Volume 4 of Usagi Yojimbo is pretty much entirely given to one huge, overarching story, and I have to admit - I love it.
Lord Noriyuki has heard disturbing reports about the goings-on in the lands of one of his neighbors. Goods are being stockpiled, and ronin hired at an alarming rate, but no laborers seem to be added to the workforce. It sounds like a recipe for war! But being cautious, he sends his retainer, Tomoe Ame, to see what the situation is. But it's just as expected, and things go wrong fairly quickly.
This book ties several loose threads from previous books together - Gen the bounty-hunting rhino, Ino the noseless pig samurai, Shingen, of the Neko ninja clan, and of course, Usagi. Each has their own goals and reasons to be there, but their paths all converge against the far greater evil of Tamakuro.
Because this book is all one big story, it has a vastly different feel than the previous volumes, but I think it's stronger for that. Giving these characters time to interact, to grow with the plot, and to see something more complex and deep out to the end was a rewarding experience as a reader. Not to mention, there was just a lot of great action in here, including savage one-on-one fights between two different pairs of those returning characters.
If the episodic nature of earlier books of this put you off at all, try this one. It was exciting and moving, and I really recommend it.
Vampire bats! Lone Goat and Kid! A look inside the technical side of Japanese kitemaking!
After the single-story focus of the last book, this one gives us a few shorter tales, but I feel like they might be some of the most engaging so far - and that's saying something as I'm not sure there's been a chapter of this yet that I *didn't* like.
It starts with the emotional "Frost and Fire," in which Usagi's duty as a samurai buts up against his decency as a person when he's asked to bring the sword of a dead samurai home to his wife so it can be passed on to his son. But when he gets there, he finds the situation was not as he expected, and ends up having to make choices and take actions he clearly doesn't want to. There are no good answers and outcomes, and seeing him try to navigate the situation according to both his code and his ethics is fascinating.
After that we move on to "A Kite Story." Usagi's part in this one is limited and not terribly unique, but the fascinating part comes from the setting. It takes place around a kite festival, and much of the chapter is given over to a kitemaker explaining his craft, step by step, in what should be a boring sequence, but which I found both historically informative and interesting.
In "Blood Wings" we meet an entirely new clan - the Komori ninja, who are bats with razors on their wings, who can swoop out of the darkness and slice their enemies to ribbons. Adding a new dimension to a battle makes the fights difficult and interesting.
"The Way of the Samurai" sees Usagi meeting with a man he admires very much, a skilled and good man with a haunted desire that's slowly consuming him, and was perhaps my favorite tale in this book.
And the final story, "Lone Goat and Kid," is obviously a take on Lone Wolf and Cub. The fight here is great, the setup interesting, and I love the way earlier stories are impacting later ones in real, concrete ways. It gives the events and world more of an organic and weighty feel.
Another great volume, well worth a read!