Usagi Yojimbo: Duel at Kitanoji - A Comic Book Review

Book cover of Usagi Yojimbo: Duel at Kitaoji by Stan Sakai
(c.) 2003 by Dark Horse Comics
This review was first written for my Special Topics in Librarianship: The Graphic Novel class in September 2014.

Usagi Yojimbo: Duel at Kitanoji (Book 17)
Author/Illustrator: Stan Sakai
Published: 2003 by Dark Horse Comics

Usagi Yojimbo (Book 17) Duel at Kitanoji is the collected issues #53-60 of Usagi Yojimbo, Volume Three.  Published in 2003, over 10 years after Stan Sakai began this fabled series, it’s safe to assume that Sakai has hit his stride in his writing and illustration style.

Compared to other contemporary comics I’m familiar with, Sakai uses a traditional style of panels.  In this book, I never observed any bleeds or open panels; only simple, rectangular and square-shaped closed panels bound by gutters.  Though using only a single color (black) in his illustrations (minus the color cover), Sakai is a master with pen and ink.  He judiciously incorporates linework, hatching, and other techniques to create a variety of patterning that helps to identify different characters and figures (e.g. the group of mountain bandits in “Vendetta” all sport unique designs on their happi coats and tunics).

He is also able to get a variety of tones and shades by varying the weight and spacing of his lines.  On page 62, to illustrate a montage type of sequence in “Images from a Winter’s Day,” Sakai uses thin, sketch-like linework to depict Usaji speaking with various people as he searches for a Patriarch’s son.  A normally-inked Usagi walks in the center of this panel, illustrating his travels and the time passing as his journey continues.  Sakai also incorporates some manga iconography or symbols, but my favorite is one I think he made up himself!  In “Vendetta” on page 27, he uses a huge black question mark superimposed on a white exclamation point to describe the surprise the mountain bandits have at being surrounded by law enforcement officers, which I thought was very clever.

I also enjoyed the episodic nature of the series.  Even though I came into Usagi Yojimbo “mid-series,” I didn’t have any problems following along with the story.  Each issue seems to contain one story arc, occasionally branching into more than one issue (e.g. “Crows” has 3 parts).  However, the narrative reminded me a bit of of Abarembo Shogun, a Japanese television show my dad and grandparents loved to watch.

Sakai’s work also reminds me of Brian Jacques’ Redwall novels.  They both use anthropomorphic animal characters, don’t shy away from showing the consequences of combat (including death), and incorporate elements from historical worlds and codes of honor: Jacques’ drawing from medieval Europe and their knights, while Sakai draws from Feudal Japan and their samurai.  Having loved Redwall since middle school, I think I’ve found a new series to fill the void left by Jacques’ death several years ago.  I can’t wait to read Usagi Yojimbo from the beginning.

Have you heard of Usagi Yojimbo?  Do you have a favorite book or comics series featuring anthropomorphic characters?
Usagi Yojimbo: Duel at Kitanoji - A Comic Book Review Usagi Yojimbo: Duel at Kitanoji - A Comic Book Review Reviewed by The Artist Librarian on 4/21/2015 04:48:00 PM Rating: 5

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