Interview with Stan Sakai: The Artist and his Samurai

by deborah on 12/29/2010

Stan Sakai certainly owns a black belt in comic book mastery… The creator of Usagi Yojimbo – the rabbit samurai was during November one of the guests of the Funny Comics Show Festival in Zagreb. There we talked a little bit about his artworks, characters, techniques, influences and Japanese heritage…

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Stan Sakai and his rabbit samurai Usagi Yojimbo


Are you customized with Japan and the Japanese scene? What was like the reaction to your comics, because the Manga scene is rather strong in Japan and it’s a kind of rather vacuumed space in that sense?

SS: I’m not too much customized with Japan. I grew up with Osama Tezuka’s work. I’ve met him twice and I even went to Japan as a guest of Tezuka’s Studio once, you know. As you said, it’s a much vacuumed place.

First time I was a guest of Tezuka studio, and it was very exciting. We met other manga artists, and we also talked to publishers and editors. That was wonderful. I was in Japan just, let’s see, at the end of last year, and we had invitations to visit Miyazaki’s Studio – Studio Ghibli. So, that was exciting, I lived through Miyazaki’s work. We were able to see things in production. We were told, right after the tour: Don’t tell anybody what you saw! (laughs).

What was the reaction to your work in Japan?

SS: Well, they enjoyed it. However, there has never been a Western comic that has made a big impression to the Japanese market, they try inputting or translating some comics and it never lasted very long. They did have series such as Spiderman or X-men, but these are made as new stories, drawn especially just for the Japanese market. It’s a very difficult market for a foreigner to get in.

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Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai, Dark Horse (c)

Usagi Yojimbo – a rabbit samurai is obviously your way of keeping contact with your roots and culture…

SS: Yes, I grew up in Hawaii, but I was born in Japan. My father’s father emigrated from Japan to Hawaii, and my father was born on Hawaii. He joined the US military, and he was stationed in Japan right after the war. And he met my mother there, and my older brother and I, we were born in Japan.

When I was three years old we moved to Hawaii where my father was from, and I grew up there. Hawaii has a very large Japanese population and when people immigrate to another country, they bring their culture and customs with them. So, I grew up with the Japanese culture. I grew up watching samurai movies and that started my interest. All my life I deal with this samurai and the customs are Japanese.

So, how exactly the rabbit came out and actually why did you choose the rabbit?

SS: The rabbit came out because I grew up reading comic books, both Western comics, as well as Japanese comics. Back then we just called them Japanese comics (laughs).

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Miyamoto Musashi with two Bokken (wooden quarterstaves)
via wiki

But it’s a different reading process, from right to left, and so…

SS: Yes, everything is different. You know, I have an art degree, I studied drawing and painting. And I wanted to do a comic book, but based upon the life of Miyamoto Musashi. He was a seventeenth century samurai. And he was not only great with the sword, but he was also a philosopher, he was a painter, a sculptor.

So, Musashi was a Renaissance man. He was very well rounded, and I wanted a character to be something like that, inspired by the life of Musashi, but not Musashi. But one day, while just drawing in my sketchbook, I drew a rabbit with his ears tight-up into what’s called the chonmage –the samurai topknot. Then, you know, it came out over my head! Oh, this is unique! No one has ever done it before, but it was so simple. It’s very graphic looking. So, instead of Miyamoto Mushasi, my character was named Miyamoto Usagi. Usagi means rabbit in Japanese.

It’s very interesting to notice this connection with Japanese folklore, tradition… Its roots could be traced in animism and mythology. But on the other hand, Japanese mythology is also sort of scary, because there are lots of demons and creatures…

SS: Yes, yes, when we talk about demons as such. Japan has such a rich tradition of folklore and they have more stories about ghost goblins and monsters than any other culture that I can think of. But, it’s not only about the really horrible things, not only the scary stuff. There are really goofy things, too… like the walking umbrella, or the foot with a giant eyeball.

Last year I did a story, a book called Yokai – it was an original graphic novel. It dealt with all these monsters of Japanese mythology, and that’s fun. Not only taking demons from Japan, but also extending that to taking traditions from Japanese culture. I have done stories about kite making, sword making, pottery making and about different festivals. So, Usagi is a fantasy series, but it’s based upon a real culture. Therefore, I do as much research as I can, when I do a story.

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Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai, Dark Horse (c)

This is what I wanted you to ask, about your working processes… What it looks like, when you start to work on sketches or with the plot?

