Usagi Yojimbo: Yōkai
Written & Illustrated by Stan Sakai
Published by Dark Horse
How many of you still get that trill in your heart in anticipation of a new comic? I mean, we all still love comics (or I hope we do), and we look forward to many different titles, but how many give you a physical reaction? How often do you glance over a solicit and nod that you’ll read it, rather than pump your fist and feel a rush when you know a book’s coming out soon? I used to count the days until Wednesday, antsy as I had once been on Christmas morning in my childhood. Now, truthfully, I prefer to not be anywhere near a comic shop on Wednesday.
Not many books excite me like that anymore. I still love finding new books and exploring their worlds, but I rarely find myself counting days or hours until a particular book arrives. I think it’s partially a product of what I read; most of it is very good; I enjoy comics today more than ever, but little of it is adventurous or pulp exciting. Few action comics click for me (most superhero titles inspire indifference or scorn, really), and the exceptions tend to be self-contained so I’m never quite sure what to expect from them and the anticipation isn’t the same. Most of my favorite books give me an emotional and intellectual charge, but it’s not that sort of escapist fancy that I had when I was a young comic book fan.
Fortunately for me, however, the world of comics still offers Usagi Yojimbo. When I know there’s a new Usagi book on the horizon, I can actually feel my heart pick up the pace, and I find myself irritable at the number of books on my reading pile that I have to finish beforehand for one reason or other.
Usagi Yojimbo is, bluntly, my favorite ongoing comic series. In celebration of Usagi’s 25th anniversary, the series’ creator Stan Sakai sat down to pen his first full-length graphic novel. Okay, it you must nitpick, it’s more of a novella, clocking in at just under sixty pages, but sixty pages of Usagi is still sixty pages of greatness. As a further treat, Sakai painted the entire book in watercolors, providing a very different texture to contrast the regular series’ black and white line art.
The plot finds the titular hero, Miyamoto Usagi, lured deep into a forest by a fox spirit, whereupon he discovers a sobbing woman. Her child, she explains, is lost in the nighttime and the yōkai, creatures from Japanese folklore, are plentiful this evening. Shortly afterwards, Sasuké, the demon queller, encounters Usagi and explains that the yōkai are preparing to invade the physical world. Rescuing children and stopping otherworldly invasions, it’s all in a night’s work for Usagi.
Sakai keeps the story loose, allowing plenty of room to show off the bizarre and surreal yōkai designs. Nearly all of the creatures are based on actual Japanese lore, though Sakai admits in the brief afterword to modifying some of them for effect. A superb cartoonist, he manages to mix both absurd and terrifying monsters to great effect, showcasing both his strong character designs and his excellent visual storytelling skills.
For established readers, although Yōkai is geared as a stand-alone, fun and introductory book, it effectively reintroduces Sasuké, who will play in role in upcoming collections of the ongoing serial (or already played a role, depending on your reading habits). Providing a glimpse of Sasuké’s back story and showcasing a range of yōkai, the story also deepens the history and range of Sakai’s world. Plus, it’s an Usagi story in vibrant color.
For new readers, Yōkai focuses on only two characters and demands no previous understanding of either. The action-packed story moves quickly, offers some intrigue into the mysterious demon queller, and showcases Usagi’s heroism while still presenting his frustration at facing the supernatural and being caught up in battles that are none of his concern. Samurais, monsters and fighting, what’s not to love about that?
Although the regular Usagi series is done in black and white, Sakai has been painting cover to Usagi trade paperbacks for years now. Thus, it is no shock to discover his talent for watercoloring in Yōkai. The primary colors pop off each page, yet Sakai provides a moody base of blues and grays that establishes the mysterious, creepy vibe of bizarre creatures in the night.
If you’re a long-time fan or new to the series, Yōkai stands as a great experience in the ongoing adventures of Usagi Yojimbo. Sakai’s reverent research remains evident in even the most adventurous story line, and his peerles cartooning continues to set the industry standard. Simply put, it’s another great Usagi comic; the only downside is now begins the long wait for the next Usagi book.