Usagi Yojimbo: The Hidden #1
Usagi Yojimbo is a samurai rabbit, a ronin wandering old Japan in an historically faithful world where the characters just happen to be animals. His stories run the gamut, with gifted cartoonist Stan Sakai hitting all kinds of emotional beats.
This issue starts a particularly ambitious run, a seven-issue story called The Hidden about the persecution of Christians in the country. It’s the end of the sixteenth century, and the land is run by feudal lords. There’s a text page that provides valuable historical context, giving some of the key moments in Japanese history that relate to missionaries and changes in power among the rulers.
You wouldn’t know that from the opening, though, which sets the stage in masterful movie style, as we follow a horseback chase. Two samurai carrying a prized object are hunted and killed by others, who now must find the missing item.
I knew something was different halfway through the story, as Usagi is temporarily stopped at a new gate erected in the middle of the city. In order to pass, he’s forced to step on a cross. He doesn’t understand what’s going on, but the checkpoint guards are clearly passionate about their duties, threatening anyone who refuses to do so with arrest. They’re weeding out Christians, or “Kirishitans” as the transliteration has it, as a foreign religion that threatens the divinity of the emperor and loyalty to the shogun.
I’m fascinated. Seeing how these cultural conflicts play out in this feudal system will keep me reading, as will wanting to find out what the mysterious object was and who was behind the murders. And it’s interesting seeing the beliefs of Usagi and his Inspector friend expressed in contrast to what I’m used to. It’s rare to see religion treated in comics in a substantial fashion, beyond the “crazed fanatic” type or use of random symbols to indicate the exotic, so I’m eager to read more of this story.
As a side note, it is very difficult for a well-made continuing comic to get the attention it deserves over the long run — and Usagi Yojimbo has had a VERY long run — without engaging in various stunts and tricks. This issue is #166 of the continuing series, but it’s numbered as a miniseries, so interested readers might notice that this is a fine starting point. Most issues of the series are. (The publisher provided a digital copy.)