Stan Sakai Talks Usagi Yojimbo
Exclusive interview by Daniel Robert Epstein, contributing editor
Stan Sakai first created the character of Usagi Yojimbo over twenty years ago. Now Dark Horse, his current publisher, is celebrating the anniversary with the gorgeous hardcover book, The Art Of Usagi Yojimbo. Featuring a bevy of never-before-seen pieces, a long out-of-print primer illustrating how Stan creates each of his Usagi stories, 48 full-color pages of Stan's beautifully painted artwork and much more.
We spoke to Stan about the project, what's new and what's coming up.
UGO: The Art Of Usagi Yojimbo is a really beautiful book.
STAN SAKAI: Dark Horse did a really wonderful job on it. I'm very pleased with it.
UGO: Did you design the book?
STAN: I had input into it, but mainly it was Cary Grazzini who was the designer and editor of the book. I just provided the artwork which was the easy part [laughs].
UGO: Was there much new material put in?
STAN: There are a couple of painted pieces but mainly it was already existing artwork.
UGO: I love the gallery of Usagi interpreted by other artists.
STAN: Much of that is new like the Frank Miller and Andi Watson pieces.
UGO: Geof Darrow's piece really made me laugh.
STAN: Geof is such a neat guy and I love his artwork.
UGO: Have you ever thought of trying to draw Usagi as a real rabbit the way he did?
STAN: No, I never have. Something about it is very disturbing.
UGO: I've been reading your work for a long time. Did Usagi start out the way Cerebus did, as a parody of a genre?
STAN: No, it actually started because I wanted to do a series based on a real samurai named Miyamoto Musashi, and one day I just drew a rabbit with his ears tied in a chonmage or a traditional samurai topknot. I loved the design, so instead of Miyamoto Musashi I just renamed him Miyamoto Usagi because Usagi means rabbit in Japanese. I just continued his adventures as if he was a real person.
UGO: Were rabbits ever a big deal for you?
STAN: Mostly it was just me drawing in my sketchbook, but rabbits play an important part in Japanese folklore. In the West we have the man in the moon, but in Japan the legend is that there is a rabbit -- or rather, a hare -- in the moon. Rabbits are also a part of Japanese folktales and are usually the good guy. It was just natural for Usagi to be a white rabbit.
UGO: Besides the fact that you write, research and draw, how personal is the book for you? Do you ever include anything from your family history?
STAN: I'm third-generation Japanese-American, and I grew up on a lot of the mythology that I put into the book. I was born in Japan because my father was stationed there after World War II. I grew up in Hawaii which has a strong Japanese community so I was raised with a lot of the folklore and traditions. There was a movie theater just down the street from where I lived that showed Japanese samurai movies every Saturday morning.
UGO: So it's mostly for fun?
STAN: It is fun, but I really enjoy the research. I tried to do as much research as I can, within reason, because it still is a fantasy adventure series. I do get things wrong sometimes.
UGO: Yeah, I read about how you got the GO board wrong.
STAN: That was a big one. I got emails from all over the world about that.
Usagi is still written for an audience of one, myself. These are the kinds of stories I would like to read. But I am glad that Usagi has a readership from around the world.
UGO: Do your children like Usagi?
STAN: Hanna is 14 and Matthew is 13. Matthew loves Usagi so he reads them as they come out. Hanna is more into manga.
UGO: Has the rise of manga affected Usagi?
STAN: Not really. Usagi is based on Japanese traditions and mythology, but the storytelling is very western. The big change is that I get invited to a lot of anime/manga conventions now, but as far as readership goes Usagi has stayed pretty steady for the past five or six years.
UGO: Is it easier to do research now?
STAN: Most of the research is done through books, but the Internet is a helpful tool. There is also a Usagi fan club that really helps me. I did a story called Grasscutter and I could not find any visuals of what that item was supposed to look like. So I asked the fan club if they could help. It took them three months to find an authenticated picture of what a grasscutter looked like.
UGO: Do you scan in your artwork to be sent to Dark Horse?
STAN: [laughs] I am very old fashioned. Everything is done with pen and paper and then I FedEx the original artwork in.
UGO: You've worked with Sergio Aragones, but I would imagine that you are not as fast of a penciler as he is.
STAN: I don't think anyone is as fast as Sergio is.
UGO: What is your schedule like?
STAN: I try to do a Usagi story a month, but in reality I do about nine or ten issues a year. That gives me time for traveling and other projects. I've been lettering Groo ever since it started and I letter the Spider-Man newspaper strips for Stan Lee. I enjoy working with Stan because he is such a neat guy. He was the first name I actually associated with comic books.
