Thursday, July 31, 2014

"Artists! They're worse than spoiled children." Usagi Yojimbo Color Special#5 review

Stan Sakai has been crafting tales of the ever-lovin' rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi for 30 years now, the bulk of those years spent with publisher Dark Horse. Unfortunately, the Usagi Yojimbo series went on hiatus while Sakai provided art chores to 47 Ronin, then health troubles with his wife seemed to (understandably) further the delays.

Although Usagi Yojimbo will return soon, it will be in the science fiction mash-up mini-series Senso, which is not quite the same continuity as that which Sakai has maintained all these decades. It should be great fun, but all the same, there is at least one fine recent release for we Usagi fans - Usagi Yojimbo Color Special#5! This series of one-shots have occasionally burst on the scene like a magician's trick, then just as quickly fade away. It's always a pleasant novelty to read a Usagi tale in full colour, as opposed to his typical black & white haunts.

The special contains four complete stories which originally appeared online as part of Myspace Dark Horse Presents. That project have been shuttered up, it's great to have the material in a format which can sit on a shelf with the rest of we fans' collections!

Heading up the one-shot is "Saya," wherein Usagi accidentally insults a fellow samurai. Although he makes every effort to apologize, it soon becomes clear the offended samurai is spoiling for a fight - too bad he has no idea how deadly the long-eared lapin can be! This is the only tale in the one-shot which I read at Myspace. The plot is simple, but Sakai spices his concotion with interesting details, such as the rice planters who carry on working, oblivious to the rising tensions between Usagi and the samurai. A song one of the workers sings bookends the story and makes the point (one frequently heard in this series) to choose one's battles carefully. It's easy to see why this tale first appeared at Myspace - regardless of one's familiarity with the series, these eight pages tell a complete tale which is representative of the series itself.

"Cut the Plum" is a quick two-page tale set during the time when Usagi had the privilege to journey with his son Jotaro (continuity!). When Usagi relates the story of how his sensei once struck a plum from his nose (more continuity!), Jotaro resolves to test his own skills the same way. It's a quick and funny story which handily captures Jotaro's youthful determination.

"Buntori" sets Usagi against the supernatural - a not-unheard-of aspect of the series. In these eight pages, Usagi witnesses the ghosts of dead warriors still fighting the same battle over and over. As in so many ghost stories, it demands our hero's involvement so that the spirits can be laid to rest. In some ways I wonder if it would be creepier to see this story told in black & white, but the colours at least render the ghosts as being identifiably undead. This isn't the only story where Usagi has dealt with the restless dead; no wonder he's published by Dark Horse - he's practically Hellboy!

The end of the special brings up the longest tale, "The Artist," clocking in at 16 pages. Usagi provides bodyguard services to a travelling artist who has (surprisingly) been tutored by foreigners. While Usagi may live in a world of funny animal people, it's still supposed to be feudal Japan - thus, there are hardly any stories which even reference the world outside Japan. Somehow, this artist has made enemies for himself so Usagi's role isn't easy (does he ever catch a break?). In fact, the hired killers are old enemies of Usagi's seen before (yet more continuity!).

These shorter tales don't raise the kind of stakes found in Sakai's usual fare, but they're extremely easy to follow and of the same quality as the ongoing series. Perhaps Sakai's dependability and high standards have held this series back - perhaps he found his peak too quickly - there's often little to say to people about Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo then "yes, it's as good as the last several decades worth of Usagi Yojimbo!" Yet, it can't be said often enough: if you've never tried Usagi, you might be missing out on something quite extraordinary - intelligent, funny, action-packed and even educational - if the new Color Special were the first Usagi you sampled, it certainly wouldn't be a bad place to begin.

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