3 out of 5
Some absolutely stunning battle sequences and excellent standalone stories, this collection is nonetheless hindered by – at least to me – a surprisingly confusing (for Stan’s generally precise writing style) core plot of double-crossing and conspiracy, and by its sequencing, which pushes a lot of short tales together in a way that makes the flow bumpy. Coupled with a clunkily told (though entertaining) flashback tale – The Obakeneko of the Geishu Clan – it’s the first Usagi trade in a long run that isn’t a breeze to read, front to back.
A couple of threads run through this – a samurai who challenges Usagi’s teacher; Jei – and then there’s the conspiracy I’d mentioned, which has several lords plotting to overthrow the shogun. But it’s all twisted through Lord Hikiji’s / Hebi’s attempts at controlling that information, even though they’re also part of the plot… I’m sure I’m dumb, but I had to read through the exposition on this several times, and it still wasn’t very clear, making me fall back on “Hikiji and Hebi are bad guys.” Sprinkled across this are some amazing sequences – Jei continues to be revitalized as this frightening spectre of forceful evil; Hebi, who I’ve found to be a sort of visually funny villain thus far, gets a chance to “shine” and be quite scary – and then some isolated tales involving the usual interweaving of folklore. The Color Special which ends the trade is especially noteworthy for being quite epic – blockbuster action – contained within a single issue. However, whether it was originally printed like this in issue form or resequenced for the trade, we end up getting longer stories with a whole bunch of short, 11-page tales inbetween, and it makes the pacing odd. Reading this monthly, it probably would have been fine, but collected together it’s actually not ideal.