Thursday, June 18, 2009

Trade Waiting - Usagi Yojimbo Book 1, The Ronin

Usagi Yojimbo is a book that I've been meaning to read for a long time, but, for one reason or another, have never gotten around to reading. Luckily for me, the public library has most of the trades and I happily picked up the first trade.

My interest in the book, aside from the praise I've heard about, partially comes from my interest in the Edo Period of Japanese history (I'm a histroy buff if you recall), and, in particular, samurai, which is usually the time period that people think about when it comes to samurai and Usagi Yojimbo is set in that period. Hit the jump for my review

Written by Stan Sakai
Art by Stan Sakai
Collects material from Albedo, Critters and Usagi Yojimbo Summer Special

The Ronin collects 10 short, mostly self contained stories of varying lengths. There is a nice variety to the stories that Sakai tells and all are well done. Each of the stories do stand on their own and do a good job of establishing the series.

The series is about Miyamoto Usagi, a ronin (masterless samurai) who often uses his skills as a bodyguard (yojimbo in Japanese) in order to make some money. The stories are about his travels throughout Japan and the various adventures he has along the way. Some of the stories help to flesh out Usagi and his world, foreshadow future stories or are just short tales. Each one is paced well and actually reads as though it is the correct length. None of them seem too long or too short, which is a little surprising but welcomed.

My favorite stories were Lone Rabbit and Child and The Confession. They are back to back stories that deal with Usagi saving the heir to a clan and escorting him to Edo (Tokyo) and then dealing with the conspiracy to kill the young heir. They are the more interesting stories as well since they deal with subjects like court conspiracies and have the strongest characters in the book. Plus, it deals with Usagi's past, in a tangential way, which got me a little more interested in these particular stories. All of the other stories have their own charms and they all are good. To be honest, there was not a single one I did not like and most add something substantial to the overall series, either by adding a new recurring character or revealing something about Usagi or his past or so on.

Usagi himself is not the most compelling of characters, but he is still enjoyable. There is some depth to the character and he does have some nice shades of gray. He's noble, but not to a fault, and does things like entering a battle for the possibility of a reward. Many of the other characters that show up each have their own distinctive personalities and are given enough face time for the reader to get a handle on them.

The art is also something I enjoyed immensely. Sakai's art is simple but with its own charms. He's a strong storyteller with his panels and layouts adding to and supporting the story. He also does a good job with the historical details of the Edo period. With Usagi Yojimbo being a samurai comic, there are, of course, plenty of fights, but I found them to be the weakest part of the art. However, since Sakai's art is good to begin with, it isn't really a problem and only weak in comparison to the rest of the work. They can be a little inconsistent at times with one panel being slightly off while the next is quite stunning. The fights are a little absurd at times with sheer numbers of characters on the page. It's not a bad thing though since it's part of the charm of the book as well. The characters do literally pile up at times, but I enjoy it since Sakai makes it so visually appealing. His character work is also excellent with his facial expressions being a real highlight that add an extra layer of detail to the story.

The distinctive feature of the art is the fact that the characters are anthropomorphic animals. In fact, usagi literally means rabbit in Japanese. It does provide for some interesting visuals at times though he can be a little on the nose with it. There is a villainous court adviser who is a snake or a bandit who "sees" through his sense of smell being a pig but for every thing like that there is also a samurai rhino with stubble or mole ninjas so I don't really mind. My favorite design is the clan heir mentioned above, who is panda. Not quite sure why, but it has a lot to do with his mannerism and facial expressions. Probably also has to do with the fact that depicting a child as a panda just seems to fit.

Verdict - Check It. A highly enjoyable book that, even though it is nothing ground breaking by today's standards (it originally released in 1984) and lacks that something extra to make it a must read, is a great example of comic book story telling and skill from a talented creator.

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