Usagi Yojimbo – Vol 33: The Hidden by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Hidden Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (9 July 2019)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 33

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out of stars

While there are a number of great books and comics coming out this year, one of the releases that I have been most keenly looking forward to was this year’s volume of Usagi Yojimbo. Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai is a fantastic comic book series that utilises Japanese style, characters and history into an excellent series. This series is one of my favourite bodies of work, and I will move heaven and earth to get each instalment, and I especially loved last year’s volume, Mysteries. I was pretty darn excited to get the 33rd volume, The Hidden, and powered through it the afternoon that I received it.

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The Hidden continues the story of Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering ronin samurai who lives in a version of medieval Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals. Usagi’s life occurs in the early 17th century, during the Edo era of Japan. This is a pretty interesting time period to set a story, as with the land mostly at formal peace thanks to the rule of the Shogun, many samurai have been forced to roam the land without a master to serve. Usagi, a highly skilled samurai based on the legendary historical warrior Miyamoto Musashi, has been forced to live the ronin lifestyle after the death of his lord. Wandering the roads and seeking employment as a Yojimbo (a bodyguard), Usagi encounters all manner of rogues, bandits and criminals, as well as a number of supernatural foes from Japanese folklore.

The Hidden is made up of issues #166-#172 of the series and is actually one of the rare Usagi Yojimbo volumes to feature just one single adventure rather than multiple interconnected or standalone stories. This volume also continues to pair Usagi with Inspector Ishida for the entire volume. Ishida, who is essentially a Japanese Sherlock Holmes (although based on real-life Honolulu policeman Chang Apana), is a recurring character within the Usagi series who has appeared in multiple volumes, often for just one issue or adventure. However, after teaming up to investigate a murder a couple of volumes ago, Usagi has been living in Ishida’s town and assisting him with his investigations. As a result, Ishida has become a secondary protagonist for the last two volumes, with Mysteries, for example, focusing on the two solving several different crimes.

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This new volume starts with a brand-new case, when two samurai are pursued into the city and brutally murdered. When Usagi and Ishida discover crucifixes on the dead samurai’s bodies, they quickly realise that both the victims where Kirishitans (Christians). Christianity, which has been bought into the country by European missionaries, has recently been outlawed in Japan by the Shogun, and his agents are hunting down all practitioners. It soon becomes clear that the dead samurai were killed by agents of the Shogun who were attempting to recover a mysterious book of foreign design.

However, in a twist of fate, a petty thief manages to steal the book off the corpse of one of the samurai. This thief is now the most wanted man in the city, as the Shogunate agents and their hired killers attempt to find him and the book at all costs. As Usagi and Ishida work out what has happened, they are determined to bring the killers to justice. Hunting for both the book and the criminal who stole it, Usagi and Ishida, with the help of the masked master-thief Nezumi, manage to locate part of the book, and what they discover could rock the entirety of Japan. As they attempt to come to terms with their discovery, the Shogunate agents determine that the two investigators are a threat and decide to eliminate once and for all.

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While I may have had to wait a whole year to read this latest volume, it was definitely worth it. Sakai has once again produced an outstanding comic book that I could not have put down for anything. Not only has Sakai written an intriguing and clever story with a great mystery and an informative look at a new aspect of Japanese history, but he tells it through his beautiful Japanese-inspired artwork that really brings the characters and the landscape to life. Together this results in another exceptional piece of work that I absolutely loved.

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The main story focuses upon Usagi and Ishida’s investigation into the murders of Christian samurai and the hunt for the mysterious book the Shogunate agents are searching for. This was a really interesting story, and I liked how Sakai took the entire volume to really flesh out the investigation. The two characters go on a compelling adventure in this book, running into a number of colourful characters, dodging political restraints, interrogating a number of suspicious characters and getting into several deadly fights. However, what starts out as an intriguing investigation soon turns into a deep and powerful tale of convictions, belief and faith, and the things one must do to preserve all three. This is shown by a number of characters, including Usagi and Ishida, who risk everything to find the truth and more. There is also the amazing character arc of new character Hama, whose heart-rending sacrifice is one of the most memorable parts of this book. There is also a fairly major revelation about one of the other characters towards the end of the volume that actually changes the way you see the story and is guaranteed to make you look back to see the various things you missed the first time. Several recurring Usagi characters are used exceedingly well in this book. The mysterious masked thief Nezumi makes a great return, helping the protagonists with their investigation. It is always cool to see Nezumi in action, and I enjoy seeing the grudging respect build between him and Ishida, despite them living on opposite sides of the law. Everyone’s favourite snitch, Toady, makes another appearance, adding a lot of humour to the story as he attempts to weasel his way into more gold. Overall, this was another well-written and captivating story that was a real pleasure to read.

