku puppet shows. I always love it when Sakai highlights cool aspects of Japanese history, culture or industry in his stories, and this entry was really amazing. The whole concept of a life-size puppet theatre was really intriguing, and Sakai did a great job examining it, showing what sort of stories they produced and how elaborate their performances could be. This unique art form also turned out to be an awesome basis for this horror adventure story, and I really liked how Sakai worked it into the plot. I also really enjoyed the artwork contained within this first story, and Sakai has come up with some rather impressive sequences and scenes that not only do a fantastic job conveying the action that is occurring but which really highlight the horror aspect of the narrative. The various supernatural opponents in this book are shown to be quite scary and threatening, and I loved the way that Usagi’s face looked absolutely terrified as he fought against them. The use of colour in this first story is also extremely cool, and I loved how it helped bring the whole story to life. I particularly liked the way that the colour really enhanced all of Sasuke’s magical abilities and made them look that much more distinctive and mystical. There is one amazing sequence in which Sasuke turns his sword into flames, which looked so damn awesome and it put me in mind of that one iconic scene from the recent Demon Slayer anime. All in all, this was an outstanding and enjoyable first story in this volume, and readers are in for a real treat right of the bat.

Usagi Yojimbo #4

The next story that is featured within this volume is the two-issue tale, The Hero. In this entry, Usagi, still journeying across the countryside, has encountered an interesting fellow traveller, a famed author who is journeying to her father’s house. The author, Lady Mura, has written several novels, including a tragic tale of heroism that she lets Usagi read. As the two travel together, Usagi learns that Mura is the wife of a high-ranking samurai who is jealous of his wife’s writing ability, as the fame she gains from that far exceeds his reputation as a warrior. While Usagi is able to protect Mura from many of the dangers on the road, including bandits, how will he react when he encounters her husband, especially as the strict rules of honour that bind all samurai forbids him from interfering?

This is a rather heavy and clever story that I think is potentially the best entry in the entire volume. Sakai has crafted together an excellently written and well-thought out narrative that cuts deep into the reader’s emotional core before the end. The character of Lady Mura is an extremely tragic figure, as even after all Usagi does to protect her, her story still ends in heartbreak, just like all her novels. Despite how her story ends, she is able to pass on some inspiration to Usagi about the true nature of a hero, which is how she sees Usagi. There are some really intriguing discussions about the code of the samurai that binds all the major characters within this story, and the problems and compromises that occur because of it are in full display throughout The Hero. I also think that Sakai came up with a perfect ending for the entire story, which felt extremely satisfying, considering what had happened throughout the course of the narrative. The artwork in this story is also really cool, as not only do you have some of the most impressive depictions of the varied and beautiful feudal Japanese landscape (which look so impressive in colour) but you also have some amazing scenes that show fragments of Lady Mura’s novels. These scenes place Usagi in the role of the hero of the classic story (Sakai has done something similar in prior stories like My Lord’s Daughter in the sixth volume, Circles) and show him taking on an undead horde and their evil master, and they are some amazing drawn sequences. The Hero is a truly great story, and I think that Sakai has done an outstanding job coming up with this tragic and heartfelt tale.

Usagi Yojimbo #5

The next story, Adachi, is one of the more interesting entries in this volume, and it was one that I was curious to check out. This story was actually written in commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the series and features a fresh take on the very first Usagi Yojimbo story, The Goblin of Adachigahara, which I previously reviewed in the first volume, The Ronin. In this new version of the story, Usagi returns to the scene of one of his greatest personal tragedies, the battle of Adachigahara Plain (or Adachi Plain in later Usagi Yojimbo stories), where his lord, Mifune, died after one of his generals betrayed him. In the course of this battle, Usagi, who served as Lord Mifune’s bodyguard, was able to perform an essential service by fleeing the battlefield with Mifune’s head, keeping it out of the hands of the treacherous general and the evil Lord Hikiji. Usagi has journeyed back to this place to pay respects to the place he buried his late lord’s head, which only he knows the location of. However, he senses that he is being watched and continues his journey, eventually seeking shelter at the hut of an old lady, who warns him of a goblin that haunts the mountain. Later that night, the goblin attacks the house, trying to kill Usagi, but Usagi is able to trick him and engage him in a fair fight. The goblin is revealed to be the general who betrayed Mifune, who was disgraced and banished by Lord Hikiji due to Usagi’s actions in denying Hikiji his lord’s head. Now determined to claim Mifune’s head and claim what is owed to him, the goblin seeks to kill Usagi, who manages to win, thanks to the help of the old lady, revealed to be the general’s wife, who has remained in exile with him.

