This volume concerns the demon Jei. Jei can be seen as a poor villain, being nameless, faceless and almost impossible to kill. He lacks the human qualities and characteristics to make a great antagonist. He has no sense of honour, driving passion, intense emotion and appropriate knowledge of Bushido. Much like the proverbial zombie horde he exists put our heroes under pressure.
He is a credible threat however. The amount of people he has killed and his portrayal as an unstoppable force makes for genuine tension when he crosses path with your favourite characters. You know Stan Sakai would not hesitate to kill the animals you love if the story demanded it. This is what makes his work so great. You don’t know what will happen next but you know it will be the right thing.
This volume also reveals Jei’s origin story. For a hero this is one of the highlights of their fictional career. For a villain finding out their back-story can often render them toothless and neutered. Hannibal Lecter is a great example. Part of a villain’s menace, and Jei’s in particular, is not knowing where he came from and what he is capable of. The first rule of horror is not to show the audience the monster.
This reveal actually makes Jei a much stronger character and anchors him into the storyline and the setting of feudal Japan. By adding depth to the mystery you open up lots of possibilities for future tales and make potential confrontations much more exciting.
The art is great and because Jei’s face is so stylised you can transpose him/ her/ it onto other characters (as we saw with Usagi) with ease. Like the regenerations of Doctor Who Jei’s nature is certainly an asset. The more you see of him however the less terrifying he is. But he does have mileage in him yet. Thumbs Up!
Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 25 – Fox Hunt – Stan Sakai
This is an excellent collection of samurai tales mixing honour and duty with bittersweet endings. Although unmistakably Japanese they are very accessible to the Western reader – just one of Stan Sakai’s many gifts.
The art is delightful particularly as it seems to be raining throughout the entire volume. This is a brave choice for an artist as it creates much more work for them to do. The result is spectacular however, particularly as we are not used to seeing rain in comics.
The star of the show is Usagi as Jei the Demon Blade of the Gods. From one frightening illustration several volumes ago to a full story. The future is not boding well.
This edition also marks the 100th issue under the Dark Horse imprint. They celebrate by having a “Comedy Roast” with different artist drawing an evening with Stan Sakai. Unless you are a major geek this will be of little interest to you but it is a testament to the high esteem in which the industry holds Stan.
Definitely Thumbs Up!
Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 24 – Return of the Black Soul – Stan Sakai
Having begun to peer into Tomoe’s background in the last volume we clearly can’t get enough. This is a collection of her stories in the past and present including explaining how she entered the service of Lord Noriyuki.
Also following on from previous volumes this one explores more mature themes than just action adventure although this is never really absent. This is a subtler volume and touches on the roles of women in samurai culture.
The last story is simply a portrayal of the tea ceremony with very little dialogue. This ritual is a vital and sacred part of Japanese culture and not only do we learn of this fascinating spectacle but we see into the hearts of its participants.
Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 23 – Bridge of Tears – Stan Sakai
From the moment you see a single story listed in the table of contents page you know this will be special. Usagi and Tomoe met in the first ever issue and although they cross paths quite frequently they rarely get the chance to adventure together. This sees the two of them embroiled in a dastardly plot that spells political and physical danger.
We also get to learn a little of Tomoe’s history and family. Through this we are introduced to one of the most dastardly villains you could imagine. Not a cackling two-dimensional cartoon of a baddie but someone dangerous and genuinely scary. This book sets up a great many subtle ideas that you just know will reappear when you have all but forgotten about them.
The art is great as always. The story begins with a five page fight that is virtually wordless yet says so much about the characters involved. The story also ends with a lone character’s journey which is almost as mute making a nice bookend.
This is a real page turner that although appears straightforward will no doubt have repercussions for everyone in future. Thumbs Up!
Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 22 – Tomoe’s Story – Stan Sakai
This volume is a series of single issue stories. Most of them don’t feature Usagi at all but are little highlights from the supporting cast such as Gen, Tomoe, Priest Sanshobo, Inspector Ishida and so on. As well as serving as little proverbs and wry insights into human nature they also make a welcome break from the deep emotional themes of the previous volume and cleanse our palette ready for future gruelling reads.
This volume also marks the twentieth anniversary of Usagi’s creation. It is no mean feat to have stayed in business for so long and to have sustained both exceptional high quality and what feels like one continuous storyline. They say time flies when you are having fun but it really is hard to believe that is volume marks two decades of being captivated by a remarkable rabbit.
Thumbs Up all round!
Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 21 – The Mother of Mountains – Stan Sakai
Stan Sakai is clearly at the top of his game. Even though from the very first volume he proved to be an enthralling storyteller his craft has now been honed like the blade of the finest katana. These stories focus more on emotion than drama and offer us a selection of feelings that all of us have probably experienced in our lives. This is a thoughtful, reflective volume that shows us not only what it means to be a samurai but to be a human being. Few writers would have the skill, or courage, to attempt such a task.
This volume typified how rich and complete the world of Usagi is. A story can feel like a linear conveyer belt of trials and tribulations: Usagi is like a jigsaw of a beautiful landscape. With each new volume we get to add a few more pieces to an epic vista. We know roughly what the overall picture is but it is only by piecing together the little details that were hinted at long ago do we uncover the rich splendour of this unique world. This is not just the adventures of a single rabbit but the history of fascinating time, place and people.
The theme of this work is fathers and sons as Usagi wrestles with the choice of whether to tell Jotaro the truth of his heritage. The Lone Goat and Kid also make another appearance as do some new fathers and their sons. Other, non-paternal, stories are told too including an excellent but tragic recollection from Usagi’s Sensei Katsuichi. All of these are themes that we can personally identify with so this volume has a real impact for the reader.
