Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai
Writer/Artist: Stan Sakai
Publisher: Dark Horse
As part of the 25th anniversary of the long-running saga of Usagi Yojimbo (which means ”˜rabbit bodyguard’, and is a 120-chapter series set in feudal Japan with anthropomorphic animals instead of humans), writer/artist Stan Sakai decided to come up with a standalone graphic novel. Yokai is not only a celebration of Japanese culture, paying tribute to the rich folklore of Japan, but also a visual treat for regular Usagi readers. Because unlike the regular black-and-white art of the series, Sakai chose to paint the entire novel in watercolours, giving the story a Miyazaki-esque feel that wows you right from the first page.
The no-frills storyline deals with Usagi straying off the path in a jungle on a dark night, distracted by a flaming fox monster ”“ a kitsune. He comes across a woman whose daughter has been kidnapped by the creature, and sets out to find her. Unfortunately for Usagi, that night happens to be the Hyakki yako, something that happens once in a hundred years when yokai (spirits and demons) seek to overpower the mortal world. Usagi teams up with a conveniently-available ally, a magician named Sasuke, and the duo fight against a bunch of yokai and their Witch-queen.
Like I already mentioned, the colouring lends a brilliant edge to the proceedings, as do the behind-the-scenes interview at the back of the book, making the 66-page hardcover a worthy offering in the long-running saga. Apart from requiring almost no knowledge of the series to read it, Yokai also has the enriching experience of introducing everyone to the treasury of weird creatures that populate Japanese mythology and folklore ”“ creatures as funny as a one-eyed sandal creature called the Sansho, that hops away in alarm as Usagi mistakes it for an enemy; quirky like the Nurikabe, a wall monster that refuses to let him pass through any way; or the shapeshifting Nure Onna, a crocodile-like woman. Like every good Usagi story, this one has a happy ending ”“ albeit with a twist, one that reveals a bit of the magician Sasuke’s past.