Stan Sakai: a ronin at the court of the American comic

Stan Sakai: a ronin at the court of the American comic

At Lucca Comics 2019 we had the opportunity to interview Stan Sakai, Japanese-American author creator of Usagi Yojimbo, an anthropomorphic rabbit who since 1984 has been living comics adventures set in feudal Japan.

   Stan Sakai, American author of Japanese descent creator of Usagi Yojimbo was a guest during Lucca Comics 2019 of ReNoir Comics, the Italian publisher who publishes in our country the adventures of the ronin rabbit.

You are the father of a “singularity” in the US comic book market: Usagi Yojimbo, an anthropomorphic rabbit, a ronin, who for 35 years has lived mostly black and white adventures published in the most colorful comic book market in the world.
Yes, Usagi first appeared in 1984 in a small comic book called Albedo and it was published by one person. He wanted to do a comic book but he did not have enough contributors so he asked me if I liked to do something and I said I would love to do a short story. So Albedo #1 featured another of my characters the called Nilson Groundthumper. Then, the editor said he made enough money so we could publish a second issue and asked me if I had anything else. So I sent him my first Usagi's story that appeared in Albedo #2 in 1984 and 35 years later I'm still working on Usagi.

Can you tell us the genesis of Miyamoto Usagi, where does the choice of an anthropomorphic rabbit for Usagi come from?
I wanted to do a series inspired by a real samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, but I was just trying in my sketchbook and draw a rabbit with his ears tied up in a top knot like the samurai style. I loved the design, it was very simple, but no one has ever done that before.  So I turned my character into an animal.

Through the stories of Usagi Yojimbo, you tell the world and the Japanese society of the end of the 1500s and early 1600s and you have analyzed and shown to your readers aspects and events often unknown to most. What fascinates you about that period of Japanese history?
I'm third-generations Japanese American and I grew up with the Japanese culture in Hawaii and just down the street from me it was a cinema that showed a samurai movie every weekend and I loved them. So when I wanted to do a comic book series I thought what can I do that has not been really done in the US? Oh,I'll do something about samurai stories that I grew up with. And I'm glad I did it, I am having so much fun with that.

What drives an author to carry on a character for many years, to find the inspiration, passion and creativity to narrate new adventures after thirty-five years?
How can I create new stories for the 35 years? Because I'm always afraid of my editors and when they tell me: you have a deadline next month, I turn them the story by next month!
Actually, for every story that I work on, it seems like it makes me think of another story.

Besides being a writer and a penciler, you are also an appreciated letterer (so much so as to have won an Eisner Award in 1996 in this category). The lettering is often underestimated in the overall analysis of a comic book, while instead it is a fundamental component for its success. What is your thought about it?
I still do hand-lettering, I don't use the computer and I grew up that way. I love the process of making comic books, I love working with a pencil and paper, inking and hand-lettering. For me the process of creation is just as important as the final product. Also, when I was starting, I didn't even have a computer and besides I couldn't afford to hire someone to do the lettering for me. I have worked with Stan Lee for 25 years, lettering the Sunday newspaper's strip and I have worked with Sergio Aragones for 35 years on Groo the wanderer. I have received numerous lettering awards and that still surprises me.

The new IDW series of Usagi is presented in full color and it's not the first time. How did this choice come about for a character who has made black and white a strong identifying sign? What are the possibilities that the use of color gives more, and what maybe is lost instead?
As you said,  Usagi had been colour before when it was published by Mirage Comics in the United States.
When that colored storie appeared, people wanted to see my artwork in black and white because that's the way I draw and I guess people enjoy seeing my line work and the texturing that I do. When I started, black and white comic books were pretty common in the US. Today, there are two black and white comic series: Usagi and The Walking Dead. You choose to have color series in order to gain more readership, in order for people to accept it as a comic book. So that's one of the reasons why I went to IDW in the USA because they said: we publish Usagi in color and all the past stories will be also in color. But my artwork remain pretty much the same: I draw for color as I draw for black and white, the details are still there.

We know that an animated series on the adventures of Usagi Yojimbo by Gaumont Animation is being produced. How did this collaboration come about?
Hopefully! It's in development now by Gaumont that is the world's oldest movie company and it's based in France. They are developing the series with a company that hopefully will pick up the series that will show it on here. But Gaumont is the principal company behind it. We also work with James Wan, who has recently directed Aquaman movie and that is behind the franchise The Conjuring. We are very hopefull. Usagi was optioned a number of time in the past for TV series and movies but something is always happened. So I hope this time it will come on air.

