Usagi Yojimbo

November 25, 2014 at 4:12 pm (Reads) (, )

Usagi YojimboUsagi Yojimbo, volumes 19-28, and Yokai, by Stan Sakai

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Last year, I had set myself a goal to read 50 books.  My reading had slackened over the previous years, and I figured giving myself a goal would help me pick it back up again.  I think I could have made it, had I not opted to read the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series, as well as The Wise Man’s Fear (among those six books, I could have counted them as eighteen regular books), and I toyed with reading a whole bunch of graphic novels at the end of the year to catch up to my magic number.  I decided against it, since I wanted to go about the process honestly.  This year, I set the same goal, and have already blown past it, (leaving a sonic boom behind me as I go, I should add), so reading a block of Usagi Yojimbo collections isn’t going to make a difference in reaching that goal.  Besides, when I made my list of series to finish reading, I ordered them in reverse chronological order, and this is just where Usagi managed to land.

When I was going through and determining which series I had yet to finish, I was surprised that Usagi Yojimbo was in there at all.  It has always been a favorite series of mine, and I don’t know why I stopped reading them.  A lot has happened since then (ten more collections, a stand-alone graphic novel, and a collection of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy stories, to say nothing of the hiatus the ongoing series has been on for two years), and I’m pleased to be caught up.  I don’t plan on letting it fall to the side again.

The stories of Usagi Yojimbo are usually morality plays centered on life in Feudal Japan.  Usagi is a masterless samurai who roams Japan, doing work here and there, and usually serving as the moral compass of the series.  The themes of the stories center on honor, integrity, and responsibility, showcased through the eyes of Usagi and those he encounters on his travels.  The stories tend to feel very honest, and even have a feeling of innocence about them, even as they take on heavy issues regarding life and death.  Sakai draws from a number of resources for his stories, including Japanese history (he includes notations for the factual events he includes in his stories), and while a number of the stories focus on supernatural occurrences, those, too, are steeped in Japanese culture.  I’ve recommended this series to many people over the years, especially young adults, given that the stories are positive, educational, and fulfilling.

It’s easy to dismiss the series overall as a kids’ comic, since the characters are all anthropomorphized animals, but while the artwork looks cartoonish, it’s anything but simple.  Sakai understands graphic storytelling, taking the time to create establishing shots, populating large crowds with distinctive people, finding the visual nuances of each character and their expressions, and creating scenes that convey action without getting lost in a lot of detail.  Given the subject matter, there’s a lot of death that takes place in the series, but it’s never drawn in a gruesome fashion.  The only time Sakai includes blood in a scene is when it’s important to the event; when people are cut or stabbed or otherwise injured, we only see the circumstance, not the details, and when characters do die, Sakai indicates so by drawing a death’s head in the character’s word bubble.  It’s a very understated, suggested way of portraying the violence, without trivializing the consequences.

Overall, I think Usagi Yojimbo represents the best of what comic books and sequential art have to offer, for all readers, of all ages.  If you haven’t started reading it, it’s worth your time to find the first collection and get started.

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