Sunday, 31 August 2014

Usagi Yojimbo, Volume 2: Samurai Review (Stan Sakai)


The first Usagi Yojimbo book collected the initial short comics that the character first appeared in before Stan Sakai decided to make a series out of him. This second book collects the beginning few issues in the ongoing (30 years!) Usagi Yojimbo series, and it’s definitely more of a sustained narrative than the bits and pieces of the first volume. 

A wordless duel between Usagi and another samurai sets the stage for Usagi’s retelling of his origin story to Gen, the roguish mercenary from the first book. We see a young Usagi’s training under his sensei Katsuichi, learning how to become a master swordsman, as well as the beginning of his rivalry with Kenichi, the man who would marry his childhood love, Mariko. 

Sakai keeps up the increasingly tense narrative as Usagi uses his skills to save his village and eventually become part of Lord Mifune’s elite guard. But after a crushing defeat at the hands of the evil Lord Hikiji (who will become the main villain of the series), Usagi becomes a ronin (masterless samurai) culminating years later in the duel that opened this book - a delayed revenge for past treasons against a former friend. 

The volume rounds out with three short stories as Usagi faces a kappa (Japanese water demon), meets Zylla (a Godzilla caricature), and liberates some silk workers from their greedy boss. 

What’s amazing is how quickly Sakai has captured the tone of the series at only the second volume and maintained it for so long. I’ve read his recent Usagi work and it feels exactly like these kinds of comics. This volume isn’t rough or feels like the world needs fleshing out, it’s like it came fully formed right from the get go. 

Sakai’s art is wonderful and though there’s a lot of fighting, there’s absolutely no bloodshed and when characters expire a skull and crossbones appear in their speech bubbles, so it’s appropriate for all ages. 

I’m surprised Sakai went for the origin story right off the bat but it works really well, gets it out of the way, and sets the stage for Usagi to move onto newer adventures. The short stories at the end are fine but after such an epic narrative, they feel like b-sides more than anything, there to pad out the page count without really adding much. 

After a shaky first volume, Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo finds its feet with the second. It’s a great historical/samurai story with animal characters that’s a lot of a fun to read. Delightful comics!

Usagi Yojimbo, Volume 2: Samurai

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