Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 9: Daisho by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Daisho Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1998)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 9

Length: 215 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.

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - #7

It has been another good week of reading and reviewing for me, so I thought I would reward myself by doing a Throwback Thursday review of Daisho, the ninth volume in the outstanding, long-running Usagi Yojimbo series from one of my favourite authors, Stan Sakai.

Daisho is an impressive and exciting entry in the series, which unsurprisingly gets a five star rating out of me (full disclosure, every volume of this series is going to get five stars from me, it is just that damn good). This volume contains Issues #7-14 of the second run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, which was originally published by Mirage Comics (Issues #7 and #8 are only partially represented in Daisho as some stories from these issues were used in the prior volume, while a story from Issue #13 appears in the tenth volume that I will review next), and which has been collected into this volume by Dark Horse Books. This ninth Usagi Yojimbo volume is filled with several fantastic and creative stories that follow Usagi as he journeys across the land, getting into all manner of trouble and misadventures in this version of feudal Japan populated solely by anthropomorphic animals. Daisho serves as a significant inclusion in the overarching series, due to its connections to previous stories, and its introduction or resurrection of several key characters.

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This volume starts off with an inspiring and tragic story, The Music of Heavens, which once again sees Usagi traversing the wilderness. His solitude is broken when he encounters the pack of Tokage lizards who he unwittingly befriended in a previous story, The Lizards’ Tale (which was featured in Volume 8: Shades of Death). While Usagi is less than thrilled to see the Tokages, they end up leading him towards another traveller who is making their camp in the woods. The traveller, Omori Kazan, is a mendicant Buddhist priest and skilled musician, who invites Usagi into his camp and talks to him about the various forms of music he studies. However, someone is stalking their camp, determined to get revenge and unafraid to kill an innocent bystander to get it.

I really liked The Music of Heavens and it proved to be a compelling first entry in this volume. The story is based on Usagi’s encounter with a new character, Omori Kazan. Kazan is an intriguing person due to his position as a komuso monk (the monks of emptiness) of a particular sect of Buddhism, which lends him a very distinctive look thanks to the woven basket hat (tengai) he wears on his head disguising his features. Kazan has an amazing arc that delivers a lot in a short while, as he introduces himself to Usagi and the reader, discusses music and religion, and then simultaneously meets his end while also experiencing the divine for the first time. This entire character arc is both beautiful and tragic at the same time, and it provides both Usagi and the reader with some significant emotional moments, especially when it comes to Usagi’s farewell to the Tokages. I also liked how Sakai utilises an antagonist from a previous story, and the fight between Usagi and this character was swift and well-drawn. This was an excellent introductory entry for this volume, and it is a story that I really enjoyed.

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The second story in Daisho is the entertaining and clever entry, The Gambler, the Widow, and the Ronin. This story reintroduces the gambler from the previous story, The Duel (featured in Volume 6: Circles), who is up to his old tricks of organising deadly sword duels and cashing in on the bets of the local townsfolk. After the death of his previous samurai accomplice, Shubo, during a duel with Usagi, the gambler has been forced to find a new partner, the brutish and less skilled swordsman, Kedamono. However, Kedamono’s greed has convinced the gambler that it is time to end their partnership, and he quickly finds the ideal solution when Usagi arrives in town. However, as the gambler plots, he fails to realise that he is being stalked by Shubo’s widow, who is determined to get her revenge for the role he played in her husband’s death.

This was another amazing story that serves as a fantastic follow-up to a great prior Usagi Yojimbo story. I always get a real western vibe out of The Gambler, the Widow, and the Ronin, due to its title and the premise around a duel, it proves to be an excellent entry in this volume. Usagi is once again drawn into the plots of the gambler, and thanks to his humility, honour and good manners, which are mistaken as a weakness, both Kedamono and the local villagers are convinced that Usagi is a poor swordsman. However, the gambler, who has seen Usagi in action before, manipulates the odds so that he wins all the money when Usagi defeats his opponent, in a fun reversal of the events of The Duel. This was an incredibly entertaining scene as Usagi is again forced to deal with a bloodthirsty crowd, while the gambler feigns being saddened by the loss of his companion, despite being secretly delighted. However, the gambler ends up getting his comeuppance, and the widow, whose sad final scene was so memorable in The Duel, finally gets a small measure of justice. This was a very clever and enjoyable story, and I really loved how Sakai dived back to a prior standalone story to provide some closure and a fun continuation.

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The next story is called Slavers, and it is a longer entry made up of two separate issues. In Slavers, Usagi encounters a young boy being pursued by bandits. Usagi defeats them and learns that the boy was attempting to get help for his village, which has been taken over by a gang of bandits who have enslaved the villagers as part of a destructive scam to steal their harvest and make a small fortune. Deciding to help the villagers, Usagi infiltrates the gang and attempts to rally the villagers to his cause. However, the gang’s leader, the villainous General Fujii, discovers the deception and captures Usagi, planning to kill all the villagers to make good his escape. Slavers is an amazing story that is not only intriguing in its own right but which also expertly sets up the series of follow-up stories that make up most of this volume. While the standalone narrative of Slavers gets a bit dark at times, due to an extended capture scene surrounding Usagi, it is a rather compelling story filled with action, deception and struggles against adversity.

Slavers is quickly followed up by three separate but distinct stories that can be combined together with Slavers into one large narrative that wraps up all the loose ends from the initial entry. The first one of these stories, Daisho Part One, sees Usagi in hot pursuit of General Fujii, who is in possession of Usagi’s precious swords. Due to the brutal actions of Fujii, Usagi loses his quarry and is forced into an extended hunt for him, eventually coming to a ransacked village. It turns out that the village had recently been raided by Fujii’s new gang, and Usagi must make a hard choice between recovering his soul or helping those in need.

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I have a lot of love for Daisho Part One; it is probably one of my favourite entries in this entire volume. The story starts out with a magnificent and beautifully drawn sequence that shows the various elaborate processes by which a samurai’s swords are created. This impressive opening sequence is one of my favourite pieces of Usagi Yojimbo art from the entire series, and its creation highlights not only Sakai’s skill as an artist but his ability to research and portray intriguing parts of Japan’s unique culture and heritage. This sequence also shows the important a samurai’s swords to their wielder, as they are reflections of that warrior’s soul. This key concept is then brought to life in the main story, as it sees a somewhat unhinged Usagi risking everything to reclaim his swords from Fujii. Sakai does an outstanding job showing off how frustrated and enraged Usagi is at having his swords stolen from him, and he comes across as being quite frightening several times through the story. Usagi’s anger comes to a head when he reaches the village and his initial decision is to abandon the villagers and immediately follow Fujii and his men. However, a local village girl is able to shame him into thinking of others, and the old Usagi returns, providing aid to the villagers. This was an extremely compelling story that does a wonderful job combining a powerful, character driven narrative, with some exquisite artwork and some intriguing aspects of history, into an exceptional entry in this volume.

The next story in this volume is Mongrels, a quick story about a recurring Usagi Yojimbo side character, the bounty hunter Gen, which occurs around the same time as Daisho Part One. In this story, Gen enters a village and starts asking questions about his current bounty, General Fujii. However, he is not the only bounty hunter in town, as he soon encounters the notorious hunter Stray Dog, who is also hunting for Fujii. After a tense conversation, the two-part ways; however, both are determined to capture Fujii and outsmart their competition. This was a fun story that not only brings Gen into this multi-issue narrative but also introduces a couple of great recurring characters. Stray Dog is a fantastic character in the Usagi Yojimbo universe, and he often appears as a compelling rival (and sometime partner) to Gen (such as in the latest Usagi Yojimbo volume, Bunraku and Other Stories). This story serves as a swift and clever introduction to the character, and it was fun to see the rivalry between Gen and Stray Dog form so quickly. Mongrels also introduces the extremely entertaining side character, the Snitch (also called Toady), a sneaky, greedy character who provides information to the highest bidder. While the Snitch has only a short appearance in this story, he is going to start appearing in a lot of follow up volumes, and it is always fun to see where a character starts out. Overall, this was a great story that fits a lot of significant introductions and events into a few short pages.

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The final story in this arc surrounding General Fujii is Daisho Part Two, in which Usagi and his guide meet up with Gen and Stray Dog right at the end of Mongrels. The three samurai decide to team up to raid General Fujii’s lair, and they engage in an all-out fight for money and honour. However, not everyone on the team is keen to work together, and betrayal is afoot. This was an excellent conclusion to the entire storyline, which I really enjoyed. This is a story chocked full of action, as the entire narrative sets up a massive fight between multiple combatants within an abandoned temple. There is some great character work within this story, not only from the protagonists, who bicker and fight amongst themselves, but also with the major antagonist, General Fujii. There some intriguing scenes that show Fujii’s efforts to lead and control a gang of bandits and cutthroats, and I also liked how Sakai shows him being haunted by thoughts of Usagi, whose swords he is holding onto. Usagi and Fujii finally get their showdown in this story, and it served as a fantastic end to this whole extended narrative. There are also some compelling moments surrounding Stray Dog, as he seeks to cheat the others out of the reward money for Fujii. While this initially paints him in a bad light, the source of his need for money is quickly shown, and it highlights just how complex and multifaceted this new side character is. I really liked how this entire story narrative ends, and Daisho Part Two is an excellent part of this volume.

The next story in this volume is the two-part entry, Runaways. In Runaways, Usagi journeys through a small town, when he finds himself in the path of a procession of the local noble lady. Hearing the lady’s name, Usagi is thrown back into the past as he remembers an adventure that occurred many years prior, when he was in the service of Lord Mifune. After finding out that the love of his life, Mariko, has married another man, Usagi is given a seemingly simple mission as a distraction. His task, to escort the young Princess Kinuko to the lands of her future husband, becomes infinitely more complicated, when their party is ambushed by a horde of Neko Ninja. Escaping with the princess, Usagi disguises Kinuko as a peasant in an attempt to hide her from their pursuers. However, the more time that Usagi and Kinuko spend together, the closer they become, until the lines of duty, honour and station become extremely blurred.

