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They made it look so easy. Back in 2006, in a universe where legal red tape seemed specifically designed to prevent us from having nice things like guest appearances by Wonder Woman in Smallville, it sometimes seemed like a miracle to have characters from Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo regularly guest star in the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as if it were no thing and copyright laws didn’t exist.
Then again, connections matter. Back then the Ninja Turtles were wholly owned by their co-creator Peter Laird, who is a close personal friend of Usagi Yojimbo creator Stan Sakai, which made things much easier than they might have otherwise been. It also helped that the two properties had by then shared a decades-old connection that made them, if not quite sister properties, then at least close cousins.
In 1987, the Turtles anthology Turtle Soup featured a Sakai-created meeting between ninja turtle Leonardo and Usagi, and Peter Laird later reciprocated in Usagi’s book. Another version of Usagi had also made appearances in the original Turtles cartoon. Heck, when Usagi Yojimbo stopped being published by Fantagraphics, it found a home with Laird and Kevin Eastman’s Mirage Studios, and back when that happened, in 1993, it felt only appropriate to see the new series begin with a story guest-starring the characters with whom Usagi had for so long shared a relationship.
That story, which headlines this book and is titled “Shades of Green”, begins when masterless samurai Miyamoto Usagi (a rabbit) and his friend and frequent traveling companion, bounty hunter Murakami Gennosuke (a hard-drinking, hard-living rhinoceros) are attacked a band of Neko Clan (a group of ninja cats who have served as both antagonists and allies throughout the book’s history) for no particular reason. The two friends’ escape eventually leads them into the path of Kakera, a rat whose pseudo-mystical powers have caused him to be hunted down by the Neko. Usagi and Gen’s new acquaintance requests the two friends’ aid, and after realizing that they won’t be enough, he uses his don’t-call-them-magic abilities to pierce the veil between universes and bring the turtles to Usagi’s world.
And that’s the setup. As far as Usagi Yojimbo stories go, it’s not too different from stories Sakai has attempted in the past, and the turtles don’t add as much as one would think. Leonardo gets closest to influencing the plot, and gets a few moments where he reminisces of his past encounter with Usagi, while Michelangelo gets in a few jokes—including one where he questions the foundations of Usagi‘s world of anthropomorphic animals which is the highlight of the story—but aside from that, it’s not the sort of story that required the turtles, and could have worked just as easily without them.
What prevents “Shades of Green” from feeling completely weightless is the way that Sakai manages to use it to move his ongoing plots along. While the thrust of the story is keeping Kakera (a character who had never appeared before, never appears again, and was, from all appearances, created solely to facilitate the crossover—heck, his name is the Japanese word for “Splinter”, the name of the turtles’ own rat master) away from the Neko Ninja’s clutches, the reason why the rat is being hunted is tied back to previous storylines, and the story ends with a kiss that sets up one of the book’s key relationships going forward.
Of course, even if that had not been the case, a lack of weight or plot progression isn’t necessarily the mark of a bad comic, and Usagi Yojimbo in particular has a history of making even its most trivial-seeming story feel worthwhile. While this isn’t a story that, strictly speaking, had a reason to exist, it’s still quite enjoyable in a familiar kind of way. In the end, as a fan of both properties, I’m glad to see them interact in this manner.
Shades of Death‘s other big story is “Shi”, which features another take on the tried-and-true Usagi formula of “Usagi visits troubled town, and solves the villagers’ problems via killing.” This particular version features a love triangle between Usagi, a village girl tired of her provincial life, and her childhood sweetheart; a corrupt magistrate and his treacherous brother, who seek to kill everyone in the village; and a group of assassins with a pun for a name. It’s not the best of its kind—part of the set-up of this story is that most of the villagers are annoying for different reasons, which logically results in a story with various annoying characters—but it’s still solidly built, and includes some nice set-pieces, particularly in Usagi’s battle with the assassins.
Rounding out the book are a handful of shorter stories. The best by a considerable amount is “Jizo”, told from point of view of a statue of the guardian deity of children as it “observes” the events of the day after it is erected. “The Lizard’s Tale” is a humorous dialogue-less story focusing on the tokage, the lizards that make up a large part of the ecosystem in Usagi’s Japan. Finally, there’s a trio of tales starring young Usagi: the first, “Usagi´s Garden”, is a fable about respecting hard work. The second , “Autumn”, features another Usagi standby, the tale where Usagi is involved in supernatural shenanigans which may or may not have happened but actually did. Finally, there is “Battlefield”, about the consequences of war both large and small, which serves as a major turning point in Usagi’s journey towards maturity.
Usagi Yojimbo has got to be both the hardest and easiest series to review well. On one hand, it has, for more than two and a half decades, been a series of consistently superlative craft on all levels. On the other hand, it has for more than two and a half decades, been a series of consistently superlative craft on all levels. What is there to say about that, once you’ve said it once? And if the book is that consistent, why continue buying it? Why not just buy a sampler, and stop before the law of diminishing returns sets in?
This book, at least, presents a good example of why and how the book manages to so consistently entertain: basically, it’s one of the most versatile books out there. Depending on what issue one buys, Usagi Yojimbo can be a samurai epic, a detective story, a yarn, a fable, and no matter which it is, one can be almost certain that it will be good.
Issue after issue, one truth remains: Usagi Yojimbo is a very pleasant book. 4 out of 5.
One thing stops this book from being eminently skippable from a mytharc perspective: it features the first meeting between Usagi and Chizu, who will become a major character down the line.
Usagi Yojimbo Book 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, which includes several key events that end up driving the main story here and features the aforementioned Chizu’s first appearance.
If you don’t care to look for the other 25 books collecting Usagi’s three comic book series, there’s Don Rosa’s The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. It’s like Citizen Kane for kids*.
* Partly because it has actual references to Citizen Kane.