Usagi Yojimbo

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

This comic book series by Stan Sakai chronicles the adventures of Miyamoto Usagi, once a loyal retainer of lord Mifune who, after his whole clan was vanquished in battle, walks the earth as a Ronin, meeting interesting people, facing mythological monsters and solving the odd murder mystery too.

Also, he's an anthropomorphic rabbit in an alternative dimension Medieval Japan. And the historical background and strong sense of cultural nuances work so well. As does the addition of tiny dinosaurs.

One of the longest-running comics of all time to be drawn and written by a single person, Usagi Yojimbo has been running (under various publishers) since 1984. It's been noted for its meticulously researched and accurate portrayal of feudal Japan (talking animals notwithstanding) as well as its ability to take readers by surprise by messing with tropes; a seemingly lighthearted story may turn out to be a heartrending tragedy, or vice-versa.

Usagi is often associated with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, thanks in part to several crossovers between different incarnations of the properties, and the friendship between Sakai and the Turtles creators. This has permitted Usagi to appear on the screen in both TMNT cartoons as a recurring character, culminating in an episode set in Usagi's world—the closest thing yet to an Usagi animated series. Usagi Yojimbo was also published by Eastman and Laird's Mirage Studios for a time, before moving on to Dark Horse Comics.

Tropes used in Usagi Yojimbo include:

