USAGI YOJIMBO: Stan Sakai and Diana Schutz (Mania.com)
By:Trent D. McNeeley
Date: Wednesday, November 01, 2000
What do you do when you win the Eisner award for 'Best Serialized Story'? You make a sequel, of course.
Writer/artist Stan Sakai won the Eisner in 1999 for his 'Grasscutter' story arc in Usagi Yojimbo. The 10-issue story told the tale of the legendary blade Kusanagi, the Grasscutter. Possession of the blade could allow a group of conspirators to overthrow the Shogunate government and re-instate the Emperor. But masterless samurai Usagi Miyamoto comes into possession of the sword and, in keeping with his bushido code of honor, vows to keep it from falling into the wrong hands.
In the current seven-issue sequel, 'Grasscutter II: Journey to Atsuta Shrine,' the ronin rabbit again needs to take care of the mystical sword. 'They've got to take the sword given to the Japanese people by the gods to Atsuta Temple, where it's said to be currently housed,' says Sakai of the real-life sword.
A replica of the sword was cast in the 8th century, so there is some debate over where the actual sword might be in the real world. But it's that attention to historical detail for which Sakai is known. 'I did try to make this as factual as possible, even though there is a lot of conflicting information out there,' says Sakai, who completed the story earlier this month, allowing the bi-monthly book to ship on an almost monthly basis.
The Story So Far
Readers first returned to the 'Grasscutter' story with July's issue #39. It's a historical tale, looking back to Japan's third century and the founding of the sacred Atsuta Shrine. Yamato Daké, heir to the Sword of the Gods, made a vow to rid the land of the giant, evil serpent deity of Mount Ibuki. On the way to meet his final foe, Yamato Daké battles nature and its most fearsome beasts, including his own fatigue.
'Readers responded quite favorably to that story, which was the 100th issue of an Usagi comic, even though it didn't have Usagi in it,' says Diana Schutz, editor of the book for Dark Horse Comics. 'But one of Stan's great strengths is his painstaking research of Japanese history and culture, which really is showcased in that issue.'
August saw the return of familiar faces, as Usagi, bounty hunter Gen and Priest Sanshobo hit the trail to return Grasscutter to the Atsuta Shrine. But that has turned into no simple task. Two factions of warriorsthe Neko and Komori ninja clanshave their own designs on the sword and will stop at nothing to attain its commanding power. This journey will pit the three determined heroes against two fearsome clans and the evil inherent in a lust for power.
In September, Usagi and his companions continued their journey to deliver the sword to Atsuta Shrine, unaware that the two ninja clans were hot on their trail. When the group finds refuge for the night in a small way station, they're trapped by the Neko Ninja, leading to a dramatic confrontation between the Neko leader Chizu and Usagi. To top it all off, the killer Komori bats swoop down upon the heroes.
'Responses to the story so far have unanimously been favorable,' says Schutz. 'I think that's with good reason. Stan knows where he is going with his stories with every step, and that allows him to [use foreshadowing] well.'
What Lies Ahead
Usagi promises even more action to come in the storyline's remaining issues. The just released issue #42 featured an ambush by the Neko Ninja clan. During the battle, the Komori bat ninja clan swooped in and stole the blade. 'Tell me who expected bat ninja?' asks Schutz rhetorically, herself a fan of Sakai's creations. Usagi and Chizu, the leader of the Neko, must now form an uneasy alliance to retrieve the sword, as an assassin stalks Chizu.
In the remaining issues, Usagi, Gen and Sanshobo will discover that Chizu is not to be trusted when she reveals her intention to throw Grasscutter into the sea, where it can never be found again. She'll steal Grasscutter but, just as she thinks herself safe from Usagi and his friends, the mysterious ninja assassin who has been stalking her will attack.
Usagi, Sanshobo, and Gen must desperately track Chizu down before she throws the Blade of the Gods into the sea, however the Komori bat ninja clan will also be on Chizu's trail, with their own plans for the fabled sword.
The new year will see the powerful end to the saga. In January, Usagi and his companions, Gen and Sanshobo, will have nearly reached their final goal: Atsuta Shrine. Once there, they'll be able to deliver Grasscutter back to the shrine. However, the Neko Ninja will already have arrived and be waiting in ambush. The heroes must run through a gauntlet of killers to reach their final destination, but not all of them will live to see the end.
Schutz cautions against trying to guess just who will perish, though. 'I was afraid that I would be saddened by the loss of certain characters,' says Schutz. 'But Stan, as he always does, gets me thinking in one direction and then takes off in a completely new and surprising direction. A character I was afraid I would lose ends up being saved, but doesn't emerge entirely unscathed. But Stan pulls off this wonderful sleight of hand in such a way that while it's unexpected, it makes sense.'
In that vein, Sakai says this story will allow readers to learn more about the priest Sanshobo and Ikeda, the former lord who's now a peasant farmer. 'I made reference to a relationship between them years ago,' says Sakai. 'Some readers picked up on it and some didn't. But Sanshobo was a retainer to Ikeda when he was a great warlord. So when they meet again, you will find out more about their backgrounds.'
The Man Behind the Rabbit
As the sequel works its way towards its finale, Sakai says he takes an approach to Usagi's stories with an eye to mix up their length. 'The way I plan my stories is I do epic-length stories, but between them I will have stories ranging in length from one to three issues,' says Sakai. 'Certainly never more than three. That helps give new readers a chance to come aboard. There was a lot of buzz about 'Grasscutter,' especially after it won the Eisner award. Short, self-contained stories helped those readers catch on.'
Still, long-time readers demand the longer stories, and Sakai wants to keep that base happy. So since 'Grasscutter' needed a sequel'They got hold of the sword at the end of the first 'Grasscutter' story, so now they have to follow through and deliver it to its proper resting place.'Sakai says the time just felt right.
But for the rabbit's next trick, Sakai promises shorter stories with Gen traveling with Usagi for a while. After that, Sakai wants to do a four-issue storyline titled 'Duel at Kitanoji Temple' that will focus on Usagi's former teacher and a duel that was set up about a year ago in Usagi-time. And the creator has another story planned after that where Usagi meets up with his old friend and possible love interest Tomoe.
Sakai has a loyal fan base, but hopes this story arc will bring him even more. He's preaching the gospel of Usagi to whomever will listen. Throughout this summer and fall he attended major conventions such as Wizard World in Chicago and the San Diego Comic-Con, along with the Small Press Expo and Mid-Ohio Con. Earlier this month, he even went to Spain to receive the Haxtur Award for Best Short Story (for the Usagi tale 'Noodles') and promote his creation. He also directs folks to the Usagi Yojimbo Dojo fan site on the Internet.
And, even though Usagi Yojimbo passed the 100-issue mark over the summer (based on books from three different publishers), Sakai says he easily has enough tales for another 100. 'I'll keep going as long as people keep reading,' says Sakai.