My experience with comics and manga is pretty spotty: outside of childhood staples like Calvin and Hobbes and the more famous stuff like Sandman and Watchmen, I’m pretty unread. Enough so to find myself bewildered by the two occasions I’ve visited TCAF.
When I was a university sophomore, I took a class on graphic novels that I was pretty excited for. But it turned out to be one of my first experiences of how academia can suck the joy out of any potentially fun activity, and it has taken immense effort to not loathe by proxy the books that were on the syllabus.
And the less we speak of superhero comics, the better.
But it’s a medium I’d like to be better versed in, and picking up drawing again has provided more of that impetus.
Which brings me to Usagi Yojimbo.
There were a couple of reasons pushing me in the direction of Stan Sakai’s work. First of all, Shin Megami Tensei IV‘s east/west pop cultural samurai mashup has created a thirst for that sort of thing which the game itself ultimately wasn’t able to fulfill. Secondly, the idea of a samurai rabbit seems pretty thematically appropriate for me. So I’ve begun reading the early stuff.
Usagi Yojimbo‘s premise is pretty bare bones: Miyamoto Usagi is a ronin in feudal Japan who wanders the world, getting into all sorts of adventures, generally being a good dude and kicking ass if need be. If you’ve ever watched a jidaigeki film, you’ll know what to expect.
The surface gimmick is that all the characters are funny anthropomorphic characters. But, scratching beyond that, the real conceit is its culturally amphibian nature. Usagi Yojimbo’s form is very western in its style, yet the content is very thoroughly Japanese. It feels a bit like an inverse of Avatar, the Last Airbender, which put a lot of effort into looking authentically eastern while ultimately wanting to be Star Wars.
It’s great fun so far, and a large part of that comes from how historically grounded it feels – at least from the perspective of someone whose grasp of Japanese history is pretty loose. More particularly, there’s a loving emphasis on the everyday details of the era that provides its sense of reality. I can’t think of another comic that would, for instance, devote several pages to describing seeweed farming and make it work as a crucial part of the narrative.
At the same time you don’t find that revisionism that creeps into a lot of detail-oriented historical fiction where there’s an aim to ‘debunk’ the era, which is usually done under the name of historical accuracy, but which more often than not superimposes a modern materialist mindset on the past (while also indicating a degree of contempt for it). There’s always a danger of over-romanticizing the past, but the aversion to romance is itself an aesthetic trap that the post-Watchman world is particularly prone to.
The comic’s interest in the historic samurai ethos has nicely dovetailed with my own reading into Arthurian legend. The phenomenon of the warrior caste governed by a strict code of honor has a great deal of fascination for me, for reasons which are not always easy to pinpoint. I suspect that part of it is how it avoids the (again, modern) dramatic tendency to turn all moral questions into epistemological ones.
There are other touches that are lovely: the supernatural is present, but not to the point of making the story feel like historical fantasy. The characters are often more layered than meets the eye – I liked the ruthless, backstabbing bounty hunter who uses his profits to fund an orphanage – and there’s an understated quality to a lot of the resolutions that often heightens their impact.
More to the point: it’s a fun comic so far, and I can see this as potentially the beginning of a long relationship.