Stan Sakai hasn’t been to Kaua’i since he spent summers here nearly 30 years ago, but the internationally-known cartoonist was at the Lihue Public Library on Tuesday afternoon to talk about his signature character, the fierce yet funny animated bunny, Usagi Yojimbo.
Drawing on his Japanese roots, Sakai created Usagi as a character based on the early-17th century samurai Miyamoto Musashi. Usagi ties his ears in a traditional top-knot, wears big pants and carries a sword wherever he goes, just in case he runs into some baddies – like any 17th century samurai would. Usagi has traveled to space, fought the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and woos the ladies.
Sakai himself is a sansei, or third-generation Japanese-American who traces his family’s roots in Hawai’i back to Hanapepe. He lives in Pasadena, Calif. with his wife Sharon and two children, Hannah, 12, and Matthew, 10. Matthew and Hannah made their first trip to Kaua’i this week, as Stan and Sharon got ready to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary on July 10.
First published as a black and white comic book in 1984, Sakai said they could barely give away the $1.50 independently-published issues of Albedo Anthropomorphics, where Usagi appeared for the first time. About 2,000 copies were originally published, but copies are now very rare, with one selling recently on the eBay.com Web site for over $600.
Sakai has won dozens of comics awards from all over the world for his cartoon stories of the samurai rabbit, and Usagi has appeared in international art shows and comic conventions, not to mention the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV cartoon series.
Usagi Yojimbo is available in a series of graphic novel format books, which are collections of the extended tales that appear in the Usagi Yojimbo comic books. About a dozen are in print. The collections are a good way to start reading and collecting Usagi material.
Usagi comic books are published about 10 times a year, Sakai said. Many of his stories and characters are rooted in the history and pop culture of Japan. A popular villain, Zatuinu, was modeled after the “blind swordsman” character of Zatoichi. He even made a character named Tomoe Ame, after the Japanese rice candy.
Stan Sakai was brought to Hawai’i for an 11-library tour made possible by a grant from the Friends of the Library foundation.
For more information about Stan Sakai and Usagi Yojimbo, check out www.usagiyojimbo.com.