Set primarily at the beginning of Edo period of Japan (early 17th century), with anthropomorphic animals replacing humans, it features a rabbit ronin, Miyamoto Usagi, who is partially based on the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Usagi wanders the land on a musha shugyo (warrior's pilgrimage) occasionally selling his services as a bodyguard. Usagi Yojimbo is heavily influenced by Japanese cinema and has included references to the work of Akira Kurosawa (the title of the series is derived from Kurosawa's 1960 film Yojimbo) and to icons of popular Japanese cinema such as Lone Wolf and Cub, Zatoichi, and Godzilla. The series is also influenced somewhat by Groo the Wanderer by Sergio Aragonés (Sakai is the letterer for that series), but the overall tone of Usagi Yojimbo is typically less comedic.
The books consist of short stories, and occasionally novel-length stories, with underlying larger plot-lines which culminate in long extended story lines. The stories include many references to Japanese history and Japanese folklore, and sometimes include mythical creatures. The architecture, clothes, weapons, and other objects are drawn with a faithfulness to the period's style. There are often stories whose purpose is to illustrate various elements of Japanese arts and crafts, such as the fashioning of kites, swords, and pottery. Those efforts have been successful enough for the series to be awarded a Parents' Choice Award in 1990 for its educational value through Stan's "skillful weaving of facts and legends into his work." The series also follows the standard traditional Japanese naming convention for all featured characters: their family names followed by their given names. Usagi was named the thirty-first greatest comic book character by Empire Magazine.
Originally, Usagi and other characters in the series were going to be human in stories explicitly modeled after the life of Miyamoto Musashi. However when Sakai was idly doodling, he drew rabbit ears tied in a topknot on his proposed hero and was inspired by the distinctive image it gave him. Usagi was first conceived as a supporting character in The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, a brief series that predates Usagi Yojimbo. Sakai quickly expanded on the idea and his story world quickly took on an anthropomorphized cartoonish nature which created a fantasy setting he decided suited his dramatic needs well with a unique look he thought could attract readers.
Usagi first appeared in the anthology Albedo Anthropomorphics in 1983, and later in the Fantagraphics Books anthropomorphic anthology Critters, before appearing in his own series in 1987. The Usagi Yojimbo series has been published by three different companies. The first publisher was Fantagraphics (volume one; 38 regular issues, plus one Summer Special and three Color Specials). The second was Mirage Comics (volume two; 16 issues). The third is Dark Horse Comics, at which Usagi Yojimbo is still being published (as volume three, over 100 issues), and who also released a fourth Color Special. A fourth publisher, Radio Comix, has published two issues of The Art of Usagi Yojimbo which contained a selection of unpublished drawings, convention sketches, and other miscellaneous Usagi Yojimbo artwork. The first issue also included an original Usagi Yojimbo short story. In 2004, Dark Horse Comics published a Twentieth Anniversary hardcover volume also entitled The Art of Usagi Yojimbo.
Because Usagi Yojimbo is a creator-owned comic and Stan Sakai has complete and sole ownership of the character, Miyamoto Usagi has been able to appear in occasional short stories published by companies other than the one currently publishing his series. Usagi has appeared in stories published by Cartoon Books, Oni Press, Sky Dog Press, Wizard Press, and most recently in the benefit book Drawing the Line, the proceeds of which went to Princess Margaret Hospital and The Hospital for Sick Children, both in Toronto, for cancer research.
Stan Sakai has also been able to experiment with formats for Usagi Yojimbo, such as when he published the color story "Green Persimmon" originally as twelve separate 2-page chapters serialized in Diamond Comic Distributor's monthly catalog "Previews." He has also serialized two short stories in a comic strip format in the tabloid size promotional publication Dark Horse Extra. With Usagi Yojimbo stories ranging in length from single page "gag" stories to multi-issue "epic" adventures, Stan Sakai has proven himself a master of sequential story-telling.
Usagi has also appeared several times in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the comic, both of the animated series, and the toy line), and the Turtles have appeared in Usagi Yojimbo as well. In his guest appearances, he is closest to Leonardo, both sharing the same ideals and code of ethics.
In addition, Sakai created a limited spin off series called Space Usagi that featured characters similar to those in the original series, including a descendant of Miyamoto Usagi, but set in a futuristic setting that also emulated Feudal Japan in political and stylistic ways. Three mini-series of three issues each and two short stories featuring the characters were produced. Sakai has tentative plans to produce a fourth Space Usagi miniseries, but nothing has been announced yet. There was also an abortive project for a Space Usagi animated series before the failure of Bucky O'Hare and the Toad Wars discouraged further development. Space Usagi was one of the action figures produced under the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles line.
