By Mark Turetsky
Long-running creator-owned comics often rely on shock value to retain reader interest; a major character dies, or the status quo is suddenly upended, and thus it renews its readers’ enthusiasm. On the other hand, Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo has relied, in its nearly 250 issues (give or take), mainly on two approaches: accessible and entertaining adventure narratives and interesting explorations of feudal Japanese life. Within that framework, there are certain issues which elevate the series and demonstrate a mastery of the comics form, presenting an experience of striking beauty.
Issue #93 of the series’ third volume, Chanoyu, is one such example. On its surface, it seems to be just another issue exploring a facet of traditional Japanese culture (in this case, a tea ceremony), but Sakai uses the issue to depart from many of the formal conventions that he uses in the rest of the series. Under Sakai’s pen, the comics medium begins to echo the form and process of the ceremony, creating a harmonious space wherein its participants have a profound aesthetic experience, within a very limited emotional framework.
As the issue opens, Usagi has spent the last few issues visiting his allies Lord Noriyuki and Noriyuki’s bodyguard Tomoe. Tomoe is one of the only characters in the series who is portrayed as equal in swordsmanship to Usagi, and is a potential romantic interest for him. Their romance, though, is forbidden by their strict honor code due to Usagi’s low status, (he is a ronin, or masterless samurai). In the previous issue, Usagi mentions that he intends to leave the following day, and Tomoe invites him to perform the chanoyu, or tea ceremony (literally, “hot water for tea”).
The issue begins with a shocking silence. Over 3 pages, Usagi arrives in a private garden, sits down, and waits at a gate for Tomoe to arrive. Already, this is an unusual issue, as Sakai usually makes generous use of thought bubbles, filling the reader in on Usagi’s state of mind and catching us up on any information we might need to know. In addition to the absence of thought bubbles, the opening pages contain no dialogue or sound effects, no words of any kind apart from the title. The silence breaks on the penultimate panel of the third page, when Tomoe opens the gate with a “kiiiiiii–!” The two participants exchange a silent bow, and Sakai further subtly builds out the soundscape on the fifth page as Usagi washes his hands and rinses his mouth in a stone basin with “splash”es and “swish”es.
These sound effects emphasize the silence of the previous pages through contrast. But also note that these are fairly quiet sounds. The stillness and quiet in the garden are so complete that these gentle sounds of water are the only notable sounds.
Usagi then removes his swords and shoes and enters the tea house. His otherwise stoic face betrays a slight emotion upon seeing a scroll with kanji script and a vase of flowers in an alcove, and once again, Sakai chooses to keep his reader in the dark: in a normal issue, we’d get a thought bubble explaining why Usagi had a reaction to seeing the scroll and flowers, and we’d also get an editorial note at the bottom of the page cluing us in to what the Japanese script on the scroll says. In this case, it’s clear Sakai had no intention of ever providing those things, as the composition of the panel leaves no room for a thought bubble (since Sakai is the writer, artist and letterer, it’s a rare gift to be able to attribute this degree of intentionality to such decisions).
Possibly the most shocking formal break Sakai makes with the usual “grammar” of the series comes on page 8, where we get our first caption box and the first words other than sound effects in the issue. On the whole, Sakai uses captions very sparingly, only to convey a transition at the beginning of a page (such as “later” or “meanwhile, in the village”). Here, the caption comes in the middle of the page, on the fourth panel, and it’s an instruction: “Enter with the water container.” Not only is it an instruction, it’s given in the imperative voice. The imperative voice implies a sterility, a formal coldness that will inform the remainder of the issue. It also implies that our characters really have little choice as to what they get to do or not do in the ceremony and in this issue. They can’t declare their undying love for each other. The closest they can come is in discussing the flavor of their tea or the symbolism of a vase of flowers.
When Tomoe offers Usagi a plate of sweets on the following page (a part of the ritual), it is done with a degree of solemnity, with Usagi setting out a cloth and carefully choosing a confection. A page later, Usagi finally remarks on the flowers (which symbolize longevity and purity), which elicits a blush from Tomoe, and Usagi clues the (non-Japanese) reader in by reading what is written on the scroll, “Welcome,” which gets a smile out of Tomoe. These small, casual observations bring out the first emotional responses from Tomoe, hinting at the time and effort she’s put into the scroll alcove (another element of the ceremony), and at the emotional investment she has in Usagi.
