For over twenty-five years, a rabbit ronin named Miyamoto Usagi has traversed the city streets and country-sides of feudal Japan on a pilgrimage, helping people and causes along the way. Over the course of 190+ issues, cartoonist Stan Sakai has told these stories with infectiously captivating line-work and storytelling, mixing a love for Japanese period-drama with an anthromorphic twist and a steady hand. Recipient of several industry awards over the years, Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo.Last month, Sakai concluded a two-issue story-arc entitled “Takio” which followed a drought-stricken village, ceremonial rain drums, and the introduction of a new threat known as the Red Scorpion Gang. December’s Usagi Yojimbo #134 features the return of the thief Kitsune and Usagi getting embroiled in her toad oil scheme. Sakai blends these smaller “new reader friendly” one and two-issue storyarcs with longer storyarcs to take the story in a range of directions from action to romance, drama and even horror. Newsarama talked with Sakai by phone earlier this month about the recent and upcoming issues, as well as the future of the series and the places the series has taken him over the years.
Newsarama: Let’s start with an easy one, Stan – What are you working on today?
Stan Sakai: Today, I’m inking a new strip for the regular feature I have in World of Warcraft magazine; the pencils were just approved. Yesterday, I was doing the cover for Usagi Yojimbo #136 and a variant cover for Dark Horse’s 25th Anniversary. Tomorrow I’ve got to do a t-shirt design and a painted festival poster for a convention in Croatia. The rest the week and the next will be spent inking Usagi Yojimbo #134.
Nrama: Usagi Yojimbo #133 just came out, the second part of a double-issue storyline in October & November called “Taiko”. How did that all come to you?
Sakai: Well, Taiko is the name of Japanese drums, and they range from very small hand-held drums to large ones, about nine feet across. Originally the drums were not used as musical instruments, but as way of conversing with the gods. In this story-arc, a province under drought uses these Taiko drums to pray to the thunder god Raijin for rain. A local drum maker named Minakata is called to make a huge drum out of a burnt-out tree that was hit by lightning, figuring that it was blessed by that event. The Red Scorpion Gang is extorting them, telling them to either pay up or they’ll destroy the Taiko drum and the drought will continue. Usagi comes along and protects the townspeople and farmers.
I love this story, and I had to do a lot of research on how they made the Taiko drums and the background to them.
Nrama: Is this a story you’d been wanting to do for some time?
Sakai: Yes. I’d been carrying around the idea of doing something with Taiko for awhile and then one day, while watching TV, I found a documentary about making Japanese drums. I took some notes, did some further research and the story came together. A lot of my stories come about that way. Following this double issue, Usagi Yojimbo #134 will have a story called “Toad Oil”. Toad Oil is believed to be a folk remedy in Japan. I had read that the oily secretions from toads found on Mount Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture have the power of healing cuts and burns when used as salve. That sparked a story of double and triple-crosses in which Kitsune, the con artist, sells bottles of fake toad oil.
Nrama: Tell us more about this Red Scorpion Gang Usagi is going up against -- What are they like, and what should Usagi watch out for with them?
Sakai: They’re playing a big part throughout the next six or seven issues. They hold this entire province in thrall and their leader is a mysterious figure that no one can find. There are going to be different stories – one issue stories, two issue arcs, but the Red Scorpions will figure into all of those events. It’ll climax in issues #136 & #137 with a final showdown between Usagi and the leader.
Nrama: You’ve been working on Usagi Yojimbo steadily for over twenty-five years. When do you think you really started hitting your prime with the character?
Sakai: Gee, I don’t know.
I don’t know because he’s always growing and maturing as a character, and I’m maturing as a writer and a storyteller.
When did I hit my stride? Well, I think Usagi really started to come together with the first four Fantagraphics issues – before that he’d appeared in short stories and anthologies, but I was able to devote a lot of attention to detail and characterization with that first story-arc. For me as a writer and artist, I think it would be “The Kite Story” [Published in Usagi Yojimbo #20 from Fantagraphics]. That was the first story that I did a lot of research on, and it really came together smoothly.
My most ambitious story would be “Grasscutter”, early on in the Dark Horse volume of Usagi. That took about five years to write, but I’m really happy the way it turned out. It won the Eisner, and a few other awards both national and international.
Nrama: Reading over your Livejournal I noticed you just got back from a convention in Germany. I look forward to your famous reports of your travels so I won’t ask you to spoil the trip – but what do you think of the international appeal you’ve had with Usagi Yojimbo and how it’s allowed you to travel the world?
Sakai: It is incredible. I love traveling, and as you said I was in Germany earlier this year and I’m going to Croatia in November and Australia in December. I was in Japan, Prague, and Helsinki last year. Usagi is published in 12 different languages. When I was just starting out I wouldn’t believe it if you told me I would translated into Polish or French or Indonesian. Usagi, though rooted in Japanese history and culture, has a universal appeal because of the writing and artwork. Everyone likes to read a good story.
You mentioned that I’d been doing this for awhile. The 141th issue of Usagi Yojimbo will mark Usagi's 200th issue. That's the total between Fantagraphics, Mirage, and Dark Horse. I have been doing everything from the writing, the lettering and the artwork.
Nrama: Do you have anything special planned for that milestone?
Sakai: [laughs] I have no idea. I haven’t plotted that far in yet.
Nrama: You’re over a hundred-ninety issues into Usagi, so it’s obvious you have a lot of ideas – but are there things or places you want to go with Usagi that you haven’t figured out a precise story for yet?
Sakai: I have a few landmarks and broad story-arcs I want to do. I usually do a long story-arc then shorter stories. Short stories are good places for new readers to get into the series, while longtime fans like the longer arcs because they have more depth and characterization. I want to do a story-arc called “Tomoe’s Wedding”, where the popular female cat samurai gets married. Right now I’m doing research on arranged marriages in that time, with the go-betweens and ceremonies. Another one I want to do is called ‘Tengu War’. Tengu are mountain goblins, and thought to be excellent swordsmen. I also want to do an arc inspired by H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds—what if a single scout craft had landed in Japan centuries before the big invasion told in the book?
I’ve hinted about these projects (and others) before, but I haven’t had the time to do them yet.
I also want to do a couple ideas concerning foreigners coming into Japan – 17th century Japan was pretty much isolated, but I have a story about a Chinese doctor comes to Japan and another with a European trader.
Nrama: Turning that around, any chance Usagi might travel the world like you have with book?
Sakai: As I said, Japan at the time was pretty isolated – very few Japanese were allowed to step outside the country. Lord Date Masamune did send an envoy to see the Pope – that’s actual history, and pretty interesting. That might be a springboard for a future story, but, for now, Usagi will be staying in Japan.
Nrama: You’ve been drawing Usagi for over twenty-five years, so has drawing him changed for you?
Sakai: Usagi has changed as a character, with his proportions and face becoming slightly different – but that’s been unconscious on my part. If you look at old issues of Groo and compare that to how he’s drawn now, there are differences too.
As far as the process of drawing Usagi himself, I sketch out some rough figures but I really start with the eyes – the eyes are the center of Usagi, or any character.What do you think of Usagi's continuing adventures?