  • Action Girl: Chizu, Inazuma, Tomoe Ame. The occasional one-shot story may feature an Action Girl who inevitably dies or is written out of the seriesmarried off.
  • Alternate Continuity: Usagi's cartoon incarnations. Also, some stories have had changes made between the comic and graphic novel collections—such as Usagi kissing hugging Kinuko after a reader pointed out that kissing was a courtesan's trick imported by foreigners.
    • The story referred to was an earlier one than the Kinuko story, namely Chizu's first instance of kissing Usagi and his utterly baffled response. This has been left as is, as it still fits both their characters.
  • Arch Enemy: Jei and Lord Hikiji
  • Author Avatar: Stan Sakai shows up as a character named Masa in the 141st issue of the Dark Horse run (and number 200 overall) as an artisan who dreamed that creating 200 small statues of a god will save his village from bandits that have taken over. With Usagi's help, the 200th being used upside the leader's head and a mudslide, the dream comes true. His character then states that he'll continue his work after reaching the milestone until he's unable to hold the tools of his trade.
  • Backdoor Pilot: Usagi's guest shot on the original Ninja Turtles cartoon was supposed to be a set up for his own cartoon show, but the show was never made due to creative differences between Stan Sakai and Playmates. His appearance on the 2000's TMNT show carried no such aspirations; it was just a treat for the fans.
  • Badass: Miyamoto Usagi.
  • Badass Preacher: Sanshobo, who was a samurai until he took his vows. Priest Jizonobu was also a samurai and still an excellent fighter before he became Jei.
  • Berserk Button: Don't mess with Usagi's swords. No, seriously, just don't.
    • Or his teacher, Katsuichi sensei.
    • Genosuké could arguably be labelled a walking berserk button. His questionable character traits tend to set off more Usagi temper tantrums than anything else.
  • Big No: Usually before a dramatic death scene.
  • Big Ol' Eyebrows: Ishida, Koji.
  • Bittersweet Ending:
    • Gen's story ends with Gen discovering that the swords he stole from Oda house's were his father's swords, Gen explain that the only way Oda could have obtained them were killing Gen's father
    • Lady Kiku's story ends with her and Usagi alive but forced to separate, and Usagi not learning that she still cares about him years later
    • "Travels With Jotaro" ends with Usagi and Jotaro being unable to compromise the others happiness by revealing they're father and son, even though they both really want to.
    • "Sparrows" ends with Inazuma being forgiven by her family for running off and dying as herself.
  • Bloodless Carnage: Although blood is present, it is lesser quantities than one would realistically expect.
    • Mostly, it seems to be used in sequences where it has the maximum dramatic effect, such as the story arc where Usagi was poisoned and began to hallucinate that he had become Jei's new incarnation, fighting Tomoe. The sudden, shocking appearance of so much blood drove home just how traumatic an experience this was for the protagonist.
    • In most cases where blood is spilled, but Sakai wanted to keep gore down, he instead drew characters exhaling a cloud with a cartoonish skull (in some cases wit the haircut of the dying character) to symbolize death. The trick is an iconic part of the series these days.
  • Bounty Hunter: Gennosuke, Inukai, countless extras, and—occasionally—Usagi.
  • Broken Pedestal: Mainly in Space Usagi.
  • Cain and Abel: Noriko and Tomoe, although it's Noriko who gets killed, probably.
  • Captain Obvious: "Follow me, Spot! Our life of peace depends on us staying alive!"
    • In "Blade of the Gods", Jei pins Usagi's sleeve to the wall. Usagi's response? "He's pinned my sleeve!" Take note that he says this out loud. This has happened so many times over the years that it's an apparent personality quirk.[1]
  • Catch Phrase: Sasuke will frequently call someone by name without having been properly introduced to them. When they ask how he knew their name, he'll say something like, "You must have mentioned it earlier."
    • Not quite a "phrase", but everyone has a different yelling style; for instance, Usagi's "RYAAAAAH!"
  • Cavalry Betrayal: Happens to Lord Mifune and Lord Noriyuki's dad.
  • Close-Call Haircut: To Katsuichi from Koji during their duel, though no one comments on it.
  • Conservation of Ninjitsu: Ninja mooks abound; the really lethal ones are the named characters.
  • Creepy Child: Keiko, after Jei designates her as his "innocent" (acting like a witch's familiar). Although she's quite cheerful about it, which, as Keiko cheerfully bids a polite farewell to the men Jei has just murdered, makes it all the eerier.
  • Crossover: The comic featured several early appearances by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Usagi is a Recurring Character in the TMNT cartoons.
  • Cunning Like a Fox: Kitsune, literally, Inspector Ishida, and Usagi. Jei's original body is an aversion, as he is literally a fox but is not so much "cunning" as he is "pants-shittingly terrifying"
  • Deal with the Devil, complete with "Gift of the Magi" Plot: A mediocre artist called Katsushige sold his soul for the ability to create "art the like of which had never been seen before". The dark gods turned him into an ink set. Anything that was drawn with it became real, but still... he's an ink set.
    • Then we have the unfortunate Priest Jizonobu, whose well-meant Deal with the Devil had even worse consequences.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Princess Kiku.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Invoked by the author in order to accurately portray the era and culture of the characters. Certain things considered right and honorable would be deemed harsh and cruel by modern standards. A good example is Sanshobo, whose son commited suicide in order to make up for his father's perceived failure in not successfully rescuing his master's own son.
  • Disability Superpower: Zato Ino, "The Blind Swordspig", who can "see" things thanks to his sense of smell—a common trait of the blind being the heightening of their other senses.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: In the 2003 TMNT series, Chizu leading the Neko Ninja is made to resemble Karai leading the Foot Ninja.
  • Due to the Dead: In the story "Broken Ritual" (plot by Sergio Aragones), a village is haunted by the ghost of a general whose Seppuku attempt is interrupted by a squad of enemy soldiers. The ghost is exorcised when Usagi waits for its next appearance and helps complete the ritual.
  • Dying as Yourself: Inazuma. She even gets to make peace with her family.
  • Ears as Hair: Usagi most often has his ears pulled into a ponytail, or possibly a top-knot. When he puts on a hat or a helmet, they disappear completely.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Subverted/inverted in "A Mother's Love". Even moms love their bad sons, but sometimes they're just too bad... and must be stopped.
  • Evil Counterpart: Keiko is this to Kiyoko since they're both young girls with no family who become sidekicks of older characters. Keiko's companion is Jei while Kiyoko's is Kitsune. However, they (all) have never met.
  • Evil Is Deathly Cold: The air around Jei-san becomes noticeably chilly.
  • Expy: A TMNT crossover in the comics had a rat sage named Kakera with a suspicious resemblance to Splinter who summons the Turtles through magic. "Kakera" is Japanese for "splinter" or "fragment".
  • Eyepatch of Power: After losing his eye in the battle that makes Usagi think he's dead, Katsuichi Sensei covers it with a sword guard.
  • Face Framed in Shadow: Lord Hikiji and Jesus on the crucifix.
  • Facing the Bullets One-Liner: Chizu's brother had one before he blew up himself together with the boss of the Dragon Bellows Conspiracy. She thus replaced him as the head of the Neko Ninja. Invoked many times since by Chizu herself as their Badass Creed.

