I don’t think there’s much that I could write about Stan Sakai’s masterwork series that hasn’t been said. The man is a legend who has won countless awards for his work, including ones for the educational content of this series.
Most comic fans are more than familiar with this long-eared Ronin, but before checking out this beautiful edition, though I had heard of the series, I had never sat down and gotten to know what this story truly was.
To be clear, I don’t think I’m going to be making any big or new assumptions or find some way to celebrate this character more than anyone else (who has much more pedigree in the appreciation and critique of comic works). In fact, most of what needs to be said about this volume can be gleaned from the various forwards beginning each edition that have been collected here. I can only give my experience as someone who picked this up for the first time and found this treasure locked in one place.
There’s something very romantic about the idea of the samurai in our culture, though it was a period of incredible unrest, where people’s lives were changed or ended in an instant. There’s a lot of appeal for the silent, stoic warrior, mirrored in our culture as the lone cowboy, living by his own code and wandering where he will. There have been a lot of stories told of the samurai, and I’ve enjoyed a great deal of them, but I didn’t know what was in store for me when I began journeying with Usagi.
It’s clear to see some of the influences that shaped this story, none the least of them director Akira Kurosawa. In fact, there are some great references to his movies throughout the pages (most notably from the film that shares a name, Yojimbo. Lots of itchy samurai in these panels. In fact, the cover image almost looks like a still from Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s take on the story of Macbeth.) The early stories bring us into a world that is odd to our eyes and gets us familiar slowly, allowing us to laugh often at the ridiculous, so that it becomes part of the norm. This transition is done so subtly, you find yourself wondering why it seemed so odd at first. Sakai is a phenomenal storyteller, letting the plot drive against the strength of the characters, all the while moving in a world that is so seamless and complete that regardless of how far from the previous action he jumps in time or space, you never feel lost, you trust in the journey, and feel safe being guided to the next place.
This collection is a great way to immerse yourself in this huge tale, combining previous trades into a massive volume that gives you so much insight into this Ronin, as well as the cast that surrounds him. Every character in this series has a life, has a soul, and Sakai treats every one of them with the utmost care. It shows that he feels that every person in his world is important, reinforcing the ideals of the Samurai whose journey we follow.
This is not a bloody book; even when the violence comes to a head, there’s a visceral, but realistic, art to it at first, but as you grow more engrossed with the characters, there are times you wish you could pull away and can’t. Not because of physical gore, but the empathetic resonance with the folks on the page, which is especially heartbreaking in the story “Noodles.” You will find yourself questioning seemingly stereotypical situations that become so poignant that you can’t tear yourself from it, and when brought into the harsh and hard realities of the world Sakai paints for us, you can feel everything from every perspective.
The artwork in this book is all black and white, and for me it made me slow down to really appreciate and decipher each panel, making sure not to miss anything. I feel like it made me more aware of every action, thereby wrapping me more into a world where our hero is conscious of every breath. It adds a measured pace that calms you in the world and provides a slow and steady pressure when the action gets going, like rapids in a river.
As a collection, this is a great edition, and if you don’t own the trades already or have never been able to venture into this story, you ought to pick it up and give it a read. This has now become one of my favorites, and I will be continuing to journey alongside Usagi and his friends and foils as much as I can. If you’re a fan of Samurai Jack, Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Samurai Champloo, the vast work of Kurosawa or Miyazaki or anything in that vein, you are going to fall in love with this world, with this storyteller who will keep you guessing and enthralled.
See you, Rabbit Samurai.