Born May 25, 1953 (Kyoto, Japan)
American author, illustrator
"Working on an independent comic gives me total control of all aspects of the creation."
Stan Sakai created the award-winning American comic series Usagi Yojimbo, about an anthropomorphic (humanlike) rabbit samurai who hires himself out as a bodyguard during a difficult, dangerous period in seventeenth-century Japan. Based on the life of a real Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, Usagi Yojimbo has garnered Sakai a great deal of respect in the comics industry for his in-depth research and dedication to the craft. Over the more than two decades since beginning his series, Sakai has won praise from international organizations for his accurate depictions of Japanese history and for the quality of his work, yet the series is not translated into Japanese, nor is it written in the style of Japanese manga. Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo is a uniquely Western-style comic. Indeed, Sakai's career is firmly rooted in American comics; he is the award-winning inker for Sergio Aragonés's Groo the Wander series, the longest-running humorous comic series in history.
Blends Japanese and American cultures
Sakai's blending of Western sensibilities with Japanese culture is easily traced to his upbringing. Stan Sakai was born in Kyoto, Japan on May 23, 1953. His father, Akio Sakai, was a nisei, a second-generation Japanese American born in Hawaii, who served in the U.S. military and was stationed in Kyoto after World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allied forces defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan). He married Teruko, a Japanese woman; Stan was their second son, and he and his older brother call themselves sansei, third-generation Japanese Americans. Three years after Stan was born, the Sakai family moved back to Honolulu, Hawaii, and he grew up in Kaimuki.
Usagi Yojimbo: Summer Special #1 (1986).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 1: The Ronin (1987).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 2: Samurai (1989).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 3: The Wanderers Road (1989).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 4: Dragon Bellow Conspiracy (1990).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 5: Lone Goat and Kid (1992).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 6: Circles (1994).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 7: Gen's Story (1997).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 8: Shades of Death (1997).
Space Usagi (1998).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 9: Daisho (1998).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 10: Brink of Life and Death (1998).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 11: Seasons (1999).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 12: Grasscutter (1999).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 13: Grey Shadows (2000).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 14: Demon Mask (2001).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 15: Grasscutter II (2002).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 16: The Shrouded Moon (2003).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 17: Duel at Kitanoji (2003).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 18: Travels with Jotaro (2004).
Usagi Yojimbo Book 19: Fathers and Sons (2005).
In Hawaii, the Japanese American community, which comprised about half of Hawaii's population at that time, was strong and vibrant. There were Japanese stores and restaurants in the neighborhood, the Kapahulu Theater showed Japanese movies (the theater offered samurai movies every Saturday afternoon), one of the local television stations showed Japanese programs, and several radio stations offered Japanese programming. Along with the Japanese American culture, Hawaii offered a wide variety of cultures from the indigenous and other immigrant groups, so Sakai's early life was rich with various languages, foods, music, and customs.
Like many nisei and sansei, Sakai grew up speaking mostly English, although he did attend Japanese language school in eighth grade. He loved watching the Japanese movies, especially the chambara, the samurai action films. He also liked some of the television programs aired for children in the early 1960s, such as Kaze Kozo (a series about a boy ninja) and anime (animated manga) such as Princess Knight (a series done by Osamu Tezuka [1928–1989; see entry]). Sakai also counted Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954) among his favorite movies, citing later in life that Kurosawa's (1910–1998) epic scope on screen dramatically influenced his own art.
Sets sights on a career in comics
Sakai recalled fond memories of reading comic books. He told Karon Flage of Sequential Tart, "I always read comics, even when my parents threw out my comic book collection." He and his older brother especially enjoyed The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. The vivid combination of art and adventure inspired Sakai and his brother to draw their own comics, and Sakai would later note Steve Ditko, who did the art on Spider-Man and other Marvel titles, as another strong influence on his own art. Sakai told Flage, "When I realized people actually made a living doing comics, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up."
Sakai took a roundabout route to a career in comics, however. In high school, he took the usual college preparatory classes, Japanese language classes, and a single art class during his sophomore year. He graduated in June 1971, and he then attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he majored in drawing and painting. He graduated in spring 1975 with a bachelor of fine arts degree. In 1977, he married Sharon Ota, a friend since elementary school; they had two children, Hannah and Mark. After college, Sakai worked as a production manager for a silk screening company. When the company moved to Pasadena, California, he and Sharon transferred there.
