4 out of 5
Given how long-running Usagi Yojimbo is, and how writer / artist Stan Sakai often works in fairly standalone stories – which The Return could be said to be as well – it’s easy to overlook how involving the overall narrative is in UY; how skilled Sakai has been with executing massive changes and well-earned character evolutions, both in the forefront plotting and in the background. As I reread the series, I’m so pleased at how well it all connects and holds up, and though clearly not rolling out in real time – Usagi is still pretty much the same age he’s ever been – there’s a kind of “experienced” time: all of these adventures, and our years reading them, takes its toll within the Yojimbo-verse.
The Return has some hugely important landmarks involved that extend from that. Usagi has often wandered back by his home town – now under Hikiji rule; seeing his star-crossed love, Mariko and his childhood friend, Kenichi, who’s married to Mariko – and wanders away again, on his purposefully endless pilgrimage, so the fact that he’s “returning” there, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a surprise, although the method by which he ends (carrying over from last issue) up there isn’t intended. However, when he runs in to a fellow Mifune supporter, and learns of his plottings against Hikiji, Usagi’s immediate followup actions are surprising, and then the payoff with how the story’s conclusion has Usagi interacting with Kenichi – as well as some other, spoiler-y characters – is gently, masterfully handled, but is massive. It is, again, Sakai’s genius: the gentle wanderer, prompted to action, finding his way to story beats years in the making that don’t require a ton of context if you’re a new reader, though offer immense payoff if you’re a seasoned one.
Another landmark: this being Tom Luth’s last coloring job on Usagi. Seeing Tom take on an ongoing Usagi series (when he’s been handling covers over black-and-white contents for years) was massively exciting, and it’s admittedly sad to see him go, but this was a fantastic exit, with Luth carefully delineating details against nighttime skies, and carefully tinting blends to differentiate Usagi’s / Kenichi’s outfits from similarly-garbed warriors. Sakai’s linework on the IDW run has been fantastic – a flowing but controlled line; carefully managed line weights – and Luth’s work has been nothing but a huge complement to that.
The only reason I’m knocking The Return down is for a plus / minus criticism of events in the first couple issues: whenever Sakai has a lot of exposition to do, it’s often brief to the point that I lose some of the more intricate details of what’s going on, or it’s a lot of talk compressed into a few panels. In other words, the favor is put more toward keeping thing moving. Here, Stan takes a couple of issues to lay things out, and on the plus side, it’s all very clear, without being boring to read: everyone’s motivations are understood; the criss-crossing loyalties and easy to grasp. However, this almost completely takes place in one location, and it’s all rather statically shot. I can just imagine the mental debate of how to pace this, and ultimately, I think I agree with the decompression, but I also was surprised that we spent so long staring at the same type of framing and characters.
Things pick up with a vengeance soon after this, though, and Stan does break that stretch up with some great flashbacks, all of it leading – as mentioned – to a perfect conclusion.