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An archive for interviews published both in print and on-line.

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Postby Steve Hubbell » Sat Nov 11, 2017 0:38 +0000


We speak with Stan Sakai, honored guest of the past Salón del Cómic de Granada. The author of the legendary comic series Usagi Yojimbo , starring anthropomorphic animals in feudal Japan, tells us about the past, present and future of the series, focusing on the dependence and strength of the character.

Stan Sakai (Kyoto, 1953) is one of the most important comic authors in history. Winner of the Eisner prize -more specifically, of five Eisner awards-, he is mainly known for being the creator of Usagi Yojimbo , a character who has been drawing continuously for more than thirty years. The samurai rabbit inspired by Musashi Miyamoto has captivated fans from all over the world thanks to its world of anthropomorphic animals and cultural references to the Japanese world. Japanese folklore and historical references that, from the United States, Sakai first perpetrated through Fantagraphics and currently from Dark Horse .

In Spain, Planeta Cómic publishes the entire work. From his time at Fantagraphics the publisher has edited two integrals that cover the first stage of the artist. In total, almost a thousand pages that serve to remember the beginnings of Usagi and know the evolution of the character not only narratively, but also in terms of the drawing of Sakai. Now, Comic Planet launches Usagi Yojimbo Saga , the chronological continuation of the series in the form of integrals -the Dark Horse stage, in this case-.

Stan Sakai visited our country during the past Granada Comic Fair , where he attended as guest of honor. It was the second occasion in which he visited the event, which this year celebrated its twenty-second edition. And we took advantage of the situation, of course, to talk with him about his long career and the role of Usagi Yojimbo in it.

MANU GARRIDO: Traditionally, animals have been used to reproduce human behavior, but in Usagi Yojimbo animals have ended up taking over. How do you manage this distribution of powers?

STAN SAKAI: Animals have always been used to tell stories through fables. In them the animals had certain characteristics that the stories used to teach a lesson. Even in Japan, some of the first illustrations on parchments included animals doing human activities. That is, there is a long tradition.

With Usagi , I believe that the use of animals makes it more universal, everyone can feel identified; more than if it were carried out by humans, who would then identify themselves totally as Japanese. When you use animals you do not think they are Japanese, you think about Japanese culture.

Still, the characters are animals with behaviors with which I can identify. For example, Katsuichi, Usagi's teacher, is a lion. I wanted to show how noble and strong he is. In the case of Usagi, in many cultures, including Japan, the rabbit is the good guy. And there you can identify with Usagi. In modern times you have examples like Bugs Bunny or Roger Rabbit: he is always the main character. With them, as with Usagi, you can quickly identify yourself.

MANU GARRIDO: Is it easier to deal with animals than with humans? Not in a sense of ease of drawing, but of expression of feelings.

STAN SAKAI: Yes, totally. People feel identified with animals and, for the most part, the main characters are very specific animals: Usagi is a rabbit, Gen a rhinoceros, Katsuichi a lion. On the other hand, if we talk about secondary characters, most are very generic, you do not know what kind of animals they are. It's like Carl Barks . When he made Uncle Scrooge (Uncle Scrooge) he made the protagonists very differentiated, while the secondary characters were unimportant dogs and animals. The same with Usagi. The main characters can be differentiated easily, while the secondary characters do not know what kind of animals they are.

MANU GARRIDO: Are animals more likely to imitate humans or humans to adopt animal behaviors?

STAN SAKAI: In the case of Usagi, they are always animals trying to behave like humans. The funny thing is that there are some humans in Usagi's world, like Lord Hikiji, who is a person. But they are just secondary characters. The case of Lord Hikiji, the great villain of history, is very specific: I only showed it once in history. But people remember, because it's strange. It makes you wonder " what is this human doing here? "

MANU GARRIDO: Of course, the usual thing is to find situations in reverse: an animal that stands out in a story about humans. It's weird the other way around.

STAN SAKAI: Yes, it's weird. I can imagine one or very few humans in Usagi's world, in a world of anthropomorphic animals. The other way is strange. As in Cerebus . It gets weird when you have a single funny animal in a world of only humans. I always thought it was very weird. With Usagi having a couple of humans around, it's just the surprise factor, saying, " hey, what's going on? "

The whole story with Usagi started with another of my characters, Nilson Ground Thumper. That story revolved around the idea of why there are anthropomorphic animals, intelligent animals. Usagi was going to be part of that story: the character would have start, development and end. However, when I started doing Usagi, I wanted to continue developing their adventures. I decided that I wanted to develop the story according to the idea of why there are animals and their relationship with humans.

MANU GARRIDO: Usagi has been published for more than thirty years. Considering the weight of the story, is it difficult to reinvent the character?

STAN SAKAI: No, it's not. For me it is something natural. In most characters and franchises have different creative teams that are changing with new artists and writers. The style, the way of narrating and the direction of the characters is always changing, especially when it comes to a new screenwriter.

In Usagi I have been the creator during all these years. I have a projection of the story, I know what direction I want to take and what I want to do with the characters, so it has remained consistent. It has always been my vision of history, and I think that is what people want to read. They know that, although they will read stories of individual characters, they are part of something bigger: the story of a life that goes in the same direction, not in several that the creative teams are changing.

MANU GARRIDO: In that sense, not because of your roots but because of the way you work, do you feel more identified with the Japanese vision of the creator of comics? That is, a creator who performs a long work from beginning to end.