SS: Well, you know… First of all, it starts with an idea. Every creative person is always asked a question like: where do you get your ideas from? And they will always say: I don’t know! (laughs). Cause, you know, ideas come from everywhere. The whole idea for Usagi came because I was just sketching in a book.

Sometimes I may hear a word or phrase, or something that will spark up a good story. Such as, let’s see, Taiko drums! These giant drums, you know, I’ve always wanted to do a story about Taiko. But I was watching a documentary on the making of Taiko drums, and there were things I’ve never knew before. So, I thought: Oh, you know, I can do a story about Taiko, how they make Taiko drums. So, I just finished that.

Another time, I was reading a book about the seaweed farming. Because, in Japan you can eat a lot of seaweed and I never thought about cultivating seaweed. Hence, I did a lot more research and I found out about how they cultivated seaweed back then.

I’m probably the only Western artist that has ever did a story about the seaweed farming. So, you know, it’s fun, cause I learnt too, when I did a research. And it’s fun for me, because it’s my heritage, and I’m able to show a part of my heritage to the world, actually. Usagi is translated in about twelve different languages.

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Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai, Dark Horse (c)

I wonder whether you are inspired by the cinematography? Asian cinematography has always been one of the most exciting cinematography in the world…

SS: …from everywhere. Most of my story-telling techniques are from the cinema and movies, rather than comic books. Because I like the way how certain directors tell certain things, or show how they do it.

Oh, Akira Kurosawa is my favourite! The way he can tell personal stories as one of huge epic, it’s just amazing. There are other directors I would look for different things, such as Alfred Hitchcock is great for suspense. James Cameron, I like the way he introduces characters.

I’m studying more films then I do comic books. However, I don’t go to movies, because when I’m working and drawing I have TV on, or there is a DVD or something on, some documentary. So, when I go to the movies I really feel guilty, because I should be working! (laughs)

I think that last movie I went to was the second Harry Potter movie, and I just kept thinking, when this is going to end, I should be working (laughs).

Do you use a lot internet, because on this way, while you work, you can watch films or short clips?

SS: I’ve been using that for entertainment, DVD’s and also for certain websites, or if I might miss a TV show the night before, and I can watch it on the internet, that’s great. But, mainly movies. Therefore, I can not watch sports events or animated movies, or foreign language shows while I’m working, because I just have to watch the screen, and I just can’t do that.

You have to be focused…

SS: Yes! But with action and adventure movies I would just keep working on, and when I notice that there is gonna be big explosion come up, then I would stop working. Once, it’s finished then I’ll get back to work.

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Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai, Dark Horse (c)

What is your opinion about the usage of colours in comics, and the relation with B&W technique in the context of your work?

SS: You know, Usagi was first black & white, and the he became a colour series in United Stated when we moved to the Mirage Studio. And now it’s black and white again. We got so many complains when we went to colour, people prefer the black & white. And personally, I prefer the B&W, as well. Because, this is how the artwork goes for me, you know, in B&W.

I mentioned previously Yokai, and that was a fully coloured book. I did it by myself with water colours technique. But, for the trade paper collections I prefer black & white. Actually, so do many of my fans.

Usually I ask all comic book artists the same question, and that’s the question about their opinion on distinctions between comic books and graphic novels. What is your opinion on this topic?

SS: I like both. The graphic novel in the United States is what has saved the industry, because comic books sales have been declining for such a long time. But now, graphic novels are accepted as reading material.

I know Usagi received a number of a library awards. So, Usagi is in a lot of libraries in the United States. Because of the research I do, you know, educational research… in fact one of my books was used as a text book in Japanese history college classes. So, that was really something that made me feel great, you know. Cause, when I was in college you could never use a comic book or a graphic novel as any type of reference at all. But now, it’s used as a text book, it’s just incredible.

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Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai, Dark Horse (c)

How do people perceive your work in different countries?

SS: Well, each country is different. Usagi is very popular in Poland for some reason. In fact, Usagi has only been published about 7 years in Poland, but they have already published twenty four albums, trade paper back collections.

They just published Yokai, the colour book and they are asking now if they can publish my material before the Americans. Because, I already have enough material for four more trade paper back, four more collections.