"A ninja's duty in life... is death!"

  • Family-Unfriendly Death: The cruel capture and murder of poor, innocent Noodles. His only friends are kept back by corrupt lawmen while the terrified Gentle Giant is tortured, then graphically run through with spears.
  • Fantastic Foxes: Kitsune, although she's just really skilled. Actually magical kitsune have appeared only briefly, and never as named characters.
    • There was Kuzunoha in one story, a traditionally evil and seductive kitsune.
    • There's also Jei, although he's an entirely other kettle of fish
  • Fight Magnet/Weirdness Magnet: Usagi has an amazing tendency to attract all the weird and dangerous things in any area he is passing through. He will accidentally bump into an ancient, mystic sword and get himself in the middle of an anti-shogun conspiracy or become number one on a local psychopath’s “to kill” list. No matter how much he tries to avoid it, he always ends up in a fight. If it's not Youkai he has to kill, then a village needs to be saved from a Yakuza. Most of his friends are not ordinary people, either. This happy bunch includes: a bounty hunter, a powerful daimyo, said daimyo’s Action Girl bodyguard, the former head of a ninja clan who would love to get rid of Usagi, a Badass Grandpa Old Master, a Classy Cat Burglar, and a professional demon hunter.
  • Fighting From the Inside: Inazuma.
  • Four Is Death: The quartet of assassins known as "Shi".
  • Furry Confusion: The world is populated with Funny Animals of most species. Horses, lizards (tokage), birds, fish, and insects are excepted to minimize potential Squick value.
  • Genre Busting
  • Gentleman Thief: Kitsune, her sidekick Kiyoko, and Nezumi.
  • Give Him a Normal Life: Usagi does this for the son of a lord and his courtesan, Lady Maple, when he gives the child to Inspector Ishida. He also did this unknowingly for his son Jotaro, and decided not to tell him for pretty much this reason.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Usagi gets a cut over his eyebrow during the battle of Adachigahara. Not a "scar" per se, but Gen had his horn chopped off.
  • He Who Must Not Be Seen: Hikiji as the sole human, something Sakai later regretted doing. Jesus on the crucifix -- lion, lamb, human, or something else entirely? Also, foreigners—either the unseen Ruritanians are some family other than mammalian, or ethnicity and nationality just depends on your Wig, Dress, Accent. Either option has enough Anvilicious Unfortunate Implications to cause a plot implosion.
    • Sakai has said Hikiji is mostly kept off panel because he feels the character works better as a Sauron-like figure, manipulating things unseen. As far as the Europeans go, his Nilson Groundthumper strips take place in that part of the UY Earth. The characters there seem to be of a wide variety of species. It should be noted the Nilson stories predate the Ninja Turtles by a few years, despite the latter often being given credit for at least partially inspiring UY.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Saru and Ikeda both do this in Journey to Atsuta Shrine, but for different reasons
    • Lord Noriyuki has a body double -- or rather he had one. He never speaks even after being wounded because his voice is different, and a remorseful Tomoe promises he'll get an honorable burial.
    • Lady Maple throws herself in front of a scheming lord's sword to save her son; unfortunately she didn't know Usagi had brought a doll in his place. For double irony points Usagi had already dealt with a doll-double and hated people sacrificing themselves for it.
    • The secret Christians are willing to put their lives on the line to get one crucifix to their followers; if any of them were caught they would've been crucified themselves.
  • High-Pressure Blood: In the beginning, and notably in Tomoe and Noriyuki's debut episode.
  • Hit Me Dammit
  • Honest Axe
  • Honor Before Reason: Reconstructed. Usagi has no problem using trickery, usually to help the underdog. Characters who mistake honor for weakness frequently come off the worse for it. Also played straight, averted, and subverted, depending on the character and occasion. For instance, if a character takes a stand in this series and says, "I am adamant!," you will know that nothing, especially death threats, is going to make them change their mind.
    • As in Real Life, most samurai would die in an assassination attempt on their lord's murderer than let the murderer get away with it.
    • Watanabe Ken would sooner die from fighting the police than live comfortably with his daughter after she married into the merchant class.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: The main villain, the shadowy Lord Hikiji, is a human in a world otherwise populated by anthropomorphic animals; the only other human-looking character with a speaking part is really a flesh-eating monster.
    • It should be noted none of the main characters (and few of the minor characters) have seen Hikiji's true face, nor has his species—something that Sakai later regretted showing—been pinpointed as the reason for his evil.
    • And Jesus, who appears in a crucifix. Not a bastard.
      • Inconclusive—there's too much shadow, although potentially lion since the shape of his head is vaguely similar to the Lion King Musical's logo.
      • Jesus as a lion? Hmm... Why does that sound familiar?
  • The Hunter: Sasuke the Demon Queller
  • Implacable Man: Jei-san, Inazuma, and Inazuma after she gets possessed by Jei -- presumably also Jei as Hama.
    • After being (seriously) wounded in one fight, Inazuma reassures Keiko that it's "merely a flesh wound".
      • The possessed Inazuma isn't quite as implacable as original!Jei, though - she doesn't get better when you make large holes in her.
    • Usagi does a brilliant job of this with General Fujii, to boot (with appropriate Nightmare Sequence), but as The Hero, this is Determinator.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills:

