Ronin Rabbit

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In 1600, a young punk known in history as Miyamoto Musashi walked away from the Battle of Sekigahara, possibly the most famous battle in Japanese history and became a ronin, or masterless samurai. From his rather humble beginnings, he became one of the most, if not the most, revered swordsmen in Japanese history, as well as an artist and a philosopher. He’s perhaps best known for being in a nasty fight one day and realizing that he had two swords and two hands, and should put them to good use.

In 1984, with the help of the masterful Stan Sakai, a walking, talking, clothes wearing, sword wielding rabbit named Miyamoto Usagi showed up in a comic called “Albedo.” Usagi, it seems, lost his master, Lord Mifune, in the Battle of Adachigahara. In the process, he, like many other samurai, became a ronin. Usagi reappeared a few times over the next few years, in “Critters,” “Doomsday Squad,” and the “Usagi Yojimbo Summer Special,” before getting his own ongoing series at Fantagraphics in 1987. Usagi has changed homes a few times since then, but has stayed in publication, and been with Dark Horse comics since 1996, and doesn’t look to be planning a move anytime in the near future.

When I was a young whippersnapper in the world of samurai fiction and Japanese history, feverishly catching up on both Sakai’s “Usagi Yojimbo” and Takehiko Inoue’s “Vagabond,” based on the early years of Miyamoto Musashi, I asked my friend, James, if he knew whether or not Miyamoto Usagi was based on Miyamoto Musashi. He kindly refrained from being overly sarcastic and settled for a simple “Naah.” before outlining several additional similarities and saying that, yes, “Usagi Yojimbo” is inspired by the life of Miyamoto Musashi. “Inspired by,” incidentally, is far and away the best description. Not only is Miyamoto Usagi world calmer and more responsible than any representation of a younger Miyamoto Musashi that I’ve seen, but anything resembling a true reenactment of Miyamoto Musashi’s life could never get by as an all ages book.

Having read every single Usagi Yojimbo story I could get my hands on (which, as far as I know, is every Usagi story) I can honestly say that there isn’t a clunker in the lot, a true rarity when you’re discussing over twenty years worth of consecutive stories. In fact, I read what was probably six or seven years of Stan Sakai’s output in the space of a week and didn’t notice a single continuity glitch or question, a rather impressive feat. When discussing Stan Sakai’s work on “Usagi Yojimbo,” one cannot really say that its “improved,” or “gotten better.” You see, saying that implies that there was something initially wrong, or not quite good enough, about his work in the first place. Sakai has, of course, grown as both and artist and a storyteller since he started Usagi Yojimbo, the first Usagi story, “The Goblin of Adachigahara,” is every bit as good in term of visuals, character and story as recent “Usagi Yojimbo” issues.

“Usagi Yojimbo” is an anthropomorphic comic. That is, every character in the book is some sort of humanoid animal, often named after the animal he or she represents. “Usagi,” for example, is Japanese for “rabbit,” and a female pickpocket and street performer, and friend of Usagi’s, named Kitsune is a fox. The most prominent “animals” in “Usagi Yojimbo,” as we would define animals in the same frame of reference, are lizard-like creatures called tokage that vaguely resemble herbivorous dinosaurs, and often play important roles in the story.

By making his characters anthropomorphic, Sakai is able to accomplish a number of things that he couldn’t if his characters were normal humans. First of all, Sakai is able to portray the often deadly and dangerous environment of 17th century Japan with accuracy without challenging the title’s status as an all ages book. While “Usagi Yojimbo” has a high quotient of violence, it’s extremely rare that any actual bloodshed is shown. Men charge at each other, yelling, and swords clash, and in the end, the loser’s death is signified by a bubble coming up from off panel, with a skull in it. Aside from the occasional injury, actual blood is shown only when it’s necessary for the greatest possible effect.

Its second area of usefulness is found in its ability to “de-alienate” certain aspects of Japanese life. To the western mind, many aspects of historical Japanese life, and its honor system, are simply unfathomable. For example, while we may be able to understand seppuku as a form of ritual suicide to atone for a loss of honor, the idea of that ritual suicide extending as far as a man’s wife, children, and even grandchildren, is something that our minds can’t quite grasp. However, what seems completely alien to us when applied to our fellow humans seems far less alien when applied to anthropomorphic characters, because it removes the concept from our personal realm of possibility.

Perhaps the most important thing using anthropomorphic characters allows Sakai to do, however, is incorporate aspects of Japanese mythology into the book without sacrificing its status as a historical tale, as opposed to fantasy. When applied to an historical tale using humans, creatures such as ghosts, demons, trolls and the like could not appear within the story without shifting it into the realm of fantasy. However, when your main character is a walking, talking, clothes wearing, sword wielding rabbit, and all his friends are similar, those same creatures can appear as natural parts of the character’s lives without sacrificing or changing its existing status.

