Popular culture gives us many great samurai figures. There are probably almost as many live action samurai movies as westerns, and The Magnificent Seven Samurai duo of wonderful classics show us how close these genres could be.
But I want to introduce one of my favourite comic books, so no more about cinematic depictions (hmm, who would have won if guys on the left fired on the guys on the right :D?).
In a world of countless great mangas, my favourite graphic novel Japanese warrior is an anthropomorphic rabbit by Stan Sakai, who, though born in Kyoto, is undoubtedly an American artist. I’m not going to argue it’s the most accurate vision of the medieval Japan, from the stuff I’m familiar with the honour goes to Vagabond, probably, and Rurouni Kenshiin has some great moments – usually just before going for silliness and fanservice. And then there is Samurai Jack, a hero whose story recently concluded, after years of waiting.
But Miyamoto Usagi from Usagi Yojimbo, he is my favourite!
A masterless samurai – ronin – like many other heroes of popular fiction, Usagi wanders through fields and cities of strange Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals (zoomorphic people?) and cute, tiny dinosaurs:
It’s so cute I’ve almost read some stories to my then-3 yo niece, but thankfully I’ve remembered, just in time, that cute can be deadly:
It’s been 31 volumes so far, with multiple arcs and one-issue storylines, a few bigger quests and characters that regularly come back. Usagi made many friends and some allies, lost some, vanquished most of his enemies, still on the road to admire nature and help the helpless. As good with the sword as his archetype, not as ambiguous morally. His fallen lord’s name was Mifune, and the great Toshirô Mifune comes to mind also. There are many stories about great, mysterious warriors from nowhere coming to save the day and then going away. In westerns as well, of course, and not only there. He’s one of the heroes many cultures and epochs dreamt about, but he lives in a world created out of love for XVII century Japan, after meticulous research.
Usagi is kinder than most, and always ready to give others the benefit of the doubt. Strong enough to show trust to people, who often, to their doom, perceive it as weakness. But the innocent, peasants and princesses alike, have no better friend.
On the road he encounters anthropomorphic versions of all the protagonists we know from movies and mangas, peasants, craftsmen, bandits, Buddhist preachers, officials and aristocracy. And all kinds of youkai, supernatural creatures from Shinto mythology. Not to mention some of my childhood heroes:
There is humour, there is struggle, bittrsweet happy ends, and a nice warm feeling in your heart after each volume. Many stories are using tried-and-true tropes, but Sakai knows how to use them well. Even when I can predict the outcome, I enjoy getting there. It’s relatively simple, a bit naive, and so perhaps it helps that the hero is a rabbit, it makes it easier to suspend your disbelief.
I only wish the main storyline would unfold faster, but I don’t really mind that it doesn’t. Periodic doses of Usagi are good for my state of mind 🙂
The comic is visually ascetic, black and white like most mangas, done entirely by Stan Sakai, who keeps control over art and story.