As “Usagi Yojimbo” hits its 150th regular issue at Dark Horse, Stan Sakai continues to steadily and consistently create strong, memorable comics. Here, his one-off story “Death of a Tea Master” does just that, serving as both an introduction to new readers and a satisfying experience for existing fans.
“Usagi Yojimbo” #150 shows us the dark side of a strict honor code at play. Usagi’s code of honor is often presented to us as a good thing, pushing him to do what is right and just, but here we’re shown how it can be used as a cruel and nasty weapon when Lord Odo’s rash promise to a visitor from Spain threatens to kill Nobu the Tea Master. Of course, Usagi’s travels have him tangled up in this promise from Odo to Rodriguez the ambassador, and — in the end — not all characters will be left standing.
It would have been easier for Sakai to turn this story into a moment where the only person who’s hurt is the bad guy, with no real consequences for any of the good people that inhabit the world of “Usagi Yojimbo.” Instead, though, Sakai gives us a situation that’s not so simply resolved. Good people don’t get away scot free in “Death of a Tea Master,” and we are shown that — in a world where one’s word is all-important — those who give it away too freely will end up seeing the awful consequences of those foolish promises. So much in “Usagi Yojimbo” #150 could have been averted if even one of many characters were willing to break their code of honor, but — even as it’s what propels Usagi to seek out Odo and Rodriguez — it’s also what stays the hand of many. We’re getting a fully-realized set of values here.
Sakai’s art is also strong as ever. When Usagi and Nobu hear Odo’s men arrive, I love how quickly Usagi goes from a smiling figure to one that’s wide-eyed and on guard. Even as Usagi’s body language grows from hesitant to combative, Sakai brings a certain sense of calm in the form of Nobu, even when Nobu is pleading for Usagi’s life. The fights in “Usagi Yojimbo” #150 are also good here; I love how Rodriguez’s rapier whirls through the air, in a manner that feels chaotic and unpredictable compared to the powerful, forceful strokes from Usagi. It’s a nice touch, contrasting the two in a way that’s instantly clear to the reader. Add in beautiful buildings and interiors for the background, and you end up with an attractive-as-always comic.
Sakai’s “Usagi Yojimbo” is a genuine treasure, and this issue is no exception. In an ideal world, everyone would read “Usagi Yojimbo.” This is as good a place as any to start making that happen. Check it out. You’ll be pleased you did.