Stan Sakai’s “Usagi Yojimbo” has always been one of the comic industry’s greatest unsung treasures. From humble beginnings at Fantagraphics to Mirage Comics and a long stint at Dark Horse, the rabbit ronin has consistently been on excellent adventures through feudal Japan always under the pen of his creator. Now that Stan’s moved his anthropomorphic mythos to IDW with added colors by longtime cover colorist Tom Luth, let’s see how the latest fresh start fares.
Written, Illustrated and Lettered by Stan Sakai
Colored by Tom Luth
Follow the adventures of rabbit rōnin Miyamoto Usagi as he wanders Edo period Japan on his warrior’s journey. In the start of this three-part story, Usagi becomes embroiled in a puppet drama where the players are not quite what they seem! Written, drawn, and lettered by comics legend Stan Sakai! Colors by Tom Luth (Groo the Wanderer)!
Interestingly enough, this comic doesn’t actually open up with a classic Usagi adventure. We’re instead introduced to one of the more fan-favorite support characters, Sasuke the Demon Queller, and dropper in media res to one of his demon hunts. It’s a great way to start a story for two reasons. We’re not only intrigued that the first character we see isn’t the one on the cover, but we’re thrown instantly into fast-paced, supernatural battle to survive. Sakai plays wonderfully with expectations here. New readers are shown that the world of “Usagi Yojimbo” is much more complicated than just a historical rabbit samurai adventure, whilst longtime fans will be glad to see old favorites come back to be further fleshed out and used. My only qualm with this focus on Sasuke is that it means for less focus on Usagi, and for a book that will be a first for many new readers, this seems like an odd decision.
When we do move to old Miyamoto Usagi however, it’s in the context of him visiting a village and watching a classical Bunraku. Stan Sakai excels at weaving cultural Japanese lessons into his stories: it’s part of the reason their so addicting to consume, and this is absolutely the case here. We’re thrown into the scene with two men quarreling over a princess, who then proceeds to turn into a demon and attack one of the lucky guys. The scene then pans out to show Usagi watching in amazement at how skilled the puppeteers are at operating their vessels, showing us cleverly through dialogue that not only is this the art of Bunraku but that it is a type of play involving puppets and a narrator to convey the dialogue. The reader is even further hooked since Sasuke was earlier warned of supernatural elements in this area, so the reader is constantly suspicious of the nature of this performance, especially considering it involves a portrayal of a demon. Sakai cleverly uses these plot points to keep readers actively invested and engaged in the ongoing storyline, drip-feeding clues as the tale unravels.
If you’re in the know, you should be aware that one of life’s great pleasures is indulging in fine Stan Sakai art. This issue is no exception to that rule. Sakai’s art is deceptively simple yet hides layers and layers of depth and finetuning. From the very first page, the action starts to flow, with Sakai controlling the perception of time like you would when slowly turning a water tap on. The first page is a fantastic suspension, with Sasuke holding his sword pre-swing in a moment fraught with tension before the reader turns the page. Once they do, Sasuke’s sword is unleashed, and things get moving with simple, easy to follow action choreography. Readers are urged then to stop briefly and take in the intricacy that goes into rendering the hoards of unique demons piling onto Sasuke. Before long, Sakai introduces a giant, horned demon, playing with perspective in order to show the sheer terror of this creature, but also to cleverly fit everything comfortably on the panel. The sequence continues, with Sakai using different panel techniques, like an almost flat, side-on shot that evokes traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e art, helping to keep the fight interesting and dynamic. Finally, Sakai caps the whole experience off with Sasuke felling the demon in a weighty couple of panels that once again, slow time right down. The sequence captures every shot of Sasuke and the demon falling from the strike before the latter pops out a signature Sakai death-speech bubble. It’s a masterful action sequence executed seamlessly in a way only Sakai could manage.Continued below
Once this is through, we get to take in some more of Sakai’s super cartooning in different ways. The Bunraku sequence cleverly plays with detail to separate the puppets from the real. The lack of detail and shallow display of emotions the characters show seems like an artistic fault before we realize that these are puppets being manipulated by shadowy operators. Once we see the play-reality and the real intertwine, the difference becomes much more clear and helps to convey that cultural learning that Sakai loves to play with. This doesn’t mean that Sakai is inept at conveying emotion, however. Sakai’s simplistic style allows for a lot of emotional depth within his characters. Take, for instance, the conversation between Usagi and Takagi-sensei, the play’s narrator. Usagi is quick to suspicion, and we see this whenever his eyes widen in cartoon anger before Sakai quickly renders them normal again as if Usagi is quick to hide his own suspicion. Takagi-sensei, however, remains placid and oblique whilst explaining the play, only partially revealing a potentially sinister hand when his eyebrows dip in suspicion after Usagi leaves. Sakai cleverly uses subtle changes in his simplistic art to convey emotion, something which would be less effective in a more realistic style.
Whilst Sakai’s artwork was always marvelous to look at in black and white, Tom Luth’s colors are a welcome addition to the foray. What’s immediately noticeable is that Luth’s palette and tone are gently desaturated, in order to evoke the more rustic feel of feudal Japan, but also to not distract from Sakai’s intricate linework. Luth punches up the vibrancy in key moments, however, showing his skill at storytelling. The horned demon breathing fire on Sasuke is beautiful and stark, Usagi’s upper torso is a stark blue to make him pop from the rest of the characters, and the interior lighting, while the Bunraku is playing, is warm and candlelit. Similarly, the spirit that aids Sasuke, Lord Shoki, glows with stark white radiance. The glow looks a little simple and evocative of early digital coloring, but it’s not substantially offensive enough to detract from the experience and supports the story nonetheless.
With “Usagi Yojimbo” #1, Sakai proves to remain one of the most consistently delightful and masterful storytellers in the comics industry working today. The story is open and engaging, the visual storytelling is incredibly deep, and like the best “Usagi” stories, everything is infused with a clever lesson in Japanese culture and folklore. With Tom Luth’s superb coloring on board, this is the perfect time to get on board with the rabbit ronin’s feudal adventures.
Final Score: 9.0 – With an intriguing support cast and masterful sequential action, “Usagi Yojimbo” #1 continues to be one of the greats.