Usagi Yojimbo v.24: Return of the Black Soul
Written & Illustrated by Stan Sakai
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Whenever I buy a new comic, that book is automatically added to the bottom of my towering to-read pile and must wait its turn until it finally reaches the light of day and finds itself exposed to my withering glare. (This method does not apply to review copies sent to me, as I try to finish those in something somewhat resembling a timely manner.) Thus, the recurrence of stupendously late reviews by me: you’re witnessing the book that I bought six months after it dropped and didn’t read for another eight months after that finally digging its way to the surface. One comic book series, however, is always excepted to this arduous months-long waiting process, because honestly, I just can’t wait to read it. And that series is Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo.
Begun in 1987, Usagi Yojimbo tells of Miyamoto Usagi, a rabbit ronin, walking the musha shugyo (warrior’s path), righting wrongs while honing his fighting technique and personal philosophical outlook. Drawing on Japanese history in the early Edo era, the serial mixes action, humor, history (both real and mythical) and drama into a tutorial on comic book cartooning.
The latest book in the Usagi series, Return of the Black Soul, features the demonic Jei, Usagi’s most dangerous and unrelenting foe. The swordswoman Inazuma, one of the few warriors able to defeat even Usagi, has been possessed by Jei, and is hunted by a plethora of bounty hunters for crimes committed under the demon’s sway. Among the hunters are Usagi’s longtime ally Murakami Gennosuke, Gen’s new partner Stray Dog, and the mysterious Isamu. Usagi is soon drawn into the quest to find Inazuma and uncover the truth about Jei.
Sakai, in a flashback story, does reveal Jei’s creation, which simultaneously fits the character’s horror film inspirations (Jei is a play on Jei-san, or Jason), satisfies readers’ need for a compelling origin, and leaves the door open for many future adventures. The book’s main narrative unfolds at a steady pace, moving the various players through a series of tightening circles, mixing and missing one another, until each person – through their own means and with their own motives – is drawn into the scorching finale.
Tightly plotted, Return of the Black Soul unfolds slowly, as Sakai allows the connections between the characters to form naturally. Inazuma’s plight, Isamu’s unknown motives, Usagi and Gen’s history with Jei, Stray Dog’s greed, and myriad other bounty hunters pursuing the reward – each scene establishes a fragment of the narrative, building toward a finale in which everyone’s goal creates an unwinnable conflict.
While the writing stands out for its wit and ability to juggle expansive casts, Sakai’s artistry matches it on every level. An award-winning cartoonist and letterer, Sakai is able to lay out each page and panel to maximize the humor and drama – using angles and zooms to build the moment, release tension, or unveil those big moments dramatically. He also uses lights and darks to frame panels and move readers’ eyes through the pages.
Excellent use of an ensemble cast, a demon possession, a whole lot of sword fighting, and one woman’s hope to die free – Usagi Yojimbo v. 24: Return of the Black Soul finds Stan Sakai continuing his standard of excellence. Given the history of the cast, particularly Usagi, Inazuma, Jei and Gen, it’s probably not the first Usagi book I’d recommend to a new reader (if not v.1, try v. 10 The Brink of Life and Death), but it’s definitely one readers will appreciate once they’re immersed in Sakai’s world.