Looking for beautifully written, intelligent and evocative sword and sorcery that’s solidly grounded in a historically inspired background? Let me pull a rabbit out of my hat for you. His name is Miyamoto Usagi, a rabbit samurai created by cartoonist Stan Sakai. Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo series has been running since 1984 and is still running today.
The series is set in a world inspired by early Edo-period Japan, with Miyamoto Usagi himself inspired by real-life samurai soldier, swordsman and man of letters Miyamoto Musashi. The character was also inspired by Kurosawa movies, especially Toshiro Mifune’s character in the movies Yojimbo and Sanjuro, which in turn were inspired by the ‘spaghetti Westerns’ like A Fistful of Dollars.
While most of Usagi’s adventures are straight swashbuckling historicals, Sakai dips often into Japanese mythology and folklore to include supernatural elements that turn quite a few of the stories into S&S. Despite Sakai’s chosen style and the anthropomorphic character, he doesn’t hesitate to tackle adult, dark themes when he wants to; I think any Conan or Kane fan will enjoy Usagi as well. Among the Usagi adventures that have an S&S feel are:
The Goblin of Adachigahara: Usagi revisits the Adachigahara battlefield where his lord Mifune was killed, and asks hospitality from an old woman living nearby. During the night a goblin enters the house and attacks Usagi, who discovers the goblin was the traitor to Usagi’s clan, turned into a yokai (demon) by his hatred and jealousy.
Broken Ritual: Usagi comes upon a village haunted by the apparition of a samurai who voices a terrifying scream every night. Usagi realizes the samurai’s ghost is reliving the moment that his honorable seppuku (ritual suicide) was interrupted by enemy ashigaru (foot soldiers), causing him to die an ignominious death. The haunting is ended only when Usagi completes the ritual. This is a good example of the ‘magical thinking’ that gives magic and the supernatural the right feel for S&S. Without the capacity to enter this mode, a writer wouldn’t have thought of that twist — how do you decapitate a ghost? But Sakai knows the language of symbolic action well, and that’s why Broken Ritual is so effective as a ghost story.
Kappa: Usagi is attacked by a kappa, a kind of Japanese water troll, but gets it to leave him alone by offering it freshly-picked cucumbers. He then comes upon an old woman living alone, and when he tells her about his encounter with the kappa, she breaks into wailing and weeping because Usagi used the cucumbers she’d planted for her son to bribe the kappa with. Usagi returns to the kappa’s lair and takes it down just in time for the son’s arrival — who then reveals that his mother died years ago.
Blade of the Gods: Usagi meets Jei, a psychotic, demonic creature who claims to have been tasked by the gods to eliminate evil. Thing is, Jei is prone to having spontaneous visions that identify random folk as evil, and of course he has such a vision after meeting Usagi.
The Bridge: Usagi wanders into an inn in the middle of the night, only to find the guests and townsfolk huddled inside, terrified by the hannya demon haunting the bridge that’s the only way out of town. Usagi goes out, fights the hannya and while unable to kill it, cuts off its arm. The next morning an old woman visits the inn and asks to see the arm. Guess who she is.
Circles: Usagi returns to his home village, only to find that a demonic spearman has taken over leadership of a brigand gang and kidnapped his nephew Jotaro. The spearman is Jei, resurrected after being killed by a lighting bolt in Blade of the Gods. (Jei returns from death again and again, and is actually based on a pun — when addressed as Jei-san, as villagers would address a samurai, the name sounds like Jason from Friday the Thirteenth.)
Nature of the Viper: Jei returns from death yet again. This time he’s found washed down a river by a humble fisherman, who rescues him from the water and tends his injuries. The recovered Jei then tells his rescuer the tale of the fisherman and the viper, which ends with the snake killing its benefactor because that’s its nature. Jei then shows the fisherman the meaning of allegory. This one feels very much like a Kane story by Karl Edward Wagner.
The Darkness and the Soul: The origins of Jei revealed. Jei turns out to be Jizonobu, a former samurai turned Buddhist priest and healer, who on finding he cannot cure the daughter of a daimyo from a mysterious fever makes a deal with dark gods for her life. The price turns out to be his soul, and after falling ill with the same mysterious ailment he awakens as the murderous Jei.
Grasscutter I & II: Sakai delves deep into Shinto mythology to bring a story about Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, aka Grasscutter, the divine sword granted by the gods to the Japanese imperial family. This multi-volume saga includes beautifully drawn prologues retelling the Japanese creation myths and the finding of Kusanagi by the god Susanoo inside the Orochi serpent’s tail, the origin of its name when prince Yamato Dake uses it to save himself from a grass fire set by his enemies, and its loss to the sea at the Battle of Dan-no-ura.