Kinuko: "I just aimed at everything except the target!"

  • Implausible Fencing Powers: Usagi provokes a bandit into demanding that Katsuichi-sensei perform a near impossible feat of cutting a seed of Usagi's nose. Katsuichi calmly replies that this is near impossible, and asks the bandit to release Usagi. The bandit refuses. Katsuichi kills the bandit. When Usagi comments that Katsuichi couldn't/didn't cut the seed, he does so to teach Usagi not to shoot his mouth off.
    • Also, any time a character strikes an arrow out of the air with a sword.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: General Oyaneko suffers from this.
  • Instant Expert: Inazuma had an "instant affinity" with swords after she was forced to become a performer and soon surpassed her samurai husband's skill.
  • Jerkass Facade: Gen, Stray Dog.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Gen, which Usagi amusedly calls him out on.
    • Also Inukai, who regularly donates large part of his earned money to an orphanage and seems to genuinely enjoy it.
  • Kick Them While They Are Down: Noriko to Tomoe (twice), Noriko to the laborers.
  • Kid Samurai: Usagi during the flashbacks, Jotaro, Gorogoro, Motokazu.
  • Killer Rabbit: HAW! (though, only when necessary)
  • Knight Errant: Usagi
  • To Be Lawful or Good: The story "The Death of Lord Hikiji", where Usagi runs into a couple of other former vassals of Lord Mifune. They are planning to kill Lord Hikiji to avenge Mifune's death, and Usagi has to decide whether or not he wants to join them.
  • Lawyer-Friendly Cameo: Sergio Aragones' Groo and characters from Mark Crilley's Akiko have appeared as background characters from time to time—the former may in fact count as a Yuppie Couple. Also Morpheus shows up in line for noodles in the short story 'Noodles.' (As do Jei and Keiko.)
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Oh, boy. Easily into the hundreds of characters just from the ones who are named.
  • Luke, You Are My Father Averted Jotaro shouts this to Usagi, but he's too far away to hear
    • And they both know of Jotaro's true paternity, but they don't know that the other knows.
  • Magic Knight: Sasuke (not that one) the Demon Queller.
  • Mature Animal Story
  • Meaningful Echo: For a while, Usagi has a pet tokage he calls "Spot". Later, Jotaro befriends a tokage and names it "Spot", without prior knowledge of Usagi's. In the Space Usagi spin-off, Kiyoshi also names a tokage "Spot".
  • Meaningful Name: Usagi means "rabbit" in Japanese. Kitsune, of course, is "fox", even if hers is a nickname given by her mentor in the art of thieving.

Kitsune: 'Kitsune'? The trickster fox? I like it!

