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Miyamoto Usagi Yojimbo Part III: On the Cutting Edge

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Tuesday, Apr 23, 2013
When we last left "To Be Continued..." we discussed the history, cinema and saga of Miyamoto Usagi, from Stan Sakai's most famous work, but what are the most noteworthy stories in that continuing saga?

Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo may star a bunny rabbit as cute as any in the old “funny animal” subgenre of comicbooks from days gone by, but Miyamoto Usagi is not a joke. Based on the ancient Japanese pictorials (that also featured pre-Manga wide-eyed animals in serious situations) and the life and writings of Miyamoto Musashi, Usagi’s stories take equal inspiration from Japanese cinema and mythology.
 
Surprisingly, some of the best Usagi stories have revolved around creator Stan Sakai’s own vast imagination, as well as direct historical accounts of the Edo period of Japan.
 
Ancient Japanese legends tell the story of the famed Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugii, the “Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven”. This artifact represents one third of the treasured Imperial Regalia of Japan. Alongside the mirror Yata no Kagami (representing Wisdom) and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama (representing Benevolence), the sword represents Valor. Eventually the “Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven” received a name change to Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi or, in English: “Grasscutter”.
  


 
Sakai tells his own version of the tale of Kusanagi in the storyarcs Grasscutter (Usagi Yojimbo, Book 12) and Grasscutter II: Journey to Atsuta Shrine (Usagi Yojimbo, Book 15). Delving back into the long-ago legends and even the shrines dedicated thereto, the “Grasscutter” sagas include prequel tales told completely without the comicbook’s title hero and retold (almost verbatim) ancient tales of eight headed serpents of antiquity, creatively won battles in overarching wars that could rival those including Death Stars and heroes’ quests across the Japanese countryside to protect legendary artifacts that remain national treasures even in the present day. The Grasscutter arcs are the rare sagas that never outlast their welcome. Not only does one finish the Grasscutter books with great appreciation, relief and a long sigh of “WOW!”, but each and every individual issue that makes up these longer tales results in the same awed response.
 
The Grey Shadows storyarc follows the first Grasscutter and provides something of a cooling-off period after that tale’s heavy, but wonderfully written and drawn, epic. One of the best and most stalwart stories in that volume consists of Usagi Yojimbo (Vol 3) # 26-27 which detail “The Case of the Hairpin Murders”. While murder mysteries are hardly a “Western-only” affair (Lone Wolf and Cub explored such stories in film and comic form), these stories were surely inspired (in part) by the adventures of the fictional Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan.


 
Hairpin’s quirky “Inspector Ishida” evokes memories of the “real” Charlie Chan, the cunning and wise police investigator, not the racial stereotype he is so ruefully remembered as due to his many film adaptations. Japanese policeman Ishida is smart and cool, with a wry philosophical bend that Usagi himself can’t help but respond warmly to. In that Stan Sakai was raised in Hawaii, it’s not hard to imagine where Ishida found his own origin. Chang Apana (born Ah Ping Chang) was a shrewd and very successful detective whose tales became the stuff of legend to the point that both Charlie Chan (created by Earl Derr Biggers) and Sakai’s own Ishida were based on Apana’s hard-boiled efforts. If the Apana/ Chan connection isn’t strong enough for you, check out the scar over Usagi’s own left eye and note that Chang Apana’s most recognizable feature was a distinctive scar over his right eye, inflicted by a Japanese assailant armed with a sickle. Coincidence? Possible, not probable.
 
One of the most unique and noteworthy Usagi tales comes not from the history of Japan, but from Stan Sakai’s imagined far, far future of Earth. As mentioned in previous To Be Continued… entries, Usagi is no stranger to crossing over into other universes, including those of his fellow anthropomorphic animal students of Japanese arts, the Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles. Usagi guest starred in the Turtles’ toy lines and even cartoon shows, but it was a descendant of Usagi’s who almost received his own cartoon show. “Space Usagi” exists on a futuristic Earth where the Feudal age of Japan has taken hold once again and swordplay is as important as raygun fighting. Sakai produced three (to date) miniseries featuring this descendant of Miyamoto’s, as well as far-future versions of friends like the Eastwood and Mifune-esque Gennosuke. In 1994 Fred Wolf films (in conjunction with TMNT’s Mirage Studios and Sakai’s Usagi Studios) created a short pilot for a potential Space Usagi TV series. Sadly for Usagi fans everywhere, a (very vaguely) similar program called Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars had just been cancelled, which caused a premature euthanasia of Space Usagi, leaving only a three and one half minute YouTube Clip featuring Fred Wolf’s pilot footage.
 
True to form, Miyamoto Usagi, himself, the Ronin Rabbit who crossed over into multiple other books and mediums even managed a brief crossover with his own descendant “Space Usagi” in a memorable issue. Space Usagi, in turn, was the second of two Sakai characters to debut as an action figure in the TMNT line of toys. Ironically, the toy sold heavier for its tie in with the Turtles than the potential series did with no connection. Perhaps an eventual “spinoff” is in order. Until then, Viva Usagi, from any generation.
 
Was any Rabbit in this humor wooed? Was any Ronin in this humor WON? Tune in (or, at least, click) next week to the superabounding To Be Continued… NEXT WEEK for more on ALL THINGS COMICS! Better duct tape your socks on, true believers lest they be unceremoniously KNOCKED OFF!!!

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