8a. Stan Sakai and/or Sakai Masahiko – The Curious Case of Usagi Yōjimbō

Sakai's doubled signature

Sakai’s doubled signature

One of my clearest, and most gut-wrenching, memories is of Stan Sakai, Eisner award winning comic artist and creator of Usagi Yōjimbō, sitting alone in the dealers’ room at AnimeIowa as his gaze meandered about expectantly.  This is not to say that the room was empty–in fact, it was full of eager anime/manga fans mucking about for opportunities to part with their cash.  The room was so full of people that the void before his table just as you entered the room was a palpable one.  In retrospect, it made sense, though at a comics convention Sakai would likely be mobbed, most of the attendees at an anime convention wouldn’t know him from a hole in the wall.  I nervously handed him my copy of issue 1 of the regular series of Usagi, and he drew a lovely bunny caricature of his name while uttering in amazement something to the effect of, “man, that’s old!”

Sakai's cartoon version of himself

Sakai’s cartoon version of himself

This was 2002, so I was still in my 20s at the time, but I had been reading Usagi since the inception of the regular series in 1987.  My comic reading habits had always been a strange amalgam of mainstream fare (the X- books), moderately independent fare (Sandman), rather independent fare (Elfquest), and the downright absurd (Cerebus).  So, Sakai shouldn’t have been all that surprised by a not-all-that-old young man showing up at his table with a 15 year old comic book from his personal collection.  Of course, Sakai didn’t know me from a hole in the wall, so who knows what he thought of me.  After receiving my autograph I politely disappeared so he could go back to gazing expectantly.

Contrast that with Mark Evanier’s description of a typical Fantagraphics love-in in the forward to Usagi vol. 2: “[f]or reasons that still escape me… Stan continues to letter Groo the Wanderer.  And for reasons that escape me even more, many of you buy it.  Often, the Groo Crew travels en masse to conventions to inhabit side-by-side tables and to do what they do best for fans: Sergio does a little sketch of Groo, Stan does a little sketch of Usagi, our colorist Tom Luth… does a little sketch of his characters, the Rockhoppers.  And I define ‘mulching.'”  The “Sergio” here happens to be legendary comic artist Sergio Aragonés, best known, perhaps, for his work in MAD, so it should be clear that in Anglo-American comics fandom, Stan Sakai is, if not in the pantheon, then at least among the demi-gods.  Yet, despite the contrast I seek to draw with my two parables, Will Eisner (the dude the award is named after), in the introduction to Usagi vol. 12, Grasscutter, reads Sakai’s work explicitly in the context of Japanese comics.

Usagi and another Sakai character, Nilson Groundthumper, side by side

Usagi and another Sakai character, Nilson Groundthumper, side by side

“As far as I could see, the Japanese comics are reluctant to introduce stories or ideas of another culture. [?!] Save for a surface fascination with American names and certain Western physical characteristics, it is hard to find manga that undertake subjects with realistic problems of the human condition… [??!!] So, it was with this prejudice that I began to read the Usagi Yojimbo books Stan Sakai sent me.  My first reaction was dismissive.  I shrugged at his use of anthropomorphic characters as a way of avoiding the demands of realistic art [???!!!], which made Frank Miller‘s Ronin so compelling.  Gradually, however, as the story absorbed me I changed my opinion.  I felt I was somehow reading a komikkusu [sic] in Japanese!”

Setting aside for a moment Eisner’s own troubling use of racial stereotypes, it’s remarkable to me that he wouldn’t understand Sakai’s use of “funny animal” characters as participating in the very same debate surrounding Spiegelman’s Maus, in which various ethnic groups are represented as cartoonish animals (e.g. Jews=mice, Germans-cats, Poles=pigs, French=frogs, etc.).  I was also surprised by his inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to read Usagi as in anyway coming out of the Anglo-American comics milieu, when he so clearly participates in it.  How are we to account for this?

Who’s Afraid of [Sakai Masahiko]?

Usagi Yojimbo issue 1 p. 7

Usagi Yojimbo issue 1 p. 7

In my class on manga, I present my students with a seemingly simple yet fundamental question: is Usagi Yojimbo manga?  If we answer from the perspective of the Japanese language, then the answer is obviously yes, because in Japanese the word manga can mean any comic at all.  However, if we answer from the perspective of how this word is used in, say, English, the question becomes much more difficult to answer.  The “Japaneseness” of the text cannot, to my mind, be denied: Sakai himself was born in Kyoto (but emigrated to the U.S. with his parents at the age of two), the title of his comic is Japanese, his characters occupy a specific period in Japanese history (the end of the Sengoku and beginning of the Edo periods), the comic depicts Japanese feudalism in minute detail, Sakai regularly draws on Japanese folklore and classical tales, etc.  He demonstrates a clear familiarity with manga classics: his Lone Goat and Kid is clearly a parody of Koike and Gojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub and he did the lettering for Dark Horse’s brief flirtation with publishing Shirato’s Kamui-den.  His love of Japanese cinema is also quite evident: Usagi’s lord prior to becoming a ronin is named Mifune (after the famous actor Mifune Toshirō), his duel scenes are clearly taken from the tropes of period samurai films, and a short story at the end of vol. two is about a young lizard who is a rather obvious take on Godzilla.

