We've all seen those multi-part stories before. Something big happens in the first chapter, then the next few chapters are a holding pattern in which everyone runs around but nothing of real import changes. Finally, the conclusion rolls in and everything happens at once. "Usagi Yojimbo: Senso" is not one of those comics. Each issue of this six-issue series has upped the ante, and Stan Sakai continues that trend in "Usagi Yojimbo: Senso" #4. This is how the plotting for a multi-part storyline should look.
"Usagi Yojimbo: Senso" #4 picks up right where the previous issue left off; Usagi and Tomoe buried under where a new space ship has crashed down into Japan, while Gen and Chizu have both fallen in the fight against the aliens. Sakai continues to find a way to balance the action with personal conflict; we learn more this issue about why Tomoe is married to someone other than Usagi, and how much that decision is hurting all three parties involved. At the same time, though, there's a lot of action. We get to see the inside of one of the alien ships, Lord Hebi tries to defend Black Sun Castle, and then things manage to actually get worse.
With all of his characters' backs against the wall in a potentially unwinnable fight, Sakai is going for broke. It means that we get to have moments where we'll actually cheer on Hebi -- the massive snake who's served as the evil Lord Hijiki's second in command since the start of "Usagi Yojimbo" -- because against impossible odds, even Hebi can do the right thing. And in the case of the scene with Hebi, Sakai shows us that in the honor-bound world of "Usagi Yojimbo," there are some acts which even the villains will find too reprehensible to allow to stand.
The art in "Usagi Yojimbo: Senso" #4 lives up to the story's requirements and then some. When we see Usagi and Tomoe trapped under the rubble, they look genuinely battered and hurt by the experience thanks to the art. You get the impression as soon as you see them that this is not something to walk away from lightly; Tomoe's pained expression carries a lot of weight, to say nothing of the bruises and debris all over them. The fight against the octopus aliens looks great here, too; it mirrors the dialogue perfectly, with Tomoe's admission that it's the sheer number of them being a problem coming right as Sakai frames the action so that the duo are completely surrounded in a way that feels claustrophobic and dangerous. And in general, it's worth noting that these octopus aliens look wonderfully strange and creepy; the octopus form is so alien even in the real world that it's a perfect choice to use in this anthropomorphic world.
It's nice to have every issue of "Usagi Yojimbo: Senso" feel like it's genuinely important. There's no filler here; big events are happening in each new chapter, and skipping an issue means you're going to fail to see another big step forward in the storyline. While I'm relieved that the regular "Usagi Yojimbo" series is returning after "Usagi Yojimbo: Senso" comes to a close, if this was the last word on the series, I think I would be all right with that. Sakai's showing us how to go out with a bang, both figuratively and literally. This is a story where the stakes are high not just because we're told that they are, but because we can see and feel the level of danger. Another excellent comic from one of the industry's diamonds.