Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Review - Usagi Yojimbo: Daisho and Grasscutter

Usagi Yojimbo: Daisho and Grasscutter
by Stan Sakai
1996 Eisner Award Winner for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition
1996 Eisner Award Winner for Best Lettering
1999 Eisner Award Winner for Best Serialized Story: "Grasscutter"

I used to find Usagi Yojimbo intimidating. Stan Sakai started writing about the rabbit samurai in 1984. Twenty-five years of history is impressive for any comic but it's nearly unprecedented for an independent book. Initially the trade paperbacks were not numbered and they never mentioned what issues were in them. That left me with a problem. I had heard that Usagi Yojimbo was great but where was the starting point and which ones should I read? Things have changed somewhat since that point about ten years ago; it's easy to find the reading order now even though some of the books still carry no sign to the reading order. Last year I took the plunge and worked my way through the series and it was worth it; Sakai is a great story teller and has built a wonderful samurai epic that's still slowly unfolding.

For those keeping count at home Daisho is the ninth Usagi Yojimbo book and Grasscutter is the twelth. Both of them manage to stand fairly well on their own and they both gained the attention of the Eisner selection committee. They also represent the two major themes in Usagi Yojimbo: bushido and folklore. If you've never read the series you could start with either of these books and get a good taste of what it's all about.

The series is about the journeys of Usagi, a masterless samurai in that vague shogunate period that samurai dramas are typically set in (it's like the "medieval" setting for Japan). As he walks across the country he encounters creatures from Japanese folklore, becomes entangled in the plots of local Lords, and generally has adventures.

In Daisho the ronin Usagi stumbles onto a slaver operation run by a renegade general. Despite rescuing the slaves Usagi's swords are stolen. Since a samurai's swords are his soul the rabbit samurai sets out on a quest to hunt down the general and that brings him into conflict with bounty hunters also seeking the general's head.

Grasscutter opens with the creation myth, proceeds to Orochi and Susano-o, and then goes into the loss of one of the three great imperial treasures of Japan. That lost treasure is a sword which sank to the bottom of a bay during a great battle. A conspiracy has a scheme to recover the sword and shift power from the Shogun to their own puppet Emperor. Their plan goes awry when the legendary sword of the gods falls into Usagi's hands. Complicating things further there is another supernatural power that seeks to claim the weapon for itself.

Usagi is cut from the standard heroic mold and consequently he's often a bit dull to read about. A situation presents itself and Usagi does the right thing typically by cutting his way through the dozen thugs who get in his way. If he is ever troubled about a decision then it's because it's the “right” thing to be troubled by it and and then he takes the moral high ground. As a character he moves on heroic autopilot. In fact that Usagi is your standard hero is something that Sakai uses in Daisho to demonstrate how broken he is by the loss of his swords. Naturally it's a momentary lapse since Usagi Yojimbo is a heroic fantasy but Sakai is aware of the restrictions inherent to his main character.

That would be why Sakai surrounds Usagi with a terrific cast that play off him. The antagonists tend to be more interesting since they're allowed to be conflicted and choose the practical above the heroic. It's rare that Usagi goes more than an issue or two without encountering one of the reoccurring characters that complicate his life and that cast is on display in these two books.

Sakai's story telling skills have grown considerably since he started writing Usagi Yojimbo. By the time he reached Daisho the stories have gone from dropping Usagi into a standard samurai movie plot to providing a more complex story. Grasscutter in particular ties up plot threads that had been building for years in a method that feels completely natural and is accessible to someone sampling the volume. My simplified description above skips the multiple interwoven threads of the story where several of them never do intersect despite playing off each other.

One interesting facet of the stories in Usagi Yojimbo is how smoothly Sakai works folklore and history into the stories. This is most obvious in Grasscutter where the entire story is focused on a legend about an actual twelfth century battle. Daisho has its share, however, such as a sequence on the forging of Usagi's swords. It gives the stories an extra layer that I appreciated.

Before I actually read Usagi Yojimbo I had already drawn conclusions about its art style. A black and white samurai story by a Japanese creator (albeit one who left Japan at a young age)? Surely it would be manga-esque. Sakai's style does not share any major aspects with any manga creator that I'm aware of. His story telling choices are firmly planted in US-style comics in terms of pacing and formatting; he does not indulge in the mood setting shot or the character establishing image that change the pacing in standard manga-style storytelling. Also his character art has more in common with Walt Kelly than Osamu Tezuka. There is are two key places where the Japanese influence shines through.

The first, and to me most interesting, is how he composes crowd scenes. Sakai uses a style that is reminiscent to me of old Japanese prints. Large battles are often depicted from an elevated perspective with each figure in the group being distantly separated from the others. It makes the groups look thinned out but at the same time Sakai illustrates each person in that crowd to be distinct from every other one. It's a technique I've never seen any other comic creator use and because it is so distinctly his it gives the large battles a unique feel.

The other thing is the treatment of personal combat which tends to be more like manga than western fight scenes. Duels usually end with one pass of the sword. Large melees may take a page of quick action cut across only a few panels. It's rare for Sakai to provide an extended brawl as he focuses on what is occurring around the fighting.

There's one more special thing about Stan Sakai that needs to be mentioned now. Since the Eisner awards began only two people have won for best lettering. Sakai only managed to win once but just being able to do that in an award that has only gone to one other person is an amazing feat. Sakai's regular lettering appears fairly normal as far as comic books go. He builds on that with characters that have the appearance of brushwork (I suspect they are but I'm not certain if he uses this technique) and other distinctive type styles for unatural elements. Especially notable is his regular symbol for someone's death cry which is something that occurs often in a book about samurais. He's integrated both style and iconography smoothly into his lettering.

The worst thing I can say about Usagi Yojimbo is that it is a well told heroic adventure. It isn't deep but I don't think Sakai is trying to be. Sakai has recognized his niche with his comic and does it extremely well. If you suspect that you might like a samurai adventure story then you should definitely try Daisho and Grasscutter but if you're looking for something deeper then you'll probably leave Usagi Yojimbo feeling unsatisfied.