Buy This Book: ‘Usagi Yojimbo: Senso’ Pits The Rabbit Samurai Against A Martian Invasion
The thing about Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo is that it's been one of the best comics on the stands for over 30 years. It's both fantastic and consistent to the point where I can't think of a bad issue, but when every single installment of a comic is at that high a level of quality, you sort of get used to it. It gets to the point where the stories are as epic and thrilling as they've ever been, but they don't quite surprise you in the way that you want them to, if only because you're expecting them to be that good, and as much as I love Sakai's work, it's been a while since I've actually been surprised by it.
Until I read Usagi Yojimbo: Senso, I mean. Because really, if you want to spice up an exhaustively researched samurai adventure story about a cast of furry animals, it just makes sense to throw a Martian invasion into the mix.
Admittedly, if I was a little more perceptive or had a grasp of the Japanese language that extended beyond words I've learned from pro wrestling and Power Rangers shows, I probably wouldn't have been as surprised by it as I was. Senso, after all, is the Japanese word for "war," which is a pretty big tipoff that Sakai was going to be mashing up his creation with War of the Worlds, but I didn't know that going in. All I knew was that it was going to be a story set in the future of Usagi Yojimbo with a sci-fi twist, and when the rocket crash-landed in the middle of a pitched samurai battle with the future of Japan at stake, I honestly wondered if Sakai wasn't doing a riff on the Superman animations of the 1940s.
Of course, that possibility was pretty much thrown out the window in #2, when the tripods emerged and started vaporizing samurai. Once that happened, everything pretty much fell into place.
You might think that if I have trouble being surprised by the ongoing series, I'd probably have an even harder time finding shocks in an alternate-future story that's nominally about a Martian invasion. As it turns out, though, that's the most impressive trick that Sakai pulls off with how he handles Senso. With thirty years of Usagi's ongoing adventures, there's an entire soap operatic cast of characters of with relationships that have been complicated by arranged marriages and secret sons. In a story like this, a story that starts with what would've been the climactic battle that the entire series was building to if it hadn't been interrupted by interplanetary warfare, it's those relationships that form the backbone of what's so appealing about this series for long-time readers.
In a way, Senso provides a "safe" way for Sakai to explore those relationships and possibilities without painting himself into a corner in the way that they would be if he actually went for it in the ongoing series. That is, after all, the whole point of an alternate-future story, but since everything that's happening here follows logically from the way those relationships have built -- and since it's still Sakai doing it all, just like he always has been -- it feels real in a way that it otherwise wouldn't.
Usagi's relationship with Jotaro and the tension of Usagi keeping their relationship as father and son, for instance, is in the spotlight for most of the story, and ends up becoming the driving force of the entire series by the time it comes to its conclusion. It's a plot point that's been a part of the main series for years, but that hasn't been resolved, for the simple reason that it really can't be, not where the ongoing series stands. It's a complicated problem with consequences for multiple characters, and that creates the dramatic tension that hangs over everyone's head with it. But when it's resolved here, it feels real in a way that most alternate-future stories don't, and it even hints at a way that it could be -- and maybe already has been -- resolved in the ongoing series.
It's something that's very rewarding for long-time readers, but it's dealt with in a way that makes it pretty accessible, too. Sakai's the kind of creator who can make "Jotaro is secretly my son but I can't tell him because I've kept it a secret for so long that it would destroy the relationship we have if I do" feel like a natural conversation characters are having with each other about things that are bothering them rather than just a helpful infodump for new readers.
That said, there's plenty of great stuff here beyond the character drama, too. I mean, you might not care about Usagi's tortured feelings over his secret son, but I think we can all probably get behind animal samurai charging at aliens and offering up the Feudal Japanese equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger's dialogue in Predator.
It's a pretty delicate balancing act to juggle the serious drama of the story and embrace the goofy fun of having a cast of bunny rabbits, snakes and kitty cats in samurai armor fighting Martian octopi armed with death rays, but Sakai pulls it off. It's not surprising given that "funny animal in ongoing samurai epic" is sort of the entire premise of the series, but it ends up working on every single level.
And when I say that it embraces the weirdness of its own premise, I don't just mean that it has samurai chopping up martians. It has that -- it has a lot of that, and it's pretty awesome -- but this is a book that goes beyond just giving you the basics. By the time this week's final issue rolled out, we didn't just have Usagi fighting Martians.
We had Usagi fighting Martians in a giant robot Usagi called the USAGI GUNDAM.
It's every bit as amazing as it sounds, and honestly, if that doesn't sound amazing to you, then I don't think you'll enjoy anything I have to recommend.
Senso occupies one of the strangest places in recent memory. It's an alternate future story without any ramifications for the main series but that still feels genuine and something that's geared at giving long-time readers something new to enjoy but that still works for new readers who might be curious to see what it's all about. It's a goofy spinoff that still works as a self-contained taste of what Sakai has to offer without committing to 30 volumes of paperbacks, but it has a lot to offer fans who have been there all along. At the end of the day, though, it's exactly the kind of story that Stan Sakai has been bringing us for the past three decades, one that's emotional, incredible and fun. And if you think about it that way, it's not really a surprise at all.