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Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 34): Bunraku and Other Stories

July 15, 2020

The first thing you notice about this volume is its size.


After 33 reduced-size volumes, this is the first volume of the ongoing “Usagi Yojimbo” series to see print at a standard trim size.  It’s different.  As is the fact that there’s no volume number on the side here.  For that you’ll have to look at the copyright information section where it lists this volume as number 34.  You’ll also notice when you look inside that this is also the first volume of “Usagi” to be printed in full color.  It’s a different but interesting change after reading the entirety of the series in black and white up to this point.  What I’m getting at is that there are a lot of cosmetic changes to this first volume of “Usagi” from its new publisher, IDW.  Once you’ve taken them all in, you’ll find that this is still the same quality series it was when Dark Horse was publishing it.

“Bunraku,” the first story, is a great example of that and why this series will never run out of stories to tell.  That’s because it’s a look at another aspect of Japanese culture, this time the art of puppet theater, backed up by some quality storytelling.  Supernatural storytelling as we meet up with Sasuke Demon Queller in the opening pages as he fights off some evil demon rhinoceros creature before the scene shifts to Usagi catching a puppet play in town.  It isn’t long before their paths cross and the Rabbit Ronin finds himself partnered up with Sasuke to take out this latest supernatural threat.  


That the story will eventually involve the two of them taking on some demonic puppets shouldn’t surprise you.  Nor should the fact that the blind leader of the puppet troupe is up to no good.  What’s good is that creator Stan Sakai is aware of these things and has planned ahead accordingly.  There’s some fun to be had in seeing Usagi and Sasuke work things out and then take on the evil puppets, and the latter is less annoying here than he has been in his previous appearances.  Seeing him head off to his next task without question while he’s worn out and near desiccation takes the edge off of his mystical know-it-all personality.  I was also impressed to see how Sakai could tweak his style to differentiate between the puppets and the humans during the play.  It’s a predictable but still solid start to this volume.


The story that follows, “Hero,” is the best of this volume as it involves Usagi accompanying Lady Mura, as she returns to visit her father.  She’s a writer of some renown, but her fame has been a burden on her husband, a samurai who resents the fact that his wife is more admired than he is.  As is the case with so many “Usagi” stories, the title character gets a couple chances to fend off threats from Mura’s husband’s retainers, and bandits, while also getting the chance to lose himself in a good book.


While I’d like to go into what makes this the best story in the volume, that would require heading into spoiler territory as it’s the wrap-up which really elevates it.  Just know that it involves the rules of Samurai honor cutting both ways.  For better and for worse, Usagi and Mura’s husband are both bound to them.


“Adachi” is an interesting story and one that should’ve led off the IDW relaunch.  Not only does it recount how Usagi wound up as a ronin, it does a good job of showcasing the series’ two faces:  the ones which reflect Samurai and supernatural action.  It’s also a fusion of two older “Usagi” stories.  The very first one, and a later story that tells the story of Lord Mifune’s defeat at Adachi plain due to the treachery of Lord Toda, and Usagi’s efforts to save his Lord’s honor.  That’s a flashback, while the present-day story shows us the consequences of the character’s efforts.


The cool thing about “Adachi” is how Sakai is able to tie both of them together seamlessly.  If I hadn’t just pointed out the fact that they were originally two tales, it’s likely you wouldn’t have noticed.  As it is, the story is a good summation of the character and the solid storytelling which underlines his appeal.  Even the supernatural aspect manages to fit right in despite the grounded nature of the story’s first half.  Even if it didn’t kick off the relaunch, “Adachi” still reads well in the back third of this volume.


Sakai wraps things up with a lightly comic story in the form of “The Swords of the Higashi,” which also features the return of his longtime friend Gen, and the bounty hunter Stray Dog.  The latter two are after a group of bandits who have the swords of Higashi, a local lord, in their possession.  While Gen and Stray Dog cut down most of the bandits easily enough, Usagi shows up to knock out the last one with a rock to his head.  Against Stray Dog’s protest, the two of them let the cowardly bandit go.  Which turns out to be a mistake when he comes back with friends.


...and then more friends.  And then more friends after that.  It’s ridiculous, but darkly comedic all the same.  There’s a twist at the end of this story as well, which on one hand is nice in that it keeps things from becoming wholly predictable.  On the other, it leaves you feeling that the three principal characters deserved better than this.  Even if this wrap-up does feel consistent with the antics of the character who set it all in motion.


While “Usagi” has changed publishers, the quality of the stories has remained the same.  They’re all generally satisfying, which is what I expect to see in a volume from this series.  The cosmetic changes are also neat.  They just feel a little superfluous after I’ve been reading this title in a reduced trim, black-and-white format for around two decades.  However, if you’ve been holding off on reading “Usagi” because of these things, then you have no excuse to not give “Bunraku” a shot.  It’s a great example of the consistent quality of storytelling the series has been trading in for 34 volumes now.

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