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One of my favourite aspects of the Usagi Yojimbo books is that Sakai often uses them to explore some fascinating piece of Japanese history, culture, mythology or industry and present them in a way that his western audience can appreciate. I was really glad that he continued this trend in The Hidden, as this time he takes an intriguing look at the role of early Japanese Christians in 17th century Japan. These Christians, who are the titular hidden ones of this volume, were an outlawed minority, due to Christianity directly contradicting a number of traditional Japanese beliefs and therefore challenging the authority of the Shogun. This latest volume shows this persecution in action, as the city is locked down by agents of the Shogun who are hunting for a valuable Christian item. The reader gets a sense of the illicit and hidden nature of these Christians and the way they were hunted, and Sakai also shows certain unique parts of this hunt, such as the fumi-e (trampling image). The fumi-e was an image of a cross that the Shogun’s enforcers placed on the ground in front of the gates of barricades that were set up at key points of the city. In order to pass through the barricades, pedestrians were forced to stamp on the image, showing their disdain for the Christian religion, and those who refused to step on the image were arrested as Christians. This was a fascinating part of Japanese history that I found incredibly interesting to see in action, and one that Sakai was able to cleverly work into the book’s plot. There were also a few fun scenes which looked at a black-market dealer who sold items which originated outside of Japan. Due to the Shogun isolating the country, these were incredibly valuable items, and I liked seeing what items this dealer considered valuable (the dealer’s European dress also made for a stunning visual as well). All of this was really cool to learn about, and I cannot wait to see what aspects of historical Japan the author explores in his next volume.

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Sakai’s fantastic artwork is once again one of the major highlights of this volume. Sakai is a particularly skilled artist who always does a fantastic job bringing the beauty and grace of Japan and its culture to life. The artwork on the surrounding landscape is just spectacular, and I always love attention to the historical detail on the buildings and people inhabiting his towns. One of the highlights of The Hidden that I particularly liked was the consecutive prayer gates leading up to a shrine that the characters visit. The visuals on all these gates were just amazing and very distinctive. I also really enjoyed the way that Sakai portrays his battle sequences in his series; he has a real talent for bring multiple high-energy battle scenes to life. I especially like how he manages to convey so much action and intensity in his still frames, and it really shows off some cool aspects of Japanese sword play. This was another beautifully illustrated volume, and the great art goes exceedingly well with the fantastic story Sakai has devised.

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Volume 33 of Usagi Yojimbo, The Hidden, was another excellent addition to this amazing series. Sakai once again produces a compelling story in his unique comic-book universe which results in a spectacular volume that I know I am going to read again and again in the future. While this was an outstanding Usagi Yojimbo story, I now have the downside of having to wait a whole other year to get my next Usagi fix. Make sure to check back next year when I will no doubt gush about how much I loved volume 34 of this series.

Absolute Proof by Peter James

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Publisher: Macmillan

Publication Date – 25 September 2018

 

From one of the most pre-eminent authors of thrillers and murder mysteries comes this deeply spiritual book that spins a dangerous hunt for secrets around a strong and intriguing story of human belief and the search for religious proof.

Investigative reporter Ross Hunter has covered many world events and news items in his storied career, from warzones to crooked politicians.  But perhaps his most dangerous story might be his most bizarre.  Picking up the phone one day, he is brought into contact with Dr Harry Cook, who has a remarkable tale.  Cook believes that he has received a communication directly from God and has been gifted with three sets of coordinates that will provide the world with absolute proof of God’s existence.  This message has also instructed Cook to contact Ross and utilise his skills to spread Cook’s discoveries to the world.

Ross is naturally sceptical of this story, but certain facts that Cook knows convince him to dig a little deeper into the man’s claims and read the elaborate religious writings that he has created and left with him.  Unconvinced of the validity of Cook’s claims and about to drop his inquiries, Ross is stunned when he finds that the old man has been brutally murdered.  Could there be more to this story than Ross originally thought?

Travelling across the world to follow the coordinates, Ross finds hidden artefacts and relics which could reveal the second coming.  Still not convinced of the validity of these claims but unwilling to let go of this story, Ross investigates further and makes some startling discoveries that could shake the very foundations of the world’s collective faiths.  But Ross isn’t the only person interested in what Cook’s coordinates may uncover.  As various religious and spiritual organisations contact Ross about his findings, a powerful pharmaceutical company and a rich television evangelist have despicable plans for whatever Ross uncovers, and they are willing to kill anyone to get it.

