Usagi Yojimbo book 7: Gen’s Story


By Stan Sakai (Fantagraphics)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-304-1

Usagi Yojimbo (which translates as “rabbit bodyguard”) first appeared as a background character in Stan Sakai’s anthropomorphic comedy The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, which premiered in 1984 amongst the assorted furry ‘n’ fuzzy folk Albedo Anthropomorphics #1. He subsequently graduated to a solo act in Critters, Amazing Heroes, Furrlough and the Munden’s Bar back-up series in Grimjack.

In 1955, when Sakai was two years old, his family moved to Hawaii from Kyoto, Japan. He left the University of Hawaii with a BA in Fine Arts, and pursued further studies at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design in California.

His early forays into comics were as a letterer – most famously for the inimitable Groo the Wanderer – before his nimble pens and brushes found a way to express his passion for Japanese history, legend and the filmic works of Akira Kurosawa and his peers, and transformed a proposed story about a human historical hero into one of the most enticing and impressive fantasy sagas of all time.

And it’s still more educational, informative and authentic than any dozen Samurai sagas you can name…

Although the deliriously peripatetic and expansive period epic stars sentient animals and details the life of a peripatetic Lord-less Samurai eking out as honourable a living as possible by selling his sword as a Yojimbo (bodyguard-for-hire), the milieu and scenarios all scrupulously mirror the Feudal Edo Period of Japan (roughly the 17th century AD by our reckoning) whilst simultaneously referencing other cultural icons from sources as varied as Zatoichi and Godzilla.

Miyamoto Usagi is brave, noble, industrious, honest, sentimental, gentle, artistic, empathetic, long-suffering and conscientious: a rabbit devoted to the tenets of Bushido.  He simply cannot turn down any request for help or ignore the slightest evidence of injustice. As such, his destiny is to be perpetually drawn into an unending panorama of incredible situations.

This evocative and enticingly seventh black-&-white blockbuster collects yarns from Fantagraphics’ Usagi Yojimbo comicbook volume 1, #32-38 plus an extra attraction from funny animal anthology Critters #38, offering a selection of complete adventures tantalisingly tinged with supernatural terror and drenched in wit, irony and pathos.

Following a lavish and laudatory Introduction from Groo-some co-worker Sergio Aragonés, the historical drama resumes as the restless, roaming Miyamoto encounters street performer ‘Kitsune’ whose beguiling beauty and dexterity with spinning tops turns many a head.

Of course whilst everybody’s gaping in astonishment the foxy lady is picking their pockets…

The philosophical wandering warrior takes it in his stride but when crooked gambler Hatsu’s customary conniving tricks provoke a bloody fight in an inn, Kitsune is forced to show the still blithely unaware bunny her other – far more lethal skills – to save their lives…

‘Gaki’ (literally “Hungry Ghost”) then delightfully skips backs to the bunny’s boyhood as a Bushido disciple of master warrior Katsuichi, wherein that venerable warrior teaches his fractious student a valuable and terrifying lesson in staying alert, after which ‘Broken Ritual’ (from a plot by Aragonés) offers a magnificent ghost story of honour regained.

It begins when the Yojimbo wanders into a village of terrified peasants cowering from the nightly horrors of a spectral warrior. The unhappy revenant is General Tadaoka, an old comrade of Usagi’s and, as the story of the defeated soldier’s frustrated attempt to commit Seppuku comes out, the heart-sore hare realises what he must do to give his deceased friend peace…

Once, Miyamoto Usagi was simply the son of a small-town magistrate who had spent years learning the Way of Bushido from his stern, leonine master: not just superior technique and tactics, but also Katsuichi’s creed of justice and restraint which would serve the Ronin well throughout his turbulent life.

