Usagi Yojimbo, v. 24: Return of the Black Soul
Collects: Usagi Yojimbo #103-9 (2007-8)
Released: July 2010 (Dark Horse)
Format: 192 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 9781595824721
What is this?: When bounty hunters intensify their hunt for Inazuma, Usagi and his friends hunt for her to put an end to the demon Jei.
The culprit: Stan Sakai
I have, in the past, gone on about how good Usagi Yojimbo is. If you’re already on board with that or are tired of hearing me praise a series starring a samurai rabbit in a 17th century Japan that is populated by anthropomorphic animals, then you can skip the rest of this review, because that’s what I’m going to say about Usagi Yojimbo, v. 24: Return of the Black Soul.
In Black Soul, writer / artist Stan Sakai brings the long-running subplot of Inazuma and Jei, the demon who has possessed her and who is the series’ most terrifying adversary, to a climax. Bounty hunters have been pursuing Inazuma since before her possession because she killed the son of a gangster; when the gangster increases the reward, bounty hunters increase their efforts but find more than they bargain for.
Of course, Usagi and his friends (bounty hunters Gen and Stray Dog and the priest Sanshobo) are in just the right place to find Inazuma, as is a mysterious man named Isamu. They must compete with the bounty hunters to find Inazuma, even though they have different motivations for finding the swordswoman.
Black Soul is the demon Jei’s story, and it shows why the demon is so frightening. He corrupts all he touches, tainting the lives of even those who survive his attacks. He can survive death, returning to possess one of those he has injured in a prior attack. As a swordsman, Jei is almost without peer, destroying all those who he finds “evil” — which tends to be anyone who has reached adulthood. And with him always is his companion: a young, cheerful girl named Keiko. That’s really the creepiest thing about Jei: no matter what a bloodbath he creates around him, Keiko remains unremittingly cheerful about her “uncle” (or “aunt” in Black Circle, since Inazuma is a woman).
This volume is nicely focused. Usually there are other stories simmering in the background of a volume of Usagi Yojimbo, but Jei’s story is one of the most important in the entire series — probably the most important of all of Usagi’s adversaries — so Sakai wisely refrains from inserting any subplots or even setting up the next arc. Black Soul is entirely about Jei, and Sakai includes Jei’s origins in a flashback story originally presented in #103. It is a fittingly tragic story, in which good intentions and the desire to save an innocent’s life leads to horrible, horrible consequences.
The art is Sakai’s usual top-notch stuff, so consistent you could be forgiven for thinking some sort of mechanical replication was present, and so subtle, so full of emotion that such a thought is simultaneously impossible. Sakai has to draw a lot of people in emotional torment in Black Soul, and he does a good job of it — Inazuma, at one point, looks as if she is almost coming apart from her internal battle. The volume is also full of the swordfighting that Sakai is so good at drawing, and Jei does give him a chance to show one or two neat maneuvers that normally wouldn’t be possible.
Although Black Soul has the biggest emotional wallop in Usagi Yojimbo in some time — and given the last few volumes, that’s a pretty big statement — there are a few flaws … I’m tempted to call them nitpicks, but they’re more of plotting concerns. Usagi and Sanshobo separately and coincidentally run into Isamu, Gen, and Stray Dog despite knowing nothing of Inazuma or Jei’s presence in the area — in fact, until this volume, neither knew Jei survived Usagi Yojimbo, v. 12: Grasscutter. It’s also awfully convenient that a powerful demon possessing one of the fastest samurai in Usagi’s world gets injured the way she does, but such things happen, I suppose. Neither is a story breaker, and there are more contrived plot points in other comics all the time, but neither was easy to swallow.
Still: when it comes to v. 24 of most series, I would normally recommend the book to those who have already read at least up to v. 20. In this case, I would say even if you haven’t read Usagi Yojimbo before, you should pick this up (perhaps reading Usagi Yojimbo, v. 6: Circles and Grasscutter to give you a little background first). Black Soul is outstanding work from one of the great comic book series.
Rating: (4.5 of 5)