  • Medieval Japan: Practically identical, besides the Funny Animals. And magic and creatures of myth are real. (albeit not an everyday thing)
  • Milky White Eyes: Jei-san and anyone he/it possesses, and technically all other supernatural beings since it's a black & white comic.
    • Except the Mirage issues and Color Specials.
  • Miyamoto Musashi: The inspiration for Usagi.
  • Mood Whiplash: Not only does the story itself do this, but the art style is very suited to quick, seamless transitions from detailed dramatic images to humorous cartoonish ones.
  • Murder, Inc.: Koroshi, the assassin's guild, any of the ninja clans...
  • My Master, Right or Wrong: Captain Torame from "The Dragon Bellows Conspiracy."
    • And to some extent, Kenichi. After Hikiji killed the old village headman (Usagi's father), he appointed Kenichi in his place. Initially taking the assignment out of fear, Kenichi now serves out of duty (though Hikiji probably doesn't pay much attention to the town). Usagi sometimes feels guilt that Kenichi has shouldered burdens Usagi feels honor-bound to walk away from.
  • Never Found the Body: Jei's first and second appearances in his last appearance no one actually saw him disintegrate, and he's a spirit anyway; teased for the ex-Neko Ninja chunin unfortunately the giant explosion from the gunpowder he was sitting on probably rules this out. Tomoe has a nightmare that Noriko escaped the explosion/cave-in at the end of "Mother of Mountains", but Usagi assures her that even if they don't find a body she probably didn't survive.
  • Ninja: The Neko, Komori, and Mogura clans of ninja. Chizu of the Neko clan is an important secondary character.
  • No Problem With Licensed Games: There was a somewhat obscure but excellent Hack and Slash game produced for the Commodore 64 and other 80s computers. Like Below the Root, it had some surprisingly modern innovations such as a Karma Meter that measured how honorably you behaved.
  • Obake: Many Japanese creatures appear in UY, from kappas to obakenekos, nues, onis and so on.
  • Obliviously Evil:

Jei: It is a nigh impossible task... to eradicate sin.

