Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai by Stan Sakai
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of his Usagi Yojimbo character, author/illustrator Stan Sakai, winner of multiple comic book industry awards, has created Yokai, a hardcover graphic novel that tells an original, stand-alone adventure paired with painted watercolor panels.
For the uninitiated, like myself, the Usagi Yojimbo website explains the series "is set in the beginning of Edo period Feudal Japan (early 17th century) with anthropomorphic animals replacing humans, and features a ronin rabbit, Miyamoto Usagi, who wanders the land as a shugyosha (student warrior on a pilgramage) occasionally selling his services as a yojimbo (bodyguard)." The character's name alludes to famous samurai Miyamoto Mosashi, author of The Book of Five Rings, and his long-running series began in 1987, first published by Fantagraphics and now continues from Dark Horse.
The book opens with Usagi informing the reader it is the night of the hazy moon when the yokai, evil creatures of Japanese folklore, walk the Earth. While walking through the forest, a woman begs Usagi to find her kidnapped daughter. He discovers yokai planning what he thinks is their annual parade through the countryside but learns from Sasoke the Demon Queller that they are gathering for their centennial attempt to "subjugate the world of people" and "need a living soul to lead them." Usagi now understands why the young girl was kidnapped and, although his "swords are of little use against monsters," he stands by Sasoke's side. After the tale is told, there's an interview of Sakai along with eight panels showing the different elements used in creating a page.
Yokai is based on the Japanese legend “The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons.” Sakai's characters fit into the story seamlessly and the plot offers a great twist, in part because it was unexpected. The panels are filled with designs of great imagination, which is likely something his readers are accustomed to, but the colorful imagery will surely cause fans to be clamoring for more of it because his watercolors are a delight.
Yokai makes for a perfect introduction into Sakai and Usagi's world. After reading it, I highly recommend it and find myself interested in seeking out Usagi's other adventures, starting from the beginning naturally.