In Pasadena, Sakai began working toward a different career. From 1978 to 1980, he attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena as a part-time student. He started to work as a freelance artist after leaving the silk screening company, doing book illustrations, magazine advertising, album covers, anything to keep working. In the early 1980s, comics fanzines (fan-produced magazines and amateur publication associations (APAs) flourished, and Sakai submitted stories to various fanzines and APAs just to get published.
Sakai's entrance into the comics industry came when he met Sergio Aragonés (1937–; see entry) a comic artist working for Mad magazine. While teaching a class about calligraphy in the early 1980s, Sakai displayed a talent that caught the eye of Aragonés, who hired Sakai to do the lettering for his new comic book series Groo the Wanderer. They became good friends, and Sakai noted Aragonés as another major influence on him, not just for art, but for the way he would research a topic before doing a story. Groo was a humorous comic series about a Conan-type barbarian (but even less intelligent), yet Aragonés took story details seriously. Sakai was still doing the lettering for Groo in 2005.
Develops his own comic
After several attempts at publishing various comic creations, Sakai finally landed a contract in 1984, when Steve Gallacci published Sakai's first comic story featuring his Usagi Yojimbo character in the anthology Albedo Anthropomorphics. Sakai based his character on a real-life swordsman from Japanese history: Miyamoto Musashi (c. 1584–1645). Musashi lived at the beginning of the Tokugawa Era in the seventeenth century. Sakai was inspired by a number of Japanese movies about Musashi, in particular the Samurai Trilogy, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki (1905–1980), which chronicled Musashi's transformation from farmer to master swordsman to philosopher. Musashi was a farmer who studied the way of the sword and became a feared assassin. The turmoil of his life led Musashi to seek inner peace, and he became a philosopher, artist, and author. His The Book of Five Rings is hailed as a masterpiece on samurai strategy.
Usagi Yojimbo becomes an epic tale of a masterless samurai and his journey to inner peace. Usagi Yojimbo starts the series as the bodyguard to Lord Mifune, but upon the lord's death becomes a masterless samurai who wanders the countryside offering protection to various people that he meets and honing his efforts toward inner fulfillment. Throughout the series, Sakai introduces many characters that are based on real people.
Factually Based Characters
The host of characters Stan Sakai introduces in Usagi Yojimbo over the years have been based on careful research, and many are patterned after true historical figures. While Sakai's humanlike characters are dramatic themselves, the people on whom they are based are some of the most colorful characters from Japanese history and popular culture. Tomoe Ame, Sakai's female cat warrior, is based on Tomoe Gozen, a famed female warrior who lived in the twelfth century during the Gempei War (Japan's civil war). Tomoe was the spouse of Lord Kiso Yoshinaka, and when they were cornered by an enemy army in Uji Province (outside Kyoto) it was she who jumped on her horse, attacked the opposing army, and cut off the general's head. Sakai has noted that the name for the character also comes from a favorite Japanese candy called Tomoe Ame.
Lord Hikiji is based on Date Masamune, a powerful lord who lived around the turn of the seventeenth century. He aspired to become Shogun (a samurai general) himself, and sent the first delegation of samurai to Europe. Other characters are based on characters from Japanese popular culture: Lone Goat and Kid are based on Kazou Koike's (1936–; see entry) Lone Wolf and Cub, Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro, who starred in several popular movies and in their own manga series in Japan. Zato-Ino, the blind swordspig, is based on one of the most popular Japanese movie characters, Zato-Ichi, the blind swordsman who targets his opponent through using only his keen hearing. Gennosuke Murakami, or Gen, the bounty hunter, is based on the Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune (1920–1997) made famous in the movie Yojimbo; Sakai drew Gen to behave just like the movie character, down to his constant beard shadow, the way he scratches himself under his kimono, and the way he manipulates people and events.