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This was another exceptional story within the volume, and I liked how it flashed back to an adventure during his pre-ronin life. Set during the period when Usagi served Lord Mifune (as shown in Volume 2: Samurai), Runaways contains a powerful and emotional narrative that is actually based on Roman Holiday (Sakai is a massive Audrey Hepburn fan), which sees a princess run away with a strong male protagonist and grow close to him, despite her responsibilities and their differences in station. This proves to be a fun, if extremely loose adaption of the movie, and Sakai builds up a complex relationship between Usagi and Kinuko, as the two characters, both tragic victims of circumstances when it comes to love, grow closer to each other. However, despite their feelings, this relationship is fated to never be, and it ends in heartbreak, with the memories of it haunting both Usagi and Kinuko years later. I really liked how this story played out, and it was interesting to see aspects of samurai honour folded into the narrative from Roman Holiday. Other fantastic highlights of this story include the multitude of impressive fight scenes between Usagi and the Neko Ninja, starting with a major battle between two large groups of samurai and ninja. I also liked the exploration of the traditional Tanabata Matsuri festival that the two characters find themselves attending, especially as Kinuko has fun experiencing local customs, foods and activities that someone of her station will never get to enjoy. It was also cool to see an early adventure from Usagi, especially as this entry foreshadows events that have occurred in other volumes, including the return of several now-dead characters, such as Shingen (future leader of the Neko Ninja, who was introduced in Volume 3: The Wanderer’s Road, and died in Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy). An overall exciting and impressive story, Runaways is an amazing highlight of this volume.

The final entry is the short story, The Nature of the Viper. In this tale, a local fisherman finds the badly injured body of Usagi’s recurring foe, Jei, after he was thrown from a cliff during the climatic events of Circles. Bringing him back to his hut, the fisherman tends to Jei and manages to save his life. When Jei awakens, he shows his gratitude to the farmer be recounting a tale of viper and a peasant (a version of the classic fable, The Farmer and the Viper), before killing him and resuming his hunt for Usagi. This is a good, short entry that shows the fate of Jei after his last appearance. Jei comes across just as villainous and creepy as ever, and it was fun seeing the fisherman slowly realise just how much trouble he is in as the story progresses. While having a villain recount The Farmer and the Viper as justification for why they are killing a person is somewhat cliched at this point (although to be fair, this story was written back in the 90s), it was still a fantastic sequence. I think that this was an excellent way to end the volume, especially as the reader is left knowing that Jei has returned and that Usagi will be encountering him once again in the future.

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Sakai has once again knocked it out of the park with the ninth volume in his series. Daisho contains several outstanding and memorable stories that are all wildly entertaining and contain some clever links to past and future entries in this series. I had an absolute blast reading this volume, and it is an extremely strong addition to the incredible Usagi Yojimbo series that comes highly recommend.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 8: Shades of Death by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Shades of Death

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1997)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 8

Length: 200 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’s been a little while since I’ve done a Throwback Thursday article so I thought I would go back to the old faithful that is the incredible Usagi Yojimbo series and review the eighth volume, Shades of Death.

Usagi Vol 2 Issue 1

Shades of Death follows on right after the events of the seventh Usagi Yojimbo volume, Gen’s Story, and continues to follow the adventures of the rabbit samurai, Miyamoto Usagi, in this alternate version of feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals. This eighth volume of the series is particularly significant as it is the first volume to be published by Dark Horse Comics, who printed the series for over 22 years, and who were only recently replaced by IDW for the latest volume, Bunraku and Other Stories.  However, the issues within this volume were originally printed by Mirage Comics, who did the entire second run of the Usagi Yojimbo series.  The Dark Horse Comics/Mirage Comics printing style is similar to the style used by the previous publisher, Fantagraphics Books. The only major difference is that the Dark Horse Comics volumes come with a story notes section at the back, as well as copies of all the covers for the various issues. I’m actually a big fan of the story notes that they started including in these volumes, as they contain some fascinating background information about some of the stories, including details about the various legends or elements of Japanese culture that Sakai focuses on in his story. Shades of Death contains issues #1-6 of the second run of the Usagi Yojimbo series, as well as containing stories from #7-8, and is made up of two major storylines and several shorter entries.

The first story is Shades of Green, and it is probably the most distinctive entry in this entire volume. The story starts with Usagi and his frequent travelling companion, Gen, being ambushed out on the road by a horde of Neko Ninja, forcing them to dive into a river to avoid being killed. Usagi and Gen eventually wash up near a remote village and encounter the mysterious rat mystic, Kakera, who asks Usagi and Gen for his help. Kakera reveals that the Neko Ninja are after him, as they hope to use his abilities to help rebuild their clan’s power after the events of The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy (volume 4). To that end, they have surrounded the village and intend to kill everyone in order to get Kakera, and even the skilled Usagi and Gen will be unable to stand up to their numbers. With no other help on the way, Kakera is forced to use his magic to summon four very special warriors to stand by their sides, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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Shades of Green is a fantastic and clever story that also serves as an excellent crossover between two iconic comic book series. Pretty much the big thing about this story is the way that is introduces all four members of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the Usagi Yojimbo universe. Fans of either Usagi Yojimbo or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise will be aware that these two comics have had numerous crossovers throughout the years, with Usagi appearing in three of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated television shows. The Turtles who appear in Shades of Green are the original Mirage Comics versions of these characters, who were created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, and who had their own long-running series during the time this volume was published. Usagi has actually encountered Leonardo from this version of the Turtles several times before, including back in the third volume of Usagi Yojimbo, The Wanderer’s Road, so the two groups of characters were able to team up rather quickly. I thought that this was an incredible crossover, and I especially loved the dynamic between the Turtles and Usagi and Gen. Not only do you get the mutual respect that Usagi and Leonardo have for each-other but there is a rather fun dynamic between Gen and the other Turtles. I particularly liked one scene where Michelangelo questions the logic of the Usagi Yojimbo universe, including why the horses aren’t sentient but rabbits and rhinos are (something I have always wondered), and even asking Gen if he has a tail, which it turns out is a rather personal question. There are also some really fun battle sequences throughout this book, and it was great to see the two samurai team up with the Turtles to fight a whole bunch of ninjas. I really liked this crossover between them, and I also think that Sakai did an amazing job drawing and portraying these characters.

In addition to the crossover elements, Shades of Green also contains a rather intriguing overall narrative, especially the parts of it that examine the leadership of the Neko Ninja clan. The Neko Ninja clan has been in a bit of decline since the fourth volume, when a large number of their ninjas, including their leader, Shingen, died. Much of the plot of this storyline revolves around two high-ranking members of the Neko Ninja, the ambitious Gunji and Shingen’s sister Chizu, fighting for control of the clan, with their battle centred on the hunt for Kakera. This proved to be really exciting, and it was cool to see the internal ninja feud, while the clan is facing off against the protagonists. This book also contained the first meeting between Usagi and Chizu, who goes on to become a major recurring character in the series as well as a potential love interest for Usagi. I quite enjoyed Shades of Green, and it definitely serves as a memorable entry in the Usagi Yojimbo series that showcases how cool a crossover with this series can be.

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The next entry is a short story called Jizo, which only runs for a few pages. Despite its shorter length, this is a rather inventive and surprisingly powerful story that I have a lot of love for. Jizo is set on the side of a road, and features a mother placing a dosojin, a roadside icon, of Jizo-sama, in order to help the soul of her deceased young son who was recently killed by bandits. According to Buddhist beliefs, her son’s soul is attempting to make its way into paradise by piling rocks to cross a river. By leaving the statue to Jizo, the patron and protector of children, by the side of the road, the mother is hoping that passing travellers will place a stone near it, which will help her dead son’s soul in his eternal task. The story than continues without dialogue, as the statue of Jizo watches the road, noting the various travellers who walk across it. This includes Usagi, who runs into the same bandits who killed the child, and his actions seem to provide the statue with a measure of peace. This was a clever and beautifully rendered story, and I loved that Sakai redrew the same stretch of road for every single panel. This was such a fantastic concept, and I loved how he told such a powerful story with a minimum of dialogue, only utilising some exposition from the mother at the start and end of the story. The shots of the same stretch or road were done extremely well, and it was fun to see the various people who walked past the statue during the course of the day. Not only were there some familiar faces but there were several intriguing and distinctive-looking people going about all manner of different activities. It was also cool to learn a little bit about the statues to Jizo-sama, something I saw several times when I went to Japan, and the story notes I mentioned above proved to be really useful and interesting in regards to this. I was really impressed with this entry, and I loved the compelling story that Sakai told with his fantastic drawings.

The third story in this volume is Shi, an action-packed and exciting tale that I really enjoyed. Shi sees a wandering Usagi come to a crossroad, where he lets fate and the gods choose his route (a homage to the start of the film Yojimbo). His chosen path takes him to a market town where he witnesses a peasant being bullied by a group of thugs. Intervening, Usagi chases the thugs off and is invited to the peasant’s village for dinner. However, it soon becomes clear that something strange is happening at the village, as the thugs arrive soon after and appear determined to scare all the villagers away. Investigating, Usagi soon finds himself in the midst of a conspiracy involving the local magistrate and his brother, who are determined to kill Usagi and his new friends. To that end they hire a group of four assassins, who call themselves Shi (a reworking of the Japanese character for Shi turns it into a character for death).

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Shi proved to be an compelling entry that serves as one of the main two stories for this volume (indeed, if you combine the names of the first story, Shades of Green, with the title of this story, Shi, which in this case means death, you get the volume’s overall title, Shades of Death). There are some great elements to this action-packed story: the intriguing conspiracy, Usagi’s mixed encounters with the villagers that he is trying to save, and some funny moments as Usagi effortlessly deals with the initial group of thugs. However, the best part of the book has to be the extended fight sequence at the end as Usagi takes on the four members of Shi, each of whom is master of a different type of weapon (sword, spear, bow and the sickle-and-chain). This was a brutal and exhausting fight for Usagi, and it serves as an impressive main set piece for the entire story. It also results in a rather confronting and memorable sequence where, in the aftermath of the fight, Usagi is challenged by a local peasant who is jealous of the attention Usagi is receiving from his betrothed. The peasant gamely steps up to fight Usagi, claiming not to be afraid, only to be faced by an enraged samurai who is worked up into a blood rage after his battle. The look of anger and hate on Usagi’s face is surprisingly terrifying, and I love how demonic Sakai made him look, showing off a darker side to his complex protagonist. I also really enjoyed the entry’s two shady antagonists in the magistrate and his brother. These two duplicitous siblings make for a murderous team, especially when each of them attempts to betray the other in a fantastic conclusion that showcases the consequences of greed. Overall, Shi was an exceptional story that I had an awesome time reading.