There was also a computer game called Samurai Warrior: The Battles of Usagi Yojimbo released for the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC platforms in 1988, by the now defunct computer game label Firebird.
The series has been awarded 3 Eisner awards.
- 1996 Eisner Award for "Best Letterer" (Groo and Usagi Yojimbo)
- 1996 Eisner Award for "Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition" (Usagi Yojimbo)
- 1999 Eisner Award for "Best Serialized Story" (Usagi Yojimbo "Grasscutter")
And around 20 nominations.
Several of the characters in Usagi's world are inspired by or make reference to samurai movies. Usagi's former lord is named Mifune, which is a nod to Toshirō Mifune, an actor who starred in countless classic Samurai films. Gen, the rhino bounty hunter, was inspired by the characters made famous by Toshirō Mifune in the samurai films Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Zato-Ino, the Blind Swordspig, is a reference and tribute to the film character of Zatoichi. The story arc "Lone Goat and Kid" features an assassin who wanders with his son in a babycart, referring to the film/manga series, Lone Wolf and Cub. Most significantly, the main character's name, Miyamoto Usagi, is a play on "Miyamoto Musashi", Japan's most famous historical samurai and the author of The Book of Five Rings, and "Usagi" the Japanese language word for "rabbit" (Also, the story notes for one volume cite Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy, which features Miyamoto Musashi as a protagonist, as an influence). His friend Tomoe Ame, a feline samurai, is inspired by the female samurai Tomoe Gozen. The storyline "The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy" includes elements reminiscent of the classic Akira Kurosawa films The Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress, particularly the way that Usagi collects various allies to raid an evil lord's fortress.
While Usagi Yojimbo draws most heavily upon samurai and chanbara films, it has also been influenced by Japanese films from other genres. For example, the three-part story "Sumi-E" (included in Vol. 18. Travels with Jotaro) features monsters resembling Godzilla (identified as "Zylla," who was first introduced in Vol. 2. Samurai), Gamera, Ghidorah, Mothra, and Daimajin.
Books 1-7 are published by Fantagraphics Books; Books 8+ are published by Dark Horse Comics. Hardcover versions of the Dark Horse collections often include exclusive extras; some of this material was included in the 2004 artbook, also published by Dark Horse.
- Space Usagi
(Collects the Space Usagi 3-issue miniseries "Warrior," "Death & Honor," and "White Star Rising;" and stories from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 47 and Usagi Color Special 3)
- The Art of Usagi Yojimbo: 20th Anniversary Edition, published 2004.
- Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai
(The first Usagi Yojimbo original graphic novel. A fully painted self-contained story released to celebrate Usagi Yojimbo's 25th anniversary.)
- Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition
(Collects Usagi Yojimbo books 1 to 7, will be published by Fantagraphics in October 2010)
- Solomon, Charles (2005-11-25). "Don't get between the rabbit and his sword". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-11-28.
- "25 YEARS OF "USAGI YOJIMBO"". Comic Book Resources. Retrieved 2010-11-28.
- "Stan Sakai Talks Usagi Yojimbo". UGO.com Comics. Retrieved 2010-11-28.
- "25 Years of the Rabbit Ronin: Stan Sakai on Usagi". Newsarama. Retrieved 2010-11-28.
- Solomon, Charles (1993-03-08). "Take one part Toshiro Mifune. Then add adventure and humor to get artist Stan Sakai's 'Usagi Yojimbo.'". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-11-28.
- "BCC: SPOTLIGHT ON STAN SAKAI". Comic Book Resources. Retrieved 2010-11-25.
- "WC: 25 YEARS OF USAGI YOJIMBO". Comic Book Resources. Retrieved 2010-11-28.
- Dobashi, Mas (1997-02-24). "Stan Sakai Interview". usagiyojimbo.com (originally Tozai Times, Vol. 13 Issue 148. Retrieved 2008-01-21.
- Empire | The 50 Greatest Comic Book Characters
- Usagi Yojimbo Dojo - FAQ: Questions about Usagi Yojimbo
- Usagi Yojimbo Dojo - FAQ: Questions about Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy
- Coming Up in Usagi Yojimbo
- Usagi Yojimbo Dojo - FAQ: Questions about Space Usagi
- HC : hard cover
- TPB : trade paperback
- The official Usagi Yojimbo website
- Usagi Yojimbo at Dark Horse Comics
- Usagi Yojimbo Role-Playing Game (Gold Rush Games version)
- Usagi Yojimbo Role-Playing Game (Sanguine Productions version
- Comics Buyer's Guide Fan Awards
- Usagi Yojimbo Dojo Wiki
- Official website for the french edition (collection in progress)