Sunday, March 3, 2013

Presenting: Sasuke, the Demon Queller!

Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo is, for all I know, beloved by all who read it. However, based on how seldom the series comes up around the blogosphere, I have to assume many of you are not reading the series. Perhaps the 25+ year publishing history seems daunting to you? It shouldn't; Sakai carefully crafts his tales to accommodate first-time readers joining the narrative at any point. On the other hand, suppose the adventures of funny animals in feudal Japan isn't your milieu? In that case, allow to argue in the favour of Usagi Yojimbo as a comic book series anyone can enjoy, even if you scorn funny animals.

Amongst the dozens of characters who comprise Usagi's cast, there's one who stands out as being a little more familiar to readers of comic books than most; his name is Sasuke and his singular occupation is that of demon queller.
When Usagi first met Sasuke in the story "Kumo" (found in trade vol. 14: "Demon Mask"), Sasuke appeared to be fox-man ronin. Up to that point, the tale had involved Usagi discovering webs left behind by giant spiders, spiders which had consumed a full-grown man. Venturing into a local tavern, Usagi began to describe what he'd seen to the locals. Sasuke is seen at first from the back of his head; he's just a figure in the crowd, one of the tavern customers. Of course, regular readers of the series know when Usagi meets another ronin in a tavern, the newcomer must be fated to aid or hinder our rabbit protagonist.

The first significant thing we learn about Sasuke comes when he calls Usagi by name, despite Usagi not having given it. "You must have introduced yourself when you came over," is Sasuke's simple response; Usagi might accept this, but we readers have the advantage of looking back over the previous panels, where we can see Usagi did no such thing. Something is off about Sasuke's explanation, but it's not because he's heard of Usagi by reputation or has been secretly observing our hero from afar; Sasuke knowing Usagi's name is just one of his supernatural talents.

The supernatural has figured in Usagi Yojimbo comic books almost from the first story, almost alwaysto bedevil Usagi. In "Kumo," Sasuke is an ally - and quite a powerful one!

Sasuke's magic goes beyond his mystic foresight and includes conjuring up bolts of eldritch energy, in a manner like any of Steve Ditko's sorcerers! Later in "Kumo" Sasuke battles a "Spider Queen" by conjuring up a giant frog to consume her massive spiders. Sasuke's demeanor against such supernatural horrors is as reserved as his explanation for knowing Usagi's name; one gets the impression his life is much less ordinary than our protagonist. In fact, Usagi can be quite unnerved by magical goings-on, providing a neat way to undercut his usual stoic manner. Just as Usagi could face a dozen armed men with grim determination, so does Sasuke confront the very demons of hell!

I enjoy how Sasuke's knowledge of people's names (and other pertinent information) is repeated each time he appears like a running gag. In "Sumi-E" (found in vol.18: "Travels With Jotaro"), Sasuke not only knows Jotaro's name before it is given to him, he also surmises Usagi is Jotaro's father. Again, Sasuke offers weak suggestions that he came by this information honestly. "Sumi-E" is an absolute delight, containing a loving tribute to Japanese giant monster movies such as Gamera and Godzilla. Perhaps the best Sasuke tale thus far is the full-colour graphic novel "Yokai" in which some details of the hero's tragic origins are revealed.

There you go: Usagi Yojimbo is not just a funny animal book with a period setting, it's also a raucous fantasy adventure! Is that helpful? Please consider picking up a Usagi Yojimbo story - don't dismiss such a fine series sight unseen!


usagigoya said...

Great post!

Sasuke is an awesome character and he definitely livens up any story he shows up in, such as Traitors of the Earth, themost recent Usagi book released.

One of Stan sakai's many talents is creating supporting characters who could easily be spun off into their own series, but only if done by Sensei himself.

I know I would be happy as all get-out if Stan Sakai did a Sasuke mini-series, or an Inspector Ishida mini-series, or an adventurious mini-series of ninja intrigue starring the Neko Ninja....

Michael Hoskin said...

Heck, there's no shortage of supporting characters who'd be compelling protagonists away from Usagi - Gen, Tomoe, Stray Dog, Kitsune... I'd follow any one of them, happily!