There are a lot of things I appreciate about Stan Sakai’s long-running “Usagi Yojimbo,” but near the top of the list is his regular creation of single-issue stories. I always see them as not only a chance to enjoy a standalone story in one fell swoop, but also as an opportunity to entreat others to try the series out for themselves. In the case of “Usagi Yojimbo” #154, it’s a great time to jump on board.
“Usagi Yojimbo” #154 opens with a sequence set several months in the past, as Usagi struggles to reach a pilgrim’s temple during a massive storm, even as he comes across an unconscious Komori ninja named Kazehime. Despite having had nothing but bad run-ins with this clan of bat ninjas, Usagi takes pity on the woman and brings her to the temple and cares for her until she comes to. In the present day, though, that moment of kindness comes back around to haunt him when Kazehime and a band of Komori attack a merchant that Usagi’s trying to defend.
Sakai never assumes that a reader has been around for previous issues. If you count the two series at previous publishers, plus one-shots and such, the series stands at a whopping 220 issues, and Sakai wisely spoons out information in a way that feels natural without hitting people over the head with exposition. Even though there are elements from previous issues — the Komori ninja, or new ally Yamaguchi Kyosai — he introduces them to us so that we don’t have to dig through collected editions or back issues in order to figure out what’s happening. Even past plot points that haunt Usagi — like the fact his recently-broken arm is still not back up to full strength — are briefly explained, but also aren’t lingered on as to break up the story. We learn what’s important and then charge forward at full speed ahead.
The return of the Komori ninja is a smart choice for a one-off story; the idea of a clan of bats swooping in with ninja abilities is brilliant, to say nothing of the fact they’re particularly strong at night. Additionally, Usagi’s moment of mercy for Kazehime comes back to haunt him in a way that doesn’t feel forced or fake. Instead, it plays out in an ugly fashion, one that reminds us that — in Usagi’s world — those who expect kindness will learn the hard way that it’s rarely given.
Sakai’s art is always consistently good, and he maintains that quality here. The big, easily-noticed elements look good here, with all of the characters drawn in a thin but strong ink line, and the big battle at the two-thirds mark moves across the page full of energy and is easy to follow. All of the smaller details are present here too, though: the little dots that provide texture for Usagi’s shirt, the crosshatching on all of the trees in the forest to give them substance, even an understanding of when the background of the restaurant should be present versus when it should be a blank to better focus on a character’s reaction. Even a moment like the lightning crashing down in the distance is handled with excellence; Sakai uses uncharacteristically heavy inks in that one panel to draw Usagi in a way that almost (but not quite) comes across as a photo negative as the blast of light blinds hoim.
If all of that isn’t enough, “Usagi Yojimbo” #154 is fun and full of adventure from start to finish. It always moves at a good pace, and the various turns of the plot show up right when necessary to keep the reader’s mind from wandering. Sakai is a master storyteller, and “Usagi Yojimbo” #154 reminds us once again just how much of a treasure he and his works are.