Saturday, 12 March 2011

Graphic novel review: Usagi Hojimbo ("rabbit samurai") vol 1

It’s rare to find a series of stories which manages to capture your imagination, stories that seem fresh even while working within a genre that has definite traditions, stories whose range of characters show a breadth and colour that seems to cover several levels of society. I’m happy to say that this first collection of stories about the lone wandering samurai called Miyamoto Usagi pulls off these feats with a certain irresistible charm.

OK, so the samurai Usagi is drawn as a rabbit, and there are plenty of other creatures around – but this is isn’t a jokey book and fight-scenes are action-packed and deadly. The stories in the first volume "Ronin" are interesting in their variety, from epic quests as Usagi defends the vulnerable people he meets on the road, to a memorable couple of encounters with a mercenary (a rhino) and less-content packed tales of Usagi meeting people, for instance when he is attacked by a brash and arrogant gang at a local place to eat and drink. (Amusingly, Usagi calmly finishes eating his meal while the intruders have turn everything upside-down except his table. When they insult him personally, he takes this as his cue to show them a lesson. Can’t fault his manners, I suppose.)

We come to understand the precarious nature of local politics in the 17th century Japan setting, as Usagi comes across outcast governors and one nefarious villain (cue cackling). One beautifully-formed story shows Usagi making a pilgrimage to his home town – and it shows us how we can still be attached to something or someone we thought we’d left behind. The author deserves credit for including sneaky moles in this tale as well whose deadly ninja training means they can appear out of nowhere by burying through the earth in huge numbers. The series usually has quite a serious and reflective tone, but the “ninja moles” show that author/artist Stan Akai can have some fun!

Finally, the art is quite detailed, showing some influence of Japanese manga, films and history. This Eisner-award winning series which has now been going since 1987 has drawn attention internationally and Empire magazine has named Usagi as the thirty-first greatest comic book character (see the list here) - it’s not hard to see why.

Click here to find a list of graphic novels/comics I recommend - or check back next week for my thoughts on an autobiographical graphic novel about Iran which was published in France - intriguing, no?

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