STAN SAKAI: In that sense, I follow the Japanese model, but Usagi is a very Western comic. It has aspects of Japan and its culture, but the type of drawing and the way of narrating is very Western, especially in the narrative. I grew up in Hawaii i , so I've read so much Osamu Tezuka as American comics, but I'm more influenced by American comics. However, if we talk about movies, I prefer Japanese. I love the classic cinema of samurai, the chanbara .

MANU GARRIDO: Going back to what you were saying, do you think it is necessary to be an independent author to explore both the characters on an individual level?

STAN SAKAI: Yes. As I said, I am the owner of Usagi, I can do whatever I want with him. Make secondary stories with each of my characters: tell how Gen the rhinoceros became what he is today, talk about the beginnings of Kitsune and what made him become a thief. My plans are to continue doing that with more characters: make them more aware and sensitive, like a real person.

MANU GARRIDO: Since you talk about Kitsune, Usagi Yojimbo is a comic book with a strong presence of strong female characters, which has not been a very common practice in American comics so far, with the reinvention of Marvel and DC. In your case, women have had prominence from the beginning.

STAN SAKAI: Yes, most of my female characters tend to be very strong, like Tomoe or Kitsune the thief, who is very independent and knows how to manipulate people. On one occasion I specifically created a very dependent character and I had to do it very consciously. She is in love with Usagi for a while and my initial idea was that there would be a parallel story that I have never talked about that led to reveal, at some point, that she was not what she appeared to be. In the stories she showed herself as a weak and dependent woman, but in the end she was going to reveal that she was, in fact, a professional murderer. It was going to be very different [ laughs ]. But in the end I decided not to choose that path, although it was one of the exits to the story I had in my head.

MANU GARRIDO: Is the figure of a strong woman still perceived as something rare in the comic?

STAN SAKAI: I do not know if it's weird, but the female characters tend to be subjugated, placed in secondary positions with respect to the main character. In the case of Usagi, each of my female characters can stand out on their own.

MANU GARRIDO: With respect to these characters, what are your influences?

STAN SAKAI: Most are invented characters that I was introducing in the story. However, there is some case like that of Tomoe, which is inspired by a twelfth-century samurai , Tomoe Gozen , recognized for her beauty and skill with the sword and spear. The story tells how Tomoe was the wife of a famous general who became a shogun , the military dictator of Japan. His cousin, who also wanted to be a shogun, took his army in search of Tomoe's husband, ending his life. The story tells that she ended up becoming a nun. I thought it was a fascinating story to take some character and to be inspired by it. Most of my characters come from my imagination, but in this case it was something I really wanted to do. So I investigated about it. There was not much written about her, and what I found was somewhat diffuse. Still, I wanted to use it as a model for my own character.

MANU GARRIDO: Let's talk about the documentation process in stories like Senso or Space Usagi . How is it to combine science fiction together with the historical and cultural part, and that the result be consistent?

STAN SAKAI: Senso and Space Usagi came up simply because of their stories [ laughs ]. There was very little documentation involved in the process. With Space Usagi I wanted to make a story in which Usagi mixed with dinosaurs and fought against them; I found it very cool. There were two ways to do it: one was to put Usagi in prehistory and the other to place it in the future, in a world where there are dinosaurs, which I found much more interesting.

In the case of Senso , it was a silly idea I had about what would happen if the Martians invaded the earth in Usagi's world. The premise is to tell what would happen if the Martians appeared two or three centuries before the Victorian era, and landed in feudal Japan. And I loved the idea of imagining the Japanese army fighting against the giant tripods, with the Martians burning cities. Japanese castles, ninjas against aliens ... I liked the idea, and it was in my head for six or seven years until I did it.

I research for many of my stories, if they need it. Grasscutter has behind about five years of research, starting with the creation of Japanese tools. Grasscutter is the name of a famous sword that was delivered to Japan by the gods and it took me three months to simply find out what it was like. It is in a temple in Japan that nobody is allowed to visit, so I asked people on the internet, trying to find some image of the sword. Most artists who had drawn it in the past had done it like a katana, but I knew it was more like a kind of Chinese sword that has two edges. So it took me three months to learn what the real sword was like.

I try to investigate as much as I can. When there is a lot of information I like to put it at the end, as a kind of bibliography. Books that I have read, websites that I have consulted. A lot of people like to know, so I expanded the information at the end of my works.

MANU GARRIDO: After Space Usagi and Senso , what is the next crazy story you would like to do?

STAN SAKAI: [ Laughs] Well, I would like to continue with Usagi, because it amuses me. To put it in some way, each story inspires another two, so there are many stories to tell. Right now I am introducing foreigners into Usagi's world, interacting with them. And at some point, later, I would like to make a story about the first Christians who came to Japan. At first they were very well received, but then they were persecuted and even crucified. There is a famous incident called the Shimabara Rebellion in which the Christians were organized by a sixteen-year-old Japanese prophet. The Japanese government killed them all, massacred them. I would like to make a story about it. Usagi is just beginning to know Christianity; foreign religions, foreign thoughts. At that time it was a death sentence for any Japanese to have contact with foreigners. It's something I'm doing very slowly: that's where I'd like to get with Usagi.

MANU GARRIDO: In other words, take Usagi to the real world, to our history?

STAN SAKAI: I like to do both. At first I did not know if Usagi should be introduced into the historical framework or if it should remain as a fantasy story, because I love Japanese folklore. On the other hand, I also wanted the historical component. And well, as Usagi is mine, I can do both. So Usagi has a little bit of everything: historical arcs, mystery, terror, romance. I can do whatever I want [ laughs ]. And that's great given my position because I own the character. All of my contracts with all my editors have been based on the fact that, whatever they deliver, they publish it. They do not see my stories until I have finished them completely and I send them to them.

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