Usagi Yojimbo is monthly comic series, the creation of writer/artist/letterer Stan Sakai, detailing the life of Miyamoto Usagi, an anthropomorphic rabbit. Born near the end of the Sengoku Period, Usagi (which is Japanese for "rabbit") served as a samurai during the time of civil wars, only to be made a ronin (lit. "wave man," a masterless samurai) upon the death of his lord. Now Usagi travels to and fro across Japan as a shogyusha (student warrior), honing his skills and engaging in various adventures.
Usagi Yojimbo is a fairly popular series, and Sakai has won multiple awards for his work, while the introductions to the various collected volumes contain comments from such comics notables as Stan Lee, Jack Davis, Matt Wagner, and Peter Laird. In addition, two Usagi Yojimbo role-playing games have been made. One was produced in 1998 by Gold Rush Games and used a variant of the Fuzion engine, while a second one was produced in 2005 by Sanguine Productions and uses their Ironclaw system. Finally, Usagi has appeared in various versions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, including comics, the animated series (both of them), and the official toy line.
History of the Comic
Originally, Sakai wanted to do a comic series on the life of Miyamoto Musashi, using normal humans, but while working on concept sketches drew up a fierce rabbit samurai with his ears tied in a topknot. Liking the unique visual look, and realizing that using anthropomorphic would allow him to create a much more fantastic setting than he initially had anticipated, Sakai developed his sketch into the character of Miyamoto Usagi, samurai, ronin, and occasional yojimbo (lit. "bodyguard").
Usagi Yojimbo first appeared in 1984, as part of the Albedo Anthropomorphics comic series. Later, it was moved to the anthropomorphic anthology Critters, published by Fantagraphics (who also produced the first seven collected volumes of Usagi Yojimbo). It then moved to Mirage Comics for a short time (roughly a year and a half), before finally finding a permanent home with Dark Horse Comics. As of this writing, there are 19 collected volumes of Usagi Yojimbo material, with number 20 due to arrive in July of 2006. Stan Sakai, has written, drawn, inked, and lettered something like 150+ issues of Usagi Yojimbo and is probably second or third (behind Dave Sim and his 300 issues of Cerebus, and Erik Larson's Savage Dragon) on the list of longest-running comic with a single artist/writer (However, many Japanese mangaka have surpassed these numbers, albeit with a different format of comic book and often with a studio full of assistants).
Usagi Yojimbo takes place at the beginning of the Edo period and the founding of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Although the comic series is full of samurai action and adventure, in truth what we are seeing is the last gasp of a now defunct social class who's services are unneeded (even if many samurai or unaware of and refuse to see the changes around them). In some ways, this gives an aura of sadness to the series, for if Sakai keeps to real history (and he seems to be, as characters have mentioned how the current Shogun is stepping down in favor of his son, which Tokugawa Ieyasu did in 1605, making Tokugawa Hidetada the new Shogun), then we are witnessing the twilight of the samurai class, and Jotaro, the idealistic young samurai-in-training, will find little need or use for his skills when he comes of age.
History of the Tokugawa Era
Also known as the Edo Period, this is an era of Japanese history lasting from 1603 to 1867 (the start of the Meiji restoration). It came about when Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged victorious from the Battle of Sekigahrara (September 15th, 1600), defeating the army of Toyotomi Hideyori. This allowed Ieyasu to claim the title of Shogun ("general") and become the military dictator of Japan. Ieyasu spent the next few years after his military victory consolidating his rule, then abdicated in favor of his son Hidetada in 1605. Afterwards, Ieyasu worked to eradicate the remaining Toyotomi, eventually destroying their last stronghold at Osaka in 1615.
The Tokugawa rule of Japan was absolute. They were nominally vassals to the Emperor, but in truth controlled the Emperor and through him, the court, all the daimyo (lit. "great names"), and the various religious orders. Control was maintained by a feudal hierarchy, with the Tokugawa at the top and three levels of daimyo below them. Desiring to maintain order, as well as weaken the daimyo, the Tokugawa enacted a series of harsh and restrictive laws governing what the population could do (up to and including their choice of clothing), restricted travel, outlawed Christianity, prohibited the building of oceangoing ships, and locked the social classes in place. Armies were disbanded, weapons outlawed, and most daimyo forced to spend every other year at the capital in Edo (eventually Tokyo). When coupled with required contributions for military needs and public works projects, these regulations served to weaken the daimyo financially, making it nearly impossible for them to challenge the Shogun's rule.
