Usagi Yojimbo (Fantagraphic Run)

Note: This is a review of books 1-7 of Usagi Yojimbo as printed by Fantagraphic.

At first glance, Usagi Yojimbo is a simple book. No colors, the art is simple with even simpler stories. There’s no complicated nuance, no hidden thematic depth, it’s all a straightforward, surface level affair. And yet, something about that makes it so elegant, beautiful, magnificent and masterful. It is not only a simple book, it’s simply delightful.

The titular Usagi is a ronin, a masterless samurai who wanders Edo era Japan. He’s also an anthropomorphic rabbit. It can be easy to get lost in the tale and overlook writer/artist’s Stan Sakai’s decision to depict his characters as animals instead of people, but there’s something magnificent about that choice.

It allows him to not only draw more simplified charactures, but it also is a great way to give a shorthand for the personality of characters based on their animal race. The rabbit is swift, the snake is sinister, the rhino is bold, and the pig is brutish. Stan Sakai ties into this concept one of the core powers of the graphic novel that the drawings themselves should do a great deal of the heavy-lifting when it comes to telling the story.

To that end, the stories are often simple, but there’s something about these simple tales that resonates deeply. Drawing on Japanese folklore and the rich well of samurai stories, Usagi Yojimbo doesn’t always tell original tales, but like a great storyteller, most of the mastery is in the delivery. Usagi Yojimbo displays a magnificent sense of pacing.

For instance, one of the finest stories from this run is Kappa. Usagi stumbles across some wild cucumbers, picks them and then heads through a marsh where he encounters the titular creature, a goblin that lives in the marsh and demands a toll. Usagi, gives the cucumbers, discovers his mistake and then must rush to the swamp to save the life of another.

In and of itself, it is not a remarkable story, but the mastery is all in the meticulous telling. The way Sakai gradually builds the story from one that appears to be random fortune into a tale of tragedy. Each frame and each page builds an elegant rhythm to the story and each time one believes one understands the situation, Sakai slides in the next wrinkle into the tale. And Sakai only allows himself a couple of frames after the resolution, knowing that bowing out as soon as possible will leave this story more impactful in the reader’s mind.

And while the simplicity and economy of these shorter tales are magnificent, Sakai is able to weave multi-part tales with multiple players and parties with similar brevity, economy and balance. Dragon Bellow Conspiracy and Gen’s Story are long-form narratives that Sakai makes involving and epic without resorting to unneeded complexities. Sakai hones down his tales to a sharp edge, cutting down to the heart of the tale.

That’s what makes these stories so magnificent. They’re presented ungarnished and uncomplicated, but retain a strength in spirit and enough personality and wit that they’re always memorable. It takes a lot of courage to present stories so unadorned; another writer would try to add nuance, detail, and complexity where it isn’t needed. And to make a book so simple takes the discipline of a samurai.

© 2017 James Blake Ewing