Re-Discovering Usagi Yojimbo

Yes, you can read comic books!  I’ve said it before – but perhaps it’s become sotte voce.  So I’ll say it again here, now:  Yes, you can read comic books!

This weekend I got to pull one of my favorite comic book series for kids off the shelf.  I hadn’t read it in ten years.

The occasion was my 4 year-old son’s interest in light sabres and all things fighting.

The series is Usagi Yojimbo – by Stan Sakai.

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Back when my daughters were his age, we discovered and read Usagi with abandon.  They took to Star Wars and all things light sabres and they took to being read to and we needed to continue to find ways to branch out and explore and share.  Comic books were one way to do that.  Lots of pictures.  New characters.  Serial storylines.  And – as I have emphasized what feels like ad nauseum – lots of stimulating text.  Good vocabulary.  Science.  History.  Complex narrative arcs.  Everything you want.  And so easy and fun to share.

But Usagi was the best.  Usagi (rabbit) Yojimbo (bodyguard) is the Hawaiian-born Stan Sakai’s take on the various samurai epics that have come out of Japan – Lone Wolf and Cub; many of the films of Kurosawa; the legend of the 47 Ronin.  Sakai draws upon all these stories and traditions – adapting the culture of the samurai for children.  The stories take place in 16th century Japan – but all the characters are animals.  Usagi is a rabbit.  His best friend is a warthog.  His romantic interests are often cats.  Sakai revels in period details – luscious pen and ink drawings of nature and architecture and armor.  The stories are filled with lords and guards, villagers and peasants and innkeepers, samurai of various types, and of course ninjas!  It’s done for children – but there is lots of back story and lots of fighting (but not too much blood) – all wrapped up in 48 page stories.  (Long form stories – serial chapters, ten episodes in length are collected and bound in easily accessible published books.)  There is also plenty of bushido – the warrior code – and the kinds of details kids love – like telling the difference between the two swords the samurai carry – the katana (the long sword) and the wakizashi (the short sword).

 

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Some of my girls favorite stories involved Usagi’s training by his sensei (teacher) when he was a child.  But they reveled in all the detail – the range of characters – sidekicks and scary bad guys – the newness and foreignness of another time and place – rendered w/ all that loving attention and detail – exactly what we want – from children’s literature (or any literature) and in any medium.

They’re all grown up now.  The Usagi comics and books are all neatly stacked and stored on the shelf – dusted regularly – but unread for some time.

Until this Labor Day weekend!

Like many parents, I am slightly mystified by my son’s interest in guns.  We don’t have any.  We don’t glory in them.  I am not interested in them.  But I have spoken to enough parents – and seen enough kids – to know that it’s not really a personal thing.  It’s genetic or cultural or a boy thing.  But it’s out of my control.

I’ve always favored the line Obi-Wan Kenobi uses when he introduced the light sabre to Luke Skywalker (in Episode IV: A New Hope): “An elegant weapon from a more civilized age.”  George Lucas was certainly thinking of the samurai when he introduced the light sabre, and I am sure I am not the first father to use that line to try to sway my son to fighting duels w/ play swords instead of play guns.

But Ready McFie has heard that line to death.  Hardly carries any water any more.  Time for Usagi.  To re-introduce the warrior code – and elegance.  (And fighting.)

We pulled Book One off the shelf and started reading Labor Day morning.  After each story – which takes about ten minutes to read – “One more, Papa.”  We reveled in the details.  The tokage lizards on the sidelines.  The fine use of silhouettes.  (You can always tell Usagi because of his rabbit ears.)  He delighted in the fighting.  He laughed at Usagi’s jokes.  He cared about what might happen to the peasants.  Or the people Usagi chooses to protect.  (Usagi has all the super hero virtues.)  He repeated all the Japanese names and terms.  He learned – it was difficult – how to hold off and try to ignore the exciting upcoming images on the right-hand page as we made our way thru the text and story on the left-hand pages.

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I tried to break it up.  “Papa needs to work.”  “Time go to the pool.”  But by the end of the day – before bedtime, before dinner even – we had finished the whole first book – ten chapters or stories.

Of course we pulled out the old styrofoam katana and wakizashi his sisters had acquired.  (Not too dusty.)  Even Mom got challenged to duel.

Does he want more?  Does a samurai honor bushido?!

How fortunate he is – how fortunate I am – that we have a whole shelf to dust off and explore.  (He’s already cased and surveyed the covers – asking aggressive questions to know about the villains depicted there in his future.)  I hope they last ‘til Christmas…

Better yet – perhaps some day soon we’ll get to venture back to the comic books shop – where I also haven’t been in years – and catch up (stock up!) on the issues of Usagi we’ve missed in the intervening years.

As parents, we are constantly trying to help our children maintain a healthy balance – playing outside, not ODing on video games or movies or TV.  Asking or reminding or insisting they read too – by themselves or with us – can sometimes feel like or begin to sound like asking them to eat their vegetables.  Comic books – sharing comic books! – can be another solution.  A textual, visual medium – stimulating all the senses – interesting and entertaining and educational and compelling and beautiful enough to delight adult and child alike – together.

All hail Usagi Yojimbo!   Try him together.

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