If Sakai follows this in his Usagi Yojimbo stories, then in about 8 years or so (universe wise), the Shogon's control will be absolute, and people such as Lord Hikiji will be unable to continue their campaigns of conquest. In fact, things will only get worse for people like Usagi, as travel will be greatly restricted, and there will be many more ronin on the loose with nothing to do. The Geishu, despite being Shogun loyalists, may find themselves in great financial difficulty, what with the cost of traveling to Edo every other year.
This is a basic timeline, showing major events of the Usagi Yojimbo universe. It doesn't cover all events, and is taken from material presented in the The Usagi Yojimbo Role-Playing Game by Gold Rush Games.
|81||Birth of Yamato-Dake (lit. "Brave Hero of Japan").|
|1180-1185||Rivalries between the Taira and the Minamoto (a.k.a. the Gempi War) culminates in the Battle of Dan-no-ura. The Minamoto destroy the Taira, with the child Emperor Antoku-Tenno throwing himself in the sea to avoid capture. The Imperial regalia is tossed into the sea as well, and while most is recovered, the sword Kusanagi no Tsurugi ("Grasscutter") is lost on the sea bed.|
|1329||Swordsmith Koetsu forges the daisho ("paired swords") Yago no Eda ("Willow Branch"), a katana, and Aoyagi ("Little Willow"), a wakizashi. These blades will eventually be given to Usagi Miyamoto.|
|1500-1605||The Sengoku-jidai, or era of great wars. Constant civil war ravages Japan until Tokugawa Ieyasu wins the Battle of Sekigahrara in 1600.|
|1578||Usagi Miyamoto born in Mutsu province, in north Honsu.|
|1593||Usagi becomes a student of Katsuichi.|
|1597||Usagi wins a tournament sponsored by the Dogora fencing school, and is gifted with the swords Yago no Eda and Aoyagi. He is asked to take service with Lord Mifune when ready, and does so in early winter.|
|1598||Usagi becomes one of Lord Mifune's personal bodyguards.|
|1600||War erupts between Lords Hikiji and Mifune.|
|1600, September 5||Battle of Sekigahrara. Tokugawa Ieyasu is now able to proclaim himself Shogun.|
|1600, Late Fall||Battle of Adachigahara, Lord Hikiji defeats Lord Mifune. Usagi gains the scar over his eye in this battle.|
|1601||Death of Lord Geishu Matachi, and the succession of Lord Geishu Noriyuki.|
|1603||The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy story arc.|
|1605||The Grasscutter story arc.|
|1606-1607||Presumed date for events as of Usagi Yojimbo Volume 20.|
The overall technology level of the Usagi Yojimbo universe is no different than that of real world Japan circa 1610. Some touches of Western technology have been seen—such as the teppo (matchlock rifles) seen in The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy. Interestingly, Usagi Yojimbo features fewer guns that do other works set in the era. Seven Samurai, for example, is set circa 1587 or so, just two decades before Usagi Yojimbo, and the presence of guns is a prime plot point. On the other hand, Japan did have some advanced technologies of its own—such as woodblock printing presses and paper making—and had such for some time before they appeared in Europe.
As you might guess, the katana is the weapon of choice. Other weapons appear from time to time—mainly yari (spears) and yumi (bows), with the jitte (truncheon), a common police weapon. Ninja invariably use straight-bladed ninja-to, shuriken, kami (sickles), and similar "ninja" weapons, such as nets, smoke bombs, and flash grenades. There are the occasional odd weapons as well—such as many of Yagi's devices built into his "babycart of death" or the kusari-gama used by one of the members of Shi. A Usagi Yojimbo campaign could feature many more—with characters armed with naginata, tetsuo-bo, and the like.
Due to Japan's mountainous regions, wagons never become popular—so most everyone gets around on foot. Samurai and the noble classes ride horses, while the rich and elite ride in palanquins. River traffic is by small boat, while the ocean traffic is by large ships. All vehicle power is going to be either gravity, muscle, or wind. Self-propelled vehicles are still two centuries in the future.
As mentioned under vehicles, travel is almost always by foot, unless you are of the right social class and can ride a horse. Roads are fairly well-maintained, mainly because they see so much use. Roadside inns are common, although travelers looking to save a little money can stay in local shrines, abandoned temples, and empty farmer's huts as well. Ocean travel is uncommon, as most everything you want to get to is on land, with ferries taking travelers from island to island. With the rise of Tokugaawa to power, travel away from Japan is forbidden, and foreign trade is restricted to just two ports (one for the Chinese and one for the Dutch).
