Justin's Reviews > Usagi Yojimbo, Vol. 1: The Ronin

Usagi Yojimbo, Vol. 1 by Stan Sakai
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's review
Dec 20, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: comics

For some, these earlier Usagi Yojimbo stories seem foreign compared to the rest of the series, the shift from Sakai's later art style to these earlier drawings has been described as jarring and the writing seems a bit more tongue-in-cheek than later work. Regardless, this first volume introduces us to many of the core characters and themes found throughout the series. It also includes the infamous “Hikiji Panel” in which the series villain is shown as a human.

My biggest complaint with most comics is the complete disregard for character development. It's one of the reasons I like Usagi Yojimbo as a series, the characters do develop and change over time. There are milestones in Usagi's life that Sakai has planned from the beginning and slowly reveals as the story unfolds. Usagi Yojimbo represents an intelligent and deliberate attempt to tell a good story.

That's not to say it's perfect. Sakai is fairly notorious for employing stock characters, something I generally don't care for. However, in this instance I actually feel it adds to the series' charm. He draws from so many influences that clichés are inevitable, but he utilizes these in such a way as to make them fit comfortably within the world he has created instead of jumping out at us as false. It's hard to criticize him on this point since what he's doing works so well.

The panel work is simple and rigid, but, once again, it suffices for the purposes of telling the story. This is an area I think Sakai could have improved on, as his later works seem equally stiff in their layout. Of all the criticisms I have to offer, this is probably the most legitimate. There are times, especially during action sequences, when Sakai's panel layouts seem to restrict his talent. Almost as though he's holding back.

In terms of writing the stories are simple, but fun. Sakai utilizes “show don't tell” wonderfully throughout the series. Although, in this early volume we encounter a couple of expository monologues, most of Usagi's character is revealed to us through his actions, not his words. The only criticism I can really make regarding Sakai's writing would be directed at his dialogue, which feels corny at times. Even in this it is important to recognize a generation gap and that the expectations I have of comics likely do not parallel those of someone from Sakai's generation.

I recognize, as I write this, that I'm probably being too forgiving of Usagi Yojimbo. This has been one of the more difficult criticisms for me to write, as I absolutely adore this series. That is actually why I wanted to do this review, as a challenge to myself. Unfortunately, I think I'm letting my personal bias creep in a bit too much.

Before I conclude I would like to address what is probably the most commonly discussed aspect of this volume, the appearance of Lord Hikiji. I have heard it said that Hikiji is the only human character in Usagi Yojimbo. People seem to bring this up as though Sakai were trying to make some profound statement on the nature of humanity (Hikiji killed Bambi's mom). I'm going to try to dispel both of these ideas.

Hikiji is not the only human character to appear in this volume. First, and perhaps most importantly, there's the cameo appearance of Sergio Aragonés' Groo. Now, I recognize that a case could be made opposing the certainty of Groo's humanity (the real question would be, is he more or less than human?). So, I will not rely solely on his appearance, but will also point to Ocho, the shape-shifting demon, who appears in human form in the Village of Fear story. Humans and shape-shifters are not the same, but Usagi makes no reaction at her appearance, which indicates that humans are not so outlandish. In Horse Thief the woodcutters appear simian, if not human. Finally, in Bounty Hunter there is a very human looking samurai walking down the street on the left side of the final panel. While humans may not be prominent in Usagi Yojimbo, Hikiji is not the only one. A minor point, but one I felt like addressing.

The real question is, “why is Hikiji human?” Stan Sakai has addressed this in interviews, “Lord Hikiji was going to be the great menace in the Nilson Groundthumper (an earlier character created by Sakai) story. The final remnant of Nilson is that Lord Hikiji was shown in one panel in Usagi as a human.” This explanation defies the idea of a poorly conceived commentary on the inherently wicked nature of humanity, something I think we've all seen enough of over the years.

When I worked in a comic shop I was known for being a fan of two books Bone and Usagi Yojimbo. I made an effort to encourage those looking for something new to check out both titles. Most people never would, usually because of a stigma toward black and white books. Of those few who made the effort to read Usagi Yojimbo, nearly all picked up a subscription to it. I don't think it's one of the best things I've ever read. There doesn't exist within its narrative a profound dissection of human nature or morality, it won't challenge your perceptions of reality, but it will entertain you. Sometimes, that's all we want or need.
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