Sakai based Usagi Yojimbo on a real person; however he drew his character not as a man, but as a rabbit. The idea came to him when he was doodling around, trying to get the look of the character. He particularly liked one of his drawings of a rabbit with its ears tied into a chonmage, the samurai's topknot. Rabbits feature prominently in Japanese folklore and legends, so Sakai decided to stick with the rabbit, which he named Miyamoto Usagi (usagi is the Japanese word for rabbit). Sakai decided to draw his other characters as animals too. As he explained to Flage in Sequential Tart: "Using anthropomorphic characters gives me more freedom in writing as well as art. I base the stories in feudal Japan but they are written with a Western perspective. I don't think I could do this if I was using human characters."
Following the example of his friend Sergio Aragonés, Sakai researched the history and culture of Japan during the Tokugawa Era, which lasted from 1600 to 1868. While the stories are fictional, the background is deeply rooted in history, which Sakai reinterprets for Western readers. Sakai's research into Japan's culture and history resulted in many fascinating background details in his stories, including seaweed farming, kite-making (Sakai said that research took two years), sword-making, pottery-making, and also various ghost legends. He told Jennifer Contino of The Pulse, "Believe me, the readers watch that the research is right. The story Demon Mask involved Usagi playing a game of Go. I got that game confused with Go-Moku, a game I played as a kid and which we called Go. They both use the same game board and pieces but the strategies are different. I heard about that mistake in e-mails from as far away as Germany. I bought a couple of books on Go, looked up the American Go Association, went to a tournament, talked to some players, and corrected that mistake when it was reprinted in the trade collection." Sakai's attention to research and the incorporation of so many historical and cultural details in his stories has led to use of his books in school curricula; the University of Portland selected one of Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo stories as a resource on samurai culture in its Japanese history classes.
Develops a fan base
As Sakai developed Usagi Yojimbo into an ongoing series, he bounced from one publisher to another. Seattle-based Fantagraphics first signed Sakai to write Usagi Yojimbo as a continuing comics series. When Fantagraphics decided to focus on publishing only adult-oriented material in 1996, Sakai took Usagi Yojimbo to Mirage Studios, the publisher of the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics. Mirage published a couple of years' worth of comics issues of Usagi Yojimbo as well as Sakai's Space Usagi, a mini-series about a descendant of Usagi Yojimbo living in the far future. The publisher then shut down the publications division, and Sakai began working with Dark Horse Comics.
In 1998, Dark Horse published all of the Mirage Studios issues of Usagi Yojimbo and Space Usagi. The group started to publish a limited series of Usagi Yojimbo comics, but decided instead to make it a continuing series. In 2004, Sakai and Dark Horse Comics celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Usagi Yojimbo with a deluxe hardcover book, The Art of Usagi Yojimbo. Throughout the series' more than two decades of publication, Sakai has maintained total creative control over his work; the only thing he doesn't do withUsagi Yojimbo is coloring, which is handled by long-time colleague and friend Tom Luth (1954–), who also colors Groo.
Usagi Yojimbo has been translated into about a dozen languages, including Croatian, but it has never been translated into Japanese. As Sakai told Cecelia Goodnow of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "There has never been an American comic book that has made a dent in the Japanese market." While Usagi Yojimbo is set in Japan, it follows the stylistic and storytelling conventions of American comics. Some readers and librarians have mistakenly called Usagi Yojimbo manga, but it isn't.
Receives high praise
Sakai's work has been honored with the Eisner Award, the highest honor in the comics industry, numerous times. His first Eisner Award nominations for Usagi Yojimbo and for his lettering work on Groo came in 1993. And they kept coming: he was nominated for Eisner Awards, mostly for Lettering and Best Writer/Artist, in 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2005. In 1996, he won Eisner Awards for Best Lettering for Groo and Usagi Yojimbo, and for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition for Usagi Yojimbo. He won another Eisner Award in 1999 for Best Serialized Story for Usagi Yojimbo issues 13–22, the Grasscutter storyline.
Other awards were also heaped on him. In 1990, Sakai received a Parent's Choice Approval award for "Skillful weaving of facts and legends into his work," and the foundation recommended Usagi Yojimbo for ages seven and up. The Parent's Choice Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to evaluating books, movies, software, and other media to determine their suitability for children. In 1991, the San Diego Comic-Con International gave Sakai the Inkpot Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Field of Cartooning. In 2002, he won a Reuben Award for Best Comic Book from the National Cartoonists Society, and that year the Young Adult Library Services Association's Popular Paperbacks Committee selected Usagi Yojimbo Vol. 12: Grasscutter for its Graphic Novels list.