    • Somewhat explained in the backstory for Jei: the priest to the 'dark gods' points out to Buddhist priest Jizonobu that while they both work to fight "evil," their respective definitions for evil are not necessarily the same. The evil and sin that Jei is fighting is defined for him by the demonic gods he serves
  • Old Master: Katsuichi-sensei.
  • Operation: Jealousy: Kitsune tells Tomoe that she and Usagi have "shared so many adventures and... other things" but she's just trying to get rid of the heroes while she's running a con.
  • Pet the Dog: Jei-san and Keiko, Gen and Stray Dog's acts of kindness.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Since Gen's taste for sake couldn't be adapted to the second TMNT cartoon, he was made a gambler instead.
  • Public Domain Artifact: Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the Grass-Cutting Sword, one of Japan's imperial regalia (which is nearly as important to Japanese legend as Excalibur is in England), is the center of a whole story arc.
  • Punny Name: Some throwaway secondary characters have names that are somewhat funny when translated from Japanese.
  • Recurring Extra: The omnipresent woodcutters. Groo, on occasion.
  • Recycled in Space: Space Usagi features descendants of the main characters and puts them in a Space Opera setting.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Gen and Usagi; Noriko and Tomoe.
  • Ronin: Usagi and many secondary characters.
  • Samurai: Usagi, Tomoe, and so many extras besides.
  • Scare'Em Straight: Usagi, either first or second hand, to several young people who think the life a wanderer is glamorous.
  • Scars Are Forever: Usagi is consistently drawn with his scar from the battle at Adatachi Plain (even if other such scarring he acquires eventually heals). Katsuichi loses his eye and wears an eyepatch (made from a sword guard) from that point on.
  • Scooby-Doo Hoax: The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill.
  • Secret Test of Character: Katsuichi-sensei is prone to do this.
  • Seppuku: Appears periodically, usually when a character needs to atone for an earlier shame.
  • Shamu Fu: At one point, Usagi defends a fish merchant from a armed gang attempting a protection racket with nothing more than that day's catch.
  • Ship Tease: Until the Mother of Mountains arc, this was the only thing Stan did with the romantic tension between Tomoe and Usagi.
  • Shout-Out: Many characters are shout outs to Chanbara heroes—the Lone Goat and Kid is a nod to the Lone Wolf and Cub, Zato-Ino the blind masseur pig is a thinly-veiled version of Zatoichi, Lord Mifune references the actor Toshiro Mifune, and so on.
    • Jei's name is a shout out to the Friday the 13th film series. ("Jei-san")
    • In addition to a ton of Star Wars shout-outs in Space Usagi, the Bugg Planet is a shout-out to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
    • Not to mention that one swordfight of Usagi's is an almost exact adaptation of the first-bokken-then-swords duel from Seven Samurai.
    • In a one-shot story, Usagi is present at the hatching of a lizard which he names "Zilla". When said lizard uses a breath weapon, Usagi asks, "Are you a god, Zilla?"
  • Short Cuts Make Long Delays: Gen is prone to offer this to Usagi when they're traveling together, and Usagi follows. They end up in a predicament. Every single time, Usagi yells at Gen during or afterwards: "You and your shortcuts!"
  • Shown Their Work: Stan Sakai may research some aspect of ancient Japanese life, from pottery to seaweed farming to geisha, and render it lovingly on the page or describe it in detail in the afterwords. In fact, Sakai's research and presentation of this stuff is so on the money that he won a Parent's Choice Award for the comic's educational value.
  • Single-Stroke Battle
  • Space Whale: Giant space turtles! (in Space Usagi)
  • Speech Bubbles: There is a speech bubble for death, with a skull in it.
  • Swipe Your Blade Off: After every blood-drawing battle. Usagi is regularly depicted as cleaning his swords, however, so perhaps it's to minimize how much he has to clean later.
  • The Drifter: Usagi, Gen, Stray Dog, assorted extras.
  • The Faceless: Lord Hikiji, for the most part.
  • The Farmer and the Viper: Jei-san to a hapless fisherman. He even lampshades it.
  • The Resenter: Kenichi.
  • The Unfavorite / Bastard Bastard: Noriko. She's shunted to her aunt's after her mom dies because her uncle is actually her biological father (mom and aunt are sisters). Aunty doesn't like her very much and then bio-dad straight-up tells her he'll never accept her as his daughter, so she kills him and poisons her "step" father for being weak. She reveals all of this to her The Favorite cousin Tomoe while beating her to the ground (on top of having worked a day in Noriko's mine). For Noriko, it's a very satisfying beating.
  • Trick Dialogue: In trying to get out of the rain, Usagi came across the swordswoman Inazuma telling her life's story to some of her friends. By the time she is finished, the rain has let up, so Inazuma bids them farewell and heads out. Usagi makes an aside about the story to one of the "friends"... only to discover that all four of them are dead—bounty hunters who had been trying unsuccessfully to kill Inazuma.
    • Usagi goes to return a small trinket to a fellow member of Lord Mifune's army. The trinket was a good-luck charm; Usagi tells the man he is sorry he was unable to return it previously, then leaves it on the top of the man's gravestone and walks away.
  • Voice of the Legion: Jei-san and anyone possessed by him/it.
  • The Voiceless: Noriyuki's body double. He couldn't imitate his voice so he didn't speak, even after being fatally wounded.
  • Walking the Earth: Usagi travels the shogyusha—the warrior's path.
  • Wax On, Wax Off
  • What Could Have Been: Initial work had begun on a Space Usagi cartoon, but was stopped after the failure of the superficially similar Bucky O'Hare. Similarly, Space Usagi was slated to make an appearance in the second season Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fast Forward, but the appearance was scrapped when the season was cancelled.
  • Whip It Good: Sakura.
  • Worthy Opponent: Captain Torame in "The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy". He's so loyal, he'll stay with his lord even though he knows his plans are evil.

Torame, trading Bushido sayings with Usagi: "Is there ever a circumstance when rebellion against one's lord can be justified?"
Usagi: "Never!"
Torame: Ah, but it can be justified, if the rebellion succeeds!

  1. Usagi, awakening to find spiders crawling on his face, brushes them off quickly: "Gah! Spider on my face!"