One of the difficult things about some classic comics is the amount of back catalog they have. Stan Sakai’s legendary series Usagi Yojimbo is currently over 35 volumes, after nearly 36 years of publishing. However, a series that prolific still has perfect entry points, such as the series’ 34th volume- Usagi Yojimbo: Bunraku & Other Stories.
The series is the epic tale of a ronin swordsman, Miyamoto Usagi. After losing his master in battle, Usagi set out on a warrior’s pilgrimage, often travelling by himself, often selling his services as a bodyguard. Sometimes his adventures are quiet ruminations on human nature (though all the characters are anthropomorphic animals). Sometimes they’re battles against the supernatural. Hell, some are a mix of the two.
In Usagi Yojimbo: Bunraku & Other Stories, readers get four stories, collecting the first seven issues of the relaunched series at IDW, including the series 35th anniversary special. Usagi encounters demonic puppets, an abusive husband, an angry goblin (with a personal vendetta), and a group of money hungry bounty hunters. Each story serves as a dive into the world Sakai has created.
As I said, this is the series’ 34th volume. However, it doesn’t feel like it. Each of the stories are brisk adventures, but all of them are deeper than just an adventure, creating a great entry point for the franchise. In the titular opening story, the supernatural threats of this fantastical version of Japan are highlighted. Though “demon puppets” sounds like a ridiculous concept, the story isn’t played for laughs. It’s a lesson in Japanese culture (something Sakai does subtly throughout the volume), but also a creepy ghost story that has a conclusion that’s both scary and action packed.
The following stories all build on that. The two issue arc titled ‘The Hero’ has Usagi questioning the meaning of the word while protecting a traveller from her abusive husband, who also happens to be a samurai lord. The 35th anniversary special finds another supernatural battle, but it’s also a morality play about how hatred held in one’s heart can warp who you are as a person. And the last issue is an introduction to one of Usagi’s greatest allies if you’re new to the book, and a catch-up with a favorite supporting character for any returning reader.
If you’ve only heard of Usagi, or are familiar with him through his appearances in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you should pick this volume up. In addition to great writing, the art (by Sakai and color artist Tom Luth) is great. Though it’s extremely cartoony, he has a great eye for pacing action across the page, and lays out the fights in ways that don’t just service the action but also the characters in the scene.
Sitting down with Usagi Yjimbo might seem as insurmountable as climbing Mount Fuji. However Sakai is a master of the craft, and once you get into it, you’ll want more.
Trust me, I did.
Usagi Yojimbo: Bunraku & Other Stories is available now in print and digital from IDW Publishing.