This is a really interesting updated version of the story, which I quite enjoyed reading. The whole story is actually a combination of three prior Usagi Yojimbo stories, with some new elements thrown in. The first part of the story, which shows Usagi reliving the events of Adachi Plain, utilises parts from two stories, including Samurai (which appeared in the second volume, Samurai) and Return to Adachi Plain (which appeared in the 11th volume, Seasons). This combination provided a much richer examination of the battle, especially Usagi’s role within it, and I think the two separate sequences merged together well, while also looking even more impressive in colour. The story then continues to focus on the events that previously occurred within The Goblin of Adachigahara, although there are some interesting additions. This includes the goblin deliberately targeting Usagi, due to his role in his dishonour, and Usagi finding out the identity of his attacker before killing him. Knowing that this is the general who betrayed his beloved lord adds a whole new emotional element to the story for Usagi, and their fight is a lot more vicious and elaborate. I also liked the way that Sakai spent time enhancing the visuals surrounding the goblin. While he looked rather cool in the original story, in Adachi, Sakai has made him look even more awesome and intimidating, especially in colour. I also found it interesting that Sakai has turned this whole event into a more recent story in Usagi’s timeline, rather than being an event that occurred quite early in his adventures. The change in the chronology is intriguing, especially as there is a rather great scene in the middle where Usagi, upon visiting the grave his former lord, begs to be released from his vow of service, perhaps so that he can pledge fealty to his friend, Lord Noriyuki of the Geishu Clan. Overall, I thought that this was a clever new take on a classic Usagi Yojimbo story, and fans of this series will appreciate this anniversary special.

Usagi Yojimbo #6

The fourth and final story in this volume is The Swords of the Higashi, which serves as a light-hearted and entertaining conclusion to this volume. The Swords of the Higashi sees the always amusing Usagi Yojimbo side character, Gen, involved in a whole new batch of trouble. This time, Gen and his occasional partner Stray Dog are attempting to recover two extremely valuable stolen swords from a group of bandits. Killing the bandits, the two bounty hunters run into Usagi, who decides to accompany them back to the sword’s owners, the Higashi clan. However, the three ronin make the mistake of leaving one of the bandits alive, and they must contend with a continued flurry of attacks as they make their way back to town.

Now this was a fun and enjoyable story that I found to be extremely hilarious. There are several great elements to this story that I really enjoyed, including the fantastic use of the three main characters, Usagi, Gen and Stray Dog, and their banter as they wander the wilderness is rather entertaining. There is also the really funny extended sequence which sees the characters come under constant attack from bandits and bounty hunters as they attempt to return the blades. Each of these attacks is led by the same bandit, who finds the three companions, gets his cohorts to attack them, and then runs away in a panic when the protagonists win, only to return with a new group of bandits and repeat the cycle a short time later. This repeated turn of events is extremely funny, mainly due to the ridiculousness of the situation and because of the way that Usagi and his friends get more and more exhausted and exasperated with each new cycle. Sakai does an amazing job of making all three protagonists look scruffier and more dispirited with each new attack, and their reactions each time are deeply entertaining, from the way that Stray Dog keeps yelling at Gen for it being his fault, Gen’s growing resentment and frustration at the bandit whose life he saved, and the usual stoic Usagi getting more and more exhausted with each fight: “I’ve been through battles less tiring than today!”. Sakai wraps this whole amusing episode up with a rather clever conclusion to the story, which sees another classic Usagi Yojimbo side character get the best of everyone, and which makes all of Usagi, Gen and Stray Dog’s effort be for nought, which is just so mean considering all they went through. This was an outstanding story that had me laughing the entire way through, and I thought it was the perfect way to end this entire volume.

Usagi Yojimbo #7

The latest Usagi Yojimbo volume, Bunraku and Other Stories, is another incredible comic from Stan Sakai that I absolutely loved. Sakai has once again produced several exciting and clever stories, filled with great characters, powerful emotional moments, clever examinations of classic Japanese culture and a number of visually stunning sequences, which are so much fun to read. With the comics now in full and glorious colour, this was an outstanding new entry in the series, and is a must read for all Usagi Yojimbo fans. It gets a full five-star rating from me and comes highly recommended.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 7: Gen’s Story by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Gen's Story

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1996)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Seven

Length: 187 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of 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.