A particularly telling sequence from "Zylla," vol. 2 p. 117

A particularly telling sequence from “Zylla,” vol. 2 p. 117

Despite all this, I would answer in the negative: Usagi Yojimbo is not manga, at least not by the standards of what the word manga appears to mean in English.  Why is this?  Well, as I try to argue in one of my first (of hopefully a series of) manga/educational videos on Youtube, the way in which manga is used in English is representative of a certain reading experience, a reading experience that, for better or for worse, does not really include Sakai’s work.  The two convention scenarios described above demonstrate this distinction between a Western comics reading experience (and thus community) and a manga reading experience (and its community).  There is some overlap, of course, but manga fandom in the US especially operates largely independently from comics fandom; some even see these two milieux as antagonistic to one another.  Theirry Groensteen, in his recent Le bande dessineé: un objet culturel non identifié (Bande dessineé: an unidentified cultural object) refers to the explosion of manga sales in the French market as “the manga peril” and says that manga has “colonized” BD.

Winnowill from Elfquest

Winnowill from Elfquest

Speaking for myself, long before I had read any manga at all, Usagi was in my comics reading purview: it was sold in the comic book shops I frequented, Sakai was a regular at conventions I attended, he has been well regarded by and friends with other American comic artists (pace Eisner), his awards have mostly been for the lettering work he does on Groo, oddly, and the visual style of his work never seemed particularly out of line with the other black and white comics I had read from a young age–the same cannot be said for Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest, though.  The reason for this may have to do with Sakai’s consistent use of “funny animal” characters, a form that, while not unique to American comics, is most closely identified with them.  One could also argue, I suppose, that Usagi is a kind of hybrid, a reflection of Sakai’s own immigrant identity, but that would make the answer to my question above, at best, a “sort of.”  At any rate, from my own critical perspective, the power that a reading community and its pre-judgments have over such categorical determinations is far stronger than any mere formal similarities or signs of cultural difference.

By way of contradiction…

usagi_nihongoBecause I can’t help leaving things so tidy and sensible, I’d like to relate one last anecdote.

When I was still living in Ann Arbor, I would regularly stop by Vault of Midnight (especially when it was still in the basement underneath a wonderful dive of a Chinese restaurant, Dynersty) to procure the latest and not so latest issues of whatever had struck my fancy, particularly because it is one of the few comic book stores that still maintains a supply of back issues in long boxes.  It pains me greatly that the art of looking for some obscure issue while on your hands and knees in a musty catacomb is swiftly disappearing from this world.  Anyway,one day I went into their shiny new digs on Main St. to buy the latest collection of Usagi (Bridge of Tears, I think…).  Now, VoM, like most comic shops and most bookstores, has a separate manga section, which, in my quest for new Usagi, I passed right by for the massive shelves along the perimeter of the shop.  After looking at every shelf, I simply could not find it.  So I headed back to the front to ask the proprietor if they had any new Usagi in, when, as I was walking back past the manga shelves, I saw my beloved Usagi near the bottom.  I grabbed one of the two volumes there and brought it to the counter to pay.  I couldn’t curb my curiosity, so I asked, “why was this in with the manga?”  His reply, “well, given it’s size, I just thought it looked odd with the other comics on the shelf.”

I would like to note that Usagi is currently published by Dark Horse and, as such, is the same size as all the other comics Dark Horse publishes, none of which had been sequestered to the manga shelves for their freakish size.  Make of that what you will.

Next week: either Frank Miller’s Ronin or Mizuki Shigeru, depending on my mood!

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com



  1. UnwashedBaisaoFanboy · · Reply

    Mizuki Shigeru needs more exposure, on this side of Pacific. Umezu Kazuo would also be a good way to shake up everyone and everything, too. Frank Miller has been analyzed to death, already, anyway – though I understand the topical tie-in with Stan Sakai, via the Eisner quote. Perhaps, ignore my comment and obey the gestalt.

  2. Stan Sakai is an incredible human being. He’s approachable, down-to-earth, and just the nicest guy on the planet. He was the guest of honor at Anthrocon a few years ago, and a friend of mine who attended that year says he was awesome.

    Sakai also definitely knows his manga. He regularly sings th praises of Hiroshi Hirata’s work (he loves his use of calligraphy for dialogue).

    But yeah, do Mizuki next. He’s got an incredible life story, and he’s probably the most successful of the Garo artists.

  3. I don’t think Miller has been done to death, and at any rate I would likely pair _Ronin_ with David Mack’s _Kabuki_. Not to give too much away, but the point is to show that “Japan,” whatever that is, and Japanese culture read differently in an Anglo-American comics milieu. Manga and Japanese consumer products generally are often heavily invested in playing down their Japanese-ness re: the notion of cultural odorlessness.

    At any rate, I’ll do Mizuki next.


  5. […] Kiyoi), of which Say is already simply an anglicization.  I have addressed this in-between-ness previously in the context of Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, but Say’s DFM takes this between-ness to the nth degree, involving not only complicated […]

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