Warrior Rabbit : Take one part Toshiro Mifune. Then add adventure and humor to get artist Stan Sakai’s ‘Usagi Yojimbo.’
The glen echoes with the war cries of two samurai as they leap at each other, long swords flashing in the sunlight. The battle is short but deadly: One warrior falls lifeless to the ground.
The loser in this duel-to-the-death is a treacherous wart hog; the victor, a rabbit.
This is the world of “Usagi Yojimbo” (literally “rabbit bodyguard”), a comic book series written and drawn by Stan Sakai.
Since its debut nine years ago, “Usagi Yojimbo” has become one of the country’s most popular independent comics, selling as many as 20,000 copies per bimonthly issue; five collections of Sakai’s work have been published in both hardcover and paperback.
The Usagi character has also made guest appearances on the animated “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” program, and three-dimensional figures of the rabbit-samurai are included among “Turtles” action toys.
A Southern California resident for 16 years, Sakai talked about his work at his home in Pasadena, pausing to answer occasional questions from his 2-year-old daughter.
“I originally wanted to do a comic book series based on the (historic) samurai Miyamoto Musashi, the author of ‘A Book of Five Rings,’ ” he explains.
“But while I was developing supporting characters for another series, I drew a rabbit and tied up his ears like a samurai’s topknot. I loved the design. It offered so much potential that I kept the rabbit and named him Miyamoto Usagi. That was in 1984, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
A third-generation Japanese-American, the 39-year-old Sakai was born in Kyoto, while his father was stationed in Japan with the U.S. Army. The family moved when he was 2, and he grew up in Hawaii with a strong sense of the Asian heritage that is reflected in his later work.
“There’s a long history of anthropomorphic animals in Japanese literature,” he notes. “The so-called ‘funny animal scrolls’ were the first narratives in Japanese history, and the heroes of many folk tales have animals as their companions.
“A lot of my stories are inspired by Japanese folklore or literature or movies: I’ve done stories based on Kabuki and Noh plays, and on Kurosawa’s ‘Yojimbo’ movies.”
Usagi represents a unique fusion of East and West, combining traditional samurai virtues with the flamboyance of Kurosawa’s heroes and the understated authority of a Hollywood frontier marshal.
After his feudal lord (a tiger named Mifune--homage to the Japanese film star) was murdered through treachery, Usagi was left a ronin, or masterless samurai. He wanders through 17th-Century Japan (populated with animal characters), slaying demons, fighting bandits and battling oppressors of the weak.
A resolute loner, he cherishes a wistful, courtly love for the bodyguard Tomoe Ame (a cat). Sakai based her character on another historic figure, Tomoe Gozen, a female warrior famed for her beauty and martial prowess. With her bright smile and long black hair, Tomoe bears more than a passing resemblance to Sakai’s wife, Sharon.
“Stan is a good cartoonist; his stuff is very well crafted,” says Bill Liebowitz, owner of the Golden Apple Comics stores in Los Angeles. “He combines a lot of information about feudal Japan with good, wholesome stories--it’s no accident that Usagi was included with the ‘Turtles.’ His comics appeal to kids, who think the rabbit-samurai is cute. In addition to children, his readers include fans of Japanese animation and adult fans of the Disney films and other mainstream animation.”
Although Usagi remains to dedicated to Bushido, the fatalistic samurai code of honor, Sakai leavens his adventures with lively doses of humor. He plays Usagi’s seriousness against the devil-may-care attitude of the reprobate bounty-hunter Gennosuke, a rhinoceros who insists he’s the rabbit’s best friend--a statement his actions often belie.
Further comic relief comes from the antics of tiny dinosaurs Sakai tucks into odd corners of his drawings.
“Because all animals are potential people in Usagi’s world, I needed something to take the place of pets and scavengers and that sort of thing, so I use those little dinosaurs,” he says. “They’re officially called tokage , which means lizard in Japanese.”
The tokages represent a rare anachronism in Sakai’s scrupulously researched stories. When Usagi recalls his days as a retainer to Lord Mifune, every detail of his elaborate battle armor is rendered with a care that sets Sakai’s work apart from other comics.
The soft-spoken artist seems an unlikely creator of fierce battle scenes, but he suggests deadly combat in his drawings without actually depicting it.
“Stan is a fantastic storyteller with a point of view that is unique in American comics,” says Kim Thompson, editor and publisher of “Usagi” at Fantagraphics Books. “He’s taken the classic samurai movie language and combined it with his own humorous sensibility to create something that’s unlike any other comic I’ve read. Because of its nature, ‘Usagi’ is a violent strip: There are sword fights and deaths. Stan manages to keep the violence from seeming gruesome, but he doesn’t gloss over it.”
Sakai is developing a new comic book series that transports samurai-era Japan into the distant future. It’s hardly a novel concept--George Lucas cites Akira Kurosawa’s period adventure “The Hidden Fortress” as a primary influence on “Star Wars"--but Sakai is approaching it from an unusual angle.
“I’ve created a bunch of Usagi descendants, whose descent is traced through the ownership of his swords,” he explains. “ ‘Space Usagi’ is a fantasy with whole planets built around the theme of feudal Japan: Usagi is a warrior in that future space-Japan. It appeared as a three-issue miniseries in 1992, and there’ll be a second miniseries this summer, then an ongoing series some time next year.”
The futuristic “Space Usagi” is already in development for an animated series, probably for the 1994-95 television season, and the characters are being licensed for merchandising.
Sakai appears regularly at comic book stores and conventions across the country, discussing his work and signing autographs. (He can draw a simplified version of Usagi on the frontispiece of a book in a matter of seconds.) In addition to writing and drawing six issues of “Usagi Yojimbo” each year, he letters Sergio Aragones’ “Gru the Wanderer” comics and the Sunday panels of the “Spider-Man” strip.
His artwork will be featured at an exhibition held in conjunction with Children’s Day celebrations in Little Tokyo in May. He’s so busy that he’s turning “Space Usagi” over to other writers and artists, something he could never do with “Usagi Yojimbo.”
“I’m drawing the mini-series, but a new creative team will probably take over ‘Space Usagi,’ he concludes. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable with anyone else drawing ‘Usagi Yojimbo.’ There’s too much of me in Usagi, plus there’s the love of Japanese culture that has to be conveyed through the artwork and the stories. It’s just too personal for me. ‘Space Usagi’ is another step removed, so I’m not as possessive about it.”