Usagi Yojimbo: Stan Sakai’s Rabbit Samurai Makes the Mundane Seem Amazing
Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo, published by Dark Horse Comics, is the story of Miyamoto Usagi, a rabbit ronin (masterless samurai) who wanders the roads. He often takes odd jobs protecting villagers, hunting bandits, or briefly serving as a sword-for-hire for the feudal lords who dot the land. He's foiled assassination attempts, teamed up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, befriended gruff rhinos, and battled ninjas for more than 25 years now. Stan Sakai is one of the best (and most consistently good) cartoonists in the game, and I'm going to use his eight-page story "Jizo" to show you why.The true beauty of Sakai's work in Usagi Yojimbo isn't just his cartooning (which is very good) or his writing (which is refreshingly to the point). It's how Sakai manages to take things we're used to, things that are considered rote or mundane, and make them compelling simply through the strength of his craft. One of my favorite examples is the short story "Jizo," from Usagi Yojimbo Book 8: Shades of Death.
In short, Jizo is the guardian of the souls of children, which is why statues of him can often be found near graveyards. Passersby leave an offering of stones or clothes near or on Jizo statute to shorten the amount of time the spirits of those children spend in the underworld before crossing the Sanzu River.
You can explain the basic plot of "Jizo" quickly: "A woman places a statue of Jizo, people walk by, bandits attack Usagi, Usagi kills them, and the statue smiles." The entire story spans 72 hours, but has only twenty-four panels, eleven word balloons, one caption, and a few incidental sound effects. There's no moral or mystery, no grand message for you to decipher. As far as comics stories go, this is light, even for eight pages. But as usual, Sakai does a lot with just a little.
The story takes place from one unchanging perspective, roughly over the shoulder of a statue of Jizo, and that fixed position plays with the way space and time work in comics. The gutters in comics always represent the passage of time, whether a lot of time or just a little. By giving us a fixed perspective, Sakai imbues this area with a ton of importance. It's like watching a play that takes place in one room, or the first half of Akira Kurosawa's classic film High and Low.
For the purposes of this strip, this small rectangle is the entire world. Travelers, trees, and a mother's grief over the death of her son loom large over the strip and dominate the action. Only the mother gets any actual dialogue, which elevates her to a level of importance above and beyond anything else in these eight pages -- even Usagi himself.
As it turns out, Usagi is subordinate to her not only in storytelling terms ("lower in importance") but also in terms of action. As she places the statue of Jizo, the mother prays that "no others will fall victim to these villains." Two pages later, as night falls, the bandits fall upon Usagi and try to rob him. Unsurprisingly, Usagi takes all of them down, and their bodies are hauled off by the local magistrate's men. The Jizo, through Usagi, answered the mother's prayer and now no one else will fall victim to those villains ever again.
"Jizo" is about kindness, too. After the mother leaves the statue, a couple of kind travelers leave an apple and a pebble at Jizo's feet. They had no reason to do so beyond sheer kind-heartedness. (Tokage lizards eat the apple.) When the mother returns in the morning, she notices the extra pebble and that the statue looks more at peace. She writes it off as "impossible," but remarks that the expression may cause others to leave offerings, too. She's correct. Two days later, Jizo is overflowing with pebbles.
In the end, "Jizo" isn't particularly deep or meaningful. It's just about kindness, intentional or otherwise, and a taking a brief look into someone else's world. Sakai's choices about how to depict these kindnesses are what makes the difference. He takes something we've all seen before, be it a sword fight or a grieving mother, and twists it, forcing us to look at it through new eyes and see the wonder that's hidden in the most basic parts of life.
Usagi Yojimbo comes out monthly, and Sakai's a master at this stuff in every issue. Usagi Yojimbo always feels fresh and enticing, and is the sort of comic that never fails to entertain. I can't think of a single story Sakai's done that I've disliked, and I know that whenever I pick up an issue or one of the twenty-odd trades, I'm in for a good time, whether Usagi is battling giant conspiracies or examining kite-making in feudal Japan. Stan Sakai is just that good.
Below, you can check out a preview of Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo #136, on sale now.