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Before posting more adventures from our long-eared ronin, I though it best to follow [personal profile] burkeonthesly 's advice and do a "character spotlight", in order to get new readers acquainted with his colourful cast of characters, their motivations, their relation to Usagi and so on. I'll try to keep those spoiler-free and just published their official origin stories when available. If not, then I'll post a story I think best illustrates their motivations and tones.

It may seem like 'cheating', but I'd like to start with the hero of the series, Usagi. First, because obviously pretty much every story revolves around him in some way or another and, second, because it is a quick and convenient way to understand the series' setting.

Fortunately for us, Stan already laid out the fundamentals of Usagi's universe in his first 4 issues of his own comics, back in the mid-80's. Before that, 'Long-Ears', as his friend Gen calls him, was a feature in "Albedo Anthropomorphics #2" before getting his own series in 1986 with Fantagraphics.

BTW, UY's publication history runs like this: Fantagraphics #1-38 (which I call vol. 1), Mirage Studios #1-16 (I call them vol. 2) and Dark Horse #1-160 so far, with 161 and 162 ready for pre-order (I call them vol. 3 up to #38, then I simply give their number with no 'vol.' before, for simplicity's sake).

(That's a scar over his left eye, not an eyebrow).

So, let's find out more about the hero of this fascinating series - starting with his name!

This is the first ever Usagi Yojimbo page, published way back in 1984. The story is called "The Goblin of Adachigahara", and the rabbit with a bunny-bun top meets an old lady, tells her a rough account of his backstory and finds and kills an old foe.

Yep. 'Usagi' means "rabbit", and 'Yojimbo' means "bodyguard" - his current job. His name is Miyamoto Usagi, following Japanese naming conventions. Therefore, Usagi of the Miyamoto family.

But like I said the story is better told in the first four issues of his comics.

Issue #1

We start issue #1 with Usagi dueling and killing Gunichi, a former friend of his. Gennosuké (Gen for short), a bounty hunter who usually tagged along much to Long Ears' chagrin - and who would later truly become his best friend -, witnesses the duel and inquiries as to why he fought it.

(Usagi had met Gen before in two stories done before his own comic run. These stories are collected in Book 1: Ronin).

Rabbit-ronin tells him Gunichi was a former war comrade but decides to go way back and tell everything from the beginning, childhood and all.

On their way to the Dogora fencing school, they witness some of the students ganging up on an hermit called Katsuichi. Even though he wants to avoid conflict, he has to defend himself and kills the students easily. Usagi is impressed, but Kenichi not so much.

Usagi follows him, begs him to train him and is called a fool and ignored, but he already shows his "just can't quit" attitude.

The rest of issue #1 is your standard training montage, and they decide to embark off to a friendly tournament. Of note is Katsuichi beating Usagi until readiness and full attention become second nature to the boy, and the episode of the bandits who capture Usagi and dare the sensei to cut a plum off the rabbit's nose. He kills the bandits' leader instead and, in the aftermath, we're treated to this:

Issue #2

In issue #2 Usagi and Katsuichi-sensei enter the tournament:

(There's Gunichi - the warthog behind Lord Mifune).

I've added this extra page because it has one the of the best lines of the series:

Usagi goes on to win his matches and the best student from the Dogora school, his old playmate Kenichi, wins his as well. They face each other in the final. No prizes for guessing who won.

Lord Mifune gives Usagi his set of swords - the same ones he still uses today - and a career path.

During the rest of the issue, Usagi trains in solitude until Gunichi comes to him and offers him a test duel to see if he is fit to join Lord Mifune's personal retainers.

During their fight, however, they are attacked by Dogora students (again! Are these guys sore losers or what?) and Usagi has a chance to impress Gunichi, who confirms his recommendation to Lord Mifune.

Issue #3

Usagi decides to visit his childhood village before going on to work for Lord Mifune. On his way he takes note of a rowdy guest at an inn and decides to teach this miscreant a lesson. Much to his surprise, the drunkard turns out to be his childhood rival.

Losing the tournament was too much for Kenichi, who returned to the village in disgrace and drowned in a sea of self-pity. News of bandits attacking their hometown, however, shakes him off his grief and he joins Usagi and runs to the rescue.

Usagi's father is the magistrate of the village, and stands up against the criminals. Before he is killed, however, Mariko - a friend and love of both Usagi and Kenichi - catches the gang-leader's eyes and he kidnaps her. Our protagonist faces them directly while Kenichi sneaks out and gets his hands on a hunting bow, which gives the village an advantage.

Now here is something I really like. When the leader tries to kill Mariko before escaping, it is neither Usagi nor Kenichi who rescue her. No, she's not just a "damsel in distress", but a samurai in her own right.

Usagi's father, however, was killed during the fight.

After the dead are buried and the village returns to normalcy, the three friends share a meal which, incidentally, shapes their relations for years to come.

Usagi's decision drifts him apart from Mariko, who later marries Kenichi. They have a son, Jotaro, who is a very important plot point. In fact, Usagi Yojimbo Saga vol. 4 is also known as "Travels with Jotaro".

Issue #4

Issue #4 establishes the political intrigues of the rivaling factions in early 17th century Japan. Lord Hikiji, who wants to take over Lord Mifune's territory, makes constant use of ninjas to carry out his dirty work for him. That includes ensuring the Mifune bloodline will not be carried on.

Things reach boiling point and the two lords go to war six months later. The decisive battle is fought at Adachigahara Plain, the same place Usagi revisits in his very first story.

The battle goes well for Lord Mifune until:

Seeing as all is lost, Gunichi abandons his post, and that is why Usagi tracked him down and killed him. Before that, though, he has to protect his Lord, but:

He cuts off his lord's head and buries it so it will not be placed on a stake. This is constantly referenced as an honourable decision throughout the series.

Usagi is now a ronin - a masterless samurai - and decides to embark on the warrior's pilgrimage, which is where we find him in most of his adventures.

And there we have reached the end of his story.

Whoof, that was a lot. Hope you made it through to the end :)

This is collected on the trade paperback Samurai and also on Fantagraphics' "Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition" (which unfortunately seems to be out of print. Maybe it can be found at Amazon?).

I'm planning to do the origin stories of Tomoe Ame the cat samurai, Gen the rhino bounty-hunter, Kitsuné the fox thief, Jei "the Blade of the Gods", and a story illustrating Inspector Ishida, Jotaro (Mariko's son) and Chizu the cat ninja. I might also do one with miscellaneous characters I think are somewhat relevant to some story arcs (Sanshobo the priest, Sasuké the demon queller, Inazuma "the Lightning", Zato-Ino the blind swordspig, General Ikeda), as long as you are interested.
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