Ronin Rabbit: Stan Sakai’s Amazing Usagi Yojimbo
“To make a living in any of the arts is difficult—whether it be acting, writing, painting, music, or, in my case, cartooning,” says Stan Sakai, creator of the wildly popular Usagi Yojimbo comic book series. “Parents, of course, want the best for their children, and a traditional job is the safest way to earn a living. However, I really wanted to get into writing and drawing, and my parents supported my decision, but with reservations.”
“What really turned them around was my first booksigning in Hawaii,” says Sakai. “My dad went over to the store, but it was so crowded he could not get in.”
In the years since its inception, Usagi Yojimbo, Sakai’s fast-paced comic book series featuring a samurai rabbit as its hero, has attracted a remarkable international following. The character has made TV appearances with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and has enjoyed a long and successful run with the independent comic book publishing powerhouse, Dark Horse Comics.
The samurai rabbit has become more than just a cartoon. For many fans, Usagi Yojimbo has evolved into a cultural icon—one that enriches readers with nuances of Japanese history as much as it entertains them with its swashbuckling tales.
“I have been doing Usagi Yojimbo for more than 22 years,” Sakai says. “When I started, I wasn’t sure which direction to take the series—whether a historical drama, comedy, or action. I eventually decided on combining all three, though concentrating more on action and adventure, much like the chambara (Japanese swordfighting) movies I grew up watching.”
“I think it was with the fifth volume that I really started to do research on the history and culture of Japan with The Kite Story,” says Sakai. “Since then, I have done stories about festivals, the creation of the Japanese islands, sword making, the tea ceremony, mythology, and other aspects of Japan. I include Story Notes with bibliographies to expand on cultural aspects in the story.”
“I was not concerned with breaking any stereotypes,” Sakai notes. “My first concern is to tell a good story with well-rounded characters. If I can also educate the reader about Japan, that is a bonus.”
“Certainly, Westerners see the samurai as just warriors, but there was much more to their training than warfare,” says Sakai. “I’ve tried to show some of the more spiritual and cultural aspects of their training as well. Even swordsmanship, archery, and the other martial arts had a lot of spiritual discipline in their training. I’ve also concentrated on loyalty and living your life with honor.”
Those themes, Sakai observes, appear to have nearly universal appeal.
“I am continually amazed at the diversity of my readers,” Sakai says. “They range from about five years and up, though, judging by the letters I receive, most of them are about 25 to 50. What is really astounding is that Usagi is translated in about a dozen languages, including Czech, Hungarian, Portuguese and Indonesian. It is doing particularly well in Spain, France and Poland. I enjoy traveling, and one of the perks of my job is that I have been invited to events all over the world. I’ve learned that readers all over pretty much react to Usagi with the same enthusiasm.”
“I’m also really pleased that Usagi is being used as a learning tool,” Sakai adds. “It is in many libraries, having won an American Library Association Award as well as many Young Adult Library Services Awards. Usagi Yojimbo Book 12: Grasscutter was used as a textbook for Japanese history classes at the University of Portland, and many of my volumes are used to help readers in classrooms in elementary and junior high. There have even been a few doctoral theses written about Usagi—I’m amazed that they were even approved.”
But while Usagi Yojimbo is now studied by scholars and encompasses a body of work spanning more than two decades, Sakai encourages new readers not to feel overwhelmed in trying to figure out where to begin.
“There are more than 20 Usagi collections, always being reprinted,” says Sakai. “They are very reader-friendly, so pick up a volume or two. I’m sure you will enjoy them.”
Learn more about Usagi Yojimbo at www.usagiyojimbo.com.
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