The next story in Shades of Death is a fun entry titled The Lizards’ Tale, which focuses on a group of Tokages, the dinosaur-like lizard critters that infest the Usagi Yojimbo universe. In this story, a group of chilly Tokages attempt to warm themselves up one snowy night by snuggling together in the warmest place they can find, around the sleeping body of Usagi. Awakening the next morning, Usagi finds himself surrounded by the potentially vicious creatures, and only manages to flee by throwing them a bag of food and running for it. However, the Tokages are not that easily escaped, and they continue to follow Usagi hoping to get more food out of him. Despite his comical efforts to get rid of them, Usagi soon grows attached the Tokage pack, especially after they help him out of a sticky situation with some bandits. The Lizards’ Tale is a very fun and humorous story that provides some light-hearted moments in this volume after some of the preceding darker stories. I really liked how Sakai told the story without any dialogue whatsoever, relying on only the exaggerated movements and facial expressions of the various characters and the Tokage to tell the story. This was an incredibly entertaining entry, and I had a great laugh as I went through it.

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The final three stories are a bunch of shorter entries that focus on a younger Usagi as he trains with his sword master, Katsuichi. These three stories include Usagi’s Garden, Autumn and Battlefield, and feature some character-building moments for the protagonist. Each of these three stories is rather good, and it is always interesting to see a younger Usagi when he is a rash trainee, rather than the wiser, battle-hardened warrior that he is in the rest of the series. These three short stories contain a fun mix of narratives, including one about Usagi learning patience and honesty by attempting to grow plants, another where he frees the spirit of Autumn, Aki-Onna (Autumn Women) from a monster, and a final story where he sees his first battlefield and learns that there is rarely glory or honour in the midst of war. These were a great collection of stories, and I liked the moral based narratives that each of them contained. Reading these three shorter stories proved to be a good way to end the volume and it was nice to have some low-stakes entries to wrap everything up with.

As usual, Sakai’s artwork for this volume was deeply impressive for every story, and I loved every aspect of his drawings throughout Shades of Death. While I have already mentioned his fantastic fight sequences, the cool character designs and amazing use of facial expressions while talking about some of the stories above, I also have to highlight the detailed background sequences and depictions of the beautiful, multi-seasonal Japanese landscapes. Every panel of this book is loaded with incredible detail, and I loved examining all the different backgrounds, especially as I see something new and different in this volume every time I read it. Sakai did some outstanding artwork in this volume, and it was a real treat to see his drawings and characters come to life.

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Shades of Death is another incredible volume in the exception Usagi Yojimbo comic book series from the legendary Stan Sakai. Featuring some top-notch narratives, impressive character inclusions and some eye-popping artwork, Shades of Death was an exciting and captivating read. I loved every second that I spend reading this volume, and this eighth volume gets another five-star rating from me.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 5: Lone Goat and Kid by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Lone Goat and Kid Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – January 1992)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Five

Length: 142 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.

In this latest Throwback Thursday I once again check out another early volume of the excellent Usagi Yojimbo series, which I have been reviewing over the last couple of weeks. For this review, I am looking at the fifth volume, Lone Goat and Kid. Lone Goat and Kid was first released in 1992 by Fantagraphics Books and contains issues #19-24 of the Usagi Yojimbo series.

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This fifth volume of Usagi Yojimbo once again sees series protagonist, the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, traverse a feudal Japanese landscape populated solely with anthropomorphised animals. This volume follows on right after the chaotic events of the fourth volume, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, and contains five new stories across six issues. This is an interesting entry in the series, particularly as it is the first volume to barely feature any of the previously introduced recurring characters aside from Usagi (a huge departure from the last volume, which contained a number of recurring characters coming together and teaming up). Instead, Sakai takes the time to introduce a bunch of new characters and scenarios across the volume’s five separate stories. Unsurprisingly, I really liked this fifth volume of Usagi Yojimbo, especially as Sakai manages come up with some fantastic and exceedingly enjoyable tales.

The first story featured within this volume is titled Frost & Fire, and it is a tragic story with undertones of forbidden love and class struggle. In this story, Usagi is hired by the cold and proper widow of a samurai to travel to the place of her husband’s death and retrieve his swords. Upon arriving at the small village where the samurai died, Usagi discovers that the swords are in the possession of the dead man’s lover, a poor peasant girl, who wishes to keep them as a remembrance of the man she loved. Unwilling to take the swords by force, Usagi leaves, but the peasant girl’s greedy brother has other plans for the swords.

This was a rather heartfelt first story for the volume, and it contains some great underlying elements to it. Much of the story revolves around a forbidden romance between a samurai and a peasant girl who wanted to be together but were unable to due to class differences. This was a rather intriguing central element for this story, and you can’t help but feel for the poor peasant girl, especially after meeting the samurai’s harsh and honourable widow in the opening pages. There is also examination of the evils of greed and avarice, as several of the side characters attempt to deceive and murder in order to get a quick payday. Luckily, their greed proves to be their undoing, as karma quickly strikes throughout the course of the story. There are some great scenes in this story, including one sequence where Usagi stares down the peasant girl when she refuses to give up the swords, “You know I can just take them from you”, before ultimately backing down and refusing to force her to give them up. I also liked a scene later in the book where the brother’s greed proves to be his undoing, as not only does Usagi appear behind him at one point like a vengeful spirit, but he is then ironically attacked by his “friends”, who are jealous of the wealth he achieved because of his bad actions, and whose mindset mirrors that of the brother. All of this makes for a great first entry for this volume, and I really enjoyed the amazing and captivating story that Sakai came up with.

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The next story is a rather unique entry called A Kite Story, which I have a particular love for. A Kite Story is actually broken up into four distinctive parts, each of which focuses on a different character participating in a famous kite festival. The first part, called The Kite Maker’s Story, follows a kite maker, Tatsusaburo, in the lead up to the festival. This part of the story contains no dialogue, but instead features a first-person narration from Tatsusaburo that overlays the drawings. This narration explains how he gathers the resources for his kites and the various processes he goes through to craft them together. It particularly focuses on the work he puts into creating an odako, a giant kite that he and a team of handlers hope to fly. The story then jumps to its second distinctive part, called The Gambler’s Tale, which follows the crook Hatsu and his gang of itinerant gamblers as they work the crowds gathering for the kite festival. This part starts off with some first-person narration from Hatsu and explores how he and his gang set up a rigged game of dice. This part ends its narration on the second page, when Usagi arrives on the scene and it becomes purely dialogue driven after that. Usagi, upon noticing the game, gets involved and is able to prove the gamblers are cheating (thanks to some fancy sword work), which sees not only the crooked gamblers run out of town but also those gamblers who were running fair games, and who are none too pleased with how they have been treated. This then moves to the third part of the story, called The Ronin’s Tale, which is nearly entirely dialogue driven, with only a small bit of narration at the front. Usagi deals with some of the players from the first two parts of the book, as he is unfairly blamed by the cheating gamblers in The Gambler’s Tale as the source of all the trouble to the honest gamblers. This sees Usagi have to make a rather quick and unconventional exit from the festival, which quickly breaks down into chaos. The story then concludes with a quick two-page final part, called The Kite Maker’s Tale II, which follows Tatsusaburo again and serves as an epilogue to the whole story.

I really liked A Kite Story, as Sakai did a really good job blending together a couple of distinctive narratives into one fantastic story. I particularly enjoyed the fascinating first part of this story and I always love it when Sakai uses his stories to explore certain unique Japanese cultural elements and industries. For this one, the author presents the reader with an amazing examination of the traditional kite-making process, and I loved seeing the process explained by the titular kite maker. This part of the story blends in surprisingly well with the other sections of A Kite Story, and I was impressed with how Sakai was able to turn these seeming separate and disparate tales into a complete narrative that is both entertaining and informative. Sakai also produces some amazing artwork in this story, from the giant kite to the visually impressive and detailed crowd scenes, and this is easily one of the more innovative stories that Sakai has come up with.

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The third story is the action-packed spectacular, Blood Wings, which Sakai tells over two issues. Late one night, Usagi is wandering along the road when he comes upon a dying peasant. The peasant’s last words are a mysterious warning about whatever killed him, “wings of blood”. Travelling to a nearby village, he finds a settlement living in terror, completely cut off from the outside world. They are being kept prisoner by a new and dangerous group of ninja, the Komori Ninja Clan, killer flying bats. The Komori Ninja were accidently discovered by the villagers as they prepared to ambush a shipment from a nearby goldmine and the ninja are now keeping them prisoner while they execute their attack. Knowing that the ninja will not leave the villagers alive as witnesses after the heist, Usagi attempts to break out and warn the goldmine, and when that fails, he leads the villagers in a spirited defence of their home.

Blood Wings was a fantastic and exciting story that serves as an excellent set piece for the middle of this volume. This third story is an impressive read that not only introduces a notable new group of antagonists, but it also contains some rather good action sequences. The Komori Ninja prove to be a great group of villains, and I really liked the character design that Sakai came up for them, as they fly around with sword blades attached to their wings, cutting through anyone and anything they encounter. The highlight of this story has to be the thrilling action sequences between Usagi and this new foe, who are able to outmatch the protagonist with their unique combat style. This all culminates in an extended battle sequence which sees a swordless Usagi defending the village with a force of farmers. This is probably the fastest-paced story in the volume, and Sakai comes up with an awesome narrative for it. This is also the entry in this volume that is most tied into the overarching Usagi Yojimbo world, as the Komori Ninja are revealed to be working for Lord Hikiji and are seeking to replace the Neko Ninja. This story also contains my favourite joke in the whole volume, as only Saki would have a guard yell out, “Holy flying furball! It’s Bats, man!” as the Komori Ninja descend.