Miyamoto Usagi himself is an extremely charming character, and it’s easy to see why he’s gathered, maintained, and increased a loyal following over the last twenty years. A bit of a rogue, especially in his earlier years, he’s an extremely kind, inquisitive soul who is not only incapable of staying out of trouble himself, but he’s also incapable of leaving another person in trouble. Usagi has an extremely defined and traditional Japanese concept of honor, but, at the same time, he is also able to look past the social boundaries of “samurai” and “peasant,” to see that all people are equally important. When other samurai in his position might demand that a peasant feed him and give him a bed, Usagi humbly asks if he may impose upon his host for a meal and a place by the fire, and often spends his evenings enchanting the children and young daughters of his hosts. As a result of his caring personality, more than one enemy and rival has become his friend. While Usagi’s lifestyle is that of a loner, his nature causes him to dig deep roots, the roots just stretch quite a ways, at least until he gets his wanderlust out of his system.

As with most good series, the strength of the book is often defined by its supporting cast, and the supporting cast of “Usagi Yojimbo” makes for some mighty strong pillars. The most prominent and central supporting characters are his friends Gennosuke and Tomoe, who could be said to represent the two sides of Usagi’s Life. Gennosuke, or Gen, is a rogue and bounty hunter, as well as being Usagi’s self-proclaimed best friend. He’s a rogue and a scoundrel, constantly involving Usagi in one scheme or another, and often getting Usagi into more trouble than he gets him out of. He and Usagi often trick the other into having to pay the tab for both of them, a habit started by Gen in their first meeting. Despite his faults, however, Gen is often loyal to the point where “to a fault” is likely an inadequate description, and despite his best efforts, he has yet to manage to keep his back turned on a person in need, especially a friend.

On the other hand, we have Tomoe, a female samurai and probably Usagi’s best chance at a future love interest, though it’s doubtful either of their eyes will ever fully open to that possibility. Like Usagi, Tomoe is a very traditional samurai, and she is fiercely loyal to her young lord, Noriyuki, the most adorable talking panda ever (honestly, I want to hug and cuddle him every time he appears). Next to his childhood home, Usagi feels most at home with Tomoe and Lord Noriyuki in the Geishu province, and he has a standing invitation to become a retainer there.

“Usagi Yojimbo” has a huge and extremely developed important cast, far too large to cover here. It’s extremely rare for even a minor character to be forgotten, and even a dead character’s passing has resonances. There is, for example, Chizu, another possible love interest of Usagi’s and possibly my favorite character. Chizu first appeared as the sister of Shingen, leader of the Neko ninja. In another writer’s hands, Chizu likely would have disappeared with her brother’s death. In Sakai’s hands, however, she has become and important, if rarely seen, character, beginning with taking over her clan after her brother’s death and struggling to maintain control despite treachery from within.

There’s also Katsuichi, Usagi’s sensei, or “teacher;” his childhood love Mariko, and her husband Kenichi; as well as the priest and former warrior, Sanshobo. Then there’s Inspector Ishida, a charming detective; and the most easily recognizable homages of the series, Yagi and Goro Goro, or “Lone Goat and Kid,” loving parodies of Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s “Lone Wolf and Cub.” Perhaps the most important member of “Usagi Yojimbo’s” supporting cast, however, is Jotaro, son of Mariko and Kenichi. Initially a boy who viewed Usagi through hero worship clouded eyes, Jotaro has taken on an increasingly important role in the series, despite often infrequent appearances. Currently, he and Usagi are withholding the same secret from each other, each fearing that revealing the secret will shatter the other’s world. Without going into too much detail, I’ll simply say that the resemblance is remarkable during flashbacks to Usagi’s childhood.

While James Clavell’s “Shogun” is regarded as the ultimate representation of Japanese life to the western world, I can’t help but feel that “Usagi Yojimbo” deserves equal standing. After all, “Shogun” focuses primarily on one aspect of Japanese life, leading up to one event, while Usagi covers as many aspects and functions of 17th century Japanese life and society as Stan Sakai can think of ways to cover on a bimonthly basis. And, let’s face it, when given the choice between a 200 page comic book collection with clear, pleasing art and good sized lettering, and a tome over 1100 pages long with near microscopic lettering, which option do you think your eyes would appreciate more. Mind you, this is coming from the girl who read the second half of “Shogun” in three days. While still catching up on the “Usagi Yojimbo” trades.

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