Publisher: IDW (Paperback – 15 November 2022)
Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 37
Length: 137 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The always impressive Stan Sakai presents another outstanding volume in his epic Usagi Yojimbo comic series with the fantastic and fun 37th volume, Crossroads.
I think we can all agree that 2022 has been a rather mixed year; while the world of books has been fruitful as ever, the world at large does seem to be getting crazier and crazier. However, one thing that is guaranteed to make me happy is the fact that, for the first time since 2003, this year has seen the release of not one but two volumes of the exceptional Usagi Yojimbo comic. Fans of this blog will know that I love, love, love the Usagi Yojimbo series, and it is easily one of my very favourite comic book series. Written and drawn by the exceedingly talented Stan Sakai, the Usagi Yojimbo series is set in an alternate version of feudal Japan inhabited by anthropomorphic animals. The series primarily follows the character of Miyamoto Usagi, a rabbit ronin who travels the land facing all manner of evil, including criminals, monsters, ninja and rival samurai.
Thanks to the compelling narratives, complex characters, and exceptional artwork, the Usagi Yojimbo series has always really appealed to me, and I have always tried to grab the new volume as soon as it is released. The 36th volume, Tengu War! came out in March, and it was pretty damn epic. Usually, I would have to wait an entire year to get my next Usagi Yojimbo fix, but Sakai appears to be on a roll, as he released the 37th volume, Crossroads, earlier this month. Needless to say, I was extremely excited about this, and Crossroads was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of 2022. I was very happy when I received my copy of Crossroads, and I ended up reading it literally as soon as I got my hands on it. I of course loved every second of it, and it proved to be another captivating read that really drew me in with its brilliant artwork and cool stories.
Crossroads is the 37th volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series and the fourth volume that has been released in colour by IDW (other volumes in colour include Bunraku and Other Stories and Homecoming). Containing issues #22-26 of the IDW run on Usagi Yojimbo, this comic was once again completely written and drawn by Sakai, with Hi-Fi Design doing the colouring. This latest volume only contains two stories over five issues, but Sakai loads up some fantastic narratives and character work into this instalment.
The first story in this volume is a lengthy entry titled Ransom, which runs for a full three issues. Following on closely after the last story in Tengu War!, Yukichi, Ransom sees Usagi travelling the roads of Japan with his newly discovered cousin Yukichi, a gifted samurai who is a little naïve of the way of the world. However, Yukichi is about to get a crash course in the shadier side of life when, upon arriving a new town, the pair of samurai run into the chaotic thief Kitsune and her apprentice Kiyoko. Up to her usual tricks, Kitsune has stolen a valuable ledger from the local crime boss that she is planning to ransom back to him. However, the crime boss’ men soon catch up with them, and when Kiyoko is captured, Usagi, Yukichi and Kitsune must launch a desperate rescue before it is too late.
This is a fantastic and fun starting comic for this volume, and it is one that has a lot of excellent great parts to it. While the story will be familiar, mainly due to Sakai reusing elements of previous Kitsune stories, such as Kitsune trying to sell a stolen document back to a criminal (as in The Return of Kitsune, in Volume 7: Gen’s Story), this still proved to be a relatively fresh narrative, due to some new characters involved and the eventual story progression. The story moves at an intense and captivating pace, with the protagonists forced into several complex and extended fight sequences throughout the course of the comic. At the same time, they face other concerns, as a certain Snitch gets involved to undermine their plans, while a rival samurai starts to rediscover his honour. Sakai’s depictions of these fights are pretty awesome, and the multiple pages of animalistic samurai battling it out are cool as always, especially in colour. At the same time, there is a good covering of humour to this story, which makes it very light-hearted, even with the kidnapping and threat for life. I had a fantastic time getting through this amazing story, and it was another classic Usagi Yojimbo romp featuring the always fun Kitsune.
Although this story shares similar plot beats with earlier entries, I do think that this one stands apart thanks to Sakai’s excellent character work. I loved his continued focus on the new character of Yukichi, who has been quite an interesting inclusion to the Usagi Yojimbo series. Shown as a bit naïve in the ways of the world having spent his entire life inside the rigid confines of a sword school, Yukichi is generally unprepared for the rough life on the road that his cousin has chosen. As such, watching him interact with the wily and sneaky Kitsune was rather fun, as it put me in mind of Usagi’s initial interactions with the thieving fox, especially as Kitsune and Kiyoko immediately rob him in a very fun scene. While he does mature a little throughout Ransom, including his constant checking of his purse every time Kitsune touches him, he still has a lot to learn, and I feel that is going to be a recurring theme of the next few stories. I also quite enjoyed seeing how Usagi interacted with his new companion in this story, and there is a certain protectiveness that was quite touching, and it was great to see Usagi in the mentor role again. I think that Sakai did a great job with how he featured Yukichi in this story, and I look forward to seeing him interact with some of Usagi’s other outrageous friends in future books.