We are in a confined space with Usagi and Tomoe. Not only is the action in the bulk of the issue restricted to a small tea house, Sakai provides very few panels which include both of our characters. Additionally, he repeatedly frames them on the page facing away from each other, even though they are looking at each other in the space. This is especially poignant when Tomoe remarks to Usagi that “even between good friends, there are things that are hidden.” When Usagi responds, “That is the nature of friendship, but more is revealed over time,” Tomoe’s face loses its stoic composure for a moment with a simple “Yes,” before regaining it and moving on with the ceremony.
The imperative captions resume as Tomoe prepares the tea, and the layouts become more and more rigid. Sakai generally uses a 3-tier layout structure in the series, usually with six panels or so per page (2-2-2). Here, over the three pages of tea preparation, the layout becomes more and more symmetrical and regimented, moving to a full nine panel grid, before breaking the pattern on the bottom tier of page 14, with two irregular panels once Tomoe has finished her tea preparation.
Up until this point, all of the instructions have been for Tomoe to follow, but once Usagi is presented with the tea, the captions shift over to instructions for Usagi to follow, as our focus shifts subjects. We see that, as a guest, Usagi has certain expectations and responsibilities in the ceremony, and in the rest of his interactions with Tomoe. Unlike Tomoe, however, Usagi never betrays his emotions. He gives some tasting notes on the tea, noting its bitterness, in contrast to the sweetness of the confections he ate at the beginning of the ceremony. The joy and ease with which Tomoe and Usagi have interacted over the previous 10 or so issues has been replaced entirely with a rigid formality. Despite this formality, this is the most intimate and meaningful interaction that Usagi and Tomoe can share within the bounds of propriety.
When Usagi finally puts down the bowl of tea, it’s on a full tier panel, an entire third of the page. The panel almost gives the illusion that Usagi and Tomoe are close to touching, until you realize that Sakai has given the two figures a highly contrasting line weight, which places Tomoe on a completely different plane of perspective. The composition here implies an emotional proximity, contrasted with an uncrossable social distance.
We leave the tea house on page 18, with a panel of a bound stone anchoring the center of the page, and profiles of Usagi and Tomoe beneath it, once again facing each other in the world of the comic, but facing in opposite directions on the page. The bound stone, as Sakai informs us in his notes on the issue, denotes that a path is forbidden to take.
Then, the spell is broken, the intrusive captions are gone, the ceremony is done, and we once again see our two characters occupying the same space on a panel, looking at each other but still separated by a trick of perspective. They exchange formal pleasantries and Usagi begins to stand. The more usual 6 panel layout returns as Usagi leaves the tea house and gathers his things. We cut back to the tea house, where Tomoe remains bowed, alone, and her face conveys an anguished longing.
Usagi, on the other hand, leaves the private garden where the issue began, and walks through a crowded street scene. The street is full of action, with drunken samurai carousing, a woman chasing a thief with a giant cleaver, children and lizards running, but the silence of the beginning of the issue has somehow returned. We focus on Usagi, with no dialogue or sound effects. He is lost in thought, but as with the rest of the issue, we get no thought bubbles and his face remains impassive.
Finally, we see a landscape repeated in four of the five panels of the final page. The panels are wide, each the entire width of the page, emphasizing the space that Usagi is traversing. The penultimate panel has Usagi finally looking back. He says “Goodbye, Tomoe” and disappears off the page.
It is unusual that a comic series can surprise after more than 150 issues (with the various renumberings, this issue’s legacy numbering is #159). What’s even more unusual is that, far from breaking with the status quo, Sakai uses this issue to reinforce it, and instead he breaks with the formal conventions of his comic. There are no sword fights, no lighthearted adventure, only two lonely souls who meet, share an “impeccable” experience together, and say goodbye, tacitly agreeing that they will not act on their feelings, that they will continue as they are, despite the pain it causes them. Chanoyu shows Sakai at the height of his craft; a deceptively simple story told by a master of the form.
By Stan Sakai