Thursday, 7 August 2014

Usagi Yojimbo, Volume 1: The Ronin Review (Stan Sakai)

I started reading Usagi Yojimbo comics when the volume count was in the 20s, so I missed all of the early comics; I think if I had started with this first volume, I wouldn’t know why people loved the series so much or how it’s managed to continue on to 28 volumes! That’s not to say that this first volume is crap, but it doesn’t have that special quality to it that impels you on to pick up the next one and the next and so on.

Stan Sakai’s legendary anthropomorphic rabbit character, Usagi Yojimbo (literally Japanese for “rabbit bodyguard”) is based upon the real life legendary 17th century samurai, Miyamoto Musashi (a man whose life also inspired the brilliant manga, Vagabond, which I also highly recommend). Usagi-san is made a ronin (masterless samurai) after his lord and master is killed in battle and spends his days wandering the country, taking protection jobs for money.

This first volume collects Usagi-san’s various early appearances in other comics before he got his own series and as such, he’s not a very developed character yet. Tonally the comics are treated as serious historical fiction, despite the animal characters, which implies a cutesy-approach, and Usagi-san’s expression and demeanour are reflective of that. Unfortunately, that quietly dangerous demeanour is all that makes up his personality at this point, so he comes off as a one-note lead who’s a bit dull to follow than the likeable and more-rounded fellow we come to know and love.

The stories themselves aren’t that inspired either – Usagi-san protects the kid of a feudal lord, he works with bounty hunters to get thieves, and basically does all the things you’d expect an honourable samurai would do, ie. protect the weak, fight oppressors, and so on. They’re not terribly written or drawn but if you’re coming at this book retroactively like me, having read the more recent Usagi Yojimbo volumes, they read a lot less compellingly and I was definitely disappointed with the lower level of quality this first book has compared to my high expectations for it. Sakai does go on to perfect the writing and art of the series but he hasn’t begun to do that yet with this first volume.

However, Sakai does leave the reader with a strong impression of Japanese history and culture of this time, especially with regards the warrior’s code and lifestyle. It’s also interesting to see human characters alongside animal ones as well as that weird situation where intelligent humanoid animal characters co-exist with animals who’re just regular animals.

The good thing about Usagi Yojimbo is that it’s a series where you can basically pick up any volume, whether this first volume or the latest, which is up to volume 28, and immediately understand what’s happening as Usagi-san’s a wanderer and so his stories are often quite limited and self-contained.

I’d recommend picking up this first volume if you’re interested in seeing where it all started for Sakai and his greatest creation, but if you’ve never read Usagi Yojimbo, this is a series where starting later in the run would be better for new readers than jumping on right at the beginning. Then you’ll understand better why Usagi Yojimbo has been around for 30 years.

Usagi Yojimbo, Book 1: The Ronin

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