Usagi Yojimbo, Book 1: The Ronin
|Publisher||Dark Horse Comics|
Thoughts and Images
|No. of issues||165 (219 overall as of December 2016)|
|Written by||Stan Sakai|
|The Ronin||ISBN 0-930193-35-0|
Usagi Yojimbo (兎用心棒, Usagi Yōjinbō, "rabbit bodyguard") is a comic book series created by Stan Sakai. It is set primarily at the beginning of the Edo period of Japanese history and features anthropomorphic animals replacing humans. The main character is a rabbit rōnin, Miyamoto Usagi, whom Sakai based partially on the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Usagi wanders the land on a musha shugyō (warrior's pilgrimage), occasionally selling his services as a bodyguard.
Usagi Yojimbo is heavily influenced by Japanese cinema; it has included references to the work of Akira Kurosawa (the title of the series is derived from Kurosawa's 1960 film Yojimbo), as well as to icons of popular Japanese cinema, such as Lone Wolf and Cub, Zatoichi, and Godzilla. The series is also influenced somewhat by Groo the Wanderer by Sergio Aragonés (Sakai is the letterer for that series), but the overall tone of Usagi Yojimbo is more serious and reflective. The series follows the standard traditional Japanese naming-convention for all featured characters: their family names followed by their given names.
The books are primarily episodic, with underlying larger plots which create long extended storylines—though there are some novel-length narratives. The stories include many references to Japanese history and Japanese folklore, and sometimes include mythical creatures. The architecture, clothes, weapons and other objects are drawn with a faithfulness to period style. There are often stories whose purpose is to illustrate various elements of Japanese arts and crafts, such as the fashioning of kites, swords, and pottery. Those efforts have been successful enough for the series to be awarded a Parents' Choice Award in 1990 for its educational value through Sakai's "skillful weaving of facts and legends into his work".
Usagi Yojimbo first appeared in Albedo Anthropomorphics #2, published by Thoughts and Images in November 1984. Stan Sakai accepted an offer to move his warrior rabbit to Fantagraphics Books where he appeared in several issues of the new anthropomorphic anthology series Critters. Usagi's popularity influenced Fantagraphics to then release the Usagi Yojimbo Summer Special in October 1986 and then to give the ronin rabbit his own ongoing series with issue #1 being published in July 1987. Usagi was named the 31st-greatest comic book character by Empire magazine and was ranked 92nd in IGN's list of the top 100 comic book heroes. Rolling Stone named Usagi Yojimbo no. 43 in their '50 Best Non-Superhero Graphic Novels'.
Sakai originally planned for Usagi and other characters to be human in stories explicitly modeled after the life of Miyamoto Musashi. However, once as Sakai was idly doodling, he drew rabbit ears tied in a topknot on his proposed hero and was pleased by the distinctive image. Usagi was first conceived as a supporting character in The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, a brief series that predates Usagi Yojimbo. Sakai expanded on the idea of a rabbit samurai and his world took on an anthropomorphized cartoon nature, creating a fantasy setting which suited his dramatic needs with a unique look he thought could attract readers.
Usagi first appeared in the anthology Albedo Anthropomorphics in 1984, and later in the Fantagraphics Books anthropomorphic anthology Critters, before appearing in his own series in 1987. The Usagi Yojimbo series has been published by four different companies. The first publisher was Fantagraphics (volume one; 38 regular issues, plus one Summer Special and three Color Specials). The second was Mirage Comics (volume two; 16 issues). The third was Dark Horse Comics (volume three, 172 regular issues and two Color Specials), which also published the Senso miniseries (2015), The Art of Usagi Yojimbo: 20th Anniversary Edition (2004), and Usagi Yojimbo: 35 Years of Covers (2018), as well as republishing the Fantagraphics and Mirage series. The fourth is IDW Publishing, by which Usagi Yojimbo is still being published (volume four, more than 12 issues), and which is also republishing the Usagi Yojimbo portions of the Fantagraphics series as Usagi Yojimbo Color Classics. Another publisher, Radio Comix, published two issues of The Art of Usagi Yojimbo (1997–1998) which contained a selection of unpublished drawings, convention sketches, and other miscellaneous Usagi Yojimbo artwork (including an original short story in the first issue).
