Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 13 – Grey Shadows – Stan Sakai

It is hard for any story to follow the mammoth epic that preceded this volume. But this handful of stand-alone tales both blend perfectly into Usagi’s journey and appear distinctively different. We have moved from the historical grandeur of nation spanning events to the intimate emotions of individuals.

A new theme that makes its debut here is the murder mystery. Given the rigid rules regarding evidence, social class and examination of the dead, being a detective is almost impossible in this setting. But we are introduced to the new character of Inspector Ishida and his quaint notion of “Justice for All.” Like many previous stories they don’t actually need Usagi as he is very much in the background and it might even have paid to give Inspector Ishida his own comic. But he does fit very well into the world that Sakai has created.

This is also a very educational issue too. We learn all about sword testing, detective work, courtesans, theatre, and more without ever leaving the plot at hand. Another of the themes present is that of children. From individual children and the joy and pain they bring, to whole orphanages. Sakai seems to have an affinity for their mannerisms and speech and they lighten some very dark themes.

Another definite Thumbs Up!

166/199.

Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 14 – Demon Mask – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 12 – Grasscutter – Stan Sakai

There comes a time in every creative person’s life when, upon reaching a certain level of success, they are tempted to get either a bit experimental or just plain too big for their boots. When Will Eisner (comic book granddaddy) starts writing your forewords you know you have reached this level.

You quickly get the sense that Sakai has bitten off more than he can chew. If your story needs FOUR prologues that last for more than 50 pages then this is a warning sign something is wrong. Make those prologues about ancient politics and religion with footnotes and a huge appendix and you have rapidly lost your reader.

Having said that, if you can endure this trial or skip over it completely, you enter into one of Usagi’s most dramatic adventures yet. In comic books the “end of the world” theme is tried and tested but how would bring such an apocalypse to mediaeval Japan? In a culture based on social structure and an ordered society the discovery of something that would change that social order permanently is a powerful weapon indeed.

Like the Dragon Bellow Conspiracy this tale is a single epic that really has you on the edge of your seat. Seemingly inconsequential characters and threads from previous books are brought together in significant ways here. Everything clicks into place neatly and leaves you open mouthed at this incredible example of careful plotting.

The art is clearly second fiddle to the words and it is easy to not give it a second glance as the story rushes headlong to it final conclusion. But there are some nice touches. There is a supernatural influence and it is portrayed by subtle changes to the lettering and small intrusions into the pictures. The art has not been skimped on and the usual care has been taken but like a beautiful landscape seen from a train it is gone all too quickly.

This is a shaky start but you should have faith enough by now to trust that your patience will be rewarded. Thumbs Up!

165/200.

Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 13 – Grey Shadows – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 11 – Seasons – Stan Sakai

This volume represents all that is excellent about the Usagi series. It is a lucky dip of stories meaning that you can’t predict what you will read about next. This is a beautiful blend of themes and subjects that offer much to the reader. There are traditional and modern tales, some with Usagi and other familiar characters and some without. There are things that take place in Usagi’s past and new characters whose relevance will only be explained in future issues. We learn more about medieval Japan and the ways of the samurai in a clear but non-patronising way.

The art is solid but without the impressive veneer we have seen in previous volumes sadly. If there is one theme that is getting old it is that of the friendly stranger that turns out to be an evil demon of some sort. This may be a staple of Japanese storytelling but we have become inured to the shock that such a revelation should instil in us.

The volumes are getting longer giving you more bunny for your buck which can’t be bad. Another Thumbs Up!

164/201.

Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 12 – Grasscutter – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 10 – The Brink of Life and Death – Stan Sakai

You don’t buy a Samurai comic book to learn about the minutia of seaweed farming. You want fights and action and drama. Yet when Stan Sakai teaches you all about Kaiso (seaweed farming) you sit there enthralled as another culture and another time comes to life before your eyes. It is these glimpses into traditional everyday life that make Usagi’s world so enthralling and so believable. It is also this calmness that makes the violence so powerful. When you have spent pages being introduced simple defenceless folk who are murdered without cause it really has an impact, just as violence should.

This is the usual sprinkling of tales of all sorts. Usagi is in most of them but we learn more about those whom he meets than his own story save how a samurai should act when he meets people of all stations. This book is a wonderful glimpse into a different and fascinating world and it is a real emotional journey with some quite tragic tales. The art is good but subtly plays second fiddle to the narrative with no bold or cinematic moments. A definitive Thumbs Up!

163/202.

Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 11 – Seasons – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 9 – Daisho – Stan Sakai

This is an excellent read that balances all the aspects of what makes Usagi a success. There are several independent stories, no doubt based on classic tales from Japan, that seem to blend into each other as our hero journeys through life. There are characters from previous adventures and consequences from earlier tales. There is much history and culture to be learnt as the traditions and crafts of old are brought effortlessly to life. All of these elements are fused together fluently. The reading experience feels so light yet compelling. It is surprising how much you take away and how quickly you sail through the pages.

