Friday August 17, 2012
Worlds of Wonder
By MICHAEL CHEANG
Comic artist Stan Sakai talks about his long-running Usagi Yojimbo series at the San Diego Comic Con.
BUNNIES are cute. Bunnies are adorable. Bunnies usually don’t go around wielding Japanese katana swords, and chopping off heads. Then again, Miyamoto Usagi, the star of Stan Sakai’s long-running Usagi Yojimbo comic book series, is not just any bunny. He is a bunny samurai, a rabbit ronin (masterless samurai) cast adrift after the death of his master, and now wandering the land on a warrior’s pilgrimage.
Unlike other anthropomorphic bunnies in pop culture such as Bugs Bunny or Roger Rabbit, Usagi doesn’t crack jokes or do slapstick pratfalls. “It’s strange, right? It’s a samurai rabbit! Usually, it has to be comedy, but it’s not!” said Sakai.
When I met Sakai at the recent Comic-Con International in San Diego, the United States, the ever-smiling, affable artist was seated at his booth at the Artist’s Alley, sketching pictures of his rabbit ronin chopping off heads and chatting freely with fans. Sakai has been attending Comic Con without fail for more than 30 years now, first as a professional artist who did advertising art, book and magazine illustrations; and later as a comic artist.
“When I first started coming to Comic Con, it was held at the El Cortes Hotel and there were, at the most, 3,000 people. So there have been a few more people since then!” he said with a laugh.
Born in Kyoto in Japan in 1953, Sakai’s family moved to Hawaii when he was just two years old. There, he discovered the joys of comic books and samurai movies. “As a kid, I would go to the old movie theatre near my house every Saturday and watch samurai movies. I never thought of them as Japanese or American movies, to me they were just movies,” he said.
The story of one particular samurai really inspired him, that of Miyamoto Musashi, a real life samurai whose story was immortalised in Hiroshi Inagaki’s classic Samurai trilogy back in 1954-56.
According to Sakai, he’d always wanted to do a comic book series based on Miyamoto Musashi. Then one day he was doodling in his sketchbook and drew a rabbit with its ears tied up into a samurai topknot. “I loved it so much that instead of Miyamoto Musashi, my character became Miyamoto Usagi instead, Usagi meaning rabbit in Japanese,” he recalled.
The first Usagi Yojimbo (Japanese for “Rabbit Bodyguard”) comic was published back in 1984, as part of an anthology of comics featuring talking animals called Albedo Anthropomorphics, created by Steve Gallacci. “At the time I was working in Los Angeles, and through friends, I heard that Steve didn’t have enough material for his book, so I turned in The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper And Hermy,” he recalled. “Then after that was published, I sent in my first Usagi Yojimbo story for the second issue. Since then, publishers have been coming to me asking for stories instead!”
After a couple of years appearing in Albedo and later Critters magazine, Usagi Yojimbo finally got its own series in 1987. Currently published by Dark Horse Comics, the series has been translated to more than a dozen languages, and won four Eisner Awards (including one for best serialised story, Grasscutter). Usagi has appeared in an episode of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV cartoon series, and there is even a spin-off series called Space Usagi, set in the future and featuring one of the rabbit ronin’s descendents.
While Sakai’s most obvious influences for the stories in Usagi Yojimbo came from Japanese samurai movies (the blind pig swordsman Zato-ino for instance, is Sakai’s homage to Zatoichi, the blind swordsmen), he also gets a lot of ideas through research on actual Japanese culture, crafts, traditions, legends, and even pop culture icons (he’s paid tribute to classic Japanese manga Lone Wolf And Cub, and even Godzilla!).
“One of my favourite stories is Kite Story, which came about when I drew Usagi flying a kite. When my parents went to Japan once, they took a picture of a seaweed farm, which I had never heard of before! So I did more research, and I am probably the only western comic artist who has ever written a story about seaweed farming!” he said with a laugh.
Besides Usagi Yojimbo, Sakai has also worked on several other comic books, including as a letterer for Sergio Aragones’ Groo The Wanderer, as well as contributions in Grendel, Mouse Guard, The Simpsons’ Treehouse Of Horrors, and Rocketeer Adventures. He has even done a Samurai version of Marvel’s The Hulk before. “Four years ago, I got a call from Marvel who were doing an anthology (Marvel Underground) with different independent creators. Basically, they told me that I was free to do anything with any of their characters,” he said. “I’ve always liked the idea of Hulk in samurai armour, so I did that, and killed him off in the end!”
With his rabbit ronin on hiatus for about a year right now, Sakai is currently busy with other projects, most notably doing artwork for the comic book adaptation of the famous Japanese legend, 47 Ronin. “I was fortunate enough to visit the temple where the ronin were buried (Sengaku-ji Temple), as well as the well where they washed the head of Kira Yoshinaka (the man who had killed their master, Lord Asano). I took a lot of photos, and am trying to make it (the artwork) as authentic as possible,” he said.
According to him, the challenge of drawing Usagi Yojimbo is keeping the balance between cute and violent. Yes, there is violence and characters getting killed, but you hardly ever see any blood on the page. “When my characters die, I draw a little skull over their heads and make it look like dying is fun!” Sakai said with a laugh. “Once, I drew a panel of Usagi cutting a guy’s head off with bits of brains flying all over the place, and that was the only time an editor said that it might be a little too much!”
That one incident aside, Sakai has had pretty much free rein to do whatever he wants with his stories. “The contract with all my publishers has always been that they would publish whatever I sent them. I’ve had complete control over the types of story and what happens in them and I’m really happy with that,” he said.
“People always ask me who I write these stories for, and I always tell them that I write and draw for a readership of ONE – myself! These are the kind of stories that I would like to read, so I’m just grateful that so many other people like to read the same type of stories.”
> The Usagi Yojimbo series is available at Kinokuniya, Suria KLCC.