Usagi Yojimbo Book 12 TPB: Grasscutter (Dark Horse, vol. 3, #13 – 22; UY #72 – 81, Dark Horse, 1999 edition) – Stan Sakai

3 out of 5

This is the first uncompressed full-on epic from Stan Sakai on Usagi that isn’t a flashback. It is, indeed, a big’n: four prologues across two issues; an interweaving tale that involves almost every major, ongoing character from the book thus far. The TPB edition has four full pages of story notes, with an additional page that’s a bibliography for all the resource materials Stan used to bring the story to life.

It’s undoubtedly an important tale in Usagi lore – something you can tell while reading it, not just in retrospect – and all that research is very much felt, as we learn the origins of the mythic and powerful Grasscutter sword, with the present day bulk of the story tracking the sword’s rediscovery, and bouncing between hands as a symbol of power, one that would play an integral role in the shogun-overthrow conspiracy that’s been kicked around. Stan is certainly up to the task of telling this story: the conspiracy that felt a little ungraspable in prior tales feels very clear, and the sequencing of all the various intersections of Grasscutter never allow us to lose sight of who’s what, and what’s where, and so on. There are exciting battles galore, and some truly awesome and enjoyable beats when different pieces of the story come together.

But: there’s also just a lot, in general, and in a way that doesn’t feel as organic as most Usagi tales do. This seems like a story stuck to an outline – e.g. must fill up 8 issues; must hit beat X in issue Y – and it’s central all-powerful MacGuffin sword never quite feels as all powerful and important as it should to distract us from it being a MacGuffin. As such, Grasscutter is stuck in a perpetual feeling of revving up to a story that’s over when it finally gets cooking (in its final chapters), and features some faux cliffhangers that comes across as action movie cliches (although knowing Stan, I’d fully accept if I was told these were purposeful homages to somesuch film or another). Inazuma’s part feels inconsequential until she’s relevant; Gen is only there because we love Gen. And the sprawling nature of things possibly caused Stan to hold back on art: his linework feels much less dense throughout, and layouts feel functional; there are not as many standout moments where you just admire the art.

As my usual critiques of Usagi go, though, this is all more notable given the usual high quality of the series. Grasscutter is definitely a fun and involving read, and we do love Gen. Jei’s buildup in the issues prior gets a great payoff here, as do other bits and pieces Stan had been working on. The truly epic, multi-issue presentation perhaps just left in a little more room for things than was necessary, making fill-in moments and elements rather clear.