Sakai has received international awards from other countries: He won the Spanish Haxtur Award in 1999 for Best Short Story for the "Noodles" storyline in Usagi Yojimbo, and for the Grasscutter storyline he won the Haxtur for Best Script in 2000. The Utopia Comic Book Convention in Mexico City held its first convention in November 2003 and created the Silver Pen Award; Sakai was among the first winners that year.
Continues to enjoy his work
Asked if he had ever thought about giving up on writing Usagi Yojimbo, Sakai told Karon Flage of Sequential Tart: "I have never felt that way. Nor have I ever thought of taking a hiatus from the series. I do everything, so I can vary the kind of stories that I want to tell. I can do mysteries then switch to a fantasy with ghosts and monsters then do a historical drama. After more than 16 years, I'm still never bored with Usagi." He told Cecelia Goodnow that Usagi has "matured as a warrior and a person. I've matured, too." Fans didn't tire of the story either; all of the Usagi Yojimbo trade volumes were continuously being reprinted through 2005.
In addition to his work on Usagi Yojimbo, Sakai kept himself busy with other projects as well. He has written and illustrated some shorter works, most notably the illustration work for the backup story "Riblet," for Jeff Smith's Stupid, Stupid Rat Tails, a Bone prequel volume. He also wrote and illustrated "Urchins," a story about young Anakin Skywalker, in Star Wars Tales #14, published by Dark Horse Comics in December 2002. One book that Sakai would like to publish is Nilson Groundthumper, one of his first stories, in which Usagi originally appeared as a secondary character. He told Graphic Novelists that if he ever has time, he might try to work on this story again. In 2005, he was still lettering Groo the Wanderer for Sergio Aragonés and the Spider-Man Sunday comic strips that Stan Lee had been writing for more than twenty years. He told Flage, "Lettering is actually relaxing in many ways. It is more mechanical than creative and uses another part of my brain. I guess it proves the whole left brain/right brain theory. Anyway, I enjoy lettering and it lets me work with terrific creators such as Sergio, Mark Evanier, and Stan Lee." An easygoing and humble man, Sakai also spent a lot of time going to schools and libraries to promote reading and to talk with children and teens about comics.
For More Information
Kan, Katharine. "Graphically Speaking: An Interview with Stan Sakai." Voice of Youth Advocates (April 2003).
Chun, Gary C. W. "A Man and His Samurai Rabbit" (July 15, 2001). Honolulu Star-Bulletin.http://starbulletin.com/2001/07/15/features/story6.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Contino, Jennifer. "Yojimbos, Rabbits, & Legends: Nineteen Years and Three Publishers Later, Usagi Yojimbo Is Still Going Strong" (February 6, 2003). The Pulse.http://www.livejournal.com/users/usagigaijin/10780.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Epstein, Daniel Robert. "Stan Sakai Talks Usagi Yojimbo" (2005). Underground Online Comics Channel.http://www.ugo.com/channels/comics/features/stansakai/default.asp (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Flage, Karon. "The Way of the Samurai: Stan Sakai" (March 2001). Sequential Tart.http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/mar01/sakai.shtml (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Goodnow, Cecelia. "Usagi Yojimbo Creator Comes Back to Where It All Began" (October 3, 2005). Seattle Post-Intelligencer.http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/books/242952_sakai03.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Moondaughter, Wolfen. "'Bun' Anniversaire! Stan Sakai" (October 2004). Sequential Tart.http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/oct04/ssakai.shtml (accessed on May 3, 2006).
"Stan Sakai." Usagi Yojimbo Dojo: Stan Sakai.http://usagiyojimbo.com/sakai.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Thompson, Kim. "Stan Sakai Interview" (Fall 1996). The Comics Journal #192. http://www.groo.com/sakaiint2.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Additional material for this entry was obtained through an e-mail interview with Stan Sakai on October 21, 2005.