Usagi Yojimbo: Nukekubi (#126, UY #185) – Stan Sakai

5 out of 5

This completely standalone story is another (in a long series of) examples of Stan Sakai’s ability to seamlessly cram a range of tones and a considerably wide breadth of main characters into twentysome pages. We also get a subtle example of his dedication to his craft: a page-long, seemingly static scene of Usagi sleeping – there’s barely any movement in the panels – is redrawn in each panel. While I can’t criticize an artist who might stat the images in in order to keep things moving (or even for an artistic choice), this is line with how from-the-ground-up and organic everything about Usagi feels: the strip is touched by a personal hand on all levels.

Nukekubi starts off on a comedic note, with Usagi desperately trying to make his exit from the old woman’s home in which he’s rested for the night, his “Well, I’m off now…” exit statements constantly ignored by the woman, who chatters on. He finally manages to break free, but it’s a late start to his day, necessitating him to spend the night at a peasant’s hut, who at least seems much quieter than the woman. Except Usagi can’t get to sleep, and his host’s silence is actually because he’s a nukekubi: a floating head spirit, hungry for rabbit-flesh for food. (Oddly called ‘human’ flesh here; I’m not actually sure if that’s come up before.)

An exciting battle takes up the latter half of the book, with the folklore backing giving it a horrific tinge, and Usagi especially challenged by the quick-moving, ravenous spirit.

The logical but well-effected ending is the icing on the cake, rounding off the issue in a wholly satisfying manner that, sure, acts as a bit of a joke, but also falls right in line with Usagi’s grounding sense of morality and honor, solidifying the greatness of the issue.