Gavin Lees wrote for Bleeding Cool from Stumptown last weekend;
For close to three decades, Stan Sakai has been working on the adventures of Usagi Yojimbo — a funny-animal story based in feudal Japan, which manages to maintain an incredible level of authenticity to the history and culture of the country, despite the fact that its protagonist is an anthropomorphic rabbit. It’s a staggering body of work, which manages to maintain its momentum to this day.
While appearing as a guest of honour at this year’s Stumptown Comics Festival, I took the opportunity to speak to Sakai about his plans for Usagi, and a new side-project that was recently announced. He is perhaps the nicest man I have ever met.
Gavin Lees: Usagi Yojimbo has been going for over 25 years now — how have you kept focus on the character for such a long period of time?
Stan Sakai: Usagi is going on 28 years now and I really enjoy the character. I’ve seen him grow from when I first started the series, and it’s just exciting for me. With each new story comes a springboard for maybe two more. So, I’ve got stories and story-arcs that I’m laying down groundwork for that will be probably not be finished for another three, four or even five years from now. One is Tomoe’s wedding — Tomoe Ame is the female samurai in the series — and I’ve announced that she’s getting married. That marriage probably won’t take place for quite a few years from now. I want to do the entire traditional Japanese marriage — a formal marriage with the go-betweens, the presenting of gifts to the families — the entire sequence of events that the nobility used to arrange marriages.
GL: Marriage is something I don’t think you’ve touched upon in the series, and that authenticity that you spoke of there is something that I think is integral to your work. Are there certain aspects of Japanese culture, or history that you’re still discovering and that you’re planning to integrate into future stories?
SS: Oh yeah, there’s a lot! I read a lot and every so often I’ll come across a glimpse of… weird things in Japanese history. [Laughter] I did a story called “The Ice Runners” and this is because I saw a documentary on feudal Japan and it had remarked upon the ice runners. Basically, three guys would carry a block of ice, in the middle of summer, from the mountains up north and they would literally run for 500 kilometers to deliver ice to the shogun! So, I did a lot more research and then did a story on that.
GL: So, you never think you’ll have to branch off and take Usagi into other timelines — like you did with Space Usagi — to keep finding ideas? There’s still enough there to keep him going and keep the ideas fresh?
SS: Oh, definitely. I still want to do another Space Usagi miniseries, though. Space Usagi came about because I wanted to draw dinosaurs — I love dinosaurs! Ever since I was a kid, I’ve drawn dinosaurs, and I wanted to draw real dinosaurs in my comics. I had these lizards running around in Usagi, but that doesn’t count. I wanted to draw dinosaurs with Usagi, and I had two alternatives: one was to take him to the distant past as a caveman, which didn’t seem as much fun; or the other was to bring him over inot the future, where a space Usagi visits a dinosaur planet… and that’s what he did!
SS: Well, when Usagi was first created, he was a secondary character in Nilson Groundthumper storyline and that had a definite beginning, middle and end, and Usagi would appear in page, maybe, 1,000 — this was going to be a 2,500-page graphic novel — and Usagi does die a glorious death in there. Once I started working on the Usagi series, I fell in love with the character, and the Nilson story fell by the wayside and I devoted all my time to Usagi. It’s an ongoing series!
GL: That ongoing nature is interesting, because your work is very consistent — there have really been no periods where Usagi really slumped, or fell behind schedule. It still feels very fresh. Is having that consistency a curse where you feel you can’t experiment, or change the characters dramatically?
SS: Well, I think you might be mistaken. My abilities as a storyteller have matured over the years, I hope, and if you look at the early years of Usagi, you can see a huge difference in the character. His proportions have changed — at the beginning, he was maybe three-heads high, now he’s more like five-heads. So, he’s gotten sleeker and he’s not as cuddly any more. That may be because I’ve concentrated on more dramatic stories, rather than humorous, as the series went on. Most of the changes are unconscious on my part, though, just myself maturing as an artist and a storyteller.
GL: So, you and Usagi have really grown-up together! [Laughter] Do you find yourself being inspired by aspects of Japanese culture that you research when you’re working on the book? Does it inform the way your live your life, or your cultural identity at all?
SS: Yeah, well, I’m third-generation Japanese-American, and I grew up in Hawai’i where there is a huge Japanese-American population. When a group emigrates from their native country to another area, they bring a lot of the culture with them. In a lot of cases, they preserve their culture much more fervently than in their native land. So, I grew up with things like the Obon festival, or taking Japanese language classes or Japanese culture classes.
GL: That’s something people lose quite easily in America after a few years — their cultural identity becomes subsumed into the great melting pot of the country. I was wondering if Usagi was perhaps, in part, a way for you to stay in touch with your ancestral culture.
SS: Not so much. As a kid, there was a theatre down the street from me, and they would show samurai movies every Saturday, and I’d be there watching them. So, I grew up with all this.
GL: Now, you’re about to explore Japanese history in a different on your next project, which I believe is an adaptation of the 47 Ronin. That was very surprising to me, because you are so innately tied to Usagi. What made you decide to take up this new project?
