It’s been a pleasure to read Stan Sakai’s “Usagi Yojimbo” over the years, watching the characters grow and age slowly as the saga unfolds. But because of the slowed down time frame, there are some things I assumed we’d never see, like Usagi’s son Jotaro as a full-grown man, or the final battle between the young Noriyuki and the evil Lord Hikiji. So of course, “Usagi Yojimbo: Senso” #1 sets out to prove me (and the rest of the readers) wrong — but perhaps not entirely in the way we were expecting.
Jumping 20 years into the future, “Usagi Yojimbo: Senso” #1 opens with the forces of Noriyuki and Hikiji preparing for what could be their final battle. Usagi is now a general and part of the Geishu Clan. Jotaro leads one of Noriyuki’s forces, with Gen as a general as well with another of the forces. A new weapon is being introduced that could turn the tide of war. The end for one of these two sides is imminent. And then, Sakai pulls the rug out from under the reader on the last page.
“Usagi Yojimbo: Senso” #1 promises to be quite different than a regular story with these characters, and not just because of the time jump. Sakai carefully sets up the world-shaking final page earlier in the issue, with the introduction of the Kameyama (Turtle Mountain), and the reaction that Noriyuki has to a steam-powered tank of sorts. With even that mostly-protective technology being referred to by some as an abomination and dishonorable, we’re given an instant understanding for why the introduction of something even greater is such a crucial moment within the world. The balance is not just being upset with Sakai’s new surprise, it’s threatening to crumble.
That’s in no small part why having this story set in the far future is important. “Usagi Yojimbo: Senso” #1 is in many ways the sort of event that it would be quite difficult to come back from. By shifting this event away from the main series’ narrative (and after the end of this mini-series, Sakai has promised that we’ll go back to the ongoing series), it gives him room to go for broke while not actually breaking the setup that he’s carefully put together. Plus, it gives us a chance to see vile characters like Lord Hikiji or Hebi again, without having to worry about not resolving their fates once and for all; this far removed, there’s the real possibility that this will come to an end for one side or the other.
Sakai’s art is excellent as ever. It’s been a while since we’ve seen him draw a huge battle, and I always appreciate what a good job he does with large crowds. He’s able to balance the chaos and confusion of having all of those people fighting one another with the need to let us as readers still see what’s going on; you can focus on one or two characters at a time, or just let everything wash over you with all of the intricately drawn armor, banners, bridles, and everything else.
I also love how Sakai takes a familiar concept and changes it slightly for the world of “Usagi Yojimbo.” The Turtle Mountain is a prime example; with the way that Sakai has anthropomorphized his characters, having the tank looking somewhat like a turtle itself is fairly brilliant, even as there’s no mistaking what its real-world counterpart is. And speaking of that, I know I can’t be the only one thrilled to see Hebi again. There’s something bizarre, alien, and unnerving about seeing a massive snake wearing Japanese samurai armor, but Sakai makes it work.
It’s a delight to see the return of “Usagi Yojimbo” back in the form of this mini-series. (The one good thing about the two-year break is that in theory it could take just one more collection for the books to finally catch up with the series. Hint, hint, Dark Horse’s collections department. It sure would be nice.) There’s enough here for new readers to enjoy if they’ve never experienced “Usagi Yojimbo” before. But for long-time fans, “Usagi Yojimbo: Senso” #1 brings a long-awaited sequence to the page, and that’s extra reason to cheer.