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The fourth story is an elaborate and compelling entry titled The Way of the Samurai. This story sees Usagi intervene when a gang of bandits (including a very cool-looking walrus samurai), attack a messenger, and is directed to seek out the magistrate of the local town. Arriving at the town, Usagi is amazed to discover that the magistrate is a famed former general Oyaneko, whose battles and tactics Usagi idolises. Staying in the general’s house for a night, he learns that Oyaneko was a loyal retainer to the land’s former lord but was cast aside when the lord’s brash young son came to power. Now regulated to the role as a simple administrator and slowly dying of a disease, Oyaneko is discontent with his life, and, after meeting an honourable and skilled Usagi, challenges him to a duel to the death, “The way of the Samurai is found in death”.

This fourth entry in the volume is a moving tale that the author uses to explore the complexity of the samurai code of duty, loyalty and service. I really liked the intricate story that Sakai weaved around the characters of Usagi and Oyaneko, and Oyaneko’s story is particularly tragic and fascinating. This entire story is set up really well, with Usagi encountering Oyankeo, the two gaining a mutual respect for the other, learning about Oyankeo’s past and motivations, before the emotionally charged duel at the end. Sakai did a fantastic job illustrating the stress and emotion surrounding this final duel with his epic drawings, and the end result was really touching. I think this is one of the best written stories in the entire volume, and it becomes quite an emotional ride for the reader in the end.

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That leaves us with the fifth and final story in this volume, which shares the same name as the overall volume, Lone Goat and Kid. This story focuses on the characters of Yagi and Gorogoro, the titular Lone Goat and Kid. Years ago, Yagi served the same lord as Oyaneko. However, when their old lord died, Yagi was falsely accused of a crime by the new lord’s corrupt advisors and forced out of his service. Yagi and his son Gorogoro now work as Lone Goat and Kid, assassins for hire who many believe now travel the road to hell. The two assassins are also constantly targeted by their former lords’ samurai and bounty hunters sent after them by the corrupt advisors who framed them. As part of their latest attempt to kill Yagi and Gorogoro, these advisors use a proxy to hire the Lone Goat and Kid to assassinate Usagi, who they believe may be able to defeat the infamous assassin. When they meet, Yagi and Usagi engage in a brutal fight to the death, with the corrupt lord’s forces waiting to ambush the winner.

This was another awesome story filled with epic duels, a massive battle sequence, some superb artwork featuring Japan’s exquisite landscape, and a fun narrative packed full of deceit and conspiracy. The titular Lone Goat and Kid are a rather cool adaptation of the iconic Japanese fiction duo, Lone Wolf and Cub. Lone Wolf and Cub was a manga series back in the 1970s that followed a samurai assassin and his child as they travel feudal Japan searching for vengeance. This series has inspired several movies and a television show, and many different pieces of fiction have paid homage to them over the years, from The Mandalorian to Bob’s Burgers. Heck, Rick and Morty literally just did an anime homage to them last week on YouTube. Sakai’s versions of the characters are rather good, and they become fun recurring characters within the Usagi Yojimbo series. I loved how Sakai came up with some fantastic and unique character designs for the two assassins, turning them into goats rather than wolves (which was a nice touch, especially as the name “kid” has that fun double meaning), and providing them with a different backstory. However, there are some excellent similarities, such as the father’s skill with the blade, the desire to take down conspirators who wronged them and the baby carriage the son travels in, equipped with all manner of hidden weapons and blades. The character of Yagi, the Lone Goat, is particularly intense, and is almost demonic in his attitudes and persona, while still maintaining a samurai’s sense of honour. I was also really impressed with the battle sequences that featured in the last half of this story, and I liked how Sakai went from an elaborate one-on-one duel, to a mass fight against multiple opponents. All of this leads to another excellent story in this volume, which I really enjoyed reading.

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This fifth volume of Usagi Yojimbo, Lone Goat and Kid, was another incredible and powerful addition to the series, and I think Stan Sakai did another amazing job with this volume. Featuring five fantastic stories that contained Sakai’s usual complex narratives, iconic artwork and compelling underlying themes, Lone Goat and Kid gets another five-star rating from me, and it is really worth checking out.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – September 1991)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Four

Length: 179 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 slightly belated Throwback Thursday, I continue my trend of the last couple of weeks by checking out another volume of Stan Sakai’s ground-breaking and utterly addictive Usagi Yojimbo series with the fourth volume, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy. Reviewing all these Usagi Yojimbo books has proven to be a lot of fun, and I am really glad that I have been able to show off my love for this series (make sure to check out my reviews for volumes One, Two and Three). The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is another excellent early volume in this long-running series, which features a fantastic full-volume-length story.

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A storm is brewing throughout feudal Japan, as war and revolution against the Shogun lie just beyond the horizon. In his fortress, the ambitious and dastardly Lord Tamakuro has been plotting. Despite appearing to be a loyal supporter of the powerful Lord Hikiji, Tamakuro has his own plans to take control of the country and rule as Shogun, utilising an army of ronin armed with teppo, black powder guns imported from the barbarian lands outside of Japan.

However, despite his best attempts at discretion, Lord Tamakuro’s actions have not gone unnoticed. His neighbour, Lord Noriyuki, has sent his trusted advisor and bodyguard, Tomoe, to investigate Tamakuro’s castle, where she discovers the hidden armaments he is planning to use in his upcoming revolution. At the same time, Lord Hikiji, suspicious of Tamakuro’s true loyalties, has sent the notorious Neko Ninja clan to infiltrate his castle. When both Tomoe and the Neko Ninja are discovered, Tamakuro makes ready for war against all his opponents.

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Into this vast conspiracy walks the wandering ronin Miyamoto Usagi. A friend to Lord Noriyuki and Tomoe, Usagi witnesses Tomoe being captured and rushes to Tamakuro’s castle to save her. Despite his best efforts, Usagi finds himself outmatched by the powerful forces Tamakuro has pulled together. His only chance at saving his friend and averting a civil war is to team up with the Neko Ninja, a group he his fought many times in the past. Can Usagi and his new allies succeed, or will Tamakuro’s greed engulf the entire country? And what role will blind swordspig Zato-Ino and the bounty hunter Gennosuke play in the final battle?

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is an outstanding and highly enjoyable comic that I have a huge amount of love for. Containing issues #13-18 of the Fantagraphics Books run of the Usagi Yojimbo series, this fourth volume is broken down into seven separate chapters. It is a major early edition in the series, as it contains a massive and wide-reaching story. This is the first storyline that takes up an entire volume (several notable stories do this later, such as the two Grasscutter volumes and the 33rd volume, The Hidden), and it presents the reader with an epic tale of war, friendship, honour, loyalty and uneasy alliances, while featuring a number of the best Usagi Yojimbo characters.

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The entire story contained within this fourth volume is quite spectacular and comes with minimal build-up from the Usagi Yojimbo issues that preceded this volume. Sakai does an amazing job introducing the relevant plot and new key players surrounding this storyline, and then telling a complex and detailed narrative within the confines of this one volume. In addition to the main conspiracy storyline, the story follows several different character-based storylines, all of which come together for one big epic confrontation. I really enjoyed where Sakai took the plot of this volume, and I liked how the story was broken up into several distinctive chunks defined by the respective chapter (the chapter names, which refer to parts of a storm, identify the intensity and importance of each chapter). The entire story is rather self-contained, and I think that the author did a great job wrapping it up and giving it several satisfying conclusions.

Like many of the Usagi Yojimbo issues out there, the true heart of The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy’s story is the outstanding characters, many of whom have appeared in prior issues in the series. Usagi once again accidently finds himself in the midst of a vast conspiracy and must risk everything to save his friend and stop a war. If I am going to be honest, Usagi has one of the weaker arcs in this volume, with several of the side characters getting much more interesting storylines and more development. That being said, parts of Usagi’s story are fairly intriguing, such as when he manages to infiltrate Lord Tamakuro’s castle as a new retainer in order to rescue Tomoe, or his guilt-ridden dream sequence where his regret over his perceived failure manifests itself as a series of ghosts and monsters. Usagi also has the fun job of recruiting reluctant and unusual allies to his cause, such as the Neko Ninja or his old foe Zato-Ino. Indeed, his whole storyline is similar to classic Japanese films such as The Seven Samurai (the inspiration for The Magnificent Seven) or The Hidden Fortress (which served as an inspiration for the first Star Wars movie), as he recruits or forms alliances with various people in order to take down an evil opponent (in a castle, no less, for The Hidden Fortress fans). He also has some rather fantastic interactions with several different characters throughout the volume, and it results in some major developments in his relationships with them.

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While Usagi’s storyline is quite enjoyable, several returning supporting characters also have some substantial and impressive arcs throughout this book, and I really loved the way in which Sakai brings back a number of key characters from earlier issues in the series. The best character in this entire volume is the blind swordspig, Zato-Ino. Both of Ino’s previous storylines have been extremely impressive, so it was great to see him return again for another volume. Ino, who had already found some measure of peace thanks to his new companion, the tokage lizard Spot, finds some major redemption in The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, and he easily has the most character development. An entire chapter of this volume is dedicated to the eventual fate of Ino, and it was fantastic to see him finally find what he has been desperately searching for, even if he has to lose his only friend along the way. The rhino bounty hunter, Gennosuke, once again proves himself to be a fun and endearing character throughout this volume. Initially involved in a rather humorous hunt for Ino’s bounty, he finds himself working with him to fight Lord Tamakuro’s forces, although he always intends to betray him. However, Ino’s heroic actions end up changing his mind, and he once again reveals his hidden good nature by secretly assisting Ino and selflessly helping him. This is also the volume where Gen loses his horn, with all future versions of him appearing with just a small stump on his nose. His cut-off horn is quite an iconic look for the character, and after seeing him without out for all these years in later volumes, his earlier horned appearance just looks odd.

