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 – Star Trek: Boldly Go, Volume 1 by Mike Johnson and Tony Shasteen

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Publisher: IDW Publishing

Publication Date: 25 July 2017

Length: 136 pages

My Rating: 4.5 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 Throwback Thursday, get ready to explore the first volume of an intriguing Star Trek comic book series, Boldly Go, which presents the reader with clever new story directions spinning off from the alternate timeline Star Trek movies.

I think it is time to admit to myself that I am starting to get rather hooked on Star Trek extended universe fiction. Like my obsession with everything from the Star Wars extended universe, all it took for me to dive into this new fandom was reading a few compelling Star Trek books. Amazing titles such as Available Light and The Captain’s Oath made me realise that there are some pretty interesting Star Trek books out there. I just started listening to another Star Trek audiobook today (The Antares Maelstrom by Greg Cox, which is pretty good so far). As a result, when I recently saw some other reviewers talking about a cool-sounding Star Trek comic book series that came out a couple of years ago, I immediately went and grabbed a copy of the first volume (I am very impressionable like that). What I found was an extremely compelling Star Trek adventure that had some truly intriguing and clever elements to it.

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Star Trek: Boldly Go was an ongoing canon comic book series which started in 2016 and was set in the same continuity as the 2009 Star Trek film and its sequels. This continuity is an alternate timeline to the main Star Trek universe, which is known as the Kelvin Timeline due to the deviation that started with the time traveller Nero’s destruction of the U.S.S. Kelvin (Kirk’s father’s ship). This series was written by Mike Johnson, who has a lot of experience writing Star Trek comic book series, and featured contributions from several different artists. Boldly Go was the second ongoing series set in this timeline, following the 2011 Star Trek series which ran for 60 issues and was also written by Mike Johnson (which apparently had some really interesting-sounding storylines and which I might have to check out as well).

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Following the destruction of the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek Beyond, the entire crew have been temporarily reassigned to new posts while they wait for their ship to be rebuilt. While Spock and Uhura are living on New Vulcan and Scotty is a lecturer at Starfleet Academy on Earth, Sulu, McCoy and Kirk are still serving out amongst the stars. Kirk has taken command of the U.S.S. Endeavour with McCoy begrudgingly at his side, and Sulu is serving a one-year exploration mission aboard the U.S.S. Concord.

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Events outside of their control will soon bring the former crew of the Enterprise back together, when the Concord encounters a ship of unknown design on the edge of Federation space. The ship is extremely powerful and technologically advanced and it attacks without warning, easily carving off pieces of the Concord with its destructive weapons. As alien boarders abduct members of the crew and devastate the ship, only one thing is certain: resistance is futile!

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The Borg Collective, one of the most dangerous races in the entire galaxy, have arrived in this version of Federation space nearly 100 years earlier than they were supposed to. Their motives are unclear, but as they attack several Federation vessels and settlements it is clear that they are en route to the capital of the Romulan Empire, Romulus. Answering the Concord’s distress call, Kirk and the Endeavour follow the Borg sphere after picking up Spock and Uhura. Forced to enter Romulan space, can Kirk and his crew save the abducted humans and defeat the Borg, or will actions provoke war with the Romulans? And what connection do the Borg have to the events that made this alternate timeline and formed this version of the Enterprise’s crew?

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This first volume of Boldly Go is a massive ball of fun that I had a great time reading. Not only does it feature a captivating and enjoyable story with some real cool twists; it also takes this Star Trek universe in some interesting directions. Featuring issues #1-6, this first volume starts a few months after the events of Star Trek Beyond and continues several of the fun storylines explored in the movies and the 2011 ongoing comic book series.

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This first volume features a bunch of interesting storylines. Issues #1-4 contain the volume’s major storyline, the invasion of the Borg into Federation and Romulan space. This is an extremely action-packed storyline, and I really enjoyed seeing the Borg, who are probably the best Star Trek antagonists ever created, go up against the classic crew of the Enterprise. The entire Borg storyline is cleverly written, with high stakes and explosive action sequences, and it has some really cool moments. If you have ever wanted to see what would happen if the Borg tried to assimilate Spock (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t find that awesome) then this is the comic for you.

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Issues #5 and #6 contain two different, intriguing storylines. Issue #5 contains a rather emotional story that examines the history of the fan-favourite character from Star Trek Beyond, Jaylah. Told chronologically backwards, this issue shows Jaylah’s tragic life trapped on the planet Altamid, and then goes further back to explore how she and her family were marooned there and the events of her past that would eventually lead her to Starfleet. The sixth and final issue in the volume continues some of the storylines from the first four issues of the series, reunites the always funny Scotty with the rest of the main characters and shows a rather curious story about an extremely advanced species of aliens interfering with the Endeavour in violation of their own version of the Prime Directive.

