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Stan Sakai Interview

Stan Sakai has written & drawn Usagi Yojimbo since it was first published as the cover feature in Albedo #2 in 1984. Since then, he's won three Eisner Awards, a Parents' Choice Award, an Inkpot, as well as the Haxtur Award in Spain, for his creation. Worlds of Westfield Content Editor Roger Ash recently spoke with Stan about his samurai rabbit.

Westfield: For those unfamiliar with Usagi Yojimbo, how would you describe the book?

Stan Sakai: It's a funny animal series set in 17th century feudal Japan. It follows the adventures of Miyomoto Usagi who's a masterless samurai. It's a time of turmoil. The Tokugawa Shogunate has just established control over the entire empire after generations of civil war. It's a time of change. Because the Shogunate has just established peace, the samurai as a warrior class have become obsolete. A lot of them turn to banditry. Many become bodyguards to the emerging merchant class. And many, such as Usagi, wander the shogyusha, the warrior's path. This is to develop their inner spirit as well as their samurai skills. That, in about 15 sentences, is it.

Westfield: Do you ever have any trouble with people who can't get past the fact that your comic features animals?

Sakai: Probably the first question I'm asked is why a rabbit? Once they start reading the story, though, they get over it. I've never encountered a person that has read Usagi that has said "I would never read it again because it's a funny animal series." It really doesn't matter. One of the main reasons I chose a rabbit, or a funny animal, is that I have a lot more flexibility as far as the storytelling goes. It originally started off as a series with human characters based upon the life of samurai Miyomoto Musashi and his adventures. But I wanted to introduce elements of fantasy, Japanese folklore, as well as the political side of Japanese culture at that time. By making it funny animals, it becomes more a fantasy series, though it's grounded in real life or authentic history. I get to play a lot more with monsters and things out of folklore and my own imagination. Also, Usagi is not a typical funny animal series. I've done horror stories, political dramas and adventure stories. I recently completed a story arc called Demon Mask which is a whodunnit in the Agatha Christie vein with clues to a killer's identity scattered throughout the three issues.

Westfield: Even though the book's been around for a number of years now, do you feel it's accessible to new readers?

Sakai: It's very accessible. Besides the comic book, Usagi's also collected in trade paperbacks. The thirteenth trade paperback comes out in March. There's also a Space Usagi trade paperback collection. They're all kept in print. I believe Book One is currently in its sixth or seventh printing. Grasscutter, published in August, is already scheduled for another printing. But each volume can be read independently of any of the others. I try to make these stories as accessible as possible to new readers. Japanese terms are always translated the first time they're used. Story notes, a bibliography, and more details about aspects of Japanese culture that I've talked about are included in the letters column. I give a bit of back history whenever recurring characters show up. There are not many subplots or threads that continue on for years and years. Pretty much, once a person starts into an Usagi story, he catches on fairly quickly. There's only been a few very long stories that have been serialized over a number of issues. Most stories are either self-contained or will continue over only 2 or 3 issues. The exceptions, of course, would be the novel length Dragon Bellow Conspiracy and Grasscutter.

Westfield: How much research do you do for the book?

Sakai: [Laughs] I do as much as possible. In fact, on my drawing board right now I've got about four books out; two on horses, one on the Japanese warrior culture, from 200 to 1500 AD and one on the kofun, or tomb-building period, because the story I'm working on now starts in Japanese pre-history. I've done stories on kite making, on pottery, on sword making. I've touched on the feudal judiciary system and fire fighting methods as well as traditional festivals. I do make mistakes. It's inevitable. Such as, I confused the boardgame Go with Gomoku which uses the same pieces and board but different strategies. I heard about the mistake from readers, one even from Germany [laughter] It will be corrected in the trade paperback collection. The readers are always keeping me on my toes. However, the research is secondary. Usagi is still, after all, an adventure series.

Westfield: What can people look forward to in the book in upcoming issues?

Sakai: Issue 38 starts off a new storyline called Grasscutter II. The original Grasscutter was a ten-issue storyline that actually won the Eisner award for best serialized story last year. This is a sequel of sorts to the original Grasscutter. "Grasscutter" is the name of a sword that was given to the first emperor of Japan by Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and it actually does exist, or has existed. It may have been lost during the great civil war of 12th century. In Grasscutter, Usagi got ahold of the sword. In Grasscutter II, he and his companions have got to transport the sword to Atsuta shrine where it's currently said to be housed. They've got to go through a gauntlet of ninja that's working on behalf of the Dark Lord Hikiji to gain possession of the sword. Grasscutter II will run about six issues.

Westfield: What characters will be popping up in this story?

Sakai: There's the priest Sanshobo and Usagi's so-called best friend, Gen the bounty hunter. There'll be other characters. The cat and bat ninjas are going to be around as well as some subplots that will add twists to the storyline.

Westfield: Will we be seeing more of Inazuma who was possessed by the demon, Jei, at the end of Grasscutter?

Sakai: That's a story that'll be coming up in the future. Jei is one of the most popular characters I've ever created. I'm always getting requests for his return.

Westfield: Who are some of the other characters people might meet when they read the book?

Sakai: There's Tomoe who is inspired by a samurai woman named Tomoe Gozen. Tomoe's the chief retainer to the Lord of the Geishu Province, Noriyuki. The street performer, Kitsune. She's like a good bad girl. There's been so many characters, such as Zato-Ino the blind swordpig. The one's that recur the most are Gen and Tomoe.

Westfield: At some point, if you do get tired of doing Usagi, do you have an ending in mind?

Sakai: I had an ending in mind when I first started [laughs]. I had Usagi's death all planned and everything. But right now, there's just so many stories I'd like to tell. It's been fifteen years now and I'm just starting to scratch the surface of all the storylines that I want to do. It'll be around for a while.

Westfield: You're also doing some new statues. How did that come about?

Sakai: I just got the first statue and it is wonderful. Each statue comes with a sketchbook which shows my turn-around drawings for the figure. But what was not really advertised is that there's also a trading card set with each statue and I signed and drew a sketch of Usagi on one of the cards.

Westfield: I've seen a picture of the new statue with young Usagi and his sensei, Katsuichi.

Sakai: That's the second one, scheduled for June.

Westfield: Will we be seeing more of Katsuichi in the comic?

Sakai: I have a plotline in development now about Usagi meeting up with his sensei again. That'll be happening soon after the Grasscutter II story.

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