The art is excellent as always. It is very hard to write much about Sakai’s art. It is so perfectly appropriate that it becomes invisible. The advantage of having the writer and artist as the same person is clearly evident as the two never come into conflict. They are perfectly balanced. Sometimes more words are needed so the art will fall silent. Sometimes we must see things for ourselves so the words will subdue. It is clearly a liberating method to have absolute control over both tools when creating and expressing your story. The two are perfectly balanced and never come into conflict. The writer and artist have no need to compete or show off. They are the Yin and Yang on the page.
This isn’t the most dramatic, shocking or enthralling volume but it feels the most personal, and the most moving, and that is why it deserves a Double Thumbs Up!
Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 20 – Glimpses of Death – Stan Sakai
They say never work with children or animals. The idea of a whole volume featuring a child who is actually an animal (Usagi’s “nephew” Jotaro) might fill some readers, and writers, with dread. Fortunately Sakai has a gift for portraying children and Jotaro is only as annoying as absolutely necessary. Whilst he fulfils the role of all children in literature, to be kidnapped and ask awkward questions, he does not overshadow events.
This volume is a good excuse for Usagi to introduce Jotaro to some of the people he has met on his travels and to recount some of the hard learnt lessons of his own youth. Sakai has created quite a large supporting cast and it is testament to his skill that he uses them judiciously. They aren’t simply vehicles to deliver plot to Usagi. You very much get the sense that Usagi is there by chance and if he wasn’t around then those characters would probably solve their own problems as they have been doing since he last met them. There are some new adversaries introduced and you get the feeling there will be trouble on the road ahead.
The tales in this work get steadily more supernatural but are handled with skill and still maintain an air of realism. Whilst the final battle features a Godzilla-style giant monster showdown even then everything happens for a reason. You have to admire any writer who can have you trembling at the idea of a haunted paintbrush. The art is excellent throughout as always and the children have a real energy and dynamism to them. The most incredible Usagi drawing appears on the table of contents for this volume and is not part of a story. It is what Usagi would look like if he were ever possessed by Jae-san. That demonic grin is really chilling and you pray you will never see it again.
Absolutely a Thumbs Up!
Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 19 – Fathers and Sons – Stan Sakai
This is an eagerly anticipated or possibly dreaded volume. There is a great story showcasing the return of Lone Goat and Kid which really shows Sakai’s talent for portraying children. There is also a good standalone story with a great twist. But the star of the show is of course the Duel between Usagi’s sensei and a skilled swordsman that Usagi has come to respect and even consider a friend.
You know that someone is going to die and you don’t want them to. This is not a case of a showdown with good and evil. This is the meeting of two masters, neither of whom deserves to lose. Sakai’s building of tension, page after page, as the two men journey ever closer to their rendezvous is incredible. As the reader you are almost holding your breath praying that they will find some way to make peace or avoid the duel. But filled with Bushido Sakai does not back down and both men enter the duel leading to some of the most tense page turns in Usagi’s history…
Nothing less than a Double Thumbs Up!
Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 18 – Travels with Jotaro – Stan Sakai
This is a very interesting volume. Sakai is either directly channelling the spirit of Akira Kurosawa or completely ripping him off. One of the stories is almost a direct retelling of the film Yojimbo. But as he has been retelling Japanese literature for 15 volumes then we shouldn’t start getting all uppity.
This is a very creative volume however. In one of the stories several characters talk directly to the reader, looking right at you as they do so and recounting the time they met the ‘long eared samurai.’ This is an excellent technique not often seen in comics.
The art is also particularly imaginative in this volume both in terms of the panel layout, taking on almost a feng shui orderliness, bringing real beauty to the page, and the expertly drawn content.
The focus shifts away from Usagi in this volume and we see the struggles of Chizu Gen and Kitsune amongst others. Certainly a memorable read and definitely a Thumbs Up!
Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 17 – Duel at Kitanoji – Stan Sakai
Up till now we have only seen Stan Sakai’s gentle, graceful touch as a storyteller. In this volume he really gets to flex his literary muscles employing a range of masterful techniques and methods to enthral us. But this isn’t him showing off or waving his ego about. This is the smoking volcano finally erupting and paying off all the subtle setups from the previous volumes. For some time we have known of the plan to take Grasscutter to the temple and now we finally see it executed.
Like a chess grandmaster the pieces have been moved into position, almost unseen, months previously. When we stumble across an unexpected character we don’t think “how convenient” but curse ourselves for not spotting the fact they were there all along. As well as the epic tale of Grasscutter there are fates of real people to be decided and in some cases concluded.
Right from the start the tension, danger and drama builds and is sustained for more than a hundred pages. With so many players interested in the sword there is a constant battle for possession which has you on the edge of your seat. You really don’t know which way things will go from one page to the next and there is a masterfully executed twist that takes your breath away. Right up to the end you are holding your breath waiting for the final curtain.
Just as the story is masterfully told the art too has exploded with brilliance. It is bold, innovative and dramatic; perfectly in tune with the tale it is telling. There are a lot of fight scenes and even without dialogue these are incredibly expressive and make really tense viewing.
Even though this is an epic story that affects an entire nation it is the humble people, the decisions they make and the actions they take that form the building blocks of this work. Duty, honour, friendship and sacrifice are what motivates our heroes to achieve great deeds and makes the story personal and accessible to the reader.
This might be the finest Usagi story ever told and so truly deserves the Double Thumbs Up!
Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 16 – The Shrouded Moon – Stan Sakai