4 out of 5
The Usagi fan in me wants to immediately give this collection of now-classic tales an instant 5, but I have to show some restraint (sometimes, for some reason) and ask: is this the trade that I would give a new reader in order to convince them of the greatness of Stan Sakai and his samurai rabbit? It’s not; and knowing that means I should account for it in some way.
So: being a gathering-up of Usagi’s earliest appearances in shorts in other books (Albedo, Critters) plus some early specials, there is definitely something a bit tonally up and down when reading the ten chapters back to back. Not necessarily because some stories end on puns and some stories are straight drama – jumping back and forth between serious tales and humorous ones is something Sakai has continued to do over the years, and each mode of story telling is pretty great. Rather, it’s because you can tell it’s not immediately clear to the creator what kind of world he’s building – whether it’s a long-form narrative, or a series of gags. Is Usagi a fully fleshed out character with a past, or is he just a badass bunny swordsman? Some very minor attributes are a little off – Usagi was somewhat opportunistic regarding money-paying jobs early on – and Sakai plays with the exact balance between isolated stories and something a bit bigger. The art is also, of course, different: it’s cute, and that Groo influence (Sakai having lettered the book prior to working on Usagi) is there in terms of there being more explicit bloodshed. It’s equal parts fun and thrilling and then occasionally touching; you’re clearly reading something special, but I can’t say if I could’ve seen the potential of the book if it was my first time stepping in to its world.
…Because it wasn’t. And I think that might make the material better, because that first and concise telling of Usagi’s “origin” – when his master dies on the battlefield, making him a ronin – is so brilliantly to the point that it underlines why, in all the years hence, we’ve never had to look back and ask for more; our introductions to Gennosuke and the blind swordpig Zato-Ino are incredibly fun tales that are fully in line with adventures to come, made all the more amazing by realizing how durable Usagi’s world is to have created character mainstays from the very start. Even regarding the art – we can see a finer line start to emerge by the backhalf of the book, and a tendency toward more detailing in scenery; it’s clearly Sakai, and also a very defined and skillful style even back then, but once more benefits from the knowledge of how far the artist has come, as well.
The first Usagi trade is a must read, and if it’s all you have, then for sure, go for it. But I think there’s some better entrypoint down the road (that I’ll maybe identify as I start reading through the whole series), which will enrich this already enjoyable first collection when you return to it at a later point, Usagi-colored glasses all a’glow with love for the series.