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While all of the storylines featured within this first volume are compelling and filled with emotional plot developments, it was also cool to see this version of the Enterprise crew once again. I really liked seeing how their adventures continued post-Star Trek Beyond, especially because, at the moment, it looks like Beyond is going to be the last film in this particular series of Star Trek films (which is a real shame, as some of the plans for the next instalment sounded particularly awesome). I did feel that the creative team of this comic did a fantastic job capturing the tone of the new movies and the personalities of these versions of the characters, and overall I found the story within this volume to be quite impressive.

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In addition to the great story, dedicated Star Trek fans will find some of plot inclusions to be extremely interesting, as they draw on some unique pieces of Star Trek lore. This volume features alternate timeline versions of characters from the original series, such as Captain Terrell, an older version of whom previously appeared in The Wrath of Khan, and there are intriguing hints at features of the Romulan Empire, such as the feared Tal Shiar. I also cannot get past how awesome it was to see the Borg in this timeline. Jackson has previously experimented with having this version of the original Enterprise crew interact with classic villains from other Star Trek shows. For example, they encountered Q in Jackson’s previous comic book series set in the Kelvin Timeline. However, it was particularly cool having the crew fight the Borg, and it resulted in a number of amazing scenes.

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I found the explanation for why the Borg were in Federation space during this time period to be extremely clever. In the main Star Trek universe, the Borg did not attack the Federation until the events of Star Trek: The Next Generation, set around 100 years after the start of The Original Series. However, in this comic, the Borg were attracted to the Federation much sooner than expected. The reason for this is eventually shown to be because Nero, the antagonist of the 2009 Star Trek film, constructed his massive ship, the Narada, out of Borg technology. This naturally drew the attention of the Borg, who travelled to Federation space at a much quicker rate than they did in their original appearance. While this explanation is pretty fascinating by itself, it actually results in some interesting connections with the main Star Trek universe. Technically, this alternate timeline is still considered to be within the canon of the main universe, as it was created when characters from this timeline, Nero and Spock from The Original Series, travelled back to the day Kirk was born. As a result, if the Narada contained Borg technology, then it is reasonable to assume that the Romulans are experimenting with captured Borg material in the main universe after The Next Generation ended. This has subsequently been somewhat confirmed, as the recent Comic Con trailer for the upcoming television series Picard showed images of Romulans dissecting Borg prisoners. As Picard is going to be set after the destruction of Romulus in the main Star Trek universe, it appears that this comic actually predicted events from the show before it was even in production (or else the creators of the show read this comic). This deep dive into Star Trek lore is really cool, and it is interesting to see ideas spawned in this comic have impacts in an upcoming show.

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This volume of Star Trek Beyond features some fantastic artwork from a variety of skilled artists. The main artist for the first five issues is Tony Shasteen, with Davide Mastrolonardo serving as colourist. Their combined artwork is pretty spectacular, and I really enjoyed it. Not only did they do a fantastic job of recreating the alternate timeline versions of the Enterprise crew, but the drawings of space, battles and the destruction of the Borg are amazing. I particularly liked the character designs of the Borg drones, especially when some of the Starfleet characters are converted into drones. I was also really impressed by an extended sequence that took place in Spock’s mind, where the Borg infiltrated his memories of several events of the 2009 film, and they made for a great scene. Issue #6 was drawn by Chris Mooneyham, with J. D. Mettler doing the colours. This naturally results in a noticeably different art style for this final issue, but this team does a great job of portraying some interesting scientific anomalies in space. Overall, the artwork featured within this volume is exciting and very well-done, and I had a great time seeing how the artists rolled out this adventure.

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Volume 1 of Star Trek Beyond is a fantastic comic book that is really worth checking out. The creative team have done a wonderful job portraying a new story that takes place in the aftermath of the last Star Trek movie. There are some really compelling story ideas taking place in this volume, and Johnson made sure to go big by bringing in a fantastic bunch of antagonists from The Next Generation. Best read by existing fans of the Star Trek franchise who will enjoy the creative team’s unique take on the characters and their adventures, this comic will also be appreciated by casual Star Trek fans who have only seen the more recent movies. I am extremely glad I decided to explore this Star Trek comic book series, and I will definitely be grabbing the next two volumes of this series when I next visit the comic book shop. This first volume gets four and a half stars from me and is an outstanding piece of Star Trek fiction.

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