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Review: Yokai by Stan Sakai

March 22, 2010

Yokai by Stan Sakai

Publisher: Dark Horse

What Drew Me to the Book: I’m already a huge Usagi fan, and Stan Sakai celebrated Usagi Yojimbo’s 25th Anniversary in 2009. I jumped at the chance to add this to my collection, as I always do. These last twenty-five years have been spent carefully crafting, and lovingly applying to paper the adventures of a master-less samurai named Miyamoto Usagi (loosely based on Japanese hero Miyamoto Musashi) who travels the dangerous towns and countrysides of feudal Japan on a journey of the soul, often finding himself front and center in a brouhaha that was previously unconcerned with him, all because of a good heart and a nearly unmatched sword.

Well, one of the ways Stan was able to celebrate the 25-year milestone was by giving fans of the long-eared ronin and newcomers alike a full-length, fully painted, stand alone graphic novel entitled Yokai which features one of the things Stan most enjoys drawing alongside Usagi: monsters! Fortunately, Japanese folklore is chock full of interesting monsters just screaming for Stan’s unique art style to commit them to paper as only he can, and it seems a project that was just waiting to happen. Here’s a little background, then, on the anniversary project by Stan himself as found in the interview wrapping up the volume:

I wanted the story to be special, because I had never done a painted story on this scale before. Two stories came to mind. One was the return of Jei, one of my more popular characters, and this story about the yokai, the ghosts, goblins, and haunts of Japanese mythology. I needed a standalone story that those unfamiliar with Usagi could enjoy, but that would satisfy the longtime readers as well.

Japan has such a wonderful tradition of mythology and folklore, with not only the really horrific monsters, but also the goofy ones, such as the animated umbrella or the animated teapot. I wanted to do something with these creatures from folklore. There’s the legend of “The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons,” where every summer the demons get together and parade through towns, scaring people. On this particular night, however, they actually want to overrun and conquer Japan. But they need a living soul to guide them, so they kidnap a little girl, and her mother begs Usagi to rescue her. That’s how the story of Yokai came about. I wanted Usagi to go through a wide range of emotions, so there’s a lot of action, drama, and humor.

I actually had the privilege of  speaking with Stan for a few moments at an event in Austin, Texas several months before Yokai was released and his enthusiasm about the graphic novel was palpable. At that point he hadn’t decided on the story just yet and had apparently been mulling over ideas for some time, but it wasn’t difficult to discern that this was a project close to his heart and that fans would be in for a treat.

The Review: Now, having read the story I can say that the long anticipated wait was very much worth it. The pacing is brisk, the story itself is very clever (made all the more fun by a signature plot twist near the end) and the painted visuals are stunning. In fact, one of the “goodies” included at the stories conclusion is a step-by-step illustration of how an individual panel went from pencils, to inks, to painted illustration and wrapping your head around the kind of time and dedication this must have taken on this scale quickly becomes apparent. Just beautiful stuff.

While it is not the deepest of Usagi’s stories (but, boy, are there plenty of those in the multiple Eisner award-winning series!) it is certainly a fun ride and well worth pulling off the shelf over and over to revisit. And incidentally, for the long time Usagi fan, there’s even a revelation or two about Sasuke the Demon Queller, one of the more interesting supporting characters who populates Usagi’s world, that I thought added another satisfyingly rich layer to the tale, along with that touch of tragedy that so many of Usagi’s adventures are asked to carry with them. So keep an eye out for that if you’ve not already plowed through it already.

The book is beautifully bound in a small, attractive, hardback and retails at $14.95. Please do yourself a favor and pick up a copy and if you enjoyed Stan Sakai’s painted work, see if you can’t track down “Return to Adachi Plain,” another fully painted 8-page story found in The Art of Usagi Yojimbo collection that will aptly introduce you to one of the most fateful days in Usagi’s life and that will likely spur you on to collect his many adventures for years to come (one of my own all-time favorites). It’s been a fantastic ride so far and we can  look forward to much, much more to come which may the best news of all. So, here’s to 25 more years of Usagi with a hearty “thanks” to boot!

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