Medical procedures are what you'd expect for early 17th Century Japan. The taboos surrounding corpses make any sort of medical knowledge hard to come by, so much of the medical theory appearing in the West won't appear in Japan for some time. However, by the same token, Japan's strong preference for cleanliness and the like does help with such things as infection and disease. Scenes in Usagi Yojimbo seem to indicate most samurai have more than a passing familiarity with basic first aid, and it's common practice to remove arrow heads (for example) with heated blades (which are also used to sear wounds to prevent infection). Bed rest, broth, and warm, dry clothing is also part of any healing process. While not perfect, it is a step above certain European practices.
Currently, the basis of the Japanese system of wealth is the koku, a unit of measure equal to 180 liters of dry rice (enough to feed one man for one year). The kan is the coin equivalent to the koku, and the rest of Japanese coin money is as follows:
As a side note, in the manga series Blade Of The Immortal, it is stated 30 ryo is enough to live off of for two years or more, while in several times in Usagi Yojimbo, Usagi has been stuck with inn bills of close to 50 ryo!
Magic abounds in the world of Usagi Yojimbo, you just have to know where to look for it. For example, Usagi encounters supernatural creatures constantly, having run into hannya, kappa, nue, yurei, and other such beings. Mahotsukai (sorcerers) have appeared several times, with one central to the plot of the Grasscutter arc. However, little magic in Usagi Yojimbo is obvious or direct. Only Sasuké the Demon Queller seems to use "traditional" point-and-zap magic spells. Most mahotsukai use long rituals, requiring incantations, gestures, foci, and so on in order to enact such powers as Mind Control, Telepathy, Clairsentience, and the like. Magic in Usagi Yojimbo is subtle and rarely obvious. There are no real magic weapons (Jei's spear and the sword Grasscutter aside) but magical items have appeared from time to time (one of the most potent being an enchanted ink set that allowed the artist to bring his paintings to life). Game Masters should keep the presence of magic in the background, hinting at it from time to time if needed, but never presenting it openly. Supernatural monsters, on the other hand, should show up all over
Since Usagi Yojimbo is a world of anthropomorphic animals, one may wonder how more "normal" animals may fit into it. The tokagé (lizards) seen all though Usagi Yojimbo fill in for many animal roles, being a combination of pet, pest, and food source. At the same time, one sees pet dogs (Lord Noriyuki had one for a while), pet cats (one of which turned into a monster), and horses. Other "everyday" animals include fish, turtles, frogs, birds, and an assortment of insects. All of these animals are just that; animals. They can't speak, don't have hands or opposable thumbs, and walk in all fours.
Of course, removing deer, boars, pigs, and (I presume) chickens from the world leaves one with the question of "what do people eat"? Rice is popular, as well as various forms of vegetables (much the same as in period Japan, in fact). Fish is also common, as well as some insects, and as I said before tokagé. As near as I can tell, there's no "predator-prey" relationship between herbivores (such as Usagi, who is a rabbit) and carnivores (such as Jei, who is a wolf). People in the world of Usagi Yojimbo don't eat other people (obakemono are a different matter). On the other hand, herbivores (such as Usagi) do seem to eat some meat, such as fish and the like, while carnivores will eat rice (Usagi once caught a turtle for his dinner, and Katsuichi mentions cooking a pumpkin for dinner).
Humans are a different matter. Humans are very rare in Usagi Yojimbo, and only one has appeared more than once (that being Lord Hikiji). In the early days of Usagi Yojimbo humans appeared in the background from time to time, but as the series has progressed, Stan Sakai has stopped doing that (for reasons unknown—he might just not want to draw people). On the other hand, many magical beings take a human appearance, such as Ocho, the shape-shifter, or the Aki-onna ("Autumn Woman"). The two monkey woodcutters were supposed to be a pair of humans as well, but Sakai drew them up as monkeys, liked the look, and kept them that way. The basic impression is that humans are very rare (nearly as rare as snakes, in fact) and any human appearing in an Usagi Yojimbo story is going to be someone special and/or of a supernatural nature. It is recommended the GM disallow his players from taking human PCs in an Usagi Yojimbo campaign. Conversely, if playing in an Usagi Yojimbo campaign, the presence of a human shouldn't set off danger signals—Usagi doesn't show surprise or fear at meeting a human, and treats them no different than any other person he encounters during his travels.