Recurring female samurai, Tomoe, also has an extremely strong appearance in The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, as she finds herself captured within Lord Tamakuro’s castle quite early in the volume and is forced to resist his abuses. Tomoe has some great dialogue with Usagi about how her mission and her loyalty to Lord Noriyuki are more important than her own life, and she has to talk Usagi into abandoning her for the greater good. She also has a rather fantastic sequence where she manages to remain hidden in the fortress, right after she rides through various parts of the interior on a horse. I also really liked Shingen, the Neko Ninja chief who Usagi teams up within this volume. Shingen previously appeared in the Volume 3 story, The Shogun’s Gift, where he formed a great rivalry with Usagi. While the two clash in this volume, they eventually reach a level of mutual respect and work together for the greater good. Shingen gains multiple dimensions as a character in this volume, and it was interesting to see his discussion with Usagi about honour, and how even ninja have a code of duty. His story comes to a fantastic close towards the end of the volume, but Sakai really made him one of the standout characters of the volume: “A ninja’s duty in life is death!”

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In addition to the excellent inclusion of several amazing returning characters, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy also featured a couple of terrific new characters, who really helped bring this story together. The evil Lord Tamakuro was a really good villain for this volume, and Sakai did a fantastic job of showing of his greed, brutality and utter disregard for anything except his own power. Needless to say, he was a rather vile character who the reader cannot help but dislike, making his eventual comeuppance all the sweeter. The best new character in this volume has to be the leader of Tamakuro’s samurai army, Captain Torame. Torame is a loyal and capable warrior, who is forced to serve an evil lord who takes him for granted. He forms a bond with Usagi when the protagonist infiltrates the fortress under the guise of a mercenary ronin, and they have several discussions about bushido, loyalty and the ways in which a samurai must serve his lord. Usagi’s subsequent betrayal in order to rescue Tomoe enrages Torame, who takes it as a personal afront. This leads to a fantastic duel later in the volume, although not before Usagi and Torame have one final discussion, in which Usagi attempts to talk Torame into abandoning Tamakuro. Torame however refuses, as his strict adherence to the samurai code forbids him betraying his lord, even if it is clear he disagrees with Tamakuro’s plans:

“is samurai honour so important?”

“Yes”.

The result of the quick and brutal duel that follows visibly saddens Usagi, who was once again forced to fight a man he respected. This volume also sees the brief introduction of the Neko Ninja Chizu, a major recurring character in later volumes of the series, whose one scene in this book was rather fun.

The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is an extremely action-packed volume that actually features some of the best action scenes in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series. I absolutely loved all the action sequences in this book, as Sakai did an incredible job illustrating them and bringing the fights to life. The main action set piece of this volume has to be the assault on Lord Tamakuro’s fortress by Usagi, Ino, Gen, Shingen and a force of Neko Ninja armed with explosives, as they attempt to rescue Tomoe and put an end to Tamakuro’s ambitions. This entire extended action sequence is exceedingly impressive, and it was really cool to see all the characters engage in a massive battle throughout a castle complex. I also have to say how incredibly awesome it was to see a force of ninja face off against an army of samurai, predominately armed with European muskets. This made for some incredible fight scenes, all of which I really and truly loved. I also have to highlight a couple of duel sequences that occurred earlier in the volume. The first of this was a great fight between Usagi and Shingen, as the two face off against each other in a quick fight to the death. This duel focuses on the extreme clash of styles between the two, as Usagi had to contend with all manner of traps and ambushes before he got anywhere near this foe. However, this duel pales in comparison to the awesome fight between Ino and Gen that occurred towards the middle of the volume. This two engage in an incredible and beautifully drawn fight that lasted several pages. This fight did a fantastic job showing of their respective skills with the sword, and this fight helps feed into Sakai’s love for classic Japanese films, as this duel was essentially Zatoichi vs Yojimbo. This volume featured some first-rate action, which is really worth checking out.

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In addition to the extremely well-drawn action sequences, Sakai has filled this volume with some truly incredibly examples of his artistic style. This volume features so many impressive and iconic Japanese buildings, landscapes, traditional outfits and other aspects of the country, that the reader can’t help but feel they have been transported back to feudal Japan. I particularly loved the way he included a number of stormy backgrounds throughout this volume. The continued artistic rendering of rain, clouds, mud, wind and storms throughout the entirety of The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy really helped to set the mood of the entire volume, and I loved how the intensity of the storm seemed to match the volume’s story. I really enjoyed how a number of pages were streaked with massive bolts of lightning across cloudy or darkened skies, and several scenes, particularly the duel between Ino and Gen, were majorly enhanced by this artistic inclusion. As usual, this art does an amazing job backing up the volume’s fantastic stories, and I was once again left stunned by Sakai’s obvious and incredible artistic talent.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, is another exceptional and captivating comic which I am awarding a full five-star rating. Sakai is a truly incredible writer and artist, and this fourth volume did a fantastic job highlighting his talents for both. Not only does this volume feature some amazing and distinctive drawings, but it also contains an outstanding and enjoyable story backed up by some awesome characters. Sakai did an awesome job bringing together several key recurring characters into a compelling and well-written narrative, which I once again fell in love with. The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is really worth checking out, and is a must read for fans of the masterpiece that is the Usagi Yojimbo series.

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Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 3: The Wanderer’s Road by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Wanderer's Road Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 17 January 1989)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Three

Length: 146 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.

In this week’s Throwback Thursday, I check out the third volume of the outstanding Usagi Yojimbo comic book series, The Wanderer’s Road. I was originally planning to save this one until next week, but I just watched some episodes of the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated show today that featured Usagi, and so inspiration struck once again.

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The third volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series follows on from the events of the second volume, Samurai, and features several standalone adventures as the series’ titular protagonist, Miyamoto Usagi, continues to wander around this alternate version of Feudal Japan. The Wanderer’s Road features six first-rate and deeply enjoyable stories which were originally contained within issues #7 – 12 of the Fantagraphics Books’ Usagi Yojimbo series. It also contains a short bonus story from the Turtle Soup comic project which features a very special guest star.

The first of the stories featured within The Wanderer’s Road is The Tower. This story revolves around a hungry tokage lizard (the dinosaur-like lizards that infest Usagi’s world), who finds himself in a spot of bother and is chased up a tower by an angry shopkeeper, who refuses to let it down. Usagi, arriving upon the scene, decides to intervene, and attempts to rescue the tokage; however, thanks to the vindictive shopkeeper, he finds himself also trapped atop the tower. Attempting to bond with the tokage, who he names Spot, Usagi endures the conditions on the tower, while enraging the shopkeeper even more, until the story comes to a crashing end. The Tower was a fantastic start to this third volume, and it features a rather enjoyable and fun story. While it is perhaps the weakest story in this volume, only by dint of how incredible the other issues featured in The Wanderer’s Road are, it was still an excellent entry in this series, and served as a great introduction to a fun recurring character in Spot. The Tower contains some funny moments, from the way Usagi inadvertently keeps messing with the bullying shopkeeper on the ground, to the tiny turtle with a ninja mask that Sakai hides away in one of the crowd shots. All of this results in a fantastic story which I rather enjoyed.

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For the second story in this volume, A Mother’s Love, we go from a comedy to a tragedy. In this story, Usagi and his new companion Spot befriend an old woman on the road and accompany her back to town. Once in town, it is revealed the that old woman is the mother of a ruthless moneylender whose thugs have been terrorising the populace. After a tense night at the moneylender’s house, the old lady begs Usagi to kill her son, as she cannot bear to see the evil creature that he has turned into. While Usagi refuses her request, he is soon forced into a fight with the moneylender’s men. However, it is revealed that the old woman has manipulated the guards into attacking Usagi so that she can use the distraction to kill her son herself. When Usagi and Spot discover this, the old woman beseeches a stunned Usagi to kill her and finally put her out of her misery. A Mother’s Love is an incredible and heartbreaking story, which puts Usagi in a no-win situation. The last three pages of the books have to be one of the most heartbreaking and tragic sequence in the entire series. The teary old woman sing a lullaby as she cradles her dead son in her arms while a heartbroken and defeated Usagi watches on is extremely sad. The way that the old woman’s lullaby suddenly ends heavily implies that Usagi fulfilled the old woman’s wish and killed her. His final statement, “I do pray the Gods will be merciful…. Mother” as his despondently leaves the moneylender’s house, accompanied by Spot’s mournful cry are a sad way to end this story, but it makes for one heck of a captivating sequence. Other highlights of this book include Usagi’s large-scale fight against an army of bodyguards, the fun inclusion of Spot in several of this fights (little dude is lethal with his tail), and a stare-down scene between Usagi and the moneylender, which highlighted how intimidating Usagi can be when he wants to. All in all, a perfect and compelling story which shows just how amazing Usagi Yojimbo can be.

The next story in this volume, Return of the Blind Swordspig, is another masterpiece from Sakai, which features another outing from one of the best characters from Usagi Yojimbo, Zato-Ino, who was first introduced in The Ronin. This story sees the blind outlaw Zato-Ino travelling the road, still pursued by assassins and bounty hunters. Ambushed in the woods once again, Ino is able to fight off his attackers thanks to a timely warning from Spot, who had briefly walked away from Usagi. While Spot and Ino part ways, Ino soon catches up with Usagi, who cut off Ino’s nose the last time they met (he’s got a wooden nose in this book, it’s a transplant!). Ino follows Usagi to a nearby temple, where he is able to gain an advantage over Usagi in the dark as the two engage in an epic duel. Usagi’s life is spared only by the intervention of Spot, who stands between them, forcing Ino to back down, envious of the friendship Usagi is blessed with. Realising that the two souls have much in common, Usagi sends Spot to accompany Ino on his journey to find peace, and the two wonder off as friends.

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Return of the Blind Swordspig is another fantastic story that shows some complex and powerful character work. Sakai’s portrayal of Ino as a tortured and hate-filled loner is once again tragic and very moving, and it was fantastic to see him finally find a true friend and companion, something he has always desired. The way that Ino changes his travel songs from ballads about walking the roads alone to a melody about how he is grateful to have a companion is telling, and Usagi’s parting utterance of “Have a good life… both of you” matches the audience’s thoughts for these two great supporting characters. While the best thing about Return of Blind Swordspig is the continued examination of Ino’s complex personality and the progression of his character arc, I also really need to highlight the incredible swordfight in the dark between Ino and Usagi. Not only is this amazingly drawn, but the start of the duel where Ino slices the candle in half once again shows off Sakai’s love for classic Japanese movies. Slicing a candle to make a room dark is the trademark move of Zatoichi, the movie character that Ino in based upon, and Sakai backs this up by having Ino say “Now we’re both blind, Usagi” which is very similar to what Zatoichi says in these circumstances. All in all, this is an outstanding entry that really shows of Sakai’s ability to weave a powerful narrative around some exceptional characters.

