Rabbit Wars: A Few Words with Stan Sakai
During my very first visit to WonderCon, I had the opportunity to interview one of the most enduring icons in the comic book industry: Stan Sakai, creator of Usagi Yojimbo. Usagi Yojimbo is set in feudal Japan during the early 17th century and stars a cast of anthropomorphic animals. The main character, Miayamoto Usagi, modeled after the famous samurai Miyamoto Musashi, wanders the country on a pilgrimage of sorts, selling his services whenever the need arises. First published in 1984, Usagi Yojimbo is sold internationally and has spawned a futuristic spin-off, toys and a few cartoon appearances. Sitting at an end table in Artist’s Alley, Stan had a line of eager fans waiting to talk to him, to purchase original artwork and to commission sketches.
The creator of Usagi Yojimbo chats with Brent Sprecher about the famous rabbit, teaming up with the Turtles and why Japan isn’t buying it.
BRENT SPRECHER: This character you’ve created, Usagi Yojimbo, is known throughout the world and has been translated into a dozen different languages. Did you have any idea when you created Usagi that he would live with you for this long?
STAN SAKAI: Well, when I first created him, I didn’t think about the long term. I just thought of a character that I wanted to make a comic book series out of. And, you know, [for Usagi] to be 25 years old is…it’s just amazing to me. As you said, he is translated in many different countries. When I got the first offer of a translation for Croatia—this is, oh, back about 20 years ago—I go, "Don’t you have a war?" And, he said, "Oh, no, no, no. The war is in Bosnia. That’s about 25 miles from where I live."
BS: My Japanese is not very good, so forgive me, but "Yojimbo" is Japanese for bodyguard, right?
SS: Bodyguard, yes.
BS: How authentic do you try to keep the stories to the period the Usagi Yojimbo stories take place in?
SS: There are some anachronisms. I try to do as much research as I can, with the culture of history of Japan, but there are some minor anachronisms. Such as, like, there’s a story that’s based around the Kabuki theater and, historically, the Kabuki was not officially established until about 1640 or so. And Usagi, right now, takes place in the early 1600’s. So, things like that are…
BS: Secondary to the story?
SS: …secondary. The main part is the story.
BS: You were born in Kyoto, Japan?
SS: I was born in Kyoto, but I was raised in Hawaii. My dad was stationed there in the U.S. military after World War II. And, uh, he was born in Hawaii. When I was about two years old, we moved back to Hawaii.
BS: Does Usagi have a large following in Japan?
SS: You know, Usagi is not translated in Japan. However, I was a guest [at a signing in Japan]—this is about ten years ago—and I was surprised that people knew who I was and they had gotten American copies of Usagi. Usagi’s much more popular in Europe, even in Poland and Spain.
BS: Why do you think that is? Is it your method of storytelling?
SS: It’s the method of storytelling. In fact, there are no western comic book series’ that have made any type of significant dent in the Japanese Manga market. I think the Europeans are much more accepting of comics from other areas.
BS: How did Usagi become connected to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
SS: Ha, ha, ha!
BS: Were you friends with Eastman and Laird?
SS: Well, Usagi and the Turtles started out at about the same time. We’re both celebrating our 25th anniversaries this year. When we first started, there weren’t very many black and white comics and so we gravitated toward each other. It was at a San Diego Comic-Con that I was sitting next to Peter Laird and he says, "Do you want a toy?” And, I said, "Sure.” That’s how the cross-over started. And, he still appears in their TV series.
BS: Do you have any involvement in that?
SS: Oh, yeah. I still approve everything, work with them on character designs and, you know, even voices and things.
BS: Was there ever any talk of a Usagi stand-alone cartoon?
SS: Usagi’s been optioned a number of times for film and television. And, he’s under option right now for a TV series and a feature film. But, you know, everything gets optioned, so…don’t believe anything until you actually see it for yourself on the screen.
BS: Will you continue to work on Usagi?
SS: Oh, yeah.
BS: Your enjoyment of the character hasn’t diminished in any way over the years?
SS: Oh, no. I love working on Usagi.
BS: That’s fantastic! Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. I’m a huge fan and can’t wait to see what’s in store for Usagi next!
SS: Thank you! Thank you.
Click HERE for the official Usagi Yojimbo Dojo!
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Usagi Yojimbo, including all prominent characters featured in the stories and the distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of Stan Sakai and Usagi Studios. Usagi Yojimbo is a registered trademark of Stan Sakai. Names, characters, places, and incidents featured in this publication either are the product of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons (living or dead), events, institutions, or locales, without satiric content, is coincidental.
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