Because Usagi Yojimbo is a creator-owned comic and Sakai has complete and sole ownership of the character, Miyamoto Usagi has been able to appear in occasional short stories published by companies other than the one currently publishing his series. Usagi has appeared in stories published by Cartoon Books, Oni Press, Sky Dog Press, Wizard Press, and most recently in the benefit book Drawing the Line, the proceeds of which went to Princess Margaret Hospital and The Hospital for Sick Children, both in Toronto, for cancer research.
Sakai has experimented with formats for Usagi Yojimbo, such as when he published the color story "Green Persimmon" first as twelve separate 2-page chapters serialized in Diamond Comic Distributor's monthly catalog Previews. He has also serialized two short stories in a comic strip format in the tabloid-size promotional publication Dark Horse Extra. Usagi Yojimbo stories have also been created as both single-page "gag" stories and as multi-issue epic adventures.
Usagi has also appeared several times in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the comic, all three of the animated series, and their respective toy lines), and the Turtles have appeared in Usagi Yojimbo as well. In the 1987 series, "Usagi Yojimbo" is incorrectly used as his actual name, but in the 2003 series, where he appeared far more frequently, he was referred to correctly as Miyamoto Usagi. He was even joined by Gen and other characters from his stories in his guest appearances in the 2003 series. Usagi's first appearance in the 2012 series was the fifth-season episode, "Yojimbo", which was written by Sakai. In his guest appearances, he is closest to Leonardo, both sharing the same ideals and code of ethics. The comics version also makes several pun references to Sergio Aragonés' Groo the Wanderer, in whose publication Sakai was also involved.
In addition, Sakai created a limited spin off series called Space Usagi featuring characters similar to those in the original series, including a descendant of Miyamoto Usagi, but set in a futuristic setting that also emulated feudal Japan in political and stylistic ways. Three mini-series of three issues each and two short stories featuring the characters were produced. Sakai has tentative plans to produce a fourth Space Usagi miniseries, but nothing has been announced yet.
In the summer of 2014, Sakai, after a two-year hiatus, returned with a six-issue mini-series entitled Usagi Yojimbo: Senso. Senso, Japanese for "war", refers to The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells's novel about Martians invading Earth. Senso tells the story of Martians invading Japan roughly twenty years after the events of the main series of Usagi Yojimbo, and also forms a plot bridge to the previously published Space Usagi.
In May 2015, Sakai returned to Usagi Yojimbo with the release of the 145th issue.
On February 22 2019, The New York Times reported that IDW Publishing will present a new monthly Usagi Yojimbo series, in color (provided by Tom Luth for the first time). The new series will open with a short story arc about the Japanese puppetry art of bunraku. Additionally, new full-color collections of earlier issues are planned.
Appearances on television
Usagi first appeared in episodes 32 and 34 in the third season of the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. He next appeared in episodes 23–26 in the second season of the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series for an interdimensional tournament against the Turtles (along with Gen). He and Gen showed up again in episodes 1 and 22–23 of season 3 for a Christmas party and a continuation of the second-season storyline (which prominently featured his world and characters), respectively. Usagi again appeared in episode 13 of season 4 ("Samurai Tourist") for a confrontation with Leonardo, although the focus was mainly on Gen. Usagi and Gen also attended the wedding of April O'Neil and Casey Jones in episode 13 of season 7 (Back to the Sewer) titled "Wedding Bells and Bytes". He becomes one of their greatest inter-dimensional allies and especially closest to Leonardo.
In September 2016, an appearance of Usagi was also announced for the 2012 CGI series of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He appears in the fifth season (which is titled Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) in the episodes "Yojimbo", "Osoroshi no Tabi", and "Kagayake! Kintaro", where the Turtles are hurled into his dimension, and teamed up to save a child he protects from ancient evil.
On February 8, 2018, it was announced that a CGI adaptation of the comics is in the works from Gaumont Animation. On July 15, 2020, Gaumont announced that the series will be released worldwide exclusively on Netflix under the title Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles, in partnership with Netflix Animation. Production companies Atomic Monster and Dark Horse Entertainment are also partnering with Gaumont, with Mumbai-based studio 88 Pictures handling the CGI animation. The series takes place in the far future and will center on rabbit teenager Yuichi, who is the descendant of Miyamoto Usagi. Doug and Candie Langdale will serve as show-runners on the series.
