When Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hit the comics scene back in 1984, it certainly made a splash with the rather inspired conjunction of ninjas and turtles. However, it was not the only comic book of that time to be centered around anthropomorphic animals. The independent comics scene of the early ’80s saw a variety of comics come out centered around anthropomorphic animal characters (sometimes referred to as “funny animals”). Some were satirical, such as with Cerebus, while others embraced genres to explore ideas and issues, such as the sci-fi title Erma Felna: EDF or the noir-based Blacksad. No matter their methods, no matter if they are remembered still as classics or if they have slipped into the pages of obscurity, what these titles all shared in common was a more mature-oriented mindset. They sought to use anthropomorphic animals as a hook from which to explore more sophisticated storytelling, taking them beyond just the preconceived notion of “funny animals”. The subject of today’s post is one such work, a tale of a 16th-century Japan populated by humanoid animals that remains an endearing hit within the independent comics world to this day. First created by Stan Sakai back in 1984, today we will be talking about Usagi Yojimbo.
Once, in an era of Japan known as the Sengoku period, there was a samurai named Miyamoto Usagi. He was a skilled master with his katana, skilled enough that he caught the attention of Lord Mifune, a local daimyo (feudal lord) who ruled over the region. He served as a bodyguard to Mifune and his family, until the day that a rival lord named Lord Hikiji orchestrated an assassination attempt that sparked war. The war between the two raged on until the battle of Adachigahara, when Lord Mifune was betrayed by one of his subordinate commanders and caught in a flurry of arrows. Before Lord Mifune’s head could be claimed and displayed as a trophy of battle, however, Usagi fled with the head and performed a discreet burial of it. Now, spending his days as a ronin (masterless samurai), Usagi travels the road and offers his services as a yojimbo (bodyguard) to those in need. His travels have led him to cross paths with many interesting characters, from the rough bounty hunter Murakami Gennosuke to the master thief Kitsune to even the psychotic swordsman Jei. No matter where he goes, though, Usagi is always ready to help defend the weak from the cruel and the corrupt.
Usagi Yojimbo stand out strong on a multitude of levels. Firstly, Stan Sakai’s writing offers a strong narrative approach for his stories. Though Miyamoto Usagi is the main character of the series, the stories themselves explore a variety of styles. From quiet character pieces to large battles to even encounters with the supernatural, the whole gamut is captured with gripping range. Along with that, the writing offers nuanced characters that feel lived in, while the stories themselves unfold at a natural pace. As for the artwork, Stan Sakai also delivers a great move on that front. The character designs work well, both simple yet full in their design. Their overall look may seem simple, but Sakai is able to infuse them with personality in even a simple gesture or glance. The pacing of the panels is also well done. Sakai is unafraid of letting the actions within his panels speak for themselves, without relying on narration boxes to push the story forward. He does not use any flashy layouts or narrative tricks to stand out. Instead, he relies on an even pace, unafraid of letting a quiet moment unfold just as much as an epic battle. Of course, the strengths of this comic come from more than just these components. It also comes from the world that is presented in its pages.
Though it is a world of anthropomorphic animals, its setting is firmly that of 16th-century Japan. The details of the world feel accurate, from showcasing the systems of government to even something as mundane as the methods of seaweed farming or forging a katana. Maintaining these details lends the setting an air of authenticity, allowing one to see more than just a world populated by anthropomorphic animals. Along with that, Sakai captures in it the lengthy influence of previous samurai legends. From the famous samurai pictures of Akira Kurosawa (director of such films as Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and The Hidden Fortress) to classic manga and stories like Lone Wolf and Cub, It is clear that Sakai has studied the classics and brought their nuance to his work. In fact, that is precisely what makes Usagi Yojimbo stand out. It is not the fact that it is a story of a rabbit ronin in a world of anthropomorphic animals in 16th-century Japan. It is the fact that it is a strongly written, well-drawn series that captures both heart and valor in its tale of a wandering ronin. The animals are merely a hook.
The independent comics scene has seen its fair share of stories centered around anthropomorphic animals. Some have remained as classics, while others have faded into obscurity. Thanks to the strength of its writing and well-captured artwork, Usagi Yojimbo has come to endure and remain a classic in the world of comics. It can be found for sale in both smaller-size standard volumes and in larger-size “Saga” volumes.