5 out of 5
It says something about the consistency of Stan Sakai’s characterization and tone within his Usagi Yojimbo world that stories that were written a decade or more apart can still read back-to-back just fine. It’s also nice how these separate tales from the earlier Color Specials all complement each other, and the ongoing issues also included; not only due to focusing on / including Tomoe, but also in building up Tomoe’s personality, her relationship to Usagi, and then their mature but emotional parting in the last story, well-framed by a traditional tea ceremony.
The three color specials – the first of which was redrawn for this collection, and the second of which has an asterisked nod to a more recent story, which is fun – fill us in on how Tomoe was able to gain her unusual, high-ranking station as a female in a very male-lead-women-marry society (spoiler: she dang earned it, y’all), and then feature some exciting folklore / fantasy tales with Tomoe saving the day. This helps shore up her rep for when we shift back to the ongoing series: a two-parter with assassins sneaking in to Noriyuki’s camp, Kitsune meeting Tomoe, and the aforementioned tea ceremony.
The two-parter has a standout battle sequence, as it’s one of the first, to memory, that’s neither a one-on-one showdown or a group scuffle, but rather several vs. several. The choreography is stunning, and the pacing tense – it’s one of the best battles Stan has illustrated yet. The Kitsune / Tomoe pairing is interesting: Stan takes a couple woeful steps toward the trope of feuding, jealous women, but then ultimately remains true to Tomoe’s maturity and Kitsune’s playfulness, rather playing Usagi as the dope in the middle who doesn’t know how to talk to women very well. And the tea ceremony is a pristine balance of solemnity and instruction, carefully using its restrained dialogue to teach, and also suggest the bond between Usagi and Tomoe.
Tomoe has been a wonderful, well-rounded character throughout UY, and it’s great to have a book that gives her the spotlight with some fantastic tales.