Review: 'Usagi Yojimbo: The Hidden' #1 Offers a Thrilling Starting Point

Usagi Yojimbo is the most consistently well-crafted monthly comic of the past couple of decades. Stan Sakai seems incapable of delivering anything less than masterful cartooning. That can make addressing a new issue of the series difficult after more than 200 which utilized the same style, characters, and motifs. Yet Sakai remains full of surprises as revealed in the pages of Usagi Yojimbo: The Hidden #1. It is an issue that perfectly captures what makes this series click and offers an excellent starting point for readers intimidated by the series' long history.

The issue functions in two parts, each of which encompasses a key element of the series. The first half is an extended chase sequence, emphasizing thrills and action, while the second is a historical mystery, providing an education on feudal Japan in the most enjoyable manner possible. What's most gripping about the first half is the manner in which Sakai slowly introduces information. Every page adds a new piece to the puzzle as characters, motives, and actions build into a complex start for this planned seven-part mystery. It's a tour de force in comics storytelling.

Usagi Yojimbo The Hidden #1 Review - Chase
(Photo: Dark Horse Comics)

The very first page reads like the start of a great Western film, opening on a natural vista that is soon interrupted by galloping hooves driven hard in the face of some unseen enemy. As new characters and elements are added to the scene, Sakai carefully defines each of them. Everyone from a lowly guard to a random thief has their role to play in this drama, and there's never the slightest bit of confusion as to what that is. That sense of pacing makes the twists and thrills of the entire chase palpable. Even as the source of what is occurring remains unclear, the conflict encourages you to race to each new revelation. The exaggerated fear and tension in the eyes of those fleeing is all a reader needs to know in order to anticipate what is coming next.

When the chase resolves, the story makes a very dramatic break to introduce its titular hero. Again, Sakai allows a silent opening page to craft the new mood and give readers a chance to breathe. Here the emphasis is on the historical explorations of the ronin-rabbit and the ongoing series of mysteries he is engaged in with Inspector Ishida. Sakai is emphasizing a very specific moment in Japanese history in which the Christian religion was outlawed under penalty of death. It was the subject of Martin Scorsese's recently overlooked masterpiece Silence, and Sakai manages to distill information the director covered over hours into only a handful of pages.

Usagi Yojimbo The Hidden #1 Review - Christianity
(Photo: Dark Horse Comics)

Providing a historical narrative that seeks to educate the reader accurately on a topic is no easy feat. It's easy to perceive when a story is speaking down or pushing an informative agenda over a dramatic one. This is where Sakai's decades of research and practice come into play. The heart of the story remains a double murder mystery that requires an understanding of history, and so readers are placed in the same position as Usagi—seeking out knowledge to understand the incredible excitement from the start of the comic. Knowledge of the contentious relationship between the shogunate and Christianity is valuable context in pursuing a mystery. Sakai also provides an essay stacked with historical facts that don't immediately pertain to the story in the backmatter, allowing readers to decide just how deep they want to dig.

Usagi Yojimbo: The Hidden is being presented as a jumping-on point for new readers. While it's hard to find many Usagi Yojimbo issues that don't offer a great start, it's difficult to find many that do it better than this one. Sakai is not only introducing a complex new mystery, but revealing what has made his work appealing across decades. As a master cartoonist he delivers a chase better than any comic so far in 2018, then just as capably makes an exploration of 16th Century Japanese politics fascinating. It's another month and another reminder of what an excellent comic Usagi Yojimbo is. If you're not already reading it, then now is absolutely the time to start.

Published by Dark Horse Comics

On March 21, 2018

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Created by Stan Sakai

Cover Colors by Tom Luth