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Interview: Stan Sakai on 30 Years of USAGI YOJIMBO

This week sees the release of Usagi Yojimbo: Senso, a new mini from the samurai rabbit’s creator Stan Sakai. The book, whose title means “war” in Japanese, jumps 20 years ahead in the life of the feudal-era samurai Miyamoto Usagi, not only dropping him into the middle of alien invaders and new intrigues, but offering Sakai the chance to look at some of the characters in Usagi’s life and where they might be two decades down the line.

“It’s something that’s been brewing in the back of my mind for 15 years,” Sakai told me during a chat at San Diego Comic-Con. “Basically, it’s H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. What if the martians had sent a few scout ships to feudal Japan 200 years before Wells’ chronicle in War of the Worlds?

Senso is a departure for the usually meticulously detailed and realistic Usagi Yojimbo, which has been in off and on publication for 30 years now. His furry animal homage to the legendary samurai and historical figure Miyamoto Musashi got his start in a handful of anthology appearances, before drifting into more regular appearances at publishers like Fantagraphics, Mirage, and lately, Dark Horse, the book’s latest home.

Given the character’s anniversary, Dark Horse isn’t missing a chance to celebrate it, and has planned a September release of the first volume in an omnibus collection of Usagi, which collects the first three books of the Dark Horse trades (previous volumes have been collected at Fantagraphics).

That jump into the future in Senso allowed Sakai to play out some story elements to the some of the hypothetical conclusions that have been teased over the years. Sakai describes Usagi at this point as “much older, and more mature,” following through on some of the events in Usagi’s present including how he’ll deal with the son who doesn’t know Usagi is his father, and how things have changed in his relationship to Gen the rhino.

The writer and artist says that the book actually kicks off with the end of a great war, and Usagi finally siding with the Geishu clan before the whole things gets packed with Martian tripods and ninja vs. aliens action. “We’ve got samurai in full battle armor, we’ve got horses, and we’ve got the final battle when suddenly, Martians attack,” he teases.

Sakai says that it took him 10 years to find the time to start developing Senso, which makes actually stands to reason given how much meticulous planning goes into the book (at one point, he told me a particular arc involved over five years of research).

Sakai, who is third-generation Japanese-American, was drawn to some of the class and traditional structures that stretched all the way from the past into the last century of Japan. He talks about his father, who was stationed in Japan during World War II meeting his mother and how her father didn’t approve of a potential union – not because Sakai’s father was born in Hawaii, but because he might be perceived as lower caste. “My mom was samurai [class] in the 1940s, so they still had that class stigma. So for me, it’s part of my heritage. And I just find that period of Japanese history interesting.”

He was also a kid who grew up with the samurai movies of the 50s and 60s, with the works of filmmakers like Kurosawa or Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy presenting a de-mythologized version of the samurai which nonetheless remained the heroic ideal, ultimately informing the occasionally scruffy but always noble Usagi. Sakai says that by contrast, today’s films are more cynical.

I asked what keeps him coming back to his character and Sakai says it’s precisely the fact that he owns Usagi that makes the ronin rabbit hard to put down. In deals with publishers, Sakai has insured that whatever he submits gets published and that the first time editors see the work, it’s finished. “I have the perfect relationship with all of my publishers in that they always leave me alone.”

Sakai says that this kind of creative freedom allows him to take the character and the book in unexpected directions. He describes his personal favorite issue, the final issue in a long-running storyline involving the Japanese tea ceremony, a story that might not get past an editor looking for a more traditional narrative structure: “It [had] no action, no violence or anything – it was just a relationship piece between two people – Usagi and Tomoe.”

However, his favorite arc would be Book 12, “Grasscutter,” the Eisner-winning story which follows Usagi as his path crosses with the titular legendary sword. “I took about five years to research that story, which follows the creation of the Japanese islands and the path of the Japanese sword Grasscutter through history.” That book not only racked up numerous awards, but has been used as an educational text in Japanese schools.

If you’re really looking to dive into the book, Sakai advises you to check out Book 2, which is a sort of origin story for Usagi, showing how he learns to use a sword and where some of the character’s motivations start to come together. In the meantime, the first issue of Senso is out this week and the first hardcover collection will be available in September from Dark Horse.

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