SS: I grew up with this story, and I’ve known it all my life. It’s a very important incident in history. When Mike Richardson approached me with this, at first I was wary, until I started talking to him and finding out research he had already done, and how much he already knew — I was frankly impressed! This is something that I’ve wanted to do — it’s been in the back of my mind for years, except using Usagi, and making the 47 ronin incident involve him. When Mike approached me with this, we were going to be doing it with humans and the character designs and art are going to be based on Japanese woodcut prints. It will be different, but it will still be my take on it.
GL: For anyone who’s unfamiliar with the story of the 47 Ronin, can you give us a brief synopsis, and perhaps say why it’s such an important story?
SS: Lord Asano was chosen to be one of the sponsors of an imperial visit to Edo — the former name of Tokyo — and he did not give the proper gift… or bribe, actually, to Lord Kira who was the head of protocol, while everyone else sis. So, Kira assumed that he deserved better from Asano, and he pretty much degraded him, saying that he was a country bumpkin! He then started giving him wrong advice and finally Lord Asano reached his limit. He drew his sword in the shogun’s palace — which was a no-no — and attacked Lord Kira. Because of that, Asano was forced to commit seppuku — ritualized suicide — and his clan was disbanded. One of the higher officials of the clan had the plan to regroup the clan and exact their revenge upon Lord Kira. He was being watched all this time, so he was pretending to be a womanizer, to be a drunkard, and he divorces his wife, until they decided that he was no threat at all… and then it explodes into wild violence! [Laughter]
GL: And this is a historical story — not a myth or a folk tale?
SS: This is a historical story, yes. It’s part of Japanese history and the shogun at that time, he was trying preserve the peace, but at the same time, these warriors followed a code of bushido, where you cannot the murderer of your lord live. So, he was in a dilemma over what to do — these men are naturally heroes now, but they went against the shogun’s orders. So, it shows what a samurai warrior should be and should do.
GL: That same period and culture is also the setting for Usagi. Is it difficult to divorce yourself from Usagi when you’re working on 47 Ronin?
SS: Actually, I have been doing a lot more research for the 47 Ronin story, even before I knew I was going to be working on it. I went to Japan in 2009 and I visited the temple where they are all buried, so I had all that reference before Mike even approached me. When Mike started sending me references, I was suddenly inundated with tons of things! We’re trying to make it as accurate as possible, so details like the clan crests are going to be accurate. I thought I was doing a great job with Usagi in research, but then working on 47 Ronin, I realized that I’ve just been skating by! [Laughter] I’ve had to do so much more research on this.
GL: What about the change in your art style — you said it was going to be like ukiyo-e printing — are you changing your methods at all?
SS: Not that much. It’s more influenced-by, rather than copied. It’ll be my take on humans but it’s a bit more stylized. Oh, I should mention that Kazuo Koike of Lone Wolf and Cub will be a technical advisor on this project, so that’s a big feather in my cap.
GL: Was he someone you had met through your work on Usagi?
SS: No, but he’s a friend of Mike’s! Dark Horse published the complete Lone Wolf and Cub series. The other thing I should mention is that this will be a colour series, rather than black and white. So I will have accommodate things for colour.
GL: What type of colour — will this be watercolours like your Yokai book?
SS: No, there’ll be a colourist. I’m not even doing my own lettering!
GL: So, will Tom Luth be doing the colouring? You’ve worked with him a lot in the past.
SS: I don’t think Tom will be part of this project. We’re debating who would be a good colourist for this.
GL: Are you finding it a challenge to work in such a different mode to your usual style?
SS: Not really. I’ve done other things before — I’ve done the samurai Hulk story for Marvel, and just a few month ago, my Rocketeer story appeared in Rocketeer Adventures. That was my take on Dave Stevens’s character, which was great because I knew Dave, so that was a really neat thing that I was invited to be a part of.
GL: How long will 47 Ronin run for?
SS: It’s a five-issue series, and it will be collected as a trade-paperback when it’s completed. And Universal is actually working on the movie right now, with Keanu Reeves. I actually think that it was Mike that proposed the idea to them, but… the story’s changed a bit in the movie.
GL: He proposed the movie idea?
SS: I think so. I’m not sure what the sequence of events was. Dark Horse have a history with Universal Studios, all the way back to The Mask.
GL: So, once this project wraps-up, are you going straight back to Usagi?
SS: Right after the 47 Ronin wraps up, I want to do a Usagi Yojimbo mini-series before going back to the regular series. The mini-series will be Usagi in War of the Worlds. [Laughter] What if… a Martian scout ship had landed in feudal Japan, two centuries before H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds in Victorian England? I love the visual of these giant tripods against armoured samurai warriors, and ninja versus these octopus things. I had different endings in mind — one of them, which will not be the ending of the real series, was that Usagi would open a sushi bar with the alien octopus. [Laughter] So, I’m having a lot of fun with it, mainly because of the visuals. This will take place 25 years into Usagi’s future, so major characters may die-off. It will be like one of those old Superman imaginary stories, so I can play around with stuff like that.