UGO: It was hard to miss him.
STAN: Yes, one thing about this business is that I got to meet my heroes. I grew up reading Sergio's work in MAD Magazine. I loved the old Marvel Comics in the 60's. Will Eisner, who just passed, wrote the introduction to one of my collections. I knew Jack Kirby and even contemporaries like Jeff Smith and Geof Darrow are friends of mine.
UGO: You also have a quote on the back of The Art Of Usagi Yojimbo from Alejandro Jodorowsky. Have you guys met?
STAN: Yes, a few times. The first time we met was many years ago when he was promoting Santa Sangre. He called me up and said "This is Jodorowsky." Right out of the blue! We got together for dinner. I did not know what to expect and I thought he would be a wild man, but he was a perfect gentleman and very pleasant in the traditional European way. He is just a delightful person.
UGO: Have you had any gallery showings recently?
STAN: Just this past year a convention in Madrid asked for forty of my original artwork pieces to be displayed. I had three showings a few years ago: one in San Francisco, one in Belgium and another in France.
UGO: How popular is Usagi in Japan?
STAN: There has never been an American comic that has made a significant dent in the manga market. They did have things like Spider-Man and X-Men, but it's completely redone for the Japanese market. Usagi is not published in Japan, but I was invited there about five years ago by Osama Tezuka Studios, who does Astro Boy. I was surprised that people even knew who I was.
UGO: After doing the book for twenty years, are the stories coming to you as easily?
STAN: Yes and no. I have a lot of stories lined up. I know what's happening two years from now but figuring out what's going to happen next month is what's hard. I have some big story arcs coming up so the smaller stories to get those arcs is what's hard.
UGO: What are some of the big storylines coming up?
STAN: This one is called "The Treasure of the Mother Mountain." Usagi goes back to the Geishu Clan who he is friendly with and there is a hidden gold mine on the Geishu province that the neighboring lord is mining. That story might be about five issues long.
UGO: How many publishers had you gone through with Usagi until you got to Dark Horse?
STAN: There was Thoughts and Images, Fantagraphics, Mirage and now Dark Horse. Thoughts and Images was Usagi's first publisher and we just did a few issues. When I left Fantagraphics they had pretty much cancelled all their all-ages books and just kept to publishing more mature stuff. So I went to Mirage, who first published Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They went out of business because of some storm damage and the drop in the comic business. Mirage had given me about eight months notice before they stopped publishing. I had worked with Diana Schutz before and Dark Horse had agreed to restart the series. So the month after the last Mirage issue came out the first Dark Horse issue came out.
UGO: After Usagi was on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, was there an opportunity for you to do your own Usagi cartoon?
STAN: Well, first of all, Usagi has been in many episodes of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon and a new toy just came out. We're always getting inquiries as far as doing a Usagi cartoon and even a feature film. But so far nothing has panned out.
UGO: If there was a cartoon series, how involved would you like to be with it?
STAN: I would like to be very much involved. One of the options was for Space Usagi and with that we came very close. Since it is a generation removed from the original I was willing to step back a bit with that. I came up with story ideas and designed a bunch of new characters along with the props and scenery.
UGO: Have you ever consulted on movies or cartoons that use samurais?
STAN: No, I never have.
UGO: Where did the idea for Space Usagi come from?
STAN: I love to draw dinosaurs. I wanted to do a story where Usagi fights dinosaurs and there are two ways I could go about that. One was to put Usagi in a prehistoric era or make Space Usagi a far descendant of Usagi Yojimbo in a futuristic world where he goes to a dinosaur planet and that seemed like the most fun.
UGO: Do you have to do less research for Space Usagi?
STAN: Yes, it's just fun stories. It's still rooted in Japanese tradition but I don't have to do as much research. I did three Space Usagi miniseries, one on dinosaur planet, one on a bug planet and the third one took place on Usagi's home planet.
UGO: Since you work on the Spider-Man comic strip, what have you thought of the Spider-Man movies?
STAN: They're great, fun movies. They are probably the best comic book-to-movies projects to date. Before those, I probably thought the Batman movie was the best.
UGO: What are your favorite DVDs in your collection?
STAN: My favorite movie is still Seven Samurai. I saw it when I was a kid and I loved it. Also I love The Empire Strikes Back.
UGO: What superpower would you like to have?
STAN: I think the ability not to get lost.