Much like a manga creator who keeps working on the same body of work for decades, Stan Sakai is a master of his own work. The stories featured in this volume invoke all kinds of feelings: hope, despair, inspiration, sorrow, and many others. Some stories end on a bittersweet note, whereas others end on a touching high note. USAGI YOJIMBO is an allegory for life and the sacrifices that people make. It's another fantastic volume in the ronin rabbit's adventures.
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Another collection of everyone’s favorite rabbit samurai is upon us with USAGI YOJIMBO vol. 31: THE HELL SCREEN TPB, a long-running series written and illustrated by renowned creator Stan Sakai and published by Dark Horse Comics. This book collects issues #152-#158 which includes “The River Rising,” “Kazehime,” and “The Fate of the Elders,” in addition to the titular “The Secret of the Hell Screen.” No prior knowledge of the series is necessary in order to enjoy this volume. Almost all the stories tie into each other but a few are self-contained.

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If you are someone who grew up in the 90s like me, you might recognize USAGI YOJIMBO because he appeared in the 90s animated run of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. That being said, if you are familiar with the manga LONE WOLF AND CUB or virtually any Japanese samurai film, you will pretty much feel right at home. For anyone that is new to the series, USAGI YOJIMBO follows a ronin named Miyamoto Usagi throughout feudal Japan. Some of those adventures are poignant while others contain epic battles and even a mystery.

Image courtesy of Dark Horse Comics

Seven Stories, One Rainy Collection

Sakai lets rain play a huge role throughout all seven stories in USAGI YOJIMBO vol. 31: THE HELL SCREEN. From the very first story of the collection, “The River Rising,” the rain hits hard and fast. It’s oppressive, it destroys things, and it nourishes. Out of all the stories, “The Fate of the Elders” was the one that left me misty eyed. Another story, “The Hell Screen,” after which this volume takes its title, is a three-part mystery with a satisfying conclusion. Much like life at times, some stories in this collection have a bittersweet ending left open to interpretation. Readers will have many questions after the comic’s conclusion.

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Sakai is a master of Japanese mythology, understanding the source material incredibly well. By using Japanese words, paying careful attention to period-era clothing and weaponry, as well as religion, Sakai creates a world that feels lived in.

Image courtesy of Dark Horse Comics

A Mishmash of Manga and American Cartoon Style Comics

Sakai’s art strongly reminds me of Peter Laird’s artwork in TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES with its stark use of black and white. His art style has cartoon style expressions while characters are rendered with a strong sense of weight. One can feel the way the rain beats against Usagi’s straw cape and hat in “Kazehime” and “The Secret of the Hell Screen Part One” as he moves against the blowing wind. One can also feel each crushing blow in the battles that ensue in “Kyuri” and “Fate of the Elders.”

Characters in the foreground are drawn with thick black outlines to focus attention on them whereas the background is drawn with thin lines. Unfortunately, sometimes the foreground and background still blend into each other, making it hard to distinguish the action.

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Sakai’s panel layouts also deserve high praise. This is particularly notable because this masterful use of large panels is difficult to find in contemporary comics. Sakai will occasionally present panels moment to moment, reminiscent of manga style comics. Sakai will slowly reveal the character while focusing on trees swaying against the rain, like in the opening of “The Secret of the Hell Screen Part One.”

The lettering style reminds me of the SCOTT PILGRIM series with the way onomatopoeia is laid out and titles are presented. It’s clear that years of refining his art style have molded Sakai into a master storyteller.

Image courtesy of Dark Horse Comics

A Badass Samurai with a Heart of Gold

Usagi is a stoic character who is surprisingly complex and nuanced despite his rough exterior. He lives by the samurai ethos and can easily intimidate anyone who tries to pick a fight with him. He is also proving to be a capable and wise leader as we see in “The River Rising.” In “Kyuri” and “Kazehime” we see Usagi’s softer side as a sympathetic character who is considerate of others. Furthermore, Usagi’s monologues often fall in line with what the reader is thinking from observations about the rain to thoughts in moments where he gets injured.

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One of my favorite characters from this collection is Kazehime who is on a secret mission for the Komori (bat-like ninjas) clan. She is an ill-fated character who Usagi nurses back to health. Unfortunately, USAGI YOJIMBO vol . 31: THE HELL SCREEN might put off some newcomers because there are a few characters from previous issues that get referenced.

Image courtesy of Dark Horse Comics

Closing thoughts on USAGI YOJIMBO vol . 31: THE HELL SCREEN TPB

USAGI YOJIMBO vol . 31: THE HELL SCREEN TPB is a compelling and surprisingly mature collection. Fans of the series will love it for its recurring characters, and newcomers will find themselves hooked. You might want to bring a few tissues for the last story of this volume. If anyone has an itch for a great comic to read this summer, USAGI vol. 31: THE HELL SCREEN TPB will scratch it. It’s available now in comic book stores everywhere.

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