Mere months after graduating, Usagi was personally recruited by the personal bodyguard of Great Lord Mifunė. The young man advanced quickly and was soon a trusted bodyguard too, serving beside the indomitable Gunichi. It was a time of great unrest and war was brewing…

In his third year of service the Lord’s castle was attacked by Neko Ninja assassins and, although the doughty heroes managed to save their master, the Lord’s wife Kazumi and heir Tsuruichi were murdered. Realising ambitious rival Lord Hikiji was responsible, Mifunė declared war…

The epic conflict ended on the great Adachigahara plain when Mifunė’s general Todo switched sides and the Great Lord fell. At the crucial moment Gunichi also broke, fleeing to save his own skin and leaving the helpless Usagi to preserve the fallen Lord’s head – and honour – from shameful desecration…

The next tale here returns to the days after that tragic betrayal and finds the hunted Usagi hiding in the wild forest known as ‘The Tangled Skein’ and taking shelter in the hut of an old woman. The crone was in fact a demonic Obakemono and, easily overpowering the fugitive, was set to devour Usagi when dead Mifunė returned to repay his most faithful servant for his unswerving loyalty…

This is followed by an extended contemporary tale featuring old frenemy ‘Gen’ and the title tale of this tome.

When the irascibly bombastic, money-mad bounty-hunter and conniving thief-taker bites off more than he can chew, he is lucky Usagi is there to rescue him. Whilst the roguish rhino is recovering from severe wounds, however, the Ronin is approached by a haughty but destitute noblewoman and is drawn into ‘Lady Asano’s Story’ and her quest for vengeance against the traitor who destroyed her clan and family.

The Yojimbo is looking for a way to let her down gently when the dowager recognises Gennosuké as the lost son of her most trusted general…

The bitter bounty hunter wants nothing to do with her but when the traitor Oda – now the town magistrate – arrests the lady and Usagi learns of his companion’s awful upbringing in ‘Sins of the Father’ he decides to help even if Gen won’t.

The attempt fails and he is captured, compelling the rhino to get involved in ‘Lady Asano’s Revenge’: an epic final confrontation of Shakespearean proportions…

The sober, weary pair of itinerants then trek to another village in time for more trouble and ‘The Return of Kitsune’. The shady entertainer has been plying her trade and accidentally stolen a very dangerous letter: one detailing a proposed rebellion and scheme to profiteer from the crisis. Now she in hiding from the mercenaries of a hugely powerful and influential merchant…

However after the ill-starred trio savagely end the threat in typical bloodletting fashion a hidden faction springs a galling surprise on the weary victors…

‘The Last Ino Story’ ends the story section of this volume with a tale of brooding emotional drama and features the return of the Blind Swordspig; a blood-spilling porcine outlaw with a huge price on his head whose incredible olfactory sense more than compensates for his useless eyes.

Although Ino was a ruthless, blood-spilling villain he valiantly helped Gen in a desperate crisis, and the thief-taker returned the favour by leading everyone to believe his profitable quarry had perished.

Now, after fighting their way out of a vicious bandit ambush, the bounty hunter and his bunny buddy discover the swine has simply settled down as an innocuous farmer, but his violent past will not leave him be. Ino is dying of an infected arrow wound and his frantic young wife Fujiko begs them to save him any way they can…

This medieval monochrome masterwork also includes a gallery of covers to charm and delight one and all.

Despite changing publishers a few times the Roaming Rabbit has been in continuous publication since 1987, with more than 30 collections and books to date. He has guest-starred in many other series (most notably Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and its TV incarnation) and even almost made it into his own small-screen show.

There are high-end collectibles, art prints, computer games and RPGs, a spin-off sci-fi comics serial and lots of toys. Sakai and his creation have won numerous awards both within the Comics community and amongst the greater reading public.

Fast-paced yet lyrical, informative and funny, the saga alternately bristles with tension and thrills and often breaks your heart with astounding tales of pride and tragedy.

Simply bursting with veracity and verve, Usagi Yojimbo is the perfect comics epic: a monolithic magical saga of irresistible appeal that will delight devotees and make converts of the most hardened hater of “funny animal” stories.

Sheer comicbook poetry by a Comicbook Sensei…
© 1992, 1993, 1996, 2009 Stan Sakai. Usagi Yojimbo is a registered trademark of Stan Sakai. All rights reserved.