Collections and graphic novels
- Book 1: The Ronin (1987, Fantagraphics) – collects stories from Albedo Anthropomorphics #2, 3, and 4; Usagi Yojimbo: Summer Special #1; The Doomsday Squad #3; and Critters #1, 3, 6, 7, 10, 11, and 14
- Book 2: Samurai (1989, Fantagraphics) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 1) #1–6
- Book 3: Wanderer's Road (1989, Fantagraphics) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 1) #7–12 and a story from Turtle Soup (vol. 1) #1
- Book 4: Dragon Bellow Conspiracy (1991, Fantagraphics) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 1) #13–18
- Book 5: Lone Goat and Kid (1992, Fantagraphics) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 1) #19–24
- Book 6: Circles (1994, Fantagraphics) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 1) #25–31 and a story from Critters #50
- Book 7: Gen's Story (1996, Fantagraphics) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 1) #32–38 and a story from Critters #38
- Book 8: Shades of Death (1997, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 2) #1–6 and stories from #7–8
- Book 9: Daisho (1998, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 2) #7–12 and 14
- Book 10: The Brink of Life and Death (1998, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 2) #13 and 15–16 and Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #1–6
- Book 11: Seasons (1999, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #7–12 and Usagi Yojimbo Color Special: Green Persimmon #1, and stories from Usagi Yojimbo Roleplaying Game and The Art of Usagi Yojimbo #1
- Book 12: Grasscutter (1999, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #13–22
- Book 13: Grey Shadows (2000, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #23–30
- Book 14: Demon Mask (2001, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #31–38 and stories from Dark Horse Presents (vol. 1) #140, Dark Horse Presents Annual #3, Wizard magazine #97, Oni Double Feature #11, and Dark Horse Extra #20–23
- Book 15: Grasscutter II – Journey to Atsuta Shrine (2002, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #39–45
- Book 16: The Shrouded Moon (2003, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #46–52
- Book 17: Duel at Kitanoji (2003, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #53–60 and stories from Dark Horse Extra #45–48
- Book 18: Travels with Jotaro (2004, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #61–68
- Book 19: Fathers and Sons (2005, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #69–75
- Book 20: Glimpses of Death (2006, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #76–82 and a story from Drawing the Line
- Book 21: The Mother of Mountains (2007, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #83–89
- Book 22: Tomoe's Story (2008, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #90–93 and stories from Usagi Yojimbo Color Special #1–3
- Book 23: Bridge of Tears (2009, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #94–102
- Book 24: Return of the Black Soul (2010, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #103–109 and a story from Free Comic Book Day: Star Wars / Dark Horse All Ages #1
- Book 25: Fox Hunt (2011, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #110–116 and a story from MySpace Dark Horse Presents #18
- Book 26: Traitors of the Earth (2012, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #117–123 and stories from Dark Horse Maverick 2001 #1 and MySpace Dark Horse Presents #35
- Book 27: A Town Called Hell (2013, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #124–131
- Book 28: Red Scorpion (2014, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #132–138
- Book 29: Two Hundred Jizo (2015, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #139–144 and stories from Dark Horse Presents (vol. 2) #7 and 35–36
- Book 30: Thieves and Spies (2016, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #145–151
- Book 31: The Hell Screen (2017, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #152–158
- Book 32: Mysteries (2018, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #159–165
- Book 33: The Hidden (2019, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo: The Hidden #1–7 (vol. 3, #166–172)
- Book 34: Bunraku and Other Stories (2020, IDW) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 4) #1–7
- Book 35: Homecoming (2021, IDW) – collects Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 4) #8–14
- Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition (2009, Fantagraphics) – collects books #1–7
- The Usagi Yojimbo Saga
- Volume 1 (2014, Dark Horse) – collects books #8–10
- Volume 2 (2015, Dark Horse) – collects books #11–13
- Volume 3 (2015, Dark Horse) – collects books #14–16
- Volume 4 (2015, Dark Horse) – collects books #17–19