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I once again dive into the wonderful world of Usagi Yojimbo and review the seventh volume of this incredible ongoing comic series, Gen’s Story. I have been really enjoying going back and reviewing the older volumes of this fantastic comic by legendary writer and artist Stan Sakai, and this seventh volume is another excellent addition to the series that I always have a terrific time reading.

Usagi 32

Gen’s Story is an amazing example of a Usagi Yojimbo volume, which contains several short stories, each of which shows a unique tale set within the series’ clever version of feudal Japan populated with anthropomorphised animals. Each of the individual stories in this volume is rather good, and together they form a fantastic volume that not only introduces a recurring side-character but which also explores the backstory of another key character and serves as a perfect end note for one of the series’ best character arcs. This volume is made up of issues #32-38 of the Fantagraphics Books run on Usagi Yojimbo, as well as a story from Critters #38, which makes Gen’s Story a tad longer than a typical volume. All of these issues make for an awesome read, and Gen’s Story is another excellent addition to the Usagi Yojimbo series.

The first story contained within this volume is the fun and enjoyable tale, Kitsune. In this story Usagi encounters a talented street performer, Kitsune, who entertains the crowd with the tricks she can perform with her koma (spinning tops). However, Kitsune is much more than a simple entertainer; she is also an extremely skilled thief and pickpocket who manages to take Usagi’s purse without him realising it. This forces Usagi to stay late at an inn, washing dishes to pay for his meal, which results in him witnessing and intervening in an altercation between a notorious gambler and some local gangsters. Deciding to help the gambler under the mistaken belief that he is an innocent merchant, Usagi attempts to escort him out of town, where the two encounter Kitsune again just before the gangsters attack, leading to a fight in the streets.

Usagi 33

Kitsune is an entertaining story that works well as a suitably light-hearted start to the entire volume (get a fun story in before the feels start). The whole of this story is really amusing from the very start, and it contains some great comedy elements, from Usagi getting taken advantage of by Kitsune and the way he doesn’t initially realise that the person he is helping out is the same gambler who previously led a mob against him in A Kite Story, which was part of the fifth volume, Lone Goat and Kid. This leads to a great scenario where the gambler is forced to rely on Usagi for protection, while silently hoping that he will not remember who he is or what he previously did. Of course, Usagi eventually figures out who he is, thanks to the gambler’s boasting, and this results in a great end to the whole farcical tale. This issue also serves as an excellent introduction to the character of Kitsune, who goes on to become a major recurring figure within the Usagi Yojimbo stories. Sakai does a fantastic job showing off Kitsune’s personality and skills as a thief throughout this story, and I also love all the cool drawings he does of Kitsune’s various tricks with the spinning tops. Kitsune’s entire arc throughout this story is great, and I love how Usagi was able to get even with her at the very end, which is a fun prequel to all their future encounters. The combination of an entertaining plot, a great character introduction and an enjoyable call-back to a previous story helps to make Kitsune an excellent first entry in this volume, and I had an amazing time reading it.

The second story in this volume is the short entry Gaki. Gaki is quick and amusing story that follows a young Usagi back when he was a student under the tutelage of his sword master Katsuichi. After one of Katsuichi’s typical lessons, which sees Usagi receive a smack to the head, Usagi attempts to retaliate, striking a blow that seemingly kills his master and causes his ghost to start haunting Usagi. Of course, it ends up being a whole big misdirection, but it results in a fun sequence in which young Usagi is chased by a vengeful spirit, which all leads to a humorous conclusion. The highlight of this quick tale has to be the amazing drawings of the vengeful spirit and the pure terror that appears on the face of the young Usagi, all of which are way out of proportion to Gaki’s rather innocent story. All of this makes for an entertaining second inclusion in Gen’s Story, and it, together with the first story, provides readers with a fun start to this volume.

Critters 38

The third story is where we start getting to the heavier narratives of this volume, as the reader is treated to the supernatural tale, Broken Ritual. This story sees Usagi walking late at night through a small village filled with an unnatural amount of fear, especially after a loud and terrifying wail breaks the silence. Talking to the townsfolk, Usagi learns that the village, which is located close to the site of the battle of Adachi Plain, is haunted by one of Usagi’s old comrades, General Tadaoka, who died following the battle in the midst of an incomplete seppuku ritual. Now, due to the shame of having a dishonourable death at the hands of an unworthy and unnamed enemy, Tadaoka’s spectre appears in the spot where he died each full moon, letting out a wail of anguish. Upon hearing this tale, Usagi decided to try and help end the suffering of his former comrade and manages to help the spirt pass peacefully by successfully performing the seppuku ritual on the ghost.