Let's talk about Space Usagi: how and why was that idea born and how different was it from writing that character with respect to the original?
It's very different. I own Usagi and I can do whatever I want with him. One of the thing I ever love to drawing are dinosaurs and I wanted to do a story with Usagi and the dinosaurs but they lived in different ages so I could either do a story with Usagy somehow goes into the past to the dinosaur era. Or I could send him forward, in the space on a dinosaurs' planet and that's what I did.
Another thing I did is a story called Senso in which Usagi fights martians. Like I said, I own Usagi and I can do any type of story I want with him. My contract with all my publishers is always been whatever I send them, they publish it. So they can tell me: we want you to do a love story or an action story, but they don't see the story until I'm completely finished with it and I send it in.

Usagi is the bearer of samurai values such as loyalty and justice. How do you think he would be in today's world?
I don't know! I based Usagi upon what I feel that I really a truly good person would do. It's a character he does try to do what's right even though it might not be what we would think or consider right. He does what he feels, what he thinks he should do. I don't know what Usagi could be in today's world.

Do you believe in the educational function of comics?
I think comic books can be educational as well as entertainment. Of course the main purpose of Usagi is to entertain to try to make a very good story but, as I said, comics can also be used as a teaching tool in schools and just for people to  learn without knowing that they're really learning. Writing Usagi's stories, I sometime learn more of the readers, I learn a lot about my culture, Japanese culture.
Usagi has been used in the classroom from elementary school level up to college level, Usagi has been used as a textbook at the university.

During his editorial life Usagi Yojimbo met the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Do you think that in the future your character can cross paths with those of other characters?
Usagi and the Turtles both started at the same time in 1984, the Turtles published in May and Usagi in November: actually this month is the real 35th anniversary of Usagi. When we first started, there wasn't many black and white comics and because of that we've known each other, we sent letter to each other saying “I love your comicbook and your storytelling” and Kevin (Eastman), Peter (Laird) and I became friends in that way.
We lived in different parts of the USA: I lived in California, Kevin and Peter in Massachusetts. So we met at the San Diego Comic-Con and Peter told me: “Let's make an Usagi toy!” and I said “Sure!”. Basically, that's how it started. The first Usagi toy sold half a million pieces in one year and later when Usagi mets the turtles in a cartoon  in the early 2000s Peter said “Let's make another toy!”. The funny thing: now Kevin Eastman moves to California and he is not far from me  and Usagi still has a connection with the Ninja turtles.
I'd love to do a Usagi/Hellboy story, a Usagi/Groo story. Now that the Ninja turtles met Batman, I'd like to do a Usagi/Batman story!

A curiosity: Has Usagi Yojimbo ever been released in Japan? What reactions did your character arouse in the manga readers?
Usagi was never published in Japan. Actually, there is never been a western comic that has made a big impression on the Japanese manga market. There were some western comic characters that has been translated into Japanese by very small publishers they have never lasted very long.
Usagi is sold in Japan but in the english version. Once, a curator of a manga museum said to me: “You know more about Japanese history than most Japanese historians”. It's like in the US where cowboys and western stories are valued but there is little interest in American history and little is known about the Civil War, for example. I guess it's the same in Japanand it's very sad.

Thanks to ReNoir Comics and Alberto Brambilla who made this interview possible.

Live interview on 10/31/2019

Stan Sakai

Stan Sakai was born in Japan, in Kyoto, in 1953 but grew up in Hawaii and currently lives in California.
He started his career taking care of the lettering of Sergio Aragonés and Mark Evanier comics, working especially on
Groo the Wanderer.
The first story he designed,
The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, appeared in the 1984 Albedo fanzine by Steve Gallacci.
His most famous work – still being published in the USA – is the saga of Usagi Yojimbo, winner of four Ursa Major Awards and five Eisner Awards. Published for the first time in 1984 and set in feudal Japan of the seventeenth century, Usagi Yojimbo tells the story of the ronin Miyamoto Usagi, an anthropomorphic rabbit that crosses the nation offering its protection to those who need it. In 1991 Sakai created a spin-off of the saga called Space Usagi, set in a science fiction future.
Also active in the field of animation, Sakai has received numerous awards, including, in 2002, a prestigious National Cartoonists Society Award in the Comic Books category.

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