 

The fourth story in this volume is Blade of the Gods, which introduces readers to the incredible antagonist Jei. Jei is a skilled and murderous spear-wielding samurai who wanders the land killing those he deems evil in the name of the Gods (spoiler: pretty much everyone is evil in Jei’s eyes). Encountering Usagi one night in a peasant’s hut (it is heavily implied that Jei killed the peasant before Usagi showed up), Jei suddenly declares Usagi to be evil and they engage in a brutal fight to the death both inside and outside the hut. Usagi is only saved by a blast of lighting and is left wondering if Jei was a madman or a true emissary of the gods. This was a compelling and fantastic story, which features one of the best fight sequences in the entire volume. The true highlight of this story is the introduction of Jei, who is easily one of the best characters in the entire Usagi Yojimbo universe. Jei is probably the most dangerous antagonist so far encountered in the Usagi Yojimbo series (Lord Hijiki really hasn’t revealed himself too much yet), and he serves as a wonderful recurring character. Sakai did an excellent job introducing Jei in this story, showing off his motivations, his style and the fact that he is a killer without peer and a fighter on par with Usagi. The character design for this villain is really striking, from his black-bladed spear to his pure white eyes and deranged wolf smile. I also liked the way that the reader is left wondering whether he is actually supernatural in origin or just a crazy person. While this is revealed in later volumes, the mystery of him is an exciting feature for the early Usagi Yojimbo stories that he appears in. I really love the character of Jei, who is actually based on Jason from the Friday the 13th movies (fun fact: when you use the Japanese honorific his name, Jei-san, becomes a pun on Jason), and I think that this was an excellent first appearance for him.

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The next story in The Wanderer’s Road is the fun entry, The Tea Cup. The Tea Cup sees the return of the bounty hunter Gen, who Usagi encounters on the road in the midst of a fight. Gen is escorting a precious tea cup to a tea master and must defend it from assassins who are trying to steal it. Accompanying Gen, Usagi helps him defend the cup with the samurai encountering a number of complications, including a band of killers, two orphaned children and the bad luck that follows Usagi and Gen when they team up. This was easily the funniest story in the entire book, thanks to the inclusion of Gen. Usagi and Gen have a hilarious relationship which is always fun to see, and they play off each other really well. This includes a number of running jokes from the previous Gen stories, the final entry in their game of sticking the other person with the lunch bill (which doesn’t go the way they planned this time) and several other hilarious scenes, including one joke that takes the entire story to come to fruition (he really was slow of mind). In this story, you get to see a bit of Gen’s softer side and the fact that, despite his rough exterior, deep down he is a good and caring person. Sakai also fills this story with a number of fantastic references to the cartoon, Groo the Wanderer, which Sakai previously did the lettering on, including a unique stylised poem at the start of the story, a fun imitation of Groo “Gen does what Gen does best”, and even cameo appearances from Sakai, Sergio Aragonés and the rest of the creative team behind Groo the Wanderer. All of this makes for a hilarious and entertaining tale, which is going to produce quite a few laughs for readers.

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The final full story in this volume is The Shogun’s Gift, which sees Usagi facing off against a Neko Ninja who has stolen a valuable sword from his friends Noriyuki and Tomeo of the Geishu Clan. This turned into quite an action packed and clever game of cat and rabbit (I mean cat and mouse), as Usagi puts on a great dumb samurai act to fool the ninja, Shingen. It was entertaining to watch Usagi continually encountering Shingen, especially as the ninja got more and more enraged each time Usagi appeared and casually poked holes in his story. The Shogun’s Gift ends with a great fight sequence and a rather clever bit of trickery from Usagi, which serves to turn this into a cool and enjoyable tale. I liked the introduction of Shingen, who has a big role in a future volume, and the scene where he is able to conceal the fact that he is hidden in the ceiling even after being stabbed is pretty badass. I also think that this volume did need a story that looked at the larger political picture of this world, including the nefarious plans of Lord Hikiji and the Neko Ninja, and it was good to see some more of that. Overall, this proved to be another phenomenal entry in this volume, and it served as a great concluding main story.

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In addition to all the big stories mentioned above, The Wanderer’s Road also contained the short bonus story, Turtle Soup and Rabbit Stew. This short story originally appeared in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comic project, Turtle Soup, and features the first encounter between Usagi and one of the turtles, in this case Leonardo. In this comical tale, Leonardo suddenly lands in Usagi’s realm and is immediately attacked by a band of ronin, while at the same time just down the road, Usagi is attacked by a group of Neko Ninja, the two fights join into one brawl, where Usagi and Leo are the only survivors. Upon seeing each other, the two assume that the other is part of the band that initially attacked them, and they run at each other to engage in battle, only for Leo to be dragged back to his Earth. This of course doesn’t stop the momentum they built up charging at each other, and it results in chaos and injury on both worlds. This was an exceedingly funny first meeting between these iconic comic characters, and this entire story is boundlessly amusing, even with its shorter size.

As you can see from my passionate descriptions above, each of the stories featured in this volume is an outstanding entry in its own right, and I deeply enjoyed each of them. I honestly cannot tell you which story in this volume was my favourite, as three in particular were quite exceptional. Sakai did a masterful job with each of these stories, and I really enjoyed how they are presented in this volume. I think that The Wanderer’s Road contains an excellent blend of stories, which range from the tragic, the dramatic and the comedic, and each of them contains some amazing examples of Sakai’s trademark artistic skill. I also think that having a volume made up entirely of shorter standalone stories also works really well, especially as Volume 3 falls between two other volumes made up of larger, multi-issue stories. The Wanderer’s Road gets another five-star rating from me, and I look forward to reviewing more Usagi Yojimbo volumes in the near future.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 2: Samurai

Usagi Yojimbo Samurai Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1989)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Two

Length: 141 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After the fun that I had reviewing the first volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, The Ronin, last week, I decided to follow it up with a review of the second volume in the series, Samurai. Samurai is an impressive second outing from author and artist Stan Sakai, which does an amazing job continuing his epic series after the introductory stories contained within the first volume.

After his adventures in the first volume, the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi has continued on his wandering ways. However, his latest journey quickly turns to violence when he encounters another ronin on the road. Without a word being spoken, both samurai engage in a swift and brutal duel to the death, in which Usagi is the winner. The only witness to the duel is the bounty hunter Gennosuke, who inquires into the origin of the apparent feud between Usagi and his recently deceased opponent. Usagi reveals that the dead samurai was named Gunichi and Usagi had much cause to kill him.

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Regaling Gen with his tale as they travel together, Usagi reveals that the origins of this feud goes all the way back to his childhood and his tutorage under the unusual and skilled sword master Katsuichi. This tale follows Usagi as he becomes a young samurai in the services of his Lord Mifune, where he was comrade to Gunichi, and leads all the way to the fateful battle of Adachigahara Plain and the day that Usagi became a masterless samurai.

Back in the present, Usagi continues his adventures across the land, encountering many different people and unusual creatures. Watch him fight against a kappa, help defend a village of silk merchants against a roving group of bandits and witness his weird meeting with a mysterious and powerful little monster who is going to be a big somebody one day.

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Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 2: Samurai, is an amazing and fantastic volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, which does an outstanding job continuing the story after the events portrayed in The Ronin. This second volume contains the first six issues of the actual Usagi Yojimbo series, and I really enjoyed the excellent adventures that are contained within these issues. The volume is broken down into four separate stories, the expanded story Samurai, as well as three stories which are significantly shorter. Each of these stories are really entertaining, and they all come together to create an impressive and incredible total volume of comics which I had a fantastic time reading.

The first story in this volume is also titled Samurai, and it is the major story contained within the Samurai volume. Running for 92 pages, this was one of Sakai’s first expanded Usagi Yojimbo stories, and I think it is one of his better ones. Samurai contains a captivating and exciting narrative that not only continues Usagi’s story in the present but which also goes back and explores much of the character’s past. This is shown through a lengthy flashback about Usagi’s childhood, his tutorage under the skilled samurai Katsuichi, his first meeting with Gunichi, their service under Lord Mifune, the events that led to Mifune’s war with the evil Lord Hikiji and the terrible final battle which cost Usagi his lord.

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Sakai comes up with an excellent background for Usagi in this story, and it was great to see how he expanded on some of the ideas and plot points that were featured within the first volume’s early stories. Even after all these years, the flashback contained with Samurai is still the definitive history of the character’s early days, although it has been expanded on several times in future volumes. This background is really intriguing, and I think that Sakai tells an amazing story, showing of Usagi’s unique training, his early triumphs including obtaining his swords, his service with Lord Mifune and then an expanded version of the battle of Adachigahara Plain, which has been briefly shown in the previous book. Woven into this is the tale of Usagi’s friendship with his fellow Mifune retainer, Gunichi, and the fateful day in their relationship that will cause Usagi to kill him the next time they meet. Sakai paces this entire extended story out well, and it turns into quite a complete and intriguing narrative. I like that it also added a lot more depth to the love triangle between Usagi, Mariko and Kenichi, and the scenes where Usagi and Kenichi put aside their differences for the first time for the sake of Mariko is great, and helps show that Kenichi is not a bad guy, he’s just occasionally blinded by his jealousy of Usagi.

I personally really enjoyed the scenes that featured Usagi and his sensei Katsuichi, the reclusive swords master. Their entire arc is really fun, and I love a good training sequence. Katsuichi is your typical wise and eccentric old hermit master who takes the young and eager student with potential under his wing to make him a superior student. Despite coming off as an aloof and hard man, Katsuichi is actually a kindly master who is impressed by Usagi’s determination and spirit (he gives a sly smile at the start of the training period). Katsuichi has some really interesting training techniques, and it is interesting to see how Usagi developed the skills that have kept him alive in the dangerous world he lives in. I loved the menial tasks montage, which is very reminiscent of The Karate Kid. It was also fun to see Usagi get randomly hit with a bamboo stick until he learns to anticipate surprise attacks, and I liked how it helped explain Usagi’s seemingly supernatural ability to sense when he is being watched or in danger. Overall, this proved to be an excellent inclusion to the story, and Katsuichi was easily the best new character introduced in this volume.