Broken Ritual is an impressive and gripping story of honour and duty which is easily one of the best inclusions in this volume. This is one of those stories that really sticks in the reader’s mind, and the whole concept of samurai honour, even from beyond the grave, is a really fascinating central plot aspect. I loved the exploration of the seppuku ritual, and the supernatural elements of this story play into this really well, as it highlights just how important an honourable death is to a samurai like Tadaoka, so much so that he came back from the grave to ensure it was done properly. Sakai’s art is in top form for this volume, and his outstanding depiction of a wartime seppuku ritual is absolutely incredible. The intense facial expressions of Tadaoka during the seppuku scenes are particularly enthralling, and Sakai does a fantastic job of showing the pain and concentration that would have been on such a person’s face. All of this leads to a deeply captivating story, and it is amazing the sort of gripping tale Sakai can spin together in single issue.

Usagi 34

The fourth story in this volume is the shorter story, The Tangled Skein, which is the story that was originally featured in Critters #38. This is a creepy, quick story that follows Usagi in the immediate aftermath of the battle of Adachi Plain. Fleeing from the victorious troops of Lord Hikiji, Usagi attempts to hide in a dark forest known as The Tangled Skein, which is rumoured to be filled with all manner of haunts. Naturally, Usagi runs into one of these haunts, a demon disguised as a helpful old lady, and he must try to escape her clutches with help from the most unlikely of sources. This was an awesome supernatural storyline that I quite enjoyed, especially as the story once again highlights some of the philosophies surrounding samurai honour and what duties a samurai has to his lord, and vice versa. Fast-paced, exciting and with a surprisingly poignant moral to its story, The Tangled Skein is great entry to the volume, and I am glad that Sakai included it.

The next story in this volume is simply call Gen, and it is the major storyline contained within Gen’s Story. Made up of three Usagi Yojimbo issues, this is an excellent story of revenge and obsession that also continues the theme of the last few stories by looking at samurai honour and obligation. This story also reveals the full backstory of the always amusing and enjoyable recurring side character Gen and shows how he came to be a bounty hunter. The story is broken into three separate parts by issue, with the first part called Lady Asano’s Story, the second part called Sins of the Father and the third and final part titled Lady Asano’s Revenge.

Usagi 35

Naturally, Gen revolves around the character Gen, who Usagi once again meets out in the wilds, and helps him claim his latest bounty. Recovering from this fight in a nearby town, Usagi shares a meal with a destitute noblewoman and her retainer. The noblewomen, Lady Asano, is on the hunt for her husband’s murderer, a former advisor who betrayed him for great reward, and her exhaustive 20-year long quest has left her poor and on her own. The story is interrupted by the arrival of Gen, who is revealed to be the son of the great General Murakami, the most revered retainer of the Asano clan, and whose family owes allegiance to Lady Asano. Gen, bitter at the years his hard and disciplined father spent dragging him and his mother around the countryside hunting the murderer, an event that led to the death of Gen’s mother and Gen becoming a bounty hunter, refuses to help Lady Asano. However, once Lady Asano and Usagi are captured by the murderous advisor, revealed to be the town’s magistrate, Gen attempts to help, leading to an emotional and violent confrontation.

This was another excellent story that had a number of fantastic elements to it. It was great to finally get Gen’s backstory revealed, as Gen promised to tell his story all the way back in the second volume, Samurai. This was actually a rather tragic backstory for Gen, and I really liked seeing it, especially as it fits in really well with Gen’s character, not only explaining why he is so eager to fight for money but also why he is so dismissive and distrustful of honourable samurai, who must remind him of his father. Sakai makes sure to wrap up Gen’s personal history rather well within this story, as Gen gets some closure with his father towards the end of the story in one of the few instances that we see a really serious and emotionally wrought Gen. I also liked how Sakai continued to explore the concept of samurai honour within this story, especially the obsession and hurt that it can cause. We got to see the negative impacts that having an extremely loyal and honourable samurai as a father had on Gen, and Sakai also focused on the obsession for revenge and redemption that existed within Lady Asano, which not only drove her into poverty but also gave her the strength to finally get her revenge. The sequence where the dying Lady Asano slowly advanced towards the target of her wrath was pretty intense, and she almost appeared demonic as she slowly moved to get her revenge. Other cool highlights of the story include the huge pitched battle that occurred between the protagonists and their opponents’ retainers in the magistrate’s compound, and the continued fun banter between Usagi and Gen, which adds some much needed humour into this heavier story. Overall, this is an impressive and addictive expanded story, that achieves a lot of fantastic character development and which serves as an excellent focus of this entire volume.

