By Mark Turetsky
Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #10 is something of an anthology issue. It tells three distinct stories, centering three distinct characters. The first of them, “Return to Adachi Plain,” tells the story of Usagi revisiting the field of battle where he became a ronin and remembering the events of that day. The second story, “The Crossing,” features Jei, Usagi’s nemesis, crossing between islands on a ferry boat. The final story, “The Patience of the Spider” introduces us to a new character, General Ikeda, giving us his life story. On the whole, they seem like separate stories, but they do some important stage-setting for the epic story “Grasscutter,” which begins in issue #13. Still, for the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus exclusively on “Return to Adachi Plain,” as it provides a fascinating lens to view the rest of the series… and comics continuities and retcons in general.
“Return to Adachi Plain” is the fourth of five tellings of Usagi Yojimbo’s origin story. The story was initially told in the very first Usagi Yojimbo story: the 8-page “The Goblin of Adachigahara.” It was originally published in 1984’s Albedo Anthropomorphics #2 as an adaptation of a classic Japanese folktale, which tells the story of a Buddhist priest who seeks shelter for the night in the cottage of an old woman. The old woman turns out to be a goblin who preys on weary travellers.
Sakai adapts this folk tale into a samurai story, replacing the wandering pilgrim with Usagi Yojimbo, a rabbit ronin partially inspired by actor Toshiro Mifune. When Usagi arrives at the cottage, he tells the story of how he came to be a ronin. Usagi had been a general serving under Lord Mifune. During a battle with his rival Lord Hikiji, Lord Mifune was betrayed by another of his generals, Toda, who turned his army against him. Usagi failed to protect Lord Mifune, but did manage to save his head in order to give it an honorable burial. This version only takes up about one and a half pages of an 8-page story, so it is understandably light on detail. One noteworthy quirk of this story comes in the way it’s framed: it is introduced here with straight edges of the panel on the left side giving way to rougher lines which show we entering into a flashback, a technique which Sakai returns to in a later retelling of this story.
The next time Usagi tells this story is in 1987’s “Samurai, Part IX,” first published in vol. 1, #4. It’s part of a much longer retelling of Usagi’s life story, and has much more space for fine detail. As Usagi tells the story to his companion Gen, he focuses on the actions of Gunichi, a fellow general who fights alongside Usagi, but then abandons his post during the battle, leaving Usagi alone to protect their lord. At this point, the major details of the story remain unchanged. The focus on Gunichi isn’t surprising, because just a few issues earlier, Usagi finds Gunichi and kills him in a due.
The third telling of the story happens in 1990, in “Return to Adachigahara Plain.” Curiously, this story was never published in a single issue. It was originally published in the limited hardcover edition of Usagi Yojimbo: Book 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy (it does not appear in the softcover edition, nor in the Saga collection which collects this volume). At 8 pages, it’s Sakai’s first attempt at using watercolor painting to tell a full story (prior to this his watercolor work would only appear on covers), and, while beautiful, does not quite reach the heights that Sakai would later achieve in Yokai, his fully-painted 2009 original graphic novel.
This telling of the story makes one crucial addition: we learn that while escaping with the head of his lord, Usagi crosses paths with Lord Hikiji himself. When Usagi tries to kill Hikiji, Hikiji strikes Usagi above the eye with his sword, breaking his helmet and leaving Usagi’s telltale scar, which he’s born since his first appearance (though it’s easily confused with a cocked eyebrow). One possible explanation for this detail being omitted in prior versions of the story might be that Usagi is ashamed of his failure in one-on-one combat, resulting in his permanent scarring. Let’s not forget, the two prior versions of this story are specifically framed as Usagi telling the story to others, whereas this is the first version of the story told as pure recollection.
Which brings us to the story “Return to Adachi Plain,” told 7 years later in Usagi Yojimbo (vol. 3) #10. It’s more or less a faithful redrawing of “Return to Adachigahara Plain.” There are a few shuffled panels, and some panels appear completely redrawn, while others remain remarkably similar, but it’s more or less the same as “Return to Adachigahara Plain.” One area where this version of the story truly shines is in the work of guest-inker Sergio Aragonés.
As an artist, Aragonés excels at rendering meticulous amounts of fine detail in his work. Readers might be familiar with Aragonés’ work drawing the marginalia in Mad Magazine. Sakai and Aragonés are longtime collaborators, with Sakai having lettered Aragonés’ Groo The Wanderer series from 1982 to the present. This is the only Usagi story not inked by Sakai, and Aragonés’ inking style serves the story beautifully. The warring hordes only hinted at in Sakai’s watercolors in “Return to Adachigahara Plain” give way to intricately detailed armies, with soldiers full of individual character. His rendering of Lord Hikiji’s mask and inlaid armor is especially impressive. He also takes up Sakai’s flashback device of going from straight-edged panel borders in the present tense of the story and moving to rougher edges in the flashback as we saw in “The Goblin of Adachigahara.”
