The Usagi Yojimbo Saga, Volume Eight is an omnibus that collects books 29 through 31 of Stan Sakai’s eponymous series. At its centre is the masterless lapin samurai Miyamoto Usagi, who wanders through a slightly skewed version of Edo-era Japan.
Because I got this as an e‑arc, I failed to grasp how much of a tome Volume Eight is. On paper, it’s probably weighty enough to cause serious back pain when lifting the volume.
In fact, this tome is long enough I am going to start off with talking about the work, and then end with a brief incredibly long synopsis of the contents. If I do it the other way round, you might not last until the general comments.
Wow, this was long. I know I keep mentioning that but we are talking serious tome here. On the plus side, not only is this book value for money, but you could also use the dead-tree version as a weapon should bandits or ninjas attack. (It seems that both sorts are more ubiquitous and violent than I had realized.)
Sakai is a master of conveying action and emotion with deceptively cartoonist art. No surprise: he has decades of practice under his belt.
On the minus side… Sakai has some favorite tropes and uses them again and again. Usagi has a rare talent for arriving just a little too late to save most of an entourage, as well as a knack for getting drawn into arduous quests where the honour of one clan or another is on the line. But repeated tropes don’t necessarily result in repetitive stories. The ice runners and the artistic rock escorts stories may have points of similarity, but they are different in that one lord is worth the sacrifices made while the other, eh, no.
The Usagi stories resemble some strict poetic forms. In most stories, we have:
realizing that there is a problem;
an attempt at figuring a non-violent way to solve the problem;
Just as sonnets differ, so do the Usagi stories.
One might wonder, is there a subtext to the way in which Usagi’s consistent attempts to avoid violence fail, that despite his best intentions he is usually backed into a corner where it is kill or be killed? Perhaps the subtext is that in a context where errors generally result in death, it is very hard for people to learn from their mistakes.
This Edo-era Japan is one in which lamentable outcomes are all too likely. Peasants live on the edge of starvation, arrogant samurai fail to grasp the survivorship fallacy, and the ethic of honour above reason results in some very unreasonable results. Still, mixed with the tragedies are moments comic or heartwarming.
Titles of the original books are rendered in all caps.
TWO HUNDRED JIZO
Introduction by Guy Davis
Self explanatory. This reminds me, I need to find time to track down and review Davis’ Baker Street.
Murder at the Inn, Parts One & Two
After saving his old friend Inspector Ishida from bandits, Usagi, the inspector and the bandit leader they captured make their way to a nearby inn. The inn is filled with the usual colourful array of characters. When they wake in the morning, two of the guests are dead. It’s up to Ishida and Usagi to solve the murders.
Two Hundred Jizo
Seeking shelter from the endless rain — a running theme in this volume — Usagi finds his way to a small village. He soon discovers that it has been invaded and occupied by a band of bandits. What can one incredibly lethal samurai hope to do in the face of considerably less skilled swordsmen?
Usagi arrives in time to save the last of a band of runners from massacre. The attackers were not random highwaymen: the runners are transporting precious ice, with the honour of their clan on the line. Nothing for it but for the ronin rabbit to join the quest!
Shoyu, Part One & Two
Usagi is drawn into a needlessly deadly rivalry between two soy sauce manufacturers.
THIEVES AND SPIES
Introduction by Naomi Hirahara
The Thief and the Kunoichi, Part One, Two, & Three
A document proving mercantile collusion becomes the object of contention between outcast ninja Chizu, charmingly greedy thief Kitsune, and a corrupt merchant. Usagi must choose sides; regrettably he is friends with both Chizu and Kitsune.…
The One-Armed Swordsman
An amputee swordsman seeks out the bully who lopped his right hand off in a previous duel.
The Distant Mountain
Once again, Usagi intervenes in a bandit attack too late to save most of a procession’s guard, and once again he is convinced to help transport a precious item. This time it is a beautiful rock, on its way to a lord’s garden. The lord is in no way worthy of his men’s sacrifice.
Death of a Tea Master
A foolish bet with a death-obsessed foreigner leaves Lord Odo with no choice but to order tea master Nobu to kill himself. The foreigner is within his rights, so there is nothing to be done to save Nobu, which is not to say the rascally European will escape unscathed from Usagi’s wrath at the needless death of a respected teacher.
Usagi stumbles over the remains of a battle between a bride-to-be’s entourage and bandits. Both sides annihilated the other leaving the bride untouched. Escorting her to her groom, Usagi soon realizes she was not the victim of a random attack. Someone wants her dead. But who?
THE HELL SCREEN
Introduction by Cullen Bunn
The River Rising
Bandits take advantage of a village’s efforts to survive a flood to steal precious food. Usagi sets out to recover the food but returns with something even more precious.
Usagi tries to save a villager from a homicidal kappa. Failure draws Usagi into an alliance with a different kappa, one equally determined to drive off the killer.
Momentary sympathy leads Usagi to save the life of a ninja lost in a storm. When the two find themselves face to face in battle, will she return the favour?
The Secret of the Hell Screen, Parts One, Two, & Three
Usagi teams up with Inspector Ishida once more, this time to uncover why two men were brutally murdered near a temple slated for decommissioning. Is it simply murder or are darker forces at work?
The Fate of the Elders
Usagi assists a dutiful son to carry his mother to a distant mountain where she hopes to be reunited with her husband.
Usagi attempts to escort an artist to safety.
Usagi encounters two spirits of long-dead warriors, still locked in endless battle with each other.
A gallery of colour portraits of Usagi in action,
“Stan Talks to Usagi”
Stan Sakai attempts to interview his creation. It does not go well.
“Stan and Sergio”
The genesis of a short piece, rooted in a conversation between Stan Sakai and Sergio Aragonés.
Aforesaid short piece, in which Usagi discovers that the anthropomorphic samurai of Sakai’s Japan include at least one who is a skunk.
A piece from the back cover of one of the collections.