Book Review: Stan Sakai’s “Usagi Yojimbo”

If there is one thing in art that is both a blessing and a curse, it is this: nobody hates a consistent creator. If you do not have a masterpiece or a flop under your belt, you are not shackled to expectations, and nobody can dislike you. But, if you are never bad for decades, people take you for granted. Look at “Peanuts,” for instance. It was not recognized as a masterpiece until its author, Charles Schulz, had died.

Thankfully, the case is not quite the same with Stan Sakai’s “Usagi Yojimbo,” which has been running now for 32 years and has never, in that single period, been anything less than very good. With over 200 issues—and slowly being collected in omnibuses by Dark Horse and Fantagraphics—and with Sakai saying he will only stop making it once it is impossible for him to draw, a reader will find in their hands perhaps the single most-consistently-excellent piece of literature they will ever read.

It helps that Sakai does not have a terribly overarching plot. Certain events will be referenced or called back to, but it is otherwise possible to read at the beginning of any storyline and be utterly fine. The plot is simple: a samurai named Miyamoto Usagi, having lost his lord and job in a war against the mysterious and diabolical Lord Hikiji, wanders feudal Japan, doing what he can to help others. If that sounds simple, it is not: Sakai has an encyclopedic knowledge of his ancestral homeland, from virtually every samurai movie ever made to how to make a giant kite. One of the most profound issues is a tea ceremony done in its entirety, expressing a universe’s worth of longing and sadness in the smallest of gestures.

Not to mention the various people Usagi meets along the way, from his bounty hunter best friend Gen; Tomoe Ame, Usagi’s greatest ally and love in the world; the con artist thief Kitsune, whose way of making new friends is by stealing their purse; Sasuke the demon hunter, who has a bad habit of reading minds without permission; and Usagi’s greatest enemy Jei, a demon sent by an evil god to cleanse the world of life. Sakai draws each character with love and respect, and his art style evolves over 30 years from being blocky and overly worshipping of his heroes to a fluid style almost like ink painting. Even the lettering of this book is among some of the best you can ask for, with Sakai having mastered style without the loss of clarity.

So, is the question now, “Should I start reading this very, very long series, which will probably not end for at least 20 years?” The answer is: yes. Of course, yes. Unlike so many other works Sakai’s world is one to get lost in, a world unknown to most, but a treasure chest that, when breached, yields infinite treasures. Rarely do I say this, but this is a work anyone can enjoy and should be read by anyone with even a passing interest in stories and how they are told.