Updated: Sep 19, 2019
Writer/Artist/Letterer: Stan Sakai, Colorist: Tom Luth
Usagi Yojimbo: Bunraku is a three-part story of extremely colourful backgrounds and a platter of anthropomorphic character designs. Written and illustrated by Stan Sakai and coloured by Tom Luth, the story is set in the Edo period. The story opens with Sasuke, a demon-hunter fox who has just vanquished one demon nemesis and is sent on another quest to Kuroyama Mura by his mentor Lord Soki. Kuroyama Mura is where our ronin (wandering samurai) Miyamoto Usagi is currently passing through.
Miyamoto is attending a Bunraku, puppet play and is impressed by the talent of the blind Tayu (the narrator in a Bunraku play). Master Takagi and Miyamoto have tea and discuss the art of Bunkraku and the importance of happy stories and part their ways. That very night a murder happens, and Usagi and Sasuke run into each other and begin investigating.
Usagi Yojimbo’s strongest suit is its crisp narrative structure. The story is fast and linear, it has a set goal, Sasuke has to identify the source of evil and defeat it, though his life force is depleting. It’s Usagi who provides interesting expressions in his panels when he realizes he has to partner with Sasuke. Usagi can feel something is wrong around, but he prefers to be left alone than to fight the supernatural.
The dialogues are simple and serve as the only means to tell the story, they are bereft of the liveliness that rest of the art has. The verbal exchanges between the characters are Japanese in the essence but it never alienates the reader.
What I absolutely enjoyed was the art, though the panels are standard without a single panel break or gutter space tempering. It’s the things that are happening within panels, each and every character is drawn are alive, the expressions are distinct and exaggerated but never lose the seriousness of the story. The cityscape, the forest, the demons; all drawn with details that are gorgeous to look at. The action scenes are vivid and balance the supernatural so well in the cartoon style art form. I loved the character design of Usagi. Usagi in Japanese means bunny, but Miyamoto Usagi is far from fluffy! He is skinny and has one accentuated eyebrow and his bunny ears are tied together like a samurai knot. The design is funny yet the expressions on Usagi’s face are far from funny.
The only little issue I had with was the puppet designs, I know the narrative implied that the puppets were meant to be lifelike, but if they had not been small in size it would’ve been hard to differentiate between the live characters and the puppets. And as a very new reader to this series who had no idea about this universe of Usagi Yojimbo, when Sasuke and Usagi talk about a nemesis from past issues, new readers might get confused for a bit. I loved the story note in the end, it was a lovely insight into Bunraku tradition.
Overall, Usagi Yojimbo: Bunraku is a nice issue to enter this universe with.