James is one of the United Kingdom’s most experienced and prolific authors of crime fiction, with significant works in both the movie and book worlds.  In his career as a novelist, he has published nearly 35 novels since his 1981 debut.  Of particular note is his Roy Grace series of books, which focuses on the investigations of the titular Brighton based detective.  James has written 14 Roy Grace novels since 2005, including the May 2018 release, Dead if you Don’tAbsolute Proof is an intriguing piece of literature from James, as it combines an exciting and captivating thriller with an in-depth story of religion.  This is a standalone book from James, and is apparently based on a real phone conversation the author had back in 1989.

Absolute Proof contains an amazing and exciting thriller storyline that follows its protagonist, Ross Hunter, as he attempts to uncover one of the greatest mysteries of all time: whether God actually exists.  Following a series of vague clues that are mostly made up of geographical coordinates, Ross must uncover three specific items or locations that could combine into definitive proof of the divine.  The various investigative techniques and problem-solving that the protagonist utilises to uncover the clues left to him and solve the overall mystery are well written, very clever and result in a very unique and thought-provoking conclusion.  The protagonist’s quest for answers is complicated by the various groups and individuals that are attempting to hamper, compromise or misappropriate the results of his investigation and are targeting Ross and the other people associated with this case.  As a result, there is quite a lot action and excitement as these various groups attempt to attack or steal from Ross and he finds ways to get out these situations.  There are several intense and action-packed scenes where Ross must escape from thugs wielding guns from a helicopter, physical attackers and several vans attempting to run him off the road.  In addition to all these direct attacks, Ross is also being constantly tracked through a variety of electronic and physical techniques and must find ways to try and avoid them.  There is an interesting look at some DYI anti-espionage techniques as Ross attempts to outwit these various professionals with some limited success.  All of this comes together into quite the captivating narrative with lots to keep the reader glued to the page.

The overall story of Absolute Proof is mostly focussed around this massive religious mystery and the attempt to undermine it.  James has provided the reader with a lot of backstory and motivations for several of the book’s characters.  Much of these personal histories are intriguing and provide the reader with explanations about why the protagonist and antagonists have an interest or obsession with the results of the central investigation.  It also goes into some detail attempting to explain why the protagonist is so determined to find out the truth and why he refuses to drop the story for any reason.  The deeper examination of the antagonist’s motivations is particularly absorbing.  While both groups come to be involved with the cases by different means, it is curious to see how their main focus becomes profiting from the possible existence of God.  Split perspectives also allow the reader to see the antagonist’s various plans and the myriad ways that they are attempting to control or corrupt Ross’s investigation and the results he is uncovering.  This is useful because for much of the book Ross is unaware of the identity of the groups opposing him, so the use of these multiple perspectives works well with the book’s overall narrative.

Due to the focus on the search for proof of God’s existence, the author has included a substantial look into the world’s religions and beliefs.  This is a significant part of the book, and the various in-text theological discussions are deeply fascinating.  The protagonist has a numerous discussions with various religious individuals and attempts to work out what would constitute definitive and absolute proof of God’s existence in the modern era and how people from a variety of religions would react to someone uncovering this proof.  All of this proves to be a fantastic part of the book and it ensures that both the protagonist and the readers deeply consider the possible consequences of the central investigation of this story.  The author also examines the religious conviction or beliefs of many of the book’s main characters, including the main two antagonists.  This ties in nicely with the background motivations mentioned above, and it is fascinating to see how various people’s upbringings can impact their beliefs and future careers.  Overall, this in-depth and compelling discussion around religion and the focus on belief is an essential part of the story that works well with the book’s thriller storyline and creates an incredibly gripping narrative.

An interesting part of this book is the lack of really sympathetic characters in the story.  Most of the Absolute Proof’s main characters, including the antagonists and the protagonist’s wife, are fairly despicable characters that you can’t help but dislike.  However, the protagonist, Ross, isn’t too much better, as he becomes obsessed with the cases.  He dismisses all the concerns of his friends and families to follow his story no matter what, although he does have the time to get distracted by a cute girl he just met.  This does make it a bit hard to care about what happens to Ross at times, but luckily you tend to dislike the other characters a lot more.  The book’s antagonists’ stories do go in some interesting directions throughout the book, including a very surprising conclusion for one set of antagonists.

Peter James has delivered a deeply captivating and powerful mystery that sets his protagonist on an exhilarating journey around the world for the ultimate answer.  The narrative of people receiving and investigating coordinates that lead to definitive proof of God’s existence is really memorable and results in a very unique and interesting story.  The various religious discussions contained within this book turns into a surprisingly intriguing part of the story, and it is particularly fascinating to see James’s examinations of some of the world’s key religious beliefs.  Absolute Proof is a powerful and exciting book that expertly combines its thriller storyline with its deep and absorbing religious background to create a marvellous read that will leave you thinking about what you believe in.

My Rating:

Four stars