THE UNADAPTED: Usagi Yojimbo

Posted: April 21, 2015 in Andrew, Stan Sakai, TMNT, Usagi Yojimbo
**This edition of The Unadapted focuses on a character that’s actually been adapted before. He’s just never been the star of the show. Here’s frequent collaborator Andrew Prenger to tell you about a beautiful comic that tells the tale of a badass rabbit.**

I can say with all honesty that Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo is one of the two comic books (the other being Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) which turned me onto comics as an adult. Without it, I don’t know if I would have gotten into them as a hobby. It happened one day when I was wandering around the library, looking to kill time. I was in the “comics” section which, at the time, was mostly collections of newspaper strips before graphic novels became a thing. I pulled a book from the shelf and on the cover saw a rabbit samurai. There was instant recognition! I didn’t know anything about this book, but I remembered the toy. I had grown up with it as part of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles line.

As so many have…

I checked out that first volume, anxious to see how this weird creation tied into my beloved childhood heroes. What I discovered was a brilliant independent comic which had been running since I was born. Immediately after finishing that one, I went back and checked out the rest. When I started going to my local comic book store regularly it was one of the first books I collected in trade paperback form.

Lord Hikiji, pictured being evil.

Usagi Yojimbo is the story of Miyamoto Usagi, a master-less samurai in a world where every character is an anthropomorphic animal. The series starts an indeterminate amount of time after Usagi’s master has been killed by the evil Lord Hikiji. Following the Bushido code that a samurai can only have one master during a lifetime, Usagi resolves to travel warrior’s journey to hone his skills in the world.

The comic focuses on his travels from city to city, righting wrongs and doling out justice against bandits, bat-ninjas and criminal samurai. Along the way he meets friends and allies, like Gen the bounty hunter and Tomoe Ame, the bodyguard of the noble Noriyuki. He also makes vicious enemies like the seemingly immortal spirit Jei, who passes his malevolence into different characters in his mission to purge the world of “evil”, and Lord Hebi, a snake who serves the aforementioned Lord Hikiji.

The beauty of this comic is the seeming simplicity of it. Were I to classify it I would say it’s an adventure comic as a lot of the stories involve Usagi traveling to a town, finding out about a bandit/ninja/Hikiji problem and then helping out the peasants in peril. These are always fun and they don’t necessarily turn out like one would always suspect. Usagi is a very strong character who is multi-faceted. He would have to be to carry a book mostly by himself for thirty years, much like Judge Dredd. Those two series are similar in the way they are published. Many of the stories are one-and-done or only span two or three issues. The plots don’t get overly-complicated, and maintain a sense of fun. Once you’ve gotten used to that rhythm then Stan Sakai (much like the writers of Judge Dredd) bursts into a giant, epic storyline spanning many issues, usually taking up an entire year to tell. The first of these is generally accepted as “Grasscutter” where Usagi finds a legendary sword and must return it to a shrine to ensure that no one, good or evil, can use it to rule Japan. Sakai uses these stories to expand upon and/or wrap up minor plots and character arcs which have been brewing in the background, almost unnoticed.

Usagi vs. Jei

I keep describing this comic as simple, which is not meant to be a slight in any way, shape or form. I love it for that. I love being able to pick up nearly any issue and enjoy a complete story. The art is also simple, yet deceptively complex. He uses a shorthand for certain things. Like, when he needs some hapless innocents he will draw the same woodcutter wife and husband. Likewise, spies seem to always follow the same template. Stan Sakai does everything by himself, writing, drawing and inking it all (the comic is black and white, so no need for a colorist) and imbues the art with a “cartoony” feel. Underneath that is a complex skill with a huge level of detail in the world of antiquity he has created.

The man behind the rabbit.

Because this character is creator-owned (and has become so beloved) Sakai has been given a lot of leeway in the stories he’s allowed to tell. I love it for this. I dig the adventures, but at some point he started using the comic as a way to explore and explain Japanese culture. Huge chunks of some issues are dedicated to explaining how swords were made or how kites were developed. There’s even an entire issue focusing on the characters going through the complex Japanese tea ceremony. This is why it’s great to get the trades of the series: at the end of each one there are notes explaining these historical facts in more depth and a detailed bibliography. For a book about rabbits sword-fighting with ninja moles, its feet are firmly planted in reality.

Reading the whole series also clearly displays the evolution of Sakai’s art. When Usagi Yojimbo was first being published in the pages of Albedo and by Fantagraphics publishing (the title moved around a lot in the early years before settling into being published by Dark Horse for the bulk of the run) the art was very detailed and much more gory. There is a single page I vividly remember of Usagi being confronted by three ninjas on a bridge in one of the first stories “Lone Rabbit and Child.” It is broken into four panels, each one showing Usagi using his sword to slice through the middle of the ninjas in one swing. Each panel shows the ninjas being cut in half with blood splattering out gruesomely around. This page, while very well drawn, is completely out of place in later adventures. While death is still present, and some blood flies, Sakai has expertly boiled his fight scenes down to Usagi swinging his sword and the antagonist crumpling into a heap with a skull floating above them, indicating their death.

The main reason why Usagi should be adapted is that it is complex. Usagi is far from a blood-thirsty swordsman who solves all his problems through violence. In fact, if he can resolve the situation without drawing his sword then that is preferable to him. Some of the more touching stories show him with deep regret after slaying an enemy who forced him into a situation where he had to draw his swords. There are also numerous tales showing him being able to talk his way out of a situation which would have resulted in unnecessary violence. This complexity could be portrayed beautifully, given the proper adaptation.

“You like swords too?! Awesome!”

Usagi Yojimbo is in an odd situation. As a fan, I don’t remember there ever being a bunch of rumors of anyone taking an interest into adapting it for any media. The most that has come about was his guest appearances in different adaptations of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (which is why I had a toy forever.) He popped twice in the 1987 series and a few times in the 2003 series, the latter of which even included Gen.

Weirdly enough, Stan Sakai did a spin-off book titled Space Usagi which took the tropes of the normal series and transposed it into a sci-fi setting, making that Usagi a descendant. That is the series which seems to have garnered the most attention. I know that there was definitely an attempt to adapt that into a cartoon before Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars debuted (itself a cartoon based on a cult comic book about a space-faring rabbit).

Space Usagi even got a toy…but never appeared on the show.

In this day and age, direct-to-video movies would be the best way to go to get it made, I believe. It wouldn’t work as a televised cartoon, really, since Usagi relies on bladed weapons. I guess they could pull a TMNT and use them to deflect lasers or slap bad guys around with, but come on. I do believe it is a story children would like (and in comic form, is age-appropriate) but it would come off as more “adult” if put into a different medium. However, I fear that DTV would be a disservice to the narrative since it likely wouldn’t delve into the deeper levels of the character or some of the larger arcs from the comic. It would be awesome to see it as an original Adult Swim, American anime which could explore these elements. I would just hope that  a good animation team who could mimic Sakai’s beautiful art style would be attached. The characters have such personality on the page. Any adaptation would be wise to use that as their starting point.

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