Writer/Artist: Stan Sakai, Colour: Tom Luth
Why doesn't the gentlemen Hero ever get a happy ending? This very question opens our two-part story of Usagi Yojimbo: The Hero. This tale of anthropomorphic characters set in ancient Japan was one of the most engaging reads I came across this year. Miyamoto Usagi the Ronin (a masterless Samurai) meets Lady Mura, a storyteller who is respected by the King and his court and loved by her readers around the country. Lady Mura and Miyamoto quickly form a friendship, and she models her next story's Hero after Miyamoto.
Miyamoto is hooked on the story but is frankly not happy about Lady Mura’s inclination towards tragedy. Lady Mura has her own ordeals; she is an aristocrat married to the King’s banner-man Seizo, to uplift the family affluence. Lord Seizo is a Samurai who doesn’t know what to do in times of peace, because a warrior’s worth is only found in war. He doesn’t make Lady Mura’s life easier either. I was surprised to read how many issues of social concerns were incorporated into this two-part tale! In Part 1, Lady Mura and Miyamoto begin their travel to her father’s house, and the consequences of this decision are seen in Part 2.
I love the format of a story within a story, which works as a device of foreshadowing, and also parallels the events of the main event of the actual story. In the fictional world, the Hero Miyamoto Usagi fights a harrowing battle of life and death with a Demon Lord that is trying to forcefully marry the Hero’s Lady. Meanwhile in reality Miyamoto Usagi, who is acting as Lady Mura’s bodyguard, is defeating Seizo’s retainers and human traffickers with a few swift blows and showing them mercy.
What I absolutely adore about this world of Usagi Yojimbo is its world-building; colourful and full of details and actions which never crowd the narrative flow. Actions follow consequences and justice gets served, but not the way we want it to be. Lady Mura’s character design tells us that she is an intelligent woman whose talents are restricted by a patriarchal society. Her sad shaggy eyes are proof that she has to place herself second for the sake of a husband who feels emasculated by her popularity, or stay in an abusive marriage because her clan needs her for the social stepping in King’s court.
Duty and honour bind everyone in this two-part story. Even Miyamoto Usagi, who is always quick to help the people in turmoil, is bound by codes of ancient Samurai philosophy. His expressions are so well drawn: the repressed anger of a man who can’t stop injustice because it might cause more trouble. Seizo’s entire character sketch was that of an abusive man who is always going to feel slighted; did I love to hate him? Hell yes! Though Seizo makes appearances in just a few pages, my hate for him was built up well because of his actions throughout the story.
And let's lightly touch upon the issues, though, that the conditions for women have improved over last century, yet domestic violence still exists; gaslighting still exists; treatment of women as an object of trade still exists, and worse the shutting down of intelligent women by hateful men is happening all the time. Lady Mura is modelled after Lady Murasaki Shikibu, the author of Tale of Genji, as we discover in the jacket text. Lady Mura is a victim of the historical erasure of the women. Just as no one knows the true name of Murasaki Shikibu, also no one knows the suffering of Lady Mura in the story. Lady Mura has her readers who love her books and one Miyamoto Usagi who tries to be the hero from her stories.
Usagi Yojimbo showed us the considerate man Miyamoto Usagi can be, and not the Ronin who is always battling Yokais and Yakshas because duty binds him to be a protector.