Death is a very common occurrence in the world of Usagi Yojimbo. Nary a story goes by in which someone, usually a foe of Usagi or one of his friends, doesn't die. In fact, some stories see large numbers of deaths, often in the dozens (or more). Usagi himself has killed innumerable foes, with a body count well into triple digits, while Jei has slaughtered entire processions numbering several score individuals. However, despite the number of deaths, the comic isn't soaked in blood—battles in Usagi Yojimbo are very "clean," with a distinct lack of gore, severed limbs, and even wounded individuals. After a fight people are either alive (and virtually unharmed), or dead. Several things contribute to this—one is the skill of the major, "named" characters, all of who have Deadly Blow and Skill Levels versus Hit Locations (since they manage perfect torso hits with every strike). Another is the fact that most foes are bandits, nearly base-level characters with an 8 in most Characteristics (such as CON and BODY). Finally, there's the aesthetic value, in which Sakai presents an semi-idealized view of the samurai era, in which violence is common place, but he tries to keep it fairly clean, avoiding the image of numerous maimed characters left lying about after a battle (and thus presenting the question of what to do with the survivors).
In a Usagi Yojimbo campaign, the GM needs to be aware of this issue. Not every blow from a PC is going to be a lethal one, and if you use Hit Locations there's always the chance of arm and leg hits. Odds are, any sword fight in a Usagi Yojimbo setting will see numerous wounded, especially if foes break and run after being hit once (or twice). As noted below, under Character Creation, giving PCs things like Deadly Blow and Penalty Skill Levels can help with this issue, making them more like the comic characters, but there is no perfect method, unless you adopt some sort of "mook" rule, where nameless bandits, gangsters, and ronin can be killed with but a single well-delivered sword blow.
The Geishu are a very important and visible clan in the world of Ussagi Yojimbo, at least with regards to Ussagi and his allies. Usasgi first meets the Geishu in Volume 1, when he helps Tomoe Ame protect Lord Geishu Noriyuki from attacks by the Neko Ninja clan. He then meets them off and on again all through the series, developing a close friendship with Tomoe (as well as the beginnings of a romantic relationship between the two), and becoming a valued ally of Lord Noriyuki himself. The Geishu are supporters of the Shogun and loyal to the Tokugawa. This has often put them at odds with the aims of Lord Hikiji, and the two have butted heads from time to time. In an Ussagi Yojimbo campaign, one possible origin for a party of PCs would be to make them retainers to Lord Geishu—this would give them plenty of chances for action and adventure as they deal with the machinations of Hikiji and his ilk.
Little is known about the Hikiji othen than the fact that Lord Hikiji, a.k.a. "the Shadow Lord," desires to be Shogun and seeks to undermine the power of many of his neighbors. Hikiji is served by his councilor, the snake Hebi, as well as the Neko and Komori ninja clans. Initially, Hikiji employed the Neko exclusively, but events in the latter volumes (15 and onwards), has him working more with the Komori instead. Chizu has stated the aims of the Neko and those of Hikiji are no longer the same, although Kagemaru seems to feel otherwise. In an Usagi Yojimbo campaign, it seems likely that any plots to overthrow a local lord, topple a daimyo, or even bring down the Shogun, can be traced to Lord Hikiji (or one of his close allies).
The Mifune were the clan that Usagi joined in service as a samurai. Lord Mifune was the one who sponsored the fencing competition where Usagi won his swords and was highly impressed by Usagi's skill. After accepting service with Mifune, Usagi rose rapidly though the ranks, eventually becoming one of Mifune's personal guards. A strong, and well-respected leader, Mifune fought often with Lord Hikiji, usually emerging victorious. Hikiji finally brought things to an unstoppable head when his ninja managed to murder Mifune's wife and son. In the war that followed the two finally met at the battle of Adachigahara. There, Mifune almost proved victorious, until betrayed by one of his generals. The battle turned against Mifune, and he was killed in an shower of arrows. Usagi then cut Mifune's head off and escaped the battle, burying the head in a nearby forest to keep it from being displayed by Hikiji as a spoil of war. As a final note, is seems the name "Mifune" is a homage to the great Japanese actor, Toshiro Mifune.
