Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The adventure of a lifetime started nearly 40 years ago for Stan Sakai with the creation of his comic book series “Usagi Yojimbo.” Entertaining audiences worldwide, this ongoing epic saga features anthropomorphic animals living in early 17th-century Japan. The main character is a rabbit named Miyamoto Usagi, a rōnin (masterless samurai) on a musha shugyō (warrior’s pilgrimage), who defends the oppressed while roaming the country. Usagi first appeared in the comic book “Albedo Anthropomorphics #2” in 1984. Well received by the fans, he landed his own series in July 1987. The numerous “Usagi Yojimbo” stories have been collected in about 50 graphic novels and translated into 18 languages.
A Whole New World
Stan’s father, Akio Sakai, a Nisei born in Hawai‘i, met his wife, Teruko, while stationed in Japan. Born in Kyōto, Stan was 2 years old when his family moved back to Hawai‘i. At age 5, he remembers the first comic book he bought was Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” for a quarter (not a typo!) at Star Market. For Stan, it is a fond memory as it marked an important point in his life: the start of his love of comics, which taught him to read. Stan not only read American comics, but he also enjoyed manga, especially Osamu Tezuka’s works such as “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion.”
Growing up in Kapahulu, Stan would often go to the theater down the street to watch chanbara (sword fighting) movies. His interest in films such as “Yojimbo,” “Zatoichi,” “Kozure Ōkami” and most importantly “Miyamoto Musashi” would later play a big role in his career as a comic book creator. “My style of storytelling is definitely influenced more by cinema than comic books,” said Stan. “From a cinematic perspective, I try to vary the camera angles, the pacing of the story and the composition of the pages.”
Something Great is Coming
After graduating from the University of Hawai‘i with a degree in fine arts, Stan moved to California to further his studies at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He began his career by lettering comic books, then wrote and illustrated a comic series called “The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy.”
How did he come up with his brilliant idea for “Usagi Yojimbo”? Stan said he had originally planned to draw humans as the main characters for a new story, but instead, he sketched a rabbit with his ears tied up in a chonmage (topknot). Pleased with the unique look of his drawing, Miyamoto Usagi was born on that momentous day! Remember those chanbara films that Stan watched? He based Usagi partially on Miyamoto Musashi, the master swordsman renowned for his style of sword fighting and for writing “The Book of Five Rings.”
Talent and Hard Work = Success
As the sole creator and owner of “Usagi Yojimbo,” Stan is in an enviable position. Unlike most creators, he has complete creative control and can do whatever he wants with his series. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including 12 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards (the most prestigious of the American comic book awards), a Parents’ Choice Award, an Inkpot Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Field of Cartooning, two Harvey Awards (one for Best Cartoonist) and a Cultural Ambassador Award from the Japanese American National Museum. In 2020, he received a well-deserved honor: induction into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame. Previous inductees, to name a few, are Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel (1992, co-creators of Superman), Charles M. Schulz (1997, creator of “Peanuts”) and Hayao Miyazaki (2014, co-founder of Studio Ghibli).
In the following Q&A session, Stan gives insights and reflects on his illustrious career.
LK: What perfect timing to interview you in the Year of the Rabbit! Have you been busy with exciting projects?
SS: Yes, my new publishing company, Dogu Publishing, has partnered with Dark Horse Comics, which will allow us to not only publish the regular Usagi books, but other things as well. On my website (stansakai.com), we’ve also been featuring Year of the Rabbit merchandise with new items available every month.
The first of my new five-part Usagi series, titled “Usagi Yojimbo: Ice and Snow #1” from Dogu Publishing/Dark Horse Comics, debuts on Wednesday, Sept. 27. The Other Realms store in Honolulu will have a variant cover that I drew, which they will sell exclusively. It will be a real collector’s item.
On Wednesday, Oct. 11, a new one-shot comic called “Space Usagi: Yokai Hunter” will be available in comic shops. Then in November, the first issue of the Space Usagi miniseries, a previously black and white series that has been newly colored by my stepdaughter Emi Fujii, will be released. In December, the five-part Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Usagi crossover story, “WhereWhen,” will be released as a graphic novel.
LK: That’s awesome! Can you tell us about “Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles”?
SS: Sure, the Usagi Chronicles is an animated action-comedy series that premiered last year for two seasons on Netflix worldwide. Geared toward a much younger audience (ages 6-12), the show follows teenage Usagi Yuichi, descendent of Miyamoto Usagi, on his epic quest to become a true samurai in the city of Neo Edo in the 26th century. He and his warrior friends battle yōkai (supernatural monsters), ninjas and evil aliens to protect the city.
