I’ve heard a lot of great things about “Usagi Yojimbo” over the years, but had never read an issue for a variety of reasons, few of them good. The chance to review a self-contained issue seemed like a great way to finally see what the fuss was about and check out Stan Sakai’s critically acclaimed series about a samurai rabbit. And this issue is a solid, clever, kind of cute story about two different hosts that take in Miyamoto Usagi and how each is unpleasant in its own way.
The issue opens with a wonderfully funny and brilliantly paced scene in which Usagi tries his best to leave the house of an old woman who gave him shelter and food for the night, but refuses to stop talking. No matter how Usagi tries to interject and return to his journey, he can’t seem to find a way to break the woman’s rhythm of stories about her sister. Sakai’s pacing and writing of the woman has some great comedic moments in the scene and builds the frustration not just of Usagi, but of the reader as well. After a while, we’re eager for Usagi to get back on the road because the woman is annoying us!
Since Usagi was so late in leaving, he doesn’t get too far before it begins to grow dark and he must find another place to spend the night. A house with an older man seems like a great spot as he isn’t very talkative and simply wants to eat some dinner before going to sleep, exactly what Usagi had in mind. However, this host turns out to be far more troubling than the old woman as he’s a Nukekubi, a floating head demon that wants to feast on Usagi’s flesh. Either way, his hosts’ mouths seem to be the problem on this part of his journey.
While the plot is very simple, Sakai tells it with a methodical pacing and visual style akin to very polished prose in a short story. His page layouts are basic rectangular panels that lead from one to another in an easy to read pattern, and his line work is strong and bold cartooning as he gives the characters unique and distinctive expressions and body language without being excessive. While he is very minimalist and simple in lines for the characters, giving only the necessary details, his settings are highly textured and detailed, which makes the simplicity of the characters stand out. It’s almost akin to the lush painted backgrounds of many animated classics where the simple, cartoony looks of the character pop out because of the contrast. It’s very effective here and a good way to draw attention to the characters in black and white without simply dropping out the backgrounds.
The end of the issue is a little too cutesy and obvious, but the storytelling to that point is fantastic. If, like me, you haven’t yet picked up an issue of “Usagi Yojimbo,” #126 is a great way to come to the book and sample Stan Sakai’s fantastic art and storytelling skills.