Usagi 36

The next story contained within this volume is another lighter story, The Return of Kitsune. In this story, Usagi, who is accompanied by Gen, once again encounters Kitsune, who is up to her usual tricks of street performances and pickpocketing. This time, however, she accidently steals a valuable letter meant for a corrupt local merchant, and she is subsequently hunted through the streets until she runs into Usagi and Gen. Usagi and Gen was work together to save Kitsune from the merchant, even if they cannot agree on what the best course of action is.

The Return of Kitsune is probably one of the funniest inclusions in this volume. The highlight of this entry has to be the first meeting between the two fun side characters, Kitsune and Gen. These two characters play off each other extremely well, and you cannot help but chuckle at the exasperated expression on Usagi’s face as the Gen and Kitsune begin to flirt with each other. I also enjoyed seeing the opposing philosophies of Usagi and Gen clash throughout this story, as Usagi wants to intervene to save lives, while Gen wants to stay out of the whole thing and claims that Usagi is too nosey. This whole argument proves to be a rather entertaining part of the story, and it results in some excellent scenes towards the end of the story, especially when Usagi takes Gen’s advice about minding his own business and fails to tell his friend that Kitsune stole his purse.

Usagi 37

The final entry in this volume is the outstanding narrative, The Last Ino Story, which serves as the last appearance of one of the best recurring characters to appear in the earlier volumes of this series. In The Last Ino Story, Usagi and Gen are taking one of Gen’s infamous shortcuts late at night and find themselves ambushed by bandits while traversing a narrow path along the side of a cliff. Managing to outsmart their attackers, Usagi and Gen seek shelter in a nearby abandoned hut, where they find themselves confronted by a young woman who is attempting to defend her wounded husband. Able to make their way inside, they find that the woman’s husband is none other than the Zato Ino, who has settled down and abandoned his violent ways after his last encounter with Usagi and Gen. Gravely wounded by the same bandits Usagi and Gen encountered, Ino appears close to death and the two samurai must work quickly if they are to save him and ensure he gets to live the life he rightly deserves.

The Last Ino Story is an outstanding and emotionally rich story which is an amazing way to finish this entire volume off. This last entry in this volume contains a great story in its own right, especially as it serves as a fantastic conclusion to one of the best character arcs in the series, that of Zato Ino. Ino was introduced all the way back in the first volume, The Ronin, as a blind outlaw who was trying to find a quiet place to settle down and rid himself of his life of violence, but whose efforts were constantly disrupted by his large bounty and the hunters chasing him. However, as the series progressed and Usagi kept meeting him, he grew as a character, from him gaining his first true friend in the third volume, The Wanderer’s Road, to him finally finding a home and family after the events of the fourth volume, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy. This final appearance from him (and it is indeed the last time that you see him), serves as a perfect send off to him, as Usagi and Gen, the only two people who knew his past and gave him a chance, find out that he ended up having a the peaceful life he always wanted and has even more happiness on the way. As a result, this is a perfect story for those readers who got attached to the character of Ino through the first volumes of the series, and it was great to see his story come to a satisfying end.

