Miyamoto Usagi Yojimbo Part III: On the Cutting Edge

J. C. Maçek III

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!!!

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less

Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

In a staid city like Washington, D.C., too many concert programs still stick to the basics. An endless litany of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky concerti clog the schedules and parades of overeager virtuosi seem unwilling to vary their repertoire for blasé D.C. concertgoers. But occasionally you encounter a concert that refreshes your perspective of the familiar. The works presented at The Kennedy Center on 25 October 2017 might be stalwarts of 20th century repertoire, but guest conductor Antonio Pappano, leading the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, reminded us how galvanizing the canonical can still be. Though grandiose executions of Respighi's The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome were the main event, the sold-out crowd gathered to see Martha Argerich perform one of her showpieces, Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.