Living in an Anthropomorphic World: Usagi Yojimbo conquers America with the help of Stan Sakai

Originally published September 25, 2003 
Pasadena Weekly

Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai

Artist Stan Sakai didn't listen to his father when he told him, "You can't make a living from your artwork." Now with more than 20 years of success in the comic book industry, Sakai has certainly proved his father wrong as creator of the popular Usagi Yojimbo series, which follows the adventures of a samurai rabbit in 17th century feudal Japan.

Since Usagi's first appearance in Albedo comics in 1984, Sakai has had the great fortune of seeing his character jump off the comic book pages to become available in action figure form, on T-shirts, baseball caps, wristwatches — even guest appearances on the small screen doing battle with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For such accomplishments in the industry, Sakai has received numerous awards, including an American Library Association Award, a Parent's Choice Award, two Spanish Haxturs, the National Cartoonists Society Award and multiple Eisners, the Oscars of the comic book industry. Reflecting on his long career, the 51-year-old artist admits, "I never imagined I'd be at this stage."

Though his father urged him to take up something more "practical" such as accounting, Sakai always loved cartooning. "Comic books gave me my love of reading in general," he says. He first distributed his artwork as early as high school, contributing illustrations to fanzines. After graduating from University of Hawaii, he started working as a freelance artist and eventually took a full-time job with a clothing manufacturer producing everything from T-shirts to sportswear. That company was responsible for bringing Sakai to Pasadena, where he currently lives with his wife and two kids. He further honed his craft taking classes at Art Center College of Design and he eventually left his day job to freelance doing record album covers, book illustrations, "just about anything."

His real break came when he heard about a new comic book, Steve Gallacci's Albedo, starting up in Seattle. Sakai sent his Usagi story in and they published it. That is where his future publisher, Kim Thompson, discovered him. "I've always loved Stan Sakai's work," says Thompson, copublisher of Fantagraphics, which publishes the earlier issues of Usagi."It's a unique mixture of humor, action, drama and poetry, and he draws so beautifully, every panel is a pleasure to look at."

Sakai had a longtime love of old Toshiro Mifune films and other samurai films he watched as a child, and as a third-generation Japanese American, he valued his heritage and was charmed by the use of animal characters in Japanese literature. And like most young boys, he also followed the cult of the superhero, which included Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four. "I wanted to do a comic based upon Miyamoto Musashi, a 17th century samurai," he recalls. "One day I was drawing in my sketchbook and drew a rabbit with his ears tied up in a 'chonmage,' a samurai top-knot, and Usagi was born." And just like that, his love for superheroes, animals and Japanese culture converged in a perfect union-a series that literally translates into English as "rabbit bodyguard." Of course, a lone, courageous, long-eared guardian struggling against evil didn't satisfy the cartoonist.

 "I always felt the more research you do, the more authentic your story becomes. Even though Usagi is a fantasy, it's still based in reality and any lack of research will diminish the best written story," argues Sakai. "When I get things wrong, I hear about it... as far away as Germany.

Instead of having just one "funny animal" living among humans, he made an entire anthropomorphic world based on feudal Japan — "a fantasy rooted in history." To enter the universe Sakai created is to experience an exciting and often comical world populated by female ninjas, demon quellers, battling lords and devious monks that happen to be cats, pandas, monkeys, dogs or even rhinos, among other species in the animal kingdom. In his battles, Usagi is also joined by other skilled warriors: his "nephew" Jotaro, Gen the Bounty Hunter and the fierce Tomoe Ame, who is also based on a legendary samurai named Tomoe Gozen.

Certainly Sakai's use of animals characters in the comic book medium, or storytelling in general, is not unique — especially in Western folklore — and there are many samurai comics on the market, but the amount of historical research he conducts to capture the Japanese feudal era is beyond compare. "I always felt the more research you do, the more authentic your story becomes," he notes. This has meant investing hours educating himself on a variety of practices during that time: from how kites were built to the practice of Sumi-e, the Art of Ink, and what kinds of gambling were popular in that day to how people cheated.

"Even though Usagi is a fantasy, it's still based in reality and any lack of research will diminish the best written story," argues Sakai. "So I do the most research I can." And his fans appreciate the time he invests in the process of his creation. In fact, sometimes they care too much. "When I get things wrong, I hear about it... as far away as Germany," he laughs, which is what happened on an occasion when he referred to a card game by the wrong name.

An international favorite, all the Usagi books are currently in print and have been translated in at least 10 languages, including Croatian, Portuguese, German, Italian, Polish and a Swedish edition coming soon. And just as Sakai's fans span continents, his samurai rabbit's appeal crosses generations. "Stan is one of the few comics artists whose work spans a vast age range," says Lee Dawson of Dark Horse Comics, current publisher of Usagi. "It is popular both with children who enjoy the animal characters and adults who enjoy the rich and extensively researched storytelling." Sakai has received letters from five-year-olds, grandparents and teachers, and his Usagi Yojimbo: Grasscutter book has even been used in a class at University of Portland. An earlier review of Usagi Yojimbo: Shrouded Moon in School Library Journal offers some insight as to why educators really embrace Sakai's work: "His stories are well plotted and beautifully drawn. Usagi uses his brain as well as his sword to solve problems . . . he is an honorable, admirable character."

Though Sakai wouldn't mind seeing Usagi become an animation series someday, its current medium is what he embraces the most. "For me, Usagi begins and ends with the comic book — that's my focus," he says. "I love working with it, I do it on my own, all by myself — I have complete control over it." And to think, his celebrated career all started because he drew a rabbit that "looked cool with his ears tied up."

Artist Stan Sakai
Stan Sakai in his home studio in Altadena in 2003



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