The Komori are bats. First seen in the story "Blood Wings", they have appeared repeatedly since, and are rivals of the Neko Ninja for the patronage of Lord Hikiji. As they are humanoid bats, their hands aren't large enough for most weapons, so they use blades attached to the outside edges of their wings, and specialize in swooping Move-By attacks.
Moles, the Mogura specialize in stealth, emphasizing their digging and tunneling skills. They've appeared twice so far, attacking Usagi's village, and collapsing a cliff onto a lord's procession. They don't use weapons, as the claws on the ends of their fingers are lethal enough. However, they are very sensitive to bright light and are easily blinded by large fires and sunlight.
The most commonly encountered ninja clan, the Neko have been around since Volume 1 of Ussagi Yojimbo. Often employed by Lord Hikiji, the Neko were led by Shingen, until his death during The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy story arc. Afterwards, his sister Chizu took over, but she eventually was ousted by Kagemaru. Currently, Kagemaru runs the Neko, and is seeking to discredit the Komori and cement a strong relationship with Lord Hebi and thus Hikiji. Chizu, meanwhile, is on the run and in hiding. As a final note, the Neko clan must be just huge as they have lost what seems like hundreds of members in the course of the twenty-odd Volumes of Usagi Yojimbo, with the worst losses coming during the The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy and Grasscutter I & II story arcs (which only cover a period of 3-5 years when you get down to it).
The location of the fatefull final battle between Lords Hikiji and Mifune. Usagi has visited it several times, although not on purpose and at least once ended up there without realizing where he was. The Plain was inhabited by a goblin for a time, a survivor of the battle who couldn't leave do to actions he performed that day. Usagi killed the goblin.
Geishu Castle is the seat of power for the Geishu clan, who rule over and administrate the Geishu province. It is home to Lord Noriyuki and Ame Tomoé. While secure enough against most threats, it has been infiltrated on several occasions by Neko Ninja (who, it must be admitted, can get into any location, no matter how secure).
The Buddhist temple of Priest Sanshobo is located in a forested region of Geishu Province (or very near it). It is home to roughly 30 monks, all of whom have take Buddhist vows. Used as a base of operations by Usagi and Gen for a while, the temple was closed by Sanshobo during the Grasscutter II story arc after Inazuma killed some thirty-odd priests upon being possessed by the spirit of Jei.
The Tangled Skein
The Tangled Skein is a forest well-known as the home of assorted obakemono (monsters). Travel within it is always hazardous, although giving gifts to the forest's guardian kami (spirits and gods) can usually ensure a (mostly) safe journey. Getting lost in the Tangled Skein usually means you're never going to be seen again and most people wisely avoid the place. Usagi has had to deal with the haunted forest before, encountering hannya (female demons), an evil tanuki-bozu (shape-shifting badger-like dog), a nue, and similar creatures.
The base point level for an Usagi Yojimbo will depend on several factors, not the least of which is the GM's desired power level. At it's core, Usagi Yojimbo is a heroic fantasy setting,using Real World Martial Arts, which means one should be able to get by with 75+75 point characters. But, in truth, it is obviously much more than that, and I feel it should be elevated from the "Real World" category up to Cinematic or even Wuxia-level martial arts. The main characters certainly act like the heroes of many Wuxia and Chambara films, cutting down up to a half-dozen men in a single sword stroke, surviving great wounds, single-handedly defeating hordes of enemies, and so on. Thus, you could be Usagi Yojimbo characters on 100, 125, or even 150 base points. It just depends on how powerful you want the PCs to be, and how powerful their foes will be.
The Usagi Yojimbo characters have been written up on 75-200 base points, depending on how powerful they are (and their finished point totals). Most will be in the 150-200 base points range, as most of the "name" Usagi Yojimbo characters are very competent swordsmen. I have made everyone buy their core weapons, as this I am working off the idea these are Wuxia characters. I also have a given most of the major characters a core set of abilities, such as Combat Luck, Danger Sense, and Deadly Blow. Most everyone of a certain skill level exhibits these abilities, as well as certain core skills—most notable Analyze Fighting Style, Defense Maneuver, and Rapid Attack. While this may look repetitious after a while, it does simulate the way the characters are portrayed in the comic.
This section lists many of the important characters Usagi has encountered in his travels. It doesn't list all of them, as that is beyond the scope of this article (and project). Instead, I have concentrated on those characters GM would find most useful to adapt to their own games, regardless of setting.
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