I first met rabbit samurai Miyamoto Usagi while watching the ‘80s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered he wasn’t just a friend to the turtles, but an original character with his own comic series. Stan Sakai started the Usagi Yojimbo series in 1984, and The Special Edition collects the first seven volumes.
Usagi is a rōnin (masterless samurai) who wanders a fantastical Feudal Japan full of anthropomorphic animals, finding adventure along the way. Sakai’s art style is pleasantly cartoonish, even when characters are being stabbed or beheaded. It’s an odd contradiction, but it works very well. Plus, little details are fun to find; in one panel corner a lizard catches sight of an approaching conflict, and in the next panel the lizard flees in fear. The Special Edition tells short, self-contained stories while introducing recurring characters who work to assist or hinder Usagi. For example, if Usagi duels and defeats an enemy in one issue, that same antagonist is likely to pop up in a later issue looking for revenge. Sakai strikes a perfect balance between serialization and simplicity.
Many of the stories in The Special Edition are about good versus evil, but the gray areas are the most intriguing. In one story Usagi escorts an older woman to her home village where he finds that the cruel village leader is the woman’s son. The woman, aware of how the villagers are suffering under tyranny, pleads with Usagi to kill her son. I won’t spoil the ending, but the conflict tests Usagi’s morality and it is a must read. Usagi’s antagonists can also be sympathetic, changing over time and even helping Usagi when they could just as easily kill him.
Reading through The Special Edition I grew to care about Miyamoto Usagi, and I still want more stories even after completing the large volume. So I’ve already bought the next four volumes, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Usagi’s journey until he (hopefully) is able to settle down to a peaceful life.