Usagi 38

I also liked Gen’s character arc throughout this story, especially once he finds out that Ino was the injured man in the barn. Gen and Ino have a complicated past, as Gen was initially trying to hunt Ino down for his bounty during their first encounter, and Ino ended up saving his life. In order to repay him, Gen dragged the injured Ino out of the castle before it exploded and told everyone, including Usagi, that Ino had died, in order to ensure that the blind pig would no longer be hunted and could settle down. In this story, Gen, upon seeing the man he saved once again dying, loses his cool and begins to take his rage out on an owl that has been stalking him throughout the course of the book, which he sees as an omen of death. Watching Gen constantly run out into the rain to chase away an owl is amusing on the surface, but it also reveals his deeper feelings that he usually keeps hidden: “The one decent thing I did was give him his peace, and you won’t take it away!” His determination to keep Ino alive because of this is a real change from his usual behaviour, and it helps underline that deep down Gen is a good character, even if he reverts to his usual gruff self the moment he knows Ino is fine. I also liked how the whole saga with the owl ended up, and it was a fun little turn around on the bird being an omen of death. Other highlights of this story include the cool battle sequence towards the front when Usagi and Gen manage to climb up the cliff and face the bandits trying to kill them. The five panels which show this fight are really cool, from the way that the grim faced Usagi and Gen are framed in the moonlight, the close-up of the bandits faces as they charge, the shot of Usagi’s bloody sword, and the way the fight is only alluded to by the sound effects that have been written in, makes for a great sequence that I really liked. All in all, The Last Ino Story is a first-rate inclusion, and it leaves the reader with a memorable and emotionally substantial ending to this volume.

The seventh Usagi Yojimbo volume, Gen’s Story, is another incredible addition to this awesome and deeply enjoyable series. Each of the entries within this excellent volume are outstanding reads, containing complex characters, fantastic narrative arcs and Sakai’s impressive artwork. Gen’s Story gets another five-star review from me, and Stan Sakai has once again shown why he is one of my favourite creative minds.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 6: Circles by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Circles

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1994)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Six

Length: 164 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of 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.

For this latest Throwback Thursday, after reviewing Lone Goat and Kid a couple of weeks ago, I am still in a Usagi Yojimbo mood, so I thought I would check out the sixth volume of this fantastic comic book series, Circles.

Usagi 25

Circles is another fun and exciting addition to this excellent series which I honestly cannot praise enough (although I have been trying very hard in my last several Throwback Thursday articles). This sixth volume once again presents the reader with several outstanding and inventive stories that chronicle the adventures of the rabbit samurai, Miyamoto Usagi, as he journeys around a unique version of historical Japan. This volume contains five separate stories, derived from issues #25 – 31 of the Fantagraphics Books run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, as well as a short story taken from Critters number #50 (a comic magazine that had some early Usagi Yojimbo appearances). There are some rather amazing stories featured within this volume, and I had an incredible time reading them.

The first story contained within this sixth volume is called The Bridge, which sees Usagi encountering a demon out of Japanese folklore. During a dark a stormy night, Usagi is entering a village from across a bridge when suddenly he lashes out with his sword behind him, convinced something is sneaking up on him. When he finds nothing there, Usagi shrugs it off and enters the nearest inn, only to learn from the villagers that the bridge he just crossed has been possessed by a demon, and Usagi’s back now bears the claw marks of the demon. Awaking next morning, the villagers find a severed monstrous hand on the bridge, which Usagi appeared to have cut off the night before. Taking the hand into the inn, Usagi and villagers wait for a priest to arrive in order to perform an exorcism on the severed limb, but the demon of the bridge has other plans.

Usagi 26

This was a rather good supernatural story that sees Usagi go up against one of Japan’s many demons and monsters. Several significant elements from this story are taken from the story of the demon of Rashomon Gate, including the severing of the arm and the demon disguising itself as an old woman to recover its severed limb (although unlike the samurai in the legend, Usagi doesn’t fall for it). The demonic antagonist of this story is rather sinister in its drawing style and methods of attack, and it proves to be a dangerous opponent for Usagi. I love the extended fight on the bridge, and I especially enjoyed the way that the whole event ended, providing a side-character in the story their moment of vengeance. Overall, this was a tight, well-written story that was a lot of fun to read.

The next story in this volume is titled The Duel, and, as the name suggests, it features some duels between samurai. Usagi arrives in a village and is challenged to a public duel by the local champion while the watching villagers place bets with a travelling bookmaker, a duel that eventually results in Usagi’s opponent’s death. Completing the duel, Usagi meets and has lunch with a fellow unemployed samurai, Shubo, who subtly takes his measure. It is revealed that Shubo, who is a talented swordsman, is in league with the bookmaker who manipulates the odds of Shubo’s duels in order to make money off the betters. Shubo, who needs the money to provide for his wife and child, believes that he can beat Usagi, and the bookmaker inflates the odds in Usagi’s favour so that they can clean up when Shubo wins. Forcing Usagi into a duel, the two engage in a quick fight to death, with tragic results.