The final telling of the origins story to date is 2019’s 35th anniversary issue, titled simply “Adachi.” This version actually incorporates elements of each of the four previous retellings. Its first half incorporates many elements from “Return to Adachigahara Plain” and “Return to Adachi Plain,” including the framing story of Usagi visiting the battlefield years later. It replaces much of the battle with an unusual 16 panel layout from “Samurai, Part IX.” It also minimizes its focus on the encounter with Lord Hikiji by telling it in only one page (the two previous versions devoted three and a half pages to it). It isn’t until the latter half of the issue that Sakai retells “The Goblin of Adachigahara.”
But far from being a pure synthesis of the four preceding stories, key elements of Usagi’s history are changed. For example, there is no appearance of Gunichi, the General who abandoned the battle when he saw that they would lose. Usagi speaks Gunichi’s dialogue as well as his own. The biggest change in the story is an added scene which is entirely new to this issue. After recalling the battle, Usagi arrives at the tree where he had secretly buried the head of Lord Mifune. He tells him of his loyalty after all these years, of his refusal to bind himself to another lord’s service, but asks to be released from his oath to his fallen lord, explaining that “circumstances and personal relationships have changed.”
This brings up an important question: when does this story take place? It’s perverse to think that Usagi might have fought and killed the goblin of Adachigahara twice, and so a reader might conclude that the entire issue is a flashback, simply a retelling of the first Usagi story. But what, then, are we to make of the scene at the tree? Longtime readers of Usagi will have read about Lord Noriyuki’s offer to bring Usagi into his court, and the “personal relationships” Usagi mentions are almost certainly his romantic interest in Tomoe Ame. But all of those things happened long after he killed the goblin!
There’s no reason to doubt the truthfulness of the broad strokes of his story: he served under Lord Mifune, Mifune was betrayed and killed, Usagi removed his head and buried it. But what about the contradictions? Was Gunichi there that day, and how active was he in protecting Lord Mifune? Did Usagi receive his scar during the battle, even though we see him after the battle in “The Goblin of Adachigahara” with an intact helmet and no scar? Clearly these are different storytelling decisions, made with different priorities over the course of an entire career of cartooning. Usagi didn’t argue with Gunichi or get his scar in “The Goblin of Adachigahara” because Stan Sakai hadn’t thought of those developments while he created what he considered a one-off story for an anthology.
Still, one particular reading of this oft-repeated story can reveal something unexpected. These inconsistencies fit the pattern of human memory. A memory is not a high fidelity recording, nor is it a fading photograph, nor any of the other metaphors we might apply to it. Memories are the result of neurological processes. They change over time through the relentless wear and tear of all biological processes. When one remembers something, that memory is then replaced with the memory of remembering. To use another not-altogether-accurate metaphor, oft-recalled memories become copies of copies, distorted by use.
Usagi frequently dwells often on the events of Adachigahara Plain, the great turning point of his life. It marks the destruction of his personal world, his transition from respected general to homeless wanderer. The psychological pain is so great that the wound he receives that day begins to hurt when he remembers it (though that pain is likely psychogenic in origin). But his lingering on those moments makes his memories of specific details less likely to be completely accurate, and even contradictory after years of recollection.
And so we’re left with many versions of the battle of Adachigahara Plain, each distinct, each never quite agreeing with all of the others, each true in their own way, honestly conveyed with every intention of being accurate and complete. To borrow a notion from the novelist John Barth, the stories of our lives are not our lives. They are our stories. But stories are the way we make sense of our memories. “Return to Adachi Plain” is a story about memory, and in its conversation with the rest of the Usagi Yojimbo canon, teaches us something profound about life, memory and story.
Special thanks to clinical psychologist Gillian Woldorf, PhD, whom I consulted during the writing of this essay. Any mistakes I’ve made with psychological terminology or theory are clearly mine, as she is a mental health professional, and I write about comics.
Usagi Yojimbo #10 “Return to Adachi Plain”
Written and pencilled by Stan Sakai
Inked by Sergio Aragonés’
Mark Turetsky is a voice actor who has narrated award-winning audiobooks, commercials for radio and television, presentations for websites, video games, and cartoons. He lives in Louisiana. He also sometimes does pop culture criticism. You can find his site here and follow him on Twitter here!