Usagi Yojimbo (Japanese for “Rabbit Bodyguard”) is about Miyamoto Usagi, a 16th century ronin (masterless samurai) who wanders Japan, occasionally selling his sword for protection, but generally doing honourable deeds in return for food and shelter. Stan Sakai’s character and world features anthropomorphic creatures in place of humans with Miyamoto as a rabbit, and is set during Japan’s Edo period where feudal lords run the land. The series incorporates Japanese history and folklore into its episodic narrative with Usagi himself based upon the famous Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi (who also inspired the excellent manga series, Vagabond by Takehiko Inoue – definitely worth checking out).
In Volume 27, the main story features Usagi going to a town which has been turned into a living hell thanks to two warring gang leaders over control of the town and its resources. Usagi determines to help out the highest paying gang leader, fighting alongside the legendary swordsman Kato, to bring a semblance of peace to the blighted community. But after he and Kato are tricked out of their fee and turned against each other by the cunning Boss Higa, they return to hell to exact revenge and rid the town of any gang presence once and for all.
Though this is Volume 27, don’t be put off from picking this excellent book up if you’ve never read any other books before it. Part of the brilliance of this series is that you can basically pick up any book in the series and start reading without feeling lost. This is partly due to the episodic nature of the series with each book being made up of several done-in-one short stories where Usagi faces anything from thieves to demons and everything in between. A lot of it is based upon actual history but Sakai weaves folk tales into Usagi’s world to give it the tone of magical realism.
Besides the town of hell story arc, Usagi helps a disgraced samurai regain his honour by reclaiming a stolen family sword, fights a demon disguised as a simple farmer, and visits a family in the countryside only to fend off an evil monster. All of the stories are fantastically put together and engrossing to read.
Usagi is a great character, kind, friendly and honourable but deadly with a blade an unafraid to stand up to injustice whatever the circumstances. He’s immensely likeable and you can’t help rooting for him in every story. The bad guys are at times a little too one dimensional in their personalities – they’re bad, that’s all you really see – but other characters like Kato, who appear evil to start with, show that they are multi-faceted and more complex as we read more about them.
Despite it’s seemingly violent nature portraying the wanderings of a fighter, these books can easily be read by kids as the action and swordplay is far from graphic and the black and white presentation means no blood is shown on the page. This doesn’t compromise the fighting scenes, it’s just a nice touch by Sakai that shows his tasteful approach to the stories – this isn’t about showing blood and swords, it’s about showcasing honour and skill.
The stories are well written, well drawn, and well told – I can’t fault any aspect of the storytelling, Sakai is truly a master of his craft and reading this book was a joy from start to finish. If you enjoy great comics, but particularly ones with the flavour of Kurasawa, Usagi Yojimbo, Volume 27: A Town Called Hell, should be top of your reading list.
Usagi Yojimbo, Volume 27: A Town Called Hell by Stan Sakai is out on July 9
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