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Miyamoto Usagi Yojimbo Part II: The Cinematic Samurai

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Tuesday, Apr 9, 2013
Previously we introduced Stan Sakai's Miyamoto Usagi, the "Rabbit Bodyguard" who travels the landscape of ancient Japan, supported by a cast of anthropomorphic animal characters, but Usagi didn't start as a "cute bunny" with a martial arts mean-streak. This ronin was all Samurai, all the time, as informed by Japanese legend as by Japanese cinema.

Who is this rabbit ronin star of Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo? That answer goes back hundreds of years to a man who was a contemporary of William Shakespeare’s, though he lived on the other side of the world. Miyamoto Musashi (also known as Shinmen Takezō, Miyamoto Bennosuke and Niten Dōraku) was the author of Go Rin No Sho (The Book of Five Rings) a tactical and philosophical strategy guide that is still studied today as a guide to business (amongst other things). He was also the founder of his own style of swordsmanship (called “Niten-ryū”) and a wandering ronin (masterless samurai) whose adventures spawned legends that became film and television sagas, remaining popular to this day. Even in Musashi’s own day there were pictorial texts that told his tales in a format not unlike today’s comicbooks.


This artwork may well have been the inspiration for Japanese American Stan Sakai to create his own comicbook based on the life of Musashi. This proposed manga was to focus on the real history of the historical (and quite human) Musashi, until Sakai playfully redrew his version of the ronin as a bunny rabbit with a top knot comprised of his black hair-covered ears. Sakai found the image too compelling to abandon and (after a drawing revision that left the rabbit’s fur all white) Miyamoto became Usagi, a roamin’ ronin with Musashi’s history, but a free background with which to create Sakai’s own world. Still, Japanese films continued to influence Sakai’s gridded page.
  


One of the most famous adaptations of the life of Musashi was Inagaki Hiroshi’s “Samurai Trilogy”, starring the famed actor Mifune Toshiro as the ronin casually called “Takezo”, which ran from 1954 to 1956. This fictionalized saga’s impact on Usagi is more than name-deep, providing both a legendary background and the name of Usagi’s most recent master, “Lord Mifune”.


A favorite actor of Kurosawa Akira, the real Mifune’s impact on world cinema (hardly just Japanese) cannot be underestimated, nor can his impact on Usagi Yojimbo. While certainly an influence on the book’s title character, the man who helped create Clint Eastwood’s persona (Eastwood’s star-making role was in A Fistful of Dollars , a remake of Kurosawa’s film called, you guessed it, Yojimbo, starring Mifune) was also the model for Usagi’s squinty-eyed erstwhile ally Gennosuke. In addition to taking thematic influence and title from Yojimbo, Sakai also drew inspiration from Kurosawa’s spiritual sequel to Yojimbo in Sanjuro (also starring Mifune).


Mifune also crossed over with another popular series starring the blind samurai “Zatoichi” (played by Katsu Shintarô) in the 1970 film Zatoichi to Yojimbo. Zatoichi in turn inspired “the Blind Swordspig” known as “Zato-Ino”, who frequently clashes with our title “Yojimbo”. As touched on in our last installment, another of Usagi’s erstwhile foes is the bounty hunter known as “Stray Dog”. Japanese for “Stray Dog” is Nora Inu, the title of a Japanese film noir starring Mifune and directed by Kurosawa. Although not literally a “samurai film” (though the influences are undeniably there), the concept of the noble warrior from Nora Inu undeniably influenced Sakai’s own deceptively altruistic wanderer of the same name.


Although undeniably indebted to Japanese films for inspiration (everything from The Seven Samurai and Star Wars‘s partial source The Hidden Fortress to the kaiju from Godzilla and Gamera are admitted influences), Usagi also takes its cues from actual Japanese history and legends. This is not limited to the main character’s model of Miyamoto Musashi, but also the female samurai Tomoe Gozen, upon whom the cat bushi Tomoe Ame is based. The story of “Loan Goat and Kid” (featuring a wandering assassin with his son in a souped up perambulator) is an obvious tribute to the comic series Lone Wolf and Cub (or more accurately but lesser-known in the West, “Wolf & Child”, which in turn became a film series starting in 1972).


Since his start in Anthropomorphics #2 (1984) through his move to Fantagraphics’ Critters and into his own series, Usagi Yojimbo (which began in 1987 and has gone from Fantagraphics to Mirage Studios to the current home at Dark Horse Comics), Miyamoto Usagi has used all of these influences, as well as the brilliant original story lines of Stan Sakai himself, to become one of the most well-rounded, developed and interesting characters in all of comics. No signs of stopping are apparent.


What are the best stories from Usagi’s history and are they original or inspired by history and film? “To Be Continued…” is back NEXT WEEK to give you the rundown.

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