Dark Horse and Comic Industry Icons Release Previews of Four Gathered on Christmas Eve

Usagi Yojimbo is back. Written, illustrated, and lettered by creator Stan Sakai, with colors by Emi Fujii, Space Usagi: Death and Honor #1 combines the classic, swashbuckling samurai epics of the Usagi Yojimbo series and blasts it off into the stratosphere, re-imagining the adventures of the Rabbit Ronin as a classic science fiction space opera.

Miyamoto Usagi is the general of the Shirohoshi space sleet, undyingly loyal to the head of the clan, Lord Hideaki, and his son, Prince Kiyoshi. War is knocking at the gates as the independent Shirohoshi clan locks horns with the formidable Kajitori Empire. Their only hope of survival is to marry Prince Kiyoshi to the princess of the ally Mino clan. After a successful battle against the Kajitori, Usagi is promoted to being Kiyoshi’s teacher, protector, and guide. But when war finds its way into the inside, Usagi finds he might not be completely ready for his new, sacred task.

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Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo series combined tropes and aesthetics that most would not think would work — cute, anthropomorphic animals drawn in a cute yet grainy and vintage art style, engaged in some of the most intense political intrigue and high-fantasy drama that would put Lord of the Rings to shame, set against a backdrop of 15th and 16th century Japan. Much of the franchise’s appeal is that Sakai makes no secret of his influences or references. He makes clear in the aesthetics, dialogue, and narrative his love of Japanese cinema, specifically the works of director Akira Kurasawa. Despite its surface-level sweetness, Usagi’s stories are dark, conflict-laden period dramas, tales of revenge, remorse, betrayal, and honor.

In Space Usagi: Death and Honor #1, Sakai channels the effects of Star Wars — an appropriate choice given the similar Medieval inspiration with the Jedi knights. Lasers and katanas co-exist in the world. Cybernetic armor closely resembles that of the Edo and Warring States period samurai. Characters wear traditional Japanese clothing even as they traverse aircraft hangars, spaceship cockpits, and high-tech backdrops. It’s an odd mix and can be jarring at times — but it works for most of this issue. Sakai carefully balances the cyberpunk and space opera elements with the natural world. Many of the most beautiful pages in this issue are of rural, pastoral areas, harkening back to the franchise’s humbler roots.

Artistically, Sakai has not lost his sense of the world he’s created for his franchise. His style combines storybook sweetness, an indie edge, and his distinctive, traditional Japanese art inspiration. Some of the most beautiful pages evoke Edo Period woodblock prints, pottery, and paintings, especially with the environments. His art is uniquely eloquent, conveying the depth of emotion and movement with the simplest of expressions, gestures, figures, and lines. Colorist Emi Fujii’s palette and use of texture — mimicking faded, aged paper, raw pulp, paint, charcoal, and watercolor — add to this issue’s vintage and tactile appeal. Her choice of palette — consisting of muted tones, brick red, silver, forest green, midnight blue, soft wisteria, and teal — look as though they were pulled straight from a 17th-century Japanese painting, softening what would otherwise be the sterile sci-fi elements.

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The plot is classic Usagi Yojimbo, even with the genre-blending trappings, spaceships, and laser guns — it’s a story of royal drama, backstabbing, double-crossing, thwarted love, duty, and honor — and how it may conflict with what actually may be right. Lord Hideaki, the stern yet noble head of the Shirohoshi clan, and his innocent, ingenue-like son, the aptly named Prince Kiyoshi, are standouts; their father-son relationship is both hindered by their staunch royal duties and elevated by a shared sense of loyalty, vulnerability, sympathy, and remorse — the latter emotion being the subtle indication of Lord Hideaki’s conflicted and gentle persona beneath his kingly and stoical veneer. Hideaki’s paternal softness is also evident in his relationship with Usagi, making the events of the issue all the more harrowing.

If there is one main flaw with Space Usagi: Death and Honor #1, it is its brevity. Reading this issue, it seems Sakai was hurrying to get to the action. There is some buildup, a few flashes of decent foreshadowing, and enough establishing moments for readers to become invested in each of the characters. However, many scenes come across as too brief. Many major actions are glossed over, changing abruptly from one panel to another without context. This isn’t so much a problem with the layout as it is the visual pacing and blocking. Sakai seems to skip some important sequences, making what should be a landmark, pivotal narrative sequences into mere blips. This is most evident in the opening and closing fight scenes — the worst possible place to skimp over important action. Similar visual cues and details are also missing or downplayed, making some sequences appear shallower than they really are. As a result, Space Usagi: Death and Honor #1 reads as too short and quick, as elusive and fleeting as its rabbit star.

Although it suffers from inconsistent pacing and some visual shortcuts, Space Usagi: Death and Honor #1 is the classic Usagi Yojimbo chapter fans have long waited for. It delivers fabulous drama, depth, and introspection, as is usual for this series, while offering some creative, visual eye candy through its creative Ancient Japan-meets-Star Wars aesthetic. While sci-fi and re-imaginings are nothing new in the comic landscape, Stan Sakai’s take on both is well done.

Usagi in Space Usagi- Death and Honor

Space Usagi: Death and Honor

As a general of the Shirohoshi Clan’s space fleet, it’s Usagi’s responsibility to keep the lord and his family safe. Now tasked with the education and protection of the lord’s heir, Usagi must remain vigilant at all times to protect the heir from a murderous plot and an unexpected betrayal.

Stan Sakai

Emi Fujii

Dark Horse Comics

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