Waiting on Wednesday – Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 35: Homecoming by Stan Sakai

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For this latest Waiting on Wednesday I take a look at one of my most anticipated reads for the first half of 2021, the next volume of Stan Sakai’s epic Usagi Yojimbo comic series, Homecoming.

Usagi Yojimbo - Homecoming

I have made it no secret that I am a huge fan of Stan Sakai’s long-running and exceptional Usagi Yojimbo series, and it easily one of my favourite comic book series of all time.  The Usagi Yojimbo comics are set in an alternate version of feudal Japan and follow the protagonist, rabbit samurai Miyamoto Usagi, as he adventures through a land populated by anthropomorphic animals.  This outstanding series has been going since the 1980s, and I have had an amazing time reading and rereading this cool comic over the years due to the excellent combination of compelling stories, complex characters and breathtaking artwork.  In recent years I have reviewed some of the latest volumes when they are released (including Volume 32: Mysteries, Volume 33: The Hidden and Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories), and I have also gone back and started reviewing the earlier entries in the series, which has proved to be a lot of fun.  My only regret about being a Usagi Yojimbo fan is that only one volume of the comic is released each year, and once I get a copy, I have to wait an entire year for the next volume.

Luckily for me, my wait is nearly over as the next volume of this series, Homecoming, is currently set for release on 27 April 2021.  Homecoming will be the 35th volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series and will contain issues #8-14 of the current run of the series, which is published by IDW.  This means that the upcoming volume will be printed in colour, which is a relatively new feature that was started in the last volume, and which adds some fantastic visual detail to the story.  In this latest upcoming volume, it looks like Usagi will journey to some of the most important locations from his past and find himself once again involved in the nefarious plots of one of his most dangerous enemies.

Synopsis:

Volume Two of the new series sees Usagi return to his home province to pay his respects, but ghosts from his past have other plans.

In “Tatami,” Usagi returns to his home province only to find intrigue and betrayal! An important tea ceremony is about to take place, but what sinister plan does Lord Hikiji have for it and how are the Neko ninja clan involved?

Then, in “Mon,” long ago, Lord Hikiji defeated Usagi’s Lord Mifune to take control of the Northern Province. Usagi, now traveling through his old territories, still wears the mon (a family crest) of his former lord. But, there are those who still remember the Great Wars with bitterness and threaten to kill any samurai loyal to Mifune. What happens when they come across Usagi?

In “The Return,” Usagi is on a pilgrimage to his late lord’s gravesite, however, wearing the Mifune clan crest in Lord Hikiji’s territory has made him an enemy. Traveling through this dangerous land he has made his way to the one place he had been avoiding–the village in which he grew up. Bittersweet memories awaken with his long-time love, until the village becomes embroiled in a plot to assassinate an emissary of the shogun.

Ooh, now this sounds like it is going to be a rather cool collection of connected stories, and I have a very strong feeling that I am really going to enjoy them.  People familiar with the comic will know that the Lord Hikiji mentioned above is the major overarching antagonist of Usagi Yojimbo; he not only killed both Usagi’s father and his lord in the past but has also been plotting against the Shogun and several of Usagi’s friends in the current plot line.  Hikiji’s schemes have taken a bit of a back seat in recent years, with Usagi dealing with other antagonists and dangers, although he was so well built up in the earlier entries of this series that he is always a lurking shadow in the Usagi Yojimbo universe.  As a result, I am rather intrigued to see an entire volume that is going to be dedicated to Usagi facing off against Hikiji’s minions again, especially as they are going to tie directly into the wars that made Usagi a masterless, wandering samurai.

All three of the stories mentioned in the synopsis sound really cool and I look forward to seeing how each of them turns out.  The first story, Tatami, will apparently revolve around a tea ceremony, with Hikiji and the Neko Ninja operating some elaborate scheme around it.  Sakai has presented some truly masterful depictions of the traditional tea ceremony before, and I imagine that you will see some cool artwork in this upcoming volume, which will no doubt really pop with the added colour.  It will be really interesting to see how this entire story turns out, and no doubt it will serve as the basis for the rest of the narratives contained within Homecoming.

The next story in this volume, Mon, also sounds extremely compelling, and I think it is going to be a fantastic addition to HomecomingMon will apparently see Usagi return to the battlefields of his youth, where he will encounter those who hold a grudge against Usagi’s deceased lord and his now masterless retainers, and who will have issue with Usagi wearing the crest of his lord (the three dots shaped in a triangle that have been part of Usagi’s clothes for essentially his entire run).  There are so many potentially awesome ways that this story can go, and I look forward to seeing how the wars affected other characters aside from Usagi and how running into other veterans or victims will impact him.  In particular, I look forward to seeing Usagi’s role in the battle of Adachi Plain (as shown in Volume 2: Samurai, Volume 11: Seasons and in Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories), once again come to the fore of the story, and no doubt Usagi will have some issues with some of the survivors of these wars.  This entire scenario has a lot of potential to be awesome, and I cannot wait to see how Sakai revisits this integral part of Usagi’s backstory.

The final story mentioned in the synopsis is The Return (which incidentally is the name of a historical fiction book I am reading at the moment), which sees Usagi journey back to his childhood village, where yet another plot awaits.  Out of all the stories that have been mentioned for this volume, I think that The Return is the one that has the most potential for dramatic and emotionally rich moments, as Usagi has so much history waiting for him back at his village.  You have to assume that Usagi will once again encounter Mariko, the love of his life who he can never be with, and Kenichi, his old childhood rival who ended up marrying Mariko.  There is also a chance that he will once again come across Jotaro, his secret son with Mariko, who has previously travelled with Usagi as his pupil.  The two previous stories which saw Usagi return home (as seen in Volume 1: The Ronin and Volume 6: Circles) were loaded with some incredible and heartbreaking character moments, and I imagine a lot of these issues will once again rise to the surface in this latest story.  Throw in an assassination plot and you have the basis for a truly outstanding Usagi Yojimbo story which I cannot wait to read.

I think it is pretty clear after seeing me go on about this upcoming volume that I am really going to enjoy Usagi Yojimbo: Homecoming.  All of the featured stories mentioned in the synopsis sound pretty damn epic, and I love the fact that Sakai is going to dive into some pretty heavy storylines that could have some significant impact on the overall series.  Based on how much I have loved every single other Usagi Yojimbo comic I have ever read, I know well in advance that Homecoming is probably going to get a five-star review from me and it will no doubt be one of the best things I read in 2021.

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.

Usagi 166.jpg

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.

Usagi 167.jpg

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.

Usagi 168.jpg

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.

Usagi 169.jpg

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.

Usagi 170.jpg

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.

Usagi 171.jpg

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.

Usagi 172.jpg

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.