Labels matter. If I said “funny animal comic” you might think of Mickey Mouse, Captain Carrot, or Tom & Jerry. If I said “anthropomorphic comic,” you might remember somewhat less humorous graphic novels: Maus, Erma Felna EDF, and the subject of today’s review, Usagi Yojimbo. Or more specifically, Stan Sakai’s 1989 Usagi Yojimbo Book Three: Wanderer’s Road, which collects short pieces crafted between 1987 and 1989.
Miyamoto Usagi is a long-eared lagomorph ronin living in a fantasy version of Edo-era Japan. There, everyone is some form of anthropomorphic animal1: rabbits, snakes, monkeys and so on. Lacking a master, Usagi moves from place to place, having adventures along the way.
Here are seven of them.
Introduction (Robert Asprin):
The late Robert Asprin treats us to a discussion of funny animals before launching into a (deserved) tribute to Sakai.
Wandering into an unfamiliar town, Usagi discovers that the local bully has treed a tokage (a tameable lizard) at the top of a tall watch tower. After berating the bully, Usagi heads up to save the tokage, without pausing to consider that the resentful bully is still at the bottom of the tower. And the bully has an ax.
The tokage does not die at this time. And his name is Spot.
Many Usagi stories are fairly grim but this is one of the funny ones. The bully’s attempts to lash out at those weaker than he is end up backfiring on the thug.
A Mother’s Love:
Kind-hearted Usagi gives an old woman a piggyback (well, rabbitback ride) back to her town. There he discovers the town is ruled by the old lady’s son, a bombastic thug with an army of brutes who enforce his whims. The old woman knows that her son has gone wrong, but what is one elderly woman to do, even with the help of a sympathetic ronin?
Quite a lot, as it turns out.
This is one of the grimmer stories.
Return of the Blind Swordspig:
When Usagi and Spot cross paths with Zato-ino, the blind swordspig seeks revenge on Usagi for cutting off his nose. Will the unquenchable desire for vengeance drive one wanderer to murder the other?
Zato-ino is a tribute to Zatoichi.
You may think you can eliminate whole categories of possible endings for this because the author is unlikely to kill either the main character of the series or one of the more likable sympathetic ongoing characters. On the other hand, this is a world where death can be shockingly abrupt.
Blade of the Gods:
Is Jei a madman or, as he claims, the chosen weapon of the gods? Either way, he is astoundingly good with a spear. Better, it seems, than Usagi is with his sword.…
TV Tropes points out if you add the honorific ‑san to Jei’s name, it sounds like Jason. Which may explain why it is Jei-san keeps appearing in the series despite the events in this story.
The Tea Cup:
Rapscallion friend Gen asks Usagi to help him transport a valuable teacup.
Gen postures a lot about being in the game only for himself but his interaction with adorable orphans suggests otherwise.
“The Shogun’s Gift”:
Tomoe Ame (one of the very small number of swordswomen in this setting) and Usagi cross paths again when series antagonist Lord Hikiji sends a ninja to steal a valuable sword from Tomoe’s master Lord Noriyuki before Noriyuki can give the sword to the Shogun. By apparent coincidence, Usagi runs into the felonious ninja, now disguised as a humble woodcutter and doing his best to escape with the stolen sword. Hijinks ensue.
Tomoe is a tribute to Tomoe Gozen. Tomoe Ame is also a kind of rice candy. Now, you may ask “what is a character based on someone who was around for the Genpei War doing in a comic set in the Edo period?” The answer is “being awesome”, although this particular story doesn’t really let her showcase her skills.
This story features a married pair of woodcutters whose names elude me. They turn up over and over in Usagi stories and he never recognizes them.…
“Turtle Soup and Rabbit Stew”:
This is a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Usagi Yojimbo crossover: Leonardo the TMNT is transported back to Edo-era Japan, for no apparent reason other than plot convenience. Unfortunately, the manner of his appearance in Usagi’s time leaves both of them with the impression that the other is a deadly enemy. Who will survive? a central character from a long-running, incredibly profitable series or the central characters from another long-running series?
This was mostly harmless.
When I first encountered this series, I only knew Sakai’s work from the Groo the Wanderer series, which has a rather different tone than the Usagi Yojimbo series2. Usagi is essentially a series of chanbara films in comic book form. While the art might look like the illustrations from a “funny animal” cartoon and while there are often some humorous passages, there are also tragedy and loss.
The fact that funny animal comics are generally aimed at kids and have a very constrained range of subjects is, I think, why some artists and fans prefer the more general term “anthropomorphic cartoon.” Not a funny, no expectation of comedy.
Sakai eschews graphic violence, which (given the number of people his swords-rabbit bisects, runs through and slashes to death in the course of this short volume) is probably for the best. The style is very straightforward, and with Sakai’s keen eye for composition, very effective. If you like samurai movies, you will very likely enjoy this series as well.
Stan Sakai’s works can be purchased from the sources provided here.
1: Technically, humans are the most anthropomorphic animal of all, but as far as I know, none have appeared in Usagi Yojimbo. The characters closest to hominid are some monkey-people, if I recall correctly.
2: There are similarities between Groo and Usagi. They both mean well, both are wandering swordsmen and neither one knows what mulch is.