Usagi 27

This was a really clever and captivating single story that Sakai did an incredible job writing. The whole story concept is just brilliant, and Sakai sets it up and executes the plot brilliantly. There are some amazing scenes throughout The Duel, and the story features an excellent mix of comedy and tragedy which work together amazingly to produce a gripping narrative. Usagi, as the reluctant participant of this duel, is pissed at the entire affair, and his outraged reaction to the town people cheering his victory is rather good, especially as the peasants show over-the-top fake remorse in order to get him to go away so they can collect their winnings: “We are lower than the scum at the bottom of a stagnant pool!” While there is some fun and well-deserved karma coming down onto the bookkeeper who overextends himself and tries to escape, nothing quite takes away from the tragedy of Shubo’s wife and young child. The final panel of this story is incredibly heartbreaking, as it shows the wife and child waiting just outside the village for him to return. But as the light in the sky gets darker and darker, you can see the worry start to work its way onto the wife’s face, until she breaks down completely in the final panel, fully realising that her husband is dead. The wife comes across as a massively tragic character in this story, and the major impact that this final page has is a testament to how amazing Sakai’s storytelling and illustrations are.

The third story in the volume is the rather short entry, Yurei, which is the story that appeared in Critters. In this tale, Usagi, who is camping at the edge of a river, awakens to find a Yurei, a ghost, floating before him. The ghost imparts her tragic story to Usagi; she was betrayed and murdered by her husband, and she now seeks justice. Usagi then awakens and finds a woman’s hairpin on the ground next to him. Thinking his encounter with the ghost was just a dream, he travels to a nearby inn and attempts to trade the pin for a meal. What he does not realise is that the innkeeper is the murderous husband from the ghost’s tale, and his discovery of the pin leads to a series of deadly events. This was a good, fast-paced story which tells a compact and intriguing tale. I loved the supernatural elements in this story, and it was interesting to see Usagi portrayed as a tool of fate, who wonders into some ghostly revenge without even realising it. This was a fantastic short entry in this volume and was great to check out.

USagi 28

The next entry in Circles is an entertaining and over-the-top tale titled My Lord’s Daughter. In this story, Usagi, who is telling a bedtime tale to children, is shown as the classic hero from Japanese legend, fighting through vast hordes of demons, monsters, and obstacles to rescue a beautiful princess from an Oni. This was a fun take on some of the traditional Japanese heroic legends, and it was cool to see Sakai draw a classic tale with Usagi as the protagonist. Sakai has some obvious fun setting the Usagi hero fearlessly against armies of demons and monsters, and he comes up with some clever fight sequences and scenes in this book, from a brutal duel with an Oni, to an underwater battle between Usagi, a shark and a giant octopus wielding several swords in its tentacles. This is an entertaining and exciting story, and I had a good laugh at the end reference to Sakai’s old comic, Groo the Wanderer.

Now let us get to the fifth story of this book, which is kind of the main event of the entire volume. This is a big story, told across four issues, titled Circles. This story follows Usagi as he returns home for the first time since the events of volume one, The Ronin. There are actually a couple of distinctive parts to this story, especially the first issue, which is somewhat separate from the rest of the story (with the exception of some build-up at the end). For this first part, Usagi, on his way back home, decides to stop at his old master’s house to pay his respects to the grave marker of Katsuichi, the man who taught him how to wield a blade. The story then shows a flashback, which serves as a continuation to part of the origin story Usagi told in the second Usagi Yojimbo volume, Samurai, about Usagi’s past. In the flashback, it is shown that Usagi’s master was ambushed and seemingly killed by members of the Dogora Fencing School after Usagi beat their students in a tournament. However, upon arriving at Katsuichi’s old house, he discovers that his master is still alive, having survived the ambush, and has taken on a new student. I liked this revisit of Usagi’s origin story with Katsuichi, although the whole death scene in the flashback comes a little bit out of nowhere. Still, it was interesting to see how much Usagi has matured since he was learning the way of the sword, and it was nice to see the teacher and student reuniting. The flashback sequence is also top quality, and Sakai illustrates up a storm in this one, showing a fierce battle and some intense emotions from Usagi, who goes from a full-on berserker rage as he gets his revenge on his master’s killer to an intense grief in just a few scenes.

