Monday, August 28, 2017

Usagi Yojimbo: The Hell Screen by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Vol 31
The Hell Screen
Written and Illustrated by Stan Sakai
208 b & w pages
$17.99/$12.16 at Amazon

It'd been so long since I'd checked in on the rabbit ronin that two volumes had come out! Thankfully Amazon had both in stock and both discounted so with a few clicks they were mine.

Stan Sakai has been writing and drawing Usagi for decades at this point, and he has the character and the setting well in hand.

This volume brings us the following:

The River Rising: Usagi is unlike many of the more traditional samurais. As the tale starts, he is knee deep in mud and rock enforcing a man made wall as rain bring torrential floods. As Usagi helps out the peasants who weep about their miserable fate, about the loss of so many of their men during the last war, the farmers suffer further.

Bandits make off with their food stores.

Usagi leaves the villagers to handle the reinforcement of the wall as he hunts down the thieves. Only the bandits aren't bandits. They are homeless rabble who are starving. They are thin, poorly garbed, possess no weapons and no training.

Usagi quickly gets them back to the village where they help the village survive the rains. But after the rains, Usagi himself is nowhere to be found. Which leave the villagers with the question of what to do with the bandits.

It's not quite up to the scene in the Batman movie with the Joker and his two boat plan, but seeing these people understand that the 'bandits' are just regular folk and offer them a place in the village is a touching scene that reminds us that the world isn't necessarily filled with villains as much as people who need help and a place to fit in.

Kyuri: So what happened to Usagi? It's important to note that Usagi's Japan is more fantasy than just the humans being animals. There are things like Kappa there as well. Usagi is no stranger to the Kappa having fought them in previous volumes.

Usagi sees one of the villagers being taken by a Kappa and follows it. Usagi is too late to save the villager but manages to follow the Kappa to its cave system where it escapes in the darkness. Descending further into the cave, Usagi finds a young Kappa and its mother, who swear that they are not allied with the savage or 'hairy' Kappa.

It's interesting that villagers who get seconds of screen time are given names, but the Kappa do not. The author throws a curveball at the audience as Usagi suffers a career injuring wound to his arm as the 'Hairy' Kappa uses its might to bring a stone against Usagi's sword arm and shatter the bone.

But this being Usagi's comic, he's saved from that f ate by the female Kappa who uses the healing arts that the Kappa is known for to save his arm. However, it does leave his sword arm weaker, and she warns him of this.

Kazehime: Stan has introduced many characters through his run of Usagi Yojimbo. Some of them make numerous appearances while others are introduced and are killed to showcase that the world Usagi lives in is not a pleasant one. In this case, the ninja Kazehime falls into the latter category. It's a poignant tale and it's one that Stan has hit on before and will hit on again. The Ronin who outlives those around him.

The Secret of the Hell Screen (Three Parts): This is the meat of this collection. Usagi comes across a temple where his old friend the Inspector Ishida. Like many of his longer tales, especially those involving Inspector Ishida, there are numerous elements at play here. There are several possible suspects, there are rumors of treasure, there are fallen samurai who've become monks, there is the terrible Hell Screen itself, a masterful piece of demonic art that shows the punishment of Emma's Hells. There are political forces at work trying to claim the land for hunting grounds as well as trying to fight against those claims.

In the three parts, Stan throws a few red herrings at the reader including the nature of the wounds suffered by those murdered but in the end, it takes more the simple deception for Inspector Ishida to be thrown.

The Fate of the Elders: Another reminder of what a harsh world Usagi lives in. In his standard method of encountering people on the road, Usagi comes across a son and mother. The mother is going to visit her husband. Only when Usagi gets to the mountain with the mother does he realize that she is going to stay and die there so make room in the village for her grand child. It's another sober moment in the Usagi setting and serves as a reminder that life is fragile.

The Hell Screen is another solid collection of ronin tales. If you've never read a volume before, check out the previews from Dark Horse Comics.