Usagi Yojimbo #158-160
Stan Sakai’s samurai rabbit has been a part of comics for over 30 years, longer than a number of readers have been alive. It’s easy to take it for granted as a result, but every time I read an issue, I’m impressed by the clarity of the stories, the insight into the characters, and the accomplishment of the artistic storytelling.
The most recent three issues, all stand-alone stories, cover a range of emotions, too, demonstrating the wide scope of what Sakai can do with this historical setting and what would otherwise be thought of as goofy characters.
Issue #158, “The Fate of the Elders”, is the saddest of the three, although it begins in traditional fashion. Ichiro and his old mother are traveling, walking a long road, when they’re hassled by brigands. Ichiro carries his parent on his back, and the villains, upon hearing they have no money, take their meagre amount of food, until Usagi comes to the rescue.
The travelers come from a poor farming village, where inconsistent weather has devastated the crops, so Ichiro is taking his mother to meet her husband at the top of a faraway mountain. Usagi travels with them, helping fight off hungry lizards along the way, until he learns the real purpose of their trip. It’s rough and brutal and the result of terribly hard choices constrained by the resources available.
Sakai’s art is flat but detailed, cartoony but expressive, with full detail in the setting and atmosphere. This story is a touching portrait of knowing when it’s time to say farewell and demonstrating the kind of strength that only a woman who’s raised a family in difficult circumstances possesses.
Issue #159 focuses on “The Hatamoto’s Daughter”, a young girl whose father was killed by bandits. Usagi protects her as well, until he can find out what’s going on and why creepy looking guys are trying to take her away. “Hatamoto” means high-ranking samurai, and her father was responsible for the clan’s money, leading to concerns about theft and covering up any crimes. The rich and powerful want to stay that way, regardless of who is eliminated in the process.
The chef from the restaurant where Usagi takes the girl — the monkey Toto — returns in issue #160, “Death by Fugu”. The pufferfish flesh is poisonous if not prepared incredibly carefully, and an official dining on a plate of fugu made by Toto dies.
The chef agrees to help Inspector Ishida determine what happened, aided by Usagi, in order to defend his experience and skills. I loved the food focus of this story, and the ending — which turns on a foolhardy, tragic mistake from an overblown sense of enthusiasm — left me thoughtful, as did the other issues. Although set in a far-away time and place, the themes in Usagi Yojimbo have relevance to today.
The series is temporarily on hiatus after this issue. Find out more at the Dark Horse Usagi zone. (The publisher provided digital review copies.)