The art is great and back to the fine line work of old. There were one or two panels that were meant to be read across both pages and that wasn’t clear until after you read them the wrong way but this was an isolated blip. Thumbs Up!

162/203.

Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 10 – The Brink of Life and Death – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 8 – Shades of Death – Stan Sakai

I didn’t think I would like this volume at first as it begins with a lengthy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles appearance and I personally detest crossovers. Even though the TMNT are animals they are from the human world of the readers and their humour and character is completely at odds with the traditional world of Usagi. At one point they further destroy the frail reality by speculating how Usagi and his fellow animals “evolved” into people and come up with other similar anachronisms. This is a shame as the story they inhabit is an important one dealing with one of the Ninja clan making trouble for Usagi.

The other stories are excellent and feature some very bold storytelling. There is one concerning a pack of tokage lizards. Although it features Usagi and others there is no dialogue just the “eep” of the lizards. It is testament to the writing and artistry that you still follow exactly what is happening even without speech.

The art is good and there are a number of little touches where the art shines. Such as art leaving one panel and crossing into the next, different styles for flashbacks and narrated passages, clever inverted white on black for thunder flashes and so on. These things are easily overlooked but make a real difference. There is one story that is told from the point of view of a roadside shrine. It consists of several pages that feature exactly the same panel. The viewer’s eye is fixed on the same vista and we only see what passes through that vista. Yet we see Usagi doing what he does best and learn all about Jizo the divine protector of children.

Despite the rocky start this turns into a distinct Thumbs Up!

161/204.

Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 9 – Daisho – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 7 – Gen’s Story – Stan Sakai

This is a thick volume with many stories. Some are standalone tales of samurai lore, both good and bad, but the star is the titular Gen’s tale. We get to see how the loveable rogue became a bounty hunter and see his childhood. It is an emotional tale that brings greater depth and understanding to one of the most popular characters. We also have the ominously titled “The Last Ino Story” which is certainly dramatic reading.

The art is to a high standard with some dramatic panels but lacks the cinematic majesty of previous volumes. There is a tale within a tale as a villager relates a story to Usagi and this flashback account has a subtly different art style that adds to the storytelling. This is not quite a Double but certainly a mighty Thumbs Up!

160/205.

Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 8 – Shades of Death – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 6 – Circles – Stan Sakai

This has something for everyone. There are the stand alone folk tales that could involve any samurai and there are the personal dramas of Usagi himself. There is a good balance and those that don’t advance our hero’s story are dramatic and engaging. There are some shock characters from the past that you didn’t think would return.

The art style seems to have a lighter touch now than the previous volume. The fine line work from the earliest issues is still few and far between unfortunately.

This is a really enjoyable addition bringing genuine insight into the life of a samurai. It also has a great twist at the end meaning this is a definite Thumbs Up!

159/206.

Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 7 – Gen’s Story – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 5 – Lone Goat and Kid – Stan Sakai

After the high that was the Volume Four epic this is a more sedate and low key collection of stories. It can’t compete with what has gone before so it does not try. These are shorter, self-contained tales but all are very well written and display the usual Sakai class. One of them is a retelling of the familiar Lone Wolf and Cub story but with a goat and his kid.

There is so much attention to detail present in the Usagi world and in one story we learn all about how kites are made. It is a simple yet fascinating depiction of someone’s everyday trade. Although none of our familiar characters are present we are fascinated none the less and it seamlessly dovetails into to larger plot.

The art has changed slightly with the lines becoming much thicker and as a result there is more black on the page. It is a marked contrast to the earlier style of fine line work. It seems as if Stan has picked up the wrong pen by mistake and hasn’t noticed. I hope we see a return to the more delicate style in future but Thumbs Up!

158/207.

Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 6 – Circles – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 4 – The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy – Stan Sakai

I was told before I read this that it was the best of the Usagi Yojimbo stories. They were right. After the last volume of fragmented parables this is a continuous, original epic. From the very start you get the feeling that this will be an incredible work. With each chapter the scale and tension builds as layer upon layer of drama and excitement is heaped ever higher.

All the major characters (including some you have forgotten) are here and you really don’t know who will survive. Even those new faces that come and go in this issue are all well rounded and have their own presence. The whole story is tinged with unpredictability but is so simple and well-crafted you are never lost or confused.

The art is incredible. The story zips along so fast that it is easy to skip over the pictures. Slow down and look at the artistry that is present. Many of the panels are mini works of art with such simple yet dramatic composition they tell a whole story by themselves. It is humbling to see what a few lines can do. The dialogue free fight scenes are also a bold and perfect statement.

Everything about this is faultless. The code of bushido and hundreds of years of Japanese history are expertly interwoven within this work. People make their decision to live or die based on their beliefs and happy endings are few, just as it should be. Double Thumbs Up!

157/208.

Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 5 – Lone Goat and Kid – Stan Sakai