Sunday, November 29, 2015

"I have heard of it, and need to see it." Usagi Yojimbo #150 review

Having reached its 150th issue at Dark Horse Comics, you may well wonder if the recently-released Usagi Yojimbo #150 is a landmark issue. How fortunate that I'm here to address your wonderment!

"Death of a Tea Master" is a self-contained story wherein a European man named Rodriguez (Spanish?) is visiting the court of Lord Odo, testing his prowess with the saber against the katana styles of Odo's men. As part of the report Rodriguez is compiling, he wishes to observe the act of hara-kiri and demands Lord Odo order his subordinate Nobu the tea master to perform the deed. Unfortunately for Rodriguez, the tea master had a friend: the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi.

It wasn't that long ago that Stan Sakai celebrated 200 issues of Usagi Yojimbo (added up between thre publishers). Sakai's fidelity to his creation over the decades is matched only by the likes of Sim, Aragones or the Pinis. And yet, for all the many recurring characters and relationships within the book's cast, Sakai has always kept this series very easy to jump in on, with only a handful of particularly lengthy storyarcs. "Death of a Tea Master" features no previously-met characters - anyone can begin their exposure to Usagi Yojimbo with this issue and not be left out.

Sakai celebrated 200 Usagi Yojimbo comics with a tale featuring a determined sculptor crafting 200 Jizo statues. Issue #150 has nothing as obviously celebratory, yet it is a special event in a certain way; the character of Rodriguez is perhaps the first European character seen in this otherwise all-Japanese series. Although an animal-person like the rest of the cast, Rodriguez's manner of dress, wavy hair, saber and cross (a symbol seen only once previously in the series in a story which made the point of how deep underground Christianity was at the time in Japan), Rodriguez is the first time Sakai has brought in an outsider to Japanese culture to comment upon it.

In a sense, it's strange that it's taken Sakai this long - after all, Sakai has lived most of his life in the USA, not Japan (and precisely zero years in feudal Japan). As a Japanese man in the west he's qualified to look at Japan as either outsider or insider. Although Rodriguez may ultimately prove to be an usual blip in the Usagi Yojimbo experience - perhaps there will never be another European character - it feels good to think how little of the world Miyamoto Usagi inhabits has actually been glimpsed in the thousands of pages Sakai has devoted to it thus far. Clearly, there is much more for Sakai to draw upon for stories and he need not retire the series yet (unless he's exhausted, which doesn't seem to be the case).

And now that we have had a story where someone from the west comes to observe the east, we see in Rodriguez the worst of westerners. Rodriguez operates under the pretension of honor, plying Lord Odo to his bidding by questioning the lord's own honor; he's a hypccrite, but because Lord Odo is a true man of honor, he cannot call Rodriguez out. Rodriguez plays upon the idea of the west being more innately civilized than the east, calling them "heathen" to Lord Odo's face. Rodriguez treats the life of Nobu the tea master casually; for Rodriguez - and so many in the west of the real world - eastern lands are simply a sideshow where one is entertained by the oddities of humanity.

Usagi Yojimbo is being published by Dark Horse Comics nearly every month and is available digitally at Comixology.

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