You know, it’s like this in the United States, first they publish comic books, and then the collections – the graphic novels. So, they are already asking: Oh, can we print the others? But then, the Dark Horse wants to be the first as publisher. It’s also very popular in Spain, who knows why? (laughs)

Tell me something about your collaborations with other people involved in the process of working… editors, people for lettering, writers and so…

SS: Well, for Usagi I own the character and I do everything myself. I do the writing, I do the pencilling, I even handle lettering in the United States. I do the hand lettering, inking and my editors and publishers do not see anything, do not see any of the pages until I send it to them. So, when they receive it, they actually receive the entire story.

My contracts with all my publishers have always been that what ever I send them, they publish. I never had any situation with editors who would interfere into my work. It’s amazing! I could do a story where Usagi is lost and there is no drawing, just white pages with dialogue or something, and they’ll have to publish it.

But, you know, I’m in a very good position for a creator, because I also have a very supportive editor at Dark Horse, Diana Shutz. And she is the best editor I have ever worked with. She really supports her creators. She is one of the best in the industry. She has worked with Will Eisner and Frank Miller. She was apt to have them, to choose any creator she wants to work with. And she picked Usagi and me. So, it’s very nice.

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Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai, Dark Horse (c)

Is there anyone you would like to work with? You have experience working with Stan Lee

SS: Yes, I’ve been working with Stan for, oh, let’s see… twenty five years now. I do the lettering for the Spiderman newspaper strips. And I still do it, because, Stan Lee is directly involved in it, and it’s funny. He just called me up out of the blue and said: Hi, this is Stan Lee and I’m looking for Stan Sakai! And I’m thinking, he sounds just like Stan Lee, that’s great! (laughs)

I once had a book sign with George Takei, you know, Mr. Sulu, and he talks just like Mr. Sulu all the time. It’s the strangest thing and it was the same with Stan. He’s always like Stan Lee. Yeah, you know, he’s a terrific person. And I worked with him for a long time now, and the only reason I still do the Spiderman’s lettering is because of Stan.

That’s the best thing of what I do, that I have gotten to meet my heroes. I grew up reading the works of Stan and Jack Kirby. I knew Jack, I knew Will Eisner, you know. Sergio Aragones is one of my very best friends, it’s just very neat.

Is there any character you would like to work on?

SS: Outside of Usagi?

Yeah!

SS: I would like to do a Groo stories. You know, just for a fun. When I was thinking, oh maybe I would like to go into comic books, I was thinking about superheroes. Oh, maybe my dream was to do something for Marvel, and a few years ago I got a call from Marvel saying: We are doing an anthology series called the ‘Strange Tails’, and we would like you to do a story. You can use any of ours characters; you can do what ever you want with them.

And I said, you know, I would like to do a Samurai Hulk story and I would like to kill him at the end of the story, he’s gonna die. They said: OK, sure. I just liked the idea of Hulk in samurai armour fighting the huge army, so I got to do that. And I also connected it with the Japanese mythology, as well as the Marvel mythology, too. It’s always fun. Just to do what ever I want to do with him.

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Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai, Dark Horse (c)

Would you like to express yourself in animation?

SS: You know, I wouldn’t like to do animation personally, but I would like to see Usagi animated, and Usagi has been optioned for animation on number of times. Actually, since we started Usagi, he was continually optioned for both, the feature film, as well for television. And he is under option right now, but everything gets optioned in Hollywood.

How would you like to see Usagi in animation, in 3D or with a drawing technique? You know, I’m referring here to Pascal Morelli’s adaptation of Corto Maltese from 2002…

SS: They have optioned Usagi for a number of techniques: adaptation for a classical animation, and 3D, even for puppets, and one version for live action. But so far nothing came out of it. But also, Usagi is very precious to me, so I would like to keep a lot of control and there have been times when I said: Well, I don’t like the way where you are going to. People that currently have the rights, we are on the same vibrancy, so hopefully something will come out.

Stan, Thank you very much!

p.s. you can download Usagi Yojimbo paper toy from CubeCraft… have fun with it…
p.s.1. check here for 16-minutes Journeyman Documentary titled ‘Demon Drummers – Japan’ about Taiko drummers from Kodo… (it’s not allowed for embedding, therefore link)
p.s.2. check here too for 8bit Usagi Yojimbo on the commodore 64
p.s.3. Usagi Yojimbo as Lego character here

  • http://www.majabjancic.com Maja

    superb … thank you … hvala, dee dee 🙂

  • http://www.body-pixel.com/ lomodeedee

    🙂