Usagi 29

The story then continues as Usagi journeys back to his village, only to be confronted by his old childhood rival, Kenichi. It turns out that Jotaro, Kenichi’s son with Usagi’s former love, Mariko, has gone missing, and bandits are roaming the area. While Usagi and Kenichi are able to defend their town from a raiding party, the attackers reveal that Jotaro has been kidnapped by the bandits and are holding him hostage. Leading an army of local peasants against the bandit’s hideout, Kenichi and Usagi hope to rescue Jotaro and end the raids that have been plaguing them. However, what they do not realise is that the bandits are being led by the deranged and dangerous former adversary of Usagi, Jei, a mysterious and seemingly unkillable murder with a black blade, who hopes to use Jotaro to get his revenge on Usagi. But even Jei is not the most dangerous thing that lies ahead, as old resentments between Usagi and Kenichi, their shared love for Mariko and certain revelations may tear everything apart.

Wow, I have to say that the final three issues of Circles are just incredible. There is so much to unpack from them, as Sakai brings together a brilliant and powerful story. First of all, it was great to see Jei return as a villain once again. Jei, who was introduced in volume 3, The Wanderer’s Road, is an outstanding antagonist, and his continued feud with Usagi is just brilliant. The two engage in a fantastic and extended duel in this story, and Sakai did a fantastic job showing off each combatant’s skill and martial ability through his drawings. I also love the extensive battle between Kenichi’s peasant army and the bandits, which proved to be rather eye-catching. Not only is there a beautifully drawn sequence in the misty forest before the big battle in which Usagi does a great Jei impersonation to scare a bandit sentry, but Sakai illustrates a massive battle between the two forces. The massive single panel that shows the pitched battle is just impressive, and I love the detailed and entertaining scene that the author produced here.

Usagi 30

While all of the above is pretty amazing, what really makes this captivating story is the complex relationship between Usagi, Kenichi and Mariko. There are so many great layers plastered into this relationship. Usagi and Mariko were deeply in love when they were younger, and they still have great feelings for each other. However, Mariko ended up marrying Kenichi, and she is bound by duty, and her child, to him, no matter how she feels about Usagi. Kenichi, on the other hand, has always borne antagonism towards Usagi, which has been compounded over the years by their differences in skill and the fact that Usagi was chosen to serve Lord Mifune and left the village. However, Kenichi’s resentment towards Usagi is even greater, as he knows that Usagi is in love with his wife, and that these feelings are reciprocated by Mariko.

This leads to some outstanding scenes throughout this story, as these three try to come to terms with their complicated emotions. I particularly loved one scene in the middle of the story, where Usagi and Mariko discuss their feelings and reveal that they still both love each other, although Mariko makes it clear that they can never be together. The scene ends when Kenichi interrupts them, and while the look of heartbreak and shame on Mariko’s face is notable, what really gets me is the way that Kenichi’s usual stern/angry look is replaced with one of sad resignation in the last panel once he realises how Mariko still feels about Usagi. Despite this, Kenichi comes across in this story as a surprisingly honourable and well-intentioned character who puts aside his negative feelings for Usagi for the greater good, and it is a fantastic examination of a character who has mostly been antagonistic in the previous volumes. Sakai also drops a massive bombshell at the end of this story, when he reveals that Jotaro is actually Usagi’s son, and that Kenichi has known this and raised him as his own. Because of this, Mariko asks Usagi to leave and not try to settle down in their home village, as she fears it will put a wedge between Jotaro and Kenichi, who she sees as Jotaro’s true father. Usagi regretfully accepts this in another dramatic and captivating scene, although Mariko arranges for Usagi to see Jotaro as he leaves, and Usagi has a heartfelt time with his son, noting the similarities between them, and even suggesting Jotaro seek out Katsuichi as a teacher in later years. All of this is some first-rate storytelling and character development, and cannot praise Sakai enough for this amazing, emotional storyline. This is actually the last book that Kenichi and Mariko appear in (so far), and I think that Sakai did a fantastic job tying their love triangle together. All in all, Circles is easily my favourite story in this entire volume (The Duel comes close), and it is worth grabbing this volume just to check this key story out.

Usagi 31

It should come as no surprise to anyone considering all the praise I elicited above that I am giving this sixth volume of Usagi Yojimbo a full five star rating. This was another incredible comic book that features Sakai’s outstanding blend of powerful stories, memorable characters, intense action, fun references and depictions of traditional Japanese culture and history and some truly impressive artwork. I absolutely loved this volume, and this entire awesome series, comes highly recommended and is an unquestionable must-read.