The sword is then recovered for a cabal of conspirators by the witch Ryoko. Enter Usagi, who accidentally intercepts the sword, and correctly deducing what it is, determines to hide it away so no faction can use it for evil purposes. An epic quest follows, pitting Usagi against the witch’s sorcerously controlled, seemingly lycanthropic or demonic familiar, ninjas, and the demonic spearman Jei, who duels Usagi for possession of Kusanagi. The witch Ryoko’s end, and its effect on lead conspirator Lord Kotetsu is a moment that will feel very familiar for a fan of REH.
Sparrows: Jei returns yet again. It seems not even the divine sword which Usagi stabbed him in Grasscutter can’t kill Jei permanently. This time Jei is possessing the formidable swordswoman Inazuma, who’s on the run from the bounty hunter set on her by a yakuza boss. The final confrontation is a beautiful marriage of the chambara genre done in comic book format with sword and sorcery, as Usagi and his best/worst friend Gen battle bounty hunters to give priest Sanshobo time to exorcise the spirit of Jei from Inazuma.
Kumo: Usagi wanders into town infested by spiders, and there’s a rumor of a giant spider haunting the nearby forest. A samurai named Sasuke, who knows Usagi’s name though they’d never met, recruits Usagi to hunt down the supernatural creature in the forest. Sakai dips into Japanese folktales about the hero Jiraiya, as he has Sasuke, who turns out to be a sorcerously-adept demon queller, summon and ride a giant toad in the battle with the spider-goblin.
Sumi-e: Usagi encounters Sasuke again after a giant moth carries off Usagi’s nephew (actually his son) Jotaro. Sasuke reveals that they must recover a sumi set (a set of ink, inkstone and brushes) that allow its user to bring whatever is painted to life. The sumi set’s new owner turns out to be responsible for the spate of child abductions in the area, as making the sorcerous sumi set’s ink requires children’s blood. Sakai also has fun with this episode, as he has both the sumi sorcerer and Sasuke summoning iconic daikaiju from the movies!
The Doors: A newly arrived painter gifts Lord Noriyuki with a set of sliding door screens painted with a mythological scene of heroes battling a giant demon spider. The entire castle, including the visiting Usagi, is awakened in the night by Noriyuki’s scream: he’s been attacked and poisoned, but no trace of the assailant is found. Usagi volunteers to watch over Noriyuki when the daimyo sleeps, and witnesses the giant spider in the painting come to life. He realizes this is the work of the sorcerous sumi set from Sumi-e.
Traitors of the Earth: Usagi once again encounters the mysterious demon-queller Sasuke. This time they must retrieve a death’s-head-shaped netsuke, a sort of carved fastener, from a sorcerer who means to use it to raise an undead army. Because the netsuke is carved from the skull of a fallen daimyo, the spirits of his dead samurai followers will rise to blindly follow and obey whoever has it. To end the undead threat, Usagi and Sasuke must unravel a riddle: “Only a restless grave can contain restless spirits.”
Bunraku: While visiting a town Usagi enjoys a uniquely powerful bunraku puppet play. After the show he runs into demon-queller Sasuke, who claims to have been sent to the town to destroy some evil but doesn’t know what that evil is yet. When night falls they discover the puppets have a life of their own. Bunraku is also real treat, as it begins a new series of Usagi adventures under a new publisher, IDW, and the new run is coming out in gorgeous color as Sakai collaborates with colorist Tom Luth.
These are only some of the Usagi stories with S&S elements that I can remember. I don’t have the entire series, so there could be more. Stan Sakai’s art is really magnificent, combining the elegance and cinematic energy of the Japanese pen and ink tradition seen in manga with American-style anthropomorphic characters and storytelling aesthetics.
Usagi’s world is a wonderfully researched and depicted version of Japan in the early 1600s, and Sakai enriches many of his stories with details from Japanese customs, traditions and folklore. The story Daisho comes with a prologue detailing the forging of Japanese swords and the origin of Usagi’s own swords, building up the stakes for Usagi’s struggle to recover them when they’re stolen from him. When Sakai includes the supernatural in an Usagi story it’s respectfully mythic, dark and threatening. Even the demon-queller Sasuke, the only sorcerer in the series with ‘good’ powers, pays a terrible price for having and using magic.
If you’re looking for samurai-flavored sword and sorcery, I’d recommend Usagi Yojimbo first and foremost. I like it much better than T.C. Rypel’s Gonji or Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s Tomoe Gozen.