Thursday, June 07, 2007

Usagi Yojimbo, you know him?

I can almost hear Mat scrambling to his Japanese-to-English dictionary, trying to translate the terms, Usagi Yojimbo. That is if he doesn't already know about the Rabbit Bodyguard... :)

Yup, that's what it means, Usagi means Rabbit and Yojimbo means Bodyguard. And where the heck have I found such a term you may ask? In the comic book series of the same name, written by Stan Sakai. The series has been going on strong for more than 20 years now, starting way back in 1986. It relates the story of a ronin (i.e. masterless) samurai who has become a bodyguard for hire. To help you understand, I'll simply repost the wikipedia entry for Usagi Yojimbo:

Set primarily at the beginning of Edo period Japan (early 17th century), with anthropomorphic animals replacing humans, it features a rabbit ronin, Miyamoto Usagi, who wanders the land on a musha shugyo (warrior's pilgrimage) occasionally selling his services as a bodyguard. The character of Usagi has been inspired by the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi while the tone and inspirations of the stories are heavily influenced by Groo the Wanderer, Lone Wolf and Cub and the films of the acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa.

The books consist of short stories, and occasionally novel-length stories, with underlying larger plotlines which culminate in long extended story lines. The stories include many references to Japanese history and Japanese folklore, and sometimes include mythical creatures. The architecture, clothes, weapons, and other objects are drawn with a faithfulness to the period's style. There are often stories whose purpose is to illustrate various elements of Japanese arts and crafts, such as the fashioning of kites, swords, and pottery. Those efforts have been successful enough for the series to be awarded a Parent's Choice Award for its educational value. The series also follows the standard Japanese naming convention for all featured characters: their surname followed by their given name.

So yeah, Usagi is a rabbit fighting with all sorts of other animals. Bad dudes can be rhinoceroses or wild cats or even moles. It is very cool and a lot of fun.

I'm currently reading book 2 of the collected series and while I loved book 1 a lot, book 2 is really where it picks up steam and explains a lot of stuff about Miyamoto Usagi. It's told as a sort of flashback story by Miyamoto Usagi himself, going back to how he was trained to be the samurai that he is now, and also how he came to be masterless.

The way it's told, you can tell that author Stan Sakai, a third generation Japanese-American who was born in Kyoto Japan but grew up in Hawaii and later in Calofornia, has done his research well. You can read and interview with him here where he tells about how he does his research and how his mom who was born and raised in Japan is his best source of information. Everything as authentic as one would think that feudal (early 17th century) Japan would feel.

Even better, it's a good read for kids too, at least for kids as young as 9 I would think. Sure there is swordfighting but the fights are not real graphic. At the same time, there's plenty of great teachings present in the books. The first example is how his teacher thaught him at first. He asked him to get wood and water and everytime he'd be close to him, he would bonk him in the head with a bambo pole. At first Usagi didn't understand why, until he started getting wary of the bambo pole and started always behind aware of his surrounding cause he would never know where the teacher would be to bonk him in the head. Behind a tree, at the corner of a clearing in the woods, right behind a door, etc. That part had a pretty strong Mr. Miyagi feeling to it where you'd look at how his sensei is teaching him and you'd wonder where he is going with it, then it hits you. Very cool.

There are also great teachings through the words of his wise teacher. Such as these gems: "As a samurai, you must strive for perfecton in body and spirit. Duty and honor are the essence of bushido, the way of the warrior, and should be preserved at the cost of your own life."

Sure, the same would probably not apply today, but remember, we're talking about early 17th century here. It fits...

Then there's more: " A samurai's body is the manifestation of his spirit. To have a strong body, you must have a strong spirit. So your inner self must be cultivated just as much as your outer shell..... The sword is the sould of the samurai and his badge of station. To appear in public without it is a disgrace. But behind the sould is the spirit. When you strike, first strike with your spirit. Look into your adversary's hara into his center being. Know how he will strike, before he, himself does. Often the duel is over before the first blow is even struck. reach out for your spirit. Feel for the hidden dangers lurking..."

And with that, as Usagi was walking under a tree branch loaded with snow, the teacher lightly tapped the branch above his head and before Usagi realized it, he was covered with snow. :)

And then even better, something I too take for my own self: "Every day of our lives is an education. You must strive to learn something new every day."

Sooooo simple, yet very true.

And there's more, this time relating more the what it's about to be a samurai: "The sword is not just a weapon. It's also a mirror. It reflects the soul of the samurai. It is the soul of the samurai. Just as the blade can be tarnished, so can the sould be corroded. Swordsmanship is a discipline and a way of strengthening one's inner self. So keep your soul sharp and clear. Remember... a true samurai does not look for a fight... but tries to avoid it. The best souls are those kept in their scabbards."

So much of that can also apply to us as martial artist. You too should not look for a fight but try to avoid it.

As you can see, these little teachings can even be understood by kiddos of around 9 to 12 years of age. And I'm sure they'll enjoy the samurais splitting flies in two with their swords. :)

I've read that this book is sort of difficult to find. I bought my copy from (especially good for Canadian readers) but I see that also have a few copies in stock.

I'm sure many smaller comic shops might have copies of it lying around, but I have found that indigo and amazon (either .ca or .com) are the cheaper ways to go when buying trade paperbacks of comic books.

Back to twice a week

As for my karate training, I've gone back to my previous twice a week schedule for the Summer. I used to take an extra hour of class on Wednesday nights, but a coworker of mine told me about the 30+ soccer league he played in and that kind of rekindled my old love for the round ball. To the store I went, bought some cleats and shing guards and played my first game yesterday. I'm sure it'll do wonders to my overall fitness to be able to run and exerts myself in the open and in the long run, my karate fitness will only be better.