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Another major highlight of this first story is the part set in the present, which sees Usagi once again reunited with Gen. Gen was one of the better characters featured in the first volume, so it was really good to see him reintroduced in Samurai, especially as it helps set him up as a major recurring character in the Usagi Yojimbo series. Throughout the story, Usagi and Gen form quite an amusing partnership, with Usagi acting the honourable Zen warrior, while Gen is the unapologetic and uncultured mercenary. The two play off each other extremely well, with their great repartee and jabs at each other, and it is fun to see Usagi come out his shell a lot more around his companion. Gen also proves to be an entertaining audience for Usagi’s story, and it was fun to see his reactions to Usagi’s life tale. This was especially true when Gen started to get really into the story, despite his feigned indifference, and overreacted to several key moments. This entire story ends on a rather heartfelt moment between the two, with Gen indicating he completely understands how Usagi felt when he lost his lord “the saddest day of a samurai’s life is the day he becomes a ronin. Some day I’ll tell you how I became masterless…” and Usagi hinting that he really does see Gen as a friend. I really enjoyed seeing these two characters back together again, and this story definitely serves as a much better basis for their friendship than their backstabbing adventures in the previous volume. I also have to say, the silent dual at the front of the book between Usagi and Gunichi is the tops, and you could not ask for a better start to a story than an unexplained and sudden fight to the death.

The next story featured in this volume is the short, horror-based story, Kappa. Wandering a desolate, swampy area, Usagi comes across a kappa, a Japanese water demon, who demands a toll to cross the marshes. While Usagi is able to pass, he must go back and try to save another traveller from the kappa, resulting in a desperate conflict. This is quite a good story, especially with the ghostly twist contained at the end. I really love that Sakai chooses to explore pieces of Japanese mythology like the kappa, and it was really interesting to see Usagi face off against one. There is also an extremely brutal and impressive fight sequence against the kappa featured within this comic, which was all manner of impressive.

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The third story in Samurai was called Zylla, and featured Usagi finding and befriending a mysterious creature hidden in the bushes, that he names Zylla, when he visits the hot springs. Zylla repays Usagi by saving him from some bandits using his fiery (one could even say atomic) breath and reveals itself as a large newborn bipedal lizard who Usagi speculates may be a god, “Are you a god, Zylla?”. This is a really fun short story in this volume, and it adds a fascinating new element to the world that Usagi Yojimbo is set in. It was also great to see Sakai continue to show off his love for Japanese culture by featuring baby Zylla, and he makes several humorous references to Zylla’s future work, such as how he should visit the big city at some point. All of this makes for an amusing entry in this volume and it had me smiling as I read it.

The final story was Silk Fair, which sees Usagi come to the aid of a silk worker, defending him from bandits. The worker takes him to his village, where Usagi eventually helps defend the village from a large bandit raid, after he deals with the silk works greedy administrator. This was a nice, short entry that showed a typical Usagi Yojimbo storyline of Usagi helping to defend the helpless again bandits. This was one of the first stories where Sakai explored a Japanese craft or industry, and while it does not go into as much detail as some of the later industry based stories (later volumes feature length depictions of things like sword crafting, seaweed farming, kite making and soy sauce production), it was still interesting to see. Silk Fair contained a good mixture of action and humour, and I especially enjoyed seeing the way Usagi managed to mess with the corrupt administrator and his cowardly bodyguard. There was also a rather unique battle sequence where Usagi and the silk workers are able to defeat the bandits with sewing needles and silk streamers. In the end, Silk Fair proved to be a strong and amazing story, and I felt that it was an extremely entertaining way to conclude this volume.

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Like with every volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, Stan Sakai’s artwork is once again a major and incredible highlight of Samurai. This second volume contains some fantastic examples of Sakai’s artistic talent, and it is clear that by the time he was working on the stories contained within Sakai had settled on his preferred designs for the various characters and landscapes featured, although further refinements did occur later down the track. This new character work is really impressive, and I liked how various new characters appeared, such as the warthog Gunichi and the lion based Katsuichi. I am also continually impressed with the way that Sakai can convey emotion and expression with his drawings, and you are constantly aware of what the various characters are thinking, just from seeing their faces. The various stories contained within Samurai featured some truly amazing and visually stunning landscape backgrounds, as Sakai continued his practice of showing off the beautiful scenery of Japan. Sakai also drew a number of impressive action sequences throughout the book, and he really got the hang of sketching out and showcasing the fast-paced and skilful fights that occurred between samurai. There are some impressive duel sequences throughout this volume, including the quick and sudden fight between Usagi and Gunichi at the start of the first story or the practice duel between Usagi and Kenichi which showed the ferocious fight between the two, which quickly ended with one strong strike from the obviously more skilled Usagi. Sakai also included several larger-scale battle sequences throughout the volume which really are something to behold. I particularly liked the major war sequence that showed the expanded battle of Adachigahara Plain. Sakai did an amazing job presenting the frenetic chaos of war and the explosive action that occurred with his art, and it was certainly a visual highlight of this volume.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 2: Samurai was an outstanding addition to the Usagi Yojimbo series, and it is one of my favourite volumes in this entire franchise. Stan Sakai presents a fantastic blend of character backstory, action, adventure, eye-catching art and clever humour in this volume, and the end result is a five-star comic which is really worth checking out. Thanks to the excellent background based main story, Samurai is a key volume in this series, making this book a must read. Samurai gets another five stars from me, and once again I have to strongly recommend this volume, and indeed the whole Usagi Yojimbo series, to anyone looking for an epic and enjoyable new series.

Throwback Thursday – Usagi Yojimbo – Vol 1: The Ronin by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Ronin Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1987)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book One

Length: 144 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.

We are now less than two months until the next amazing volume of Stan Sakai’s long running Usagi Yojimbo comic series, Bunraku and Other Stories, is released, and I am getting excited. This new volume is set to feature several brand new Usagi Yojimbo stories (including an extended story about a haunted puppet drama), but it is apparently also going to feature a look back at the very first Usagi story as part of an 35th anniversary special. For that reason, I thought that this would be an excellent time to go back and review volume one of the Usagi Yojmbo series, The Ronin, to serve as a good base for the upcoming review.

Usagi Yojimbo is a unique comic book series that Stan Sakai started back in 1984. It focuses on the adventures of Miyamoto Usagi, an anthropomorphic rabbit samurai who lives in a version of feudal Japan (early Edo period) completely populated with other anthropomorphic animals. Usagi is a ronin, a masterless samurai, who wanders the land on a warrior’s pilgrimage, helping those he encounters and occasionally working as a yojimbo (bodyguard) for hire. Throughout his journey he encounters all manner of friends and foes, including a number of creatures from Japanese folklore, and finds himself constantly drawn into the political plots of the land. This series is written and drawn in a more western comic/cartoon style rather than the Japanese magna style. However, the Usagi Yojimbo series is strongly inspired by Japanese history and culture, featuring a huge range of accurate depictions of historical events and cultural icons. This series is currently collected in 33 volumes from several different publishers, with each volume containing a number of different issues from the series. These issues are usually standalone adventures, although a number of longer storylines are continued through several issues or volumes.

I have been meaning to go back and review the first volume Usagi Yojimbo for a while now. The Usagi Yojimbo series is easily one of my favourite comic book series of all time, as Stan Sakai has created a truly epic and compelling series. While on paper a series following a rabbit samurai in a version of feudal Japan populated by other anthropomorphic animals does sound a bit ridiculous, these comics are anything but. Through a combination of outstanding storylines, complex characters, intense action, great uses of humour and an intriguing and compelling look at Japanese history and culture, Sakai has created a comic series that is extremely endearing and captivating. I have been a massive fan of this series for years, having started reading it when I was in high school (thank goodness for my surprisingly well-stocked public library) after I first saw the character in the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. I have previously reviewed the last two volumes of Usagi Yojimbo on my blog already (Volume 32: Mysteries and Volume 33: The Hidden), with Mysteries actually being the very first comic I ever reviewed. Both of these previous volumes received a five-star rating from me, which I have also awarded to this first volume.

Unlike the rest of the collected volumes, The Ronin doesn’t actually contain any issues from the Usagi Yojimbo series. Instead, it contains several earlier Usagi stories which were part of other publications, such as Albedo Anthropomorphics, Critters, Doomsday Squad and Usagi Yojimbo: Summer Special. All of these were collected together for the first time in 1987 into this volume (I have the 2007 reprint), and appear in chronological order. The Ronin contains 10 separate chapters of various lengths, each with their own story. These include:

  • The Goblin of Adachigahara: the very first story to feature Usagi, and the one that the upcoming Bunraku and Other Stories is going to revisit. This initial story features Usagi returning to the area near the battlefield of Adachigahara, where he lost his lord, Mifune, in a battle, forcing him to become a ronin. Seeking shelter in the hut of an old lady, he recounts his story of the battle to his host, including the betrayal of one his lord’s generals which cost them the battle. Later, Usagi battles a flesh-eating goblin, revealed to be not only the treacherous general but also the husband of his elderly host, and manages to defeat him, sparing the old lady who was going to allow him to be eaten. This was an excellent introduction to Usagi, as you got some vital information about his history, his status and his skill as a warrior. You also got a great look at his moral character, as he chooses to spare a woman who would have let him be eaten, and instead instructs her to perform funeral rights on the man who cost him everything.
  • Lone Rabbit and Child: this second story involves Usagi getting involved in the politics of the nation, as he comes to the aid of a young lord, Noriyuki, and his retainer the swordswoman Tomoe Ame. Noriyuki and Tomoe are being hunted by the agents of the evil lord Hikiji, who was also responsible for the death of Usagi’s previous lord years ago (it is later revealed he also killed Usagi’s father). Usagi agrees to escort them to safety, and they must contend with mercenaries, assassins and ninja on their quest. This is an amazing second outing, which expands on the world the series is set in, continues to show off Usagi’s skill, and sets up Hikiji as the main antagonist of the series (even if you see very little of him later on).
  • The Confession: This story follows on directly from the events of Lone Rabbit and Child, and features Usagi in the possession of a vital letter implicating Lord Hikiji in the attempt to kill Noriyuki. Usagi is ambushed by the Neko Ninja, who seek to reclaim the letter, leading to a prolonged and desperate fight in the woods. This proved to be an awesome follow-up to the previous story, which continued to highlight Usagi’s skills in combat and Sakai’s ability to drawn excellent, high-stakes fight scenes. It also showed just how nefarious an opponent Hikiji and his advisor Counsellor Hebi (a big terrifying snake) can be.
  • Bounty Hunter: Usagi is hired as a Yojimbo by the bounty hunter Gennosuke as he attempts to claim his latest bounty, the leaders of a local gang. Engaging the gang in a fight at a temple, Usagi and Gen are an effective team, eventually getting their targets, although their partnership ends on an interesting note. This was an entertaining story that served as a perfect introduction to a great character. Usagi and Gen have amazing chemistry together and Gen is an awesome side character. This is also one of the first stories to feature some more humour in the story, especially in the end, which turns out to fit in well with the overall feel of the series.
  • Horse Thief: Sakai features a lot more humour when Usagi, after interfering in a robbery by a gang of bandits, takes one of the bandit’s horses. He attempts to sell the horse in town, only to discover that it was stolen from the local magistrate, who chases him into the woods. Usagi’s problems only escalate from there, when he and his pursuers run into the bandits, prompting a massive battle in which Usagi is everyone’s enemy. The story has a great ending, steeped in irony which leaves Usagi and the reader laughing hysterically. I loved the author’s use of coincidence and bad fortune in this story, and it was fantastic to watch Usagi go from one bad situation to the next.
  • Village of Fear: This is a bit more of a horror story, as Usagi comes across a village held captive by a fearsome monster. This horror is compounded when it is revealed that the monster is a shapeshifter who has taken the form of one of the villagers. This was a relatively brief story, but it is set up and executed very well, with several great character moments, and there is even time for a quick Gone with the Wind
  • A Quiet Meal: This is another of the more humorous stories in the volume, which features Usagi trying to have a quiet meal in an inn. Unfortunately, a gang of rough gamblers are causing trouble, throwing the other patrons out and trying their luck with Usagi. Usagi quickly shows them the error of the ways with some extremely fancy sword work, which causes them to flee in terror. The most noticeable feature of this entry is the fact that Usagi doesn’t speak once during the entire issue (he’s trying to have a quiet meal), and it’s up to his body language and the other characters to tell the story. This works extremely well and really helps to uplift the overall humour of the story. The way in which he sees off the ruffians is absolutely fantastic, and their absolute fear and disbelief at his skill, “this one’s been filleted”, is just great.
  • Blind Swords-Pig: This is a somewhat sadder and more dramatic story which features Usagi encountering and quickly befriending the blind pig, Zato Ino, who is seeking a peaceful place to settle down. Ino, however, is an extremely skilled warrior and wanted outlaw. Constantly hunted for his bounty, he relies on his sword skills and his ability to ‘see’ with his sense of smell. When Usagi finds out his true identity, the two engage is a fierce duel in which Ino loses his nose, truly becoming blind. This is one of the best stories in the whole of The Ronin, mainly because of the complex character that is Ino. He has a true desire for a peaceful life, but his past ensures that this can never happen, as even friendly characters like Usagi turn against him. This has turned him into a somewhat bitter creature, quick to hate those he meets “and what I hate, I kill!”, and the events of this first story help turn him into something even more angry, especially when it comes to Usagi.
  • Homecoming: This story sees Usagi return to the village of his childhood, but his return is not a peaceful one, as his village is under attack by the Mogura Ninja. Usagi must work with his childhood rival, Kenichi, to save the village; however, there is much enmity between Usagi and Kenichi, mainly because Kenichi married Mariko, the love of Usagi’s life. The two rivals must move past their differences, especially when Kenichi and Mariko’s son, Jotaro, is kidnapped by the Mogura Ninja. This was another exceptional entry in the volume, as it blends together tight action sequences with a deeper dive into Usagi’s past, including his complex and dramatic history with Kenichi and Mariko. The final pages of this issue are just heartbreaking, as it is revealed that Usagi and Mariko both kept the mementos they gave each other as young lovers, and they are both clearly in love with each other, even though they can never be together. I also really liked the Mogura Ninja in this book, especially as moles apparently make effective and deadly ninja.
  • Bounty Hunter II: This final story sees the return of Gen, who once again convinces Usagi to work with him to collect another bounty. Gen of course manages to complicate the job, and his actions backfire on Usagi, resulting in him getting into a major scrape. Despite Usagi’s understandable rage towards Gen, the two are able to part amicably, although Usage gets a small measure of appropriate revenge at the end of the story. I think that Sakai really hit his stride with the Usagi/Gen friendship in this second story, and the two of them play off each other extremely well. I really loved the end of this story, and it definitely got a big laugh out of me.

Overall, I felt that this volume contained a perfect blend of stories, and I really liked how Sakai jumped between action-based stories, to comedies and then to more dramatic tales, which helped produce a range of different emotional reactions. I did appreciate that the different issues also featured a range of different opponents and story basis, allowing the reader to understand that this series is going to focus on everything including banditry, ninja attacks, political intrigue and even the supernatural. I also think that the stories in The Ronin contained the right amount of character background for Usagi, providing enough for the reader to understand his motivations, while not being too overwhelming. This great blend of storylines and character arcs works extremely well together, and it makes for one heck of a complete volume.

The Ronin serves as an excellent introduction to this series, and I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in Usagi Yojimbo start with this volume. The stories within do a wonderful job of setting up the alternate version of historical Japan that this entire series takes place in. I absolutely love the combination of vibrant animal characters with feudal Japanese settings, and it works really well as the backdrop for an action series, especially with the political uncertainty and mass of unemployed samurai that accompanied the early years of shogunate rule. That being said, it is never quite explained why certain animals (horses and small dogs) are non-sentient, or why there are packs of dinosaur-like lizards (tokage) roaming the wilderness, although I kind of like the mystery. This volume also contains fantastic introductions for so many characters who are vital to the series, such as Gen, Tomoe, Mariko and more, and you get great insights into their characters, which are built up with each appearance they make. A lot of key character arcs or storylines start in the stories featured within this volume, and as each volume of Usagi Yojimbo is sequential, readers of the series are best served starting with this first volume. Luckily, The Ronin is a really good first entry in the series, and it is definitely worth checking out.

One of the most charming things about the Usagi Yojimbo series is the way in which Sakai sneaks so many different historical and cultural references into his stories. Most of the characters are either inspired by a real-life historical figure or a fictional character from Japanese or western culture. For example, Usagi himself is based on one of the most famed samurai of all time, Miyamoto Musashi, who is often credited with creating the two-sword fighting technique that Usagi utilises in the series, while Tomoe Ame is based on famed female samurai Tomoe Gozen. Other characters however are based on Japanese movie characters, such as Zato Ino who is a clearly a pig version of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman protagonist of a series of popular Japanese movies and televisions shows. Gen is based on the character that Toshiro Mifune portrayed in samurai films such as Yojimbo (which was later adapted into A Fistful of Dollars), and Usagi’s former lord Mifune gets his name from the actor. Other references include the title of the second story in this volume, Lone Rabbit and Kid which is a references to the manga series Lone Wolf and Cub (Sakai later creates the characters of Lone Goat and Kid as another homage to this series) and the fact that this series is partially named after the Yojimbo film. Two separate stories in this volume also reference Sakai’s previous work on the Groo the Wanderer comic, with Groo even briefly appearing in Lone Rabbit and Kid, sharing a fun stare down with Usagi. I had a great time with all these references (although I admit I had to look up a couple), and some of them are really clever. They add a lot of fun to this series and they are a real treat for readers, especially those already familiar with Japanese history, film or culture.

I am a big fan of Sakai’s art style, and each issue of Usagi Yojimbo is an absolute joy to view. Not only does he produce some outstanding action sequences with his drawings, many of which do an awesome job of depicting the samurai battle style, but he also creates some fantastic characters and breathtaking landscape scenes. Nearly every issue shows some inspiring and beautiful depiction of the Japanese countryside or a historical town, and the sheer amount of detail that he throws into his various scenes is just incredible. It’s also fun to see the various animals that can be turned into samurai, as everything from bulls, rabbits, crocodiles, rhinos, monkeys, pandas, cats and dogs appear in this first volume alone. For this first volume, however, the artwork is understandably a little inconsistent, mainly because Sakai had only just started drawing these characters. The various character designs are a little rough in places, especially if you are familiar with his later work, as Sakai is clearly experimenting with how he wants to depict these characters. A few of the action sequences are also a tad different from the later entries in this series, which can be a little jarring in places, but still really cool. Overall, though, most of the art in this book is pretty incredible, and it is fun seeking Sakai get into his groove with each new story. Sakai does an amazing job conveying emotion, action and intent through his drawings in this volume, and it turns out wonderfully. If I had to pick my favourite bit of art in this entire volume, it would be a scene in A Quiet Meal, where Usagi swings his sword around the head of a ruffian who is bothering him. While it first it appears that Usagi had done nothing, you slowly realise that the flies that Sakai had been subtly drawing around this character’s head before that point, are gone. The facial reactions of the various thugs when they realise what happened to the flies are just hilarious, and I absolutely loved it.

This first volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, The Ronin, is an amazing and spectacular read, which I have a lot of love for. Not only does it serve as an excellent introduction to the Usagi Yojimbo series, but it contains some captivating storylines, impressive artwork and a heck of a lot of fun. Needless to say, The Ronin gets a full five stars from me, and I cannot recommend this volume and the Usagi Yojimbo series enough. Reading this first volume actually got me re-reading the entire series again, and I have already made it up to volume 17. In my book, all of them are five star reads, and you can probably expect some more reviews of them in some future instalments of Throwback Thursday. Stay tuned to see my review of the next volume of this epic series, which I already know I am going to love.