- Volume 5 (2015, Dark Horse) – collects books #20–22
- Volume 6 (2016, Dark Horse) – collects books #23–25
- Volume 7 (2016, Dark Horse) – collects books #26–28
- Volume 8 (2019, Dark Horse) – collects books #29–31
- Volume 9 (2021, Dark Horse) – collects books #32-33 and all TMNT crossovers 
- Legends (2017, Dark Horse) – collects Space Usagi, Yokai, and Senso and a story from CBLDF Liberty Annual 2014 #1
Other collections and graphic novels
- Space Usagi (1998, Dark Horse) – collects Space Usagi (vol. 1) #1–3, Space Usagi (vol. 2) #1–3, and Space Usagi (vol. 3) #1–3, and stories from Usagi Yojimbo Color Special #3 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (vol. 1) #47
- Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai (2009, Dark Horse) – original graphic novel
- Usagi Yojimbo: Senso (2015, Dark Horse) – collects Usagi Yojimbo: Senso #1–6
- Usagi Yojimbo/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Complete Collection (2018, Dark Horse) – collects stories from Turtle Soup #1, Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #10, Shell Shock, Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 2) #1–3, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Usagi Yojimbo, in the Saga trade dress
- The Art of Usagi Yojimbo (2004, Dark Horse) – includes stories from Trilogy II Tour Book and the hardcover edition of Usagi Yojimbo Book Four
- The Sakai Project: Artists Celebrate Thirty Years of Usagi Yojimbo (2014, Dark Horse)
- Usagi Yojimbo Gallery Edition Volume 1: Samurai and Other Stories (2015, Dark Horse)
- Usagi Yojimbo Gallery Edition Volume 2: The Artist and Other Stories (2016, Dark Horse)
- Usagi Yojimbo: 35 Years of Covers (2019, Dark Horse)
A project for an animated television series, Space Usagi, was cancelled following the failure of Bucky O'Hare and the Toad Wars. However, Space Usagi was one of the action figures produced under the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles line.
Two editions of an Usagi role-playing game have been made, a 1998 version, Usagi Yojimbo Roleplaying Game, from Gold Rush Games and a 2005 version from Sanguine Productions. A second edition of the 2005 version was successfully Kickstarted in 2019. A Hero Pack of Miyamoto Usagi, Gennosuke and Kitsune will be added to Arcadia Quest.
The comic is the basis of two video games: the 1988 game Samurai Warrior: The Battles of Usagi Yojimbo and the 2013 game Usagi Yojimbo: Way of the Ronin. Both are side-scrolling hack-and-slash action games.
- 1996 Eisner Award for "Best Letterer" (Groo and Usagi Yojimbo)
- 1996 Eisner Award for "Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition" (Usagi Yojimbo)
- 1999 Eisner Award for "Best Serialized Story" (Usagi Yojimbo "Grasscutter")
- 2012 Eisner Award for "Best Lettering" (Usagi Yojimbo)
- 2015 Eisner Award for "Best Lettering" (Usagi Yojimbo)
- 2018 Eisner Award for "Best Lettering" (Usagi Yojimbo and Groo: Slay of the Gods)
Usagi was rated No. 92 on IGN's Top 100 Comic Book Heroes.
Several of the characters in Usagi's world are inspired by or make reference to samurai movies. Usagi's former lord is named Mifune, which is a nod to Toshiro Mifune, an actor who starred in countless classic Samurai films. Gen, the rhino bounty hunter, was inspired by the characters made famous by Toshiro Mifune in the samurai films Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Zato-Ino, the Blind Swordspig, is a reference and tribute to the film character of Zatoichi. The story arc "Lone Goat and Kid" features an assassin who wanders with his son in a babycart, referring to the film/manga series, Lone Wolf and Cub. Most significantly, the main character's name, Miyamoto Usagi, is a play on "Miyamoto Musashi", Japan's most famous historical samurai and the author of The Book of Five Rings, and Usagi the Japanese language word for "rabbit" (The story notes for one volume also cite as an influence Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy, which features Miyamoto Musashi as a protagonist.) His friend Tomoe Ame, a feline samurai, is inspired by the female samurai Tomoe Gozen. The storyline "The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy" includes elements reminiscent of the classic Akira Kurosawa films The Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress, particularly the way that Usagi collects various allies to raid an evil lord's fortress.
While Usagi Yojimbo draws most heavily upon samurai and chanbara films, it has also been influenced by Japanese films from other genres. For example, the three-part story "Sumi-E" (included in Vol. 18. Travels with Jotaro) features monsters resembling Godzilla (identified as "Zylla", who was first introduced in Vol. 2. Samurai), Gamera, Ghidorah, Mothra, and Daimajin.
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