I was very much involved in each step of the production, to the extent that I had to approve broccoli designs! The level of detail that is needed for animation is mind-boggling, but I thoroughly appreciated the experience.
LK: Regarding your stories, you are known to do a lot of research on Japanese history and culture. What are some of the topics that you’ve researched?
SS: As a Sansei, it’s interesting to learn things about Japan that I didn’t know before and it’s great to be able to share my heritage with the readers. I’ve done stories featuring tea ceremony, pottery making, kite making, seaweed farming, bunraku (traditional puppet theater) and more. Aspects of Japanese folklore, in particular yōkai such as kappa (mythical water-dwelling creatures) and tengu (supernatural goblins), are also featured in the stories. One of my favorite stories, “Grasscutter,” took five years to research!
LK: I love the Chibi Usagi character! He’s so kawaii, especially the plushie on your website.
SS: Thanks! My wife Julie, who is an artist, and I are the co-creators of Chibi Usagi. In 2021, we co-authored “Chibi Usagi: Attack of the Heebie Chibis,” which is an original graphic novel for younger readers. Julie drew the illustrations in her chibi (small, cute versions of characters) art style. It was a family effort as my stepchildren Daniel and Emi were also involved in this collaboration. In 2022, “Attack of the Heebie Chibis” won the Eisner Award for Best Publication for Early Readers. We look forward to doing more Chibi stories in the future.
LK: How many years have you been attending Comic-Con and what has your experience been like?
SS: 2023 was my 44th San Diego Comic-Con. My first Con, held at the El Cortez Hotel, had an attendance of about 6,000. Now it is capped at 140,000 and takes up the entirety of the massive San Diego Convention Center.
I enjoy attending because I get to interact with the readers, some of whom have become very good friends. That is probably the most fulfilling part of my work as, like most freelance cartoonists, I usually work isolated in the studio.
LK: What are some of your favorite Comic-Con memories?
SS: I have met some of my heroes at the convention such as Osamu Tezuka. He is referred to as the God of Manga in Japan because of how influential he was. I went to Japan in 1999 as a guest of Tezuka Productions and met many mangaka (comic book artists) there. Also, the Eisner Awards are presented at the San Diego Comic-Con. I received a Best Serialized Story award for “Grasscutter” from Will Eisner who had written the introduction to the collection, so I was able to thank him publicly for his support. He later, very graciously, autographed the plaque for me. There are so many great memories of the Con.
LK: That’s so cool. Can you share five fun facts about you?
SS: Let’s see … my favorite local food is laulau. I love musicals. “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof” are my favorites. I have a copy of “Fantastic Four #2” that I bought for 10 cents. George Takei (Sulu in “Star Trek”) wrote an introduction for one of my comic books. And ever since “The Hidden” (2018), I have been drawing a pineapple hidden in every issue, so please look for it! Here’s a bonus: Many years ago, Stan Lee, the co-creator of Spider-Man, had called me out of the blue to ask if I would letter the Spider-Man Sunday newspaper strips. Would anyone say no? LOL. So for 25 years, that’s what I did.
Create What Sets Your Heart on Fire and It Will Illuminate the Path Ahead
Standing the test of time, “Usagi Yojimbo” holds the distinction of being one of the longest-running independent comic book series. With the 40th anniversary coming up in 2024, I asked Stan if in his wildest dreams, did he ever imagine that his series would be so successful? He immediately said, “No, definitely not. I’ve been blessed. After all these years, I still have fun drawing Usagi and thinking of stories. I’m happy that the readers love the characters as much as I do.” On the phone with Stan, I clearly heard the joy in his voice as he talked about his work.
Along with his impressive achievements, what sets Stan apart is that he is a master craftsman. He still does everything by hand because he loves the process of creating comics in the traditional way. He appreciates the feel of working with pens, inks and textured paper, tools that aren’t used in digital art. However, not only is he an accomplished artist, Stan is also a gifted storyteller. “I’ve been told that I’m a writer who draws, rather than the other way around,” he said with a laugh.
Not resting on past successes, Stan is busy crafting thrilling new tales that will surely delight the fans of his beloved Usagi Universe.
Lois’s interest in Japan started with J-pop and martial arts shows. Her decision to study Japanese led to teaching English in Hamamatsu. She enjoys singing and doing creative projects.