Aside from Usagi and Yukichi, this was also quite a fun story for established characters Kitsune and Kiyoko, who are once again at their thieving ways. This fantastic master-and-apprentice thief team is always very entertaining, especially with how they play off the more serious Usagi, and their enjoyable banter with the other characters is always great to see. This was a very interesting story for both these characters, especially as it continued to showcase the growth of Kiyoko into a master thief, as she is successfully able to change the situation to her own advantage multiple times. It was also very moving to see how much Kitsune cares for Kiyoko, as she was willing to risk giving up her career to save her (a promise she later recants, but only once Kiyoko is safe). These two were very humorous, and they always end up being the life of any story they are featured in. Throw in the curious new character Aoki, the only honourable samurai working for Ransom’s crime lord antagonist, and this excellent story featured an outstanding cast, who really added to the power and impact of this story. I had a wonderful time reading Ransom, and it ended up being a strong start to this latest volume
The second story in this volume is the two-issue entry, Crossroads, which the volume is named after. The Crossroads story sees Usagi and Yukichi once again on the road. Deciding to take an impromptu shortcut, their road sees them discover the recent massacre of a group of pilgrims. Determining that the murderers were a group of unsavoury ronin that Usagi and Yukichi passed earlier, the two samurai head back, determined to catch the killers before they strike again. Their pursuit becomes complicated when, upon reaching a fork in the road, they are unable to determine which way the culprits travelled. Splitting up, Usagi and Yukichi take a separate path to find the killers, hoping that they will be able to regroup before engaging their foes in battle. However, while one samurai finds the killers, the other finds something even more dangerous, the dark and soulless Blade of the Gods, Jei.
Whew, now this was an exceptional Usagi Yojimbo entry, and it is easily my favourite of two stories contained in the Crossroads volume. Sakai tells an intense and captivating tale in this story that really drew me in right away, especially as it starts with a classic Usagi Yojimbo move of the characters choosing a less travelled path only to wind up in trouble. The initial set up works very well, and the sudden change from light-hearted talk to serious action once the first bodies are found is pretty striking. The subsequent chase for the killers has some powerful tension to it, especially once the two protagonists are forced the split up. And that is when the story gets extremely good, as while Usagi finds the culprits and engages them in a brutal fight, Yukichi finds something far more dangerous in Jei and his young ward Keiko.
Now, fans of Usagi Yojimbo will know that Jei is probably the best villain in this entire series, and he has been a wonderful nemesis for Usagi since first appearing in the third volume, The Wanderer’s Road. A dark and mysterious spear-wielding killer with a unique look and way of speaking, for much of the series Jei has been a constant mystery, with readers unsure if he is an actual demon, a dark warrior of the gods, or just a deluded killer. While some of that mystery has been revealed, Jei still cuts a fantastically dark figure in Crossroads, especially as it has been several years since his last major appearance, and there was absolutely no warning that he was going to appear in this story until his latest victim was discovered. His inclusion in this story was just perfect, as you can only watch in horror as the completely unprepared Yukichi runs into Jei and ends up having a lengthy, philosophical conversation with them. While Yukichi can tell that something is off, he has no idea how much danger he is in, and you spend the entire time worrying that Jei is just about to strike. Their dark conversation is a real highlight of this entire volume, as not only and you are totally on edge the entire time, but it is quite compelling to see these two very different characters interact.
The use of this amazing sinister force proved to be a very excellent inclusion from Sakai, and Jei adds so damn much to any story he is involved in. The rest of the story unfolds in an amazing way, especially as Usagi and Yukichi’s eventual battle with the true antagonists of the story is the best drawn fight in the entire volume. The teamwork and care shown between the two protagonists is extremely moving, and it was great to see them work together while exhausted to take down a well-written and dangerous group of criminals. Sakai ends this entire masterful story perfectly, as not only does Jei get another fantastic appearance, doing his trademark laugh, but you also have Yukichi recount his encounter to a horrified Usagi. Watching the dawning realisation of who Yukichi is talking about appear on Usagi’s face is breathtaking, especially as you can imagine all the dark terror in his heart that his most dangerous opponent is still alive and stalking his loved ones. That final scene with Usagi naming the dark spearman to an oblivious Yukichi is so damn impressive, and if nothing else, it will ensure that you definitely come back for the next volume, as you will want to see the follow-up to that revelation. This ended up being such a strong and captivating entry in this volume, and I am so glad that Sakai chose to bring back his very best villain.
As with all of Stan Sakai’s comics, I was once again deeply impressed with the cool artwork contained within Crossroads. The art in these comics is just absolutely gorgeous and it always works to support the amazing narratives, bringing the fantastic actions of the characters to life in stunning detail. Not only does he do a wonderful job showcasing the various animal characters throughout the comics, but the various action sequences are so much fun to see, especially as Sakai always manages to capture the movement of the characters, allowing the reader to see how the sword fights would pan out. However, it’s not just the characters and the action that are great about the artwork; there is also the elaborate backgrounds and surrounding settings that bring all the scenes together. Nearly every panel has some degree of the unique Japanese setting in it, whether it’s the historical towns filled with people wearing period-appropriate clothing, the beautiful forests and mountains of Japan, or even a busy highway filled with people going about their business. All this artistic detail brings the reader into the story, and you can really envision this version of Japan filled with these unique characters. I am also still really loving seeing all the art in colour, which is a relatively new feature of these comics. While I will always have a soft spot for the monochrome style of the original Usagi Yojimbo comics, the extra colour in the IDW volumes gives these new comics a little more impact, and I enjoy the clearer pictures being produced. I particularly liked how the colour made Jei look even more sinister in his scenes, and the artwork around this creepy and malevolent character was extremely cool in Crossroads, and I love how much it enhanced his menace. Sakai continues to produce some epic artwork in this comic, and I loved every single panel in this latest Usagi Yojimbo volume.
Stan Sakai does it again as his latest volume of the exceptional Usagi Yojimbo series was another instant classic that proved to be an amazing read. Featuring two great stories, loaded with excellent characters, impressive action, cool artwork and even a few surprises, Crossroads was just epic and I had a fun time getting through it. This was another easy five-star rating from me, and I am still so ecstatic that I got two volumes in 2022. Even better, I won’t have much longer to wait for my next Usagi Yojimbo fix, as Sakai has another volume, The Green Dragon, coming out in February.