Friday, March 18, 2016

The Usagi Yojimbo Saga Book 5 by Stan Sakai

The Usagi Yojimbo Saga Book 5
By Stan Sakai

I will be doing this forever; I love Usagi,”
Stan Sakai Newspaper Interview 2011

Ah, Stan Sakai, the myth, the legend. Born in Kyoto, Japan in 1953, he is a 3rd generation Japanese American who currently resides in California. Mr. Sakai has worked on Spiderman with Stan Lee doing the lettering for the newspaper comic strip for 25 years (Stan Lee has a picture of Stan's daughter in his office, Mr. Sakai's son personally received a box full of signed works by Lee when Sakai mentioned how big of a fan he was). He got his start lettering comics (most notably Groo the Wanderer), before moving on to write and illustrate his own comic the Adventurers of Nilsen Groundthumper and Hermy (a medieval comic). It wasn't until 1984 that he hit gold however, Sakai was plotting out a comic book series that would be based on the life and times of Miyamoto Musashi a swordsmen from Japanese history... No wait that's underselling it, with a record of 60 duels undefeated, being the founder of the sword style called Niten ryu and writer of the Book of Five Rings, Musashi is an enduring figure in Japanese culture and in pop culture. He was a character in fictional tales before he died and his life has been so mythologized that it is impossible to separate fact from fancy. You can kinda of consider him a Japanese Robin Hood or Jessie James, a person who has been romanticized so heavily that who he actually was... Kinda ceased matter in a cultural sense really. In lot of ways the character of Musashi is vastly more important to Japanese culture then the actual person, but that character simply couldn't exist, nor would that character be as enduring or far reaching in his influence if it wasn't for the real person that he was based on it. It's an unending fascinating thing to examine and consider but... This is a book review so I'll just leave the thought there for you the reader to chew on. Anyways all of that considered it's no surprise Mr. Sakai turned to Musashi for inspiration. That's not what would make Sakai in my opinion (let's be honest my opinion is not humble) immortal. It was the combination of that inspiration with a random chance doodle he made. That of an anthropomorphized rabbit samurai with his ears in a top knot. The image took a hold of Mr. Sakai and the series quickly found itself in an anthropomorphized fantasy version of 1700s Japan.

Mr. Sakai started the comic series Usagi Yojimbo in 1984 and here we are 32 years later and not only the series still running strong but it is still considered a series with quality art, characters and story telling that both children and adults can enjoy. This is nothing short of amazing considering that we have series who couldn't keep that up for a 1/10th of that time! The series has won 5 Eisner awards and a Parent's Choice Awards. The series has been translated into 14 different languages officially (I am told there are many unofficial translations in Russian and Chinese but cannot confirm at the time of this review). Ironically one of the languages that it hasn't been translated into and one place that Usagi isn't very popular is... Japan. Even then, this is a successful series by any metric. I've been a fan of the series for years and I've been meaning to review these books for awhile now.

I'm reviewing the Saga collection which collects several graphic novels worthy of the series together often bringing together entire story lines into a single book. Book 5 takes place after Usagi ends his travels with his son Jotaro having decided not to tell him that he is his father (while Jotaro in turns decides not to tell Usagi that he is his son, both of them believing the other to be ignorant of the relation.). Emotionally exhausted by this Usagi decides to head to the Geishu province under the rule of Lord Noriyuko who counts Usagi as a welcome friend. Perhaps more importantly to Usgai though, it's also the home of Lord Noriyuko's vassal and guardian the lady samurai Tomoe. Interestingly, Lady Tomoe is actually based on a historical personage, the lady samurai Tomoe Gozen. She was a fighter for the Mimamoto clan in the Genpai war (which was in the 1180s, some time before the Japan of Usgai which is likely in the 1700s). Reputed to be beautiful, intelligent and deadly in archery and sword who met with an uncertain fate in history. The Tomoe in our story certainly lives up to her namesake with several characters talking about her looks but more importantly she's one of the few characters capable of fighting Usgai to a draw with a sword and a able to think quickly on her feet.
These are all good things because most of the book isn't about Usagi, it's about her. Thankfully Tomoe can carry a book or two, although Usagi is still a major part of the events (it is his series after all). The book examines her origins, how she achieved her position and gives us more insight into her family. We get to meet a relative of Tomoe's, Nokiro who was raised along side Tomoe. Nokiro is also an incredibly skilled swords woman but much crueler and darker in personality. Nicknamed the Blood Princess, she serves in a lot of ways as a mirror to Tomoe, perhaps showing what could have happened if she had let her anger (justified anger to be fair) at the way she was treated for being woman overcome all her other traits. We also get some hints of what the future may hold for Tomoe and for Usagi as well.

This was a welcome change of pace as the last book was taken up with a fair amount of Usagi's adventurers with Jotaro. While I really did enjoy the mentor-student relationship between father and son (and I drew a lot of amusement from the fact that both believe the other ignorant of the relationship), after awhile you kinda want to see Usagi in a more equal relationship. We get that with Usagi and Tomoe, who are both equals and treat each as such. Both respect the talents and skills of the other and is willing to listen to their opinion without being threatened by those same skills. Usagi is perfectly willing to follow Tomoe's lead without feeling his masculinity is undercut, while Tomoe is willing to do the same without needing to worry that Usagi is dismissing her because of her gender. It's a clean, healthy relationship that I am continually delighted to read. Plus either one of them can murder a small army on their own so when they get together? You didn't bring enough men to pull these two down. There are not enough men to bring these two down if they're at the top of their game. This book, is more then happy to prove it.

Stan Sakai has written other works but it is likely that Usagi Yojimbo is the work that will outlast him, even though I personally wish him decades more good health and joy. This book continues to uphold the high standards that the Usagi Yojimbo series is respected for and has earned. I certainly needed this after the crap that was No Game No Life! Book 5 of the Usagi Saga by Stan Sakai gets an A.

Next week, I venture into dark British fantasy to review a book by a man, who like Tolkien, is inescapable when discussing English Fantasy. See you then.

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