Between the Lines
The other day, I finished reading Usagi Yojimbo vol. 21: The Mother of Mountains. As always, Stan Sakai crafts his tale with superb visual clarity—not a single panel is wasted. But one sequence in the final few pages made me raise my eyebrows: Tomoe Ame, Lord Noriyuki’s loyal female bodyguard and Usagi’s longtime ally, cries out in the middle of the night. The rabbit ronin bursts into her room to see what the trouble is—just nightmares, unsettling visions of her wicked cousin Noriko. After offering some words of comfort, Usagi turns to leave.
Tomoe stops him halfway through the door: “Would… would you stay with me for a while?”
Next panel: an exterior view of the castle.
Next panel: Lord Noriyuki’s chambers, the following morning.
Wait… does that mean they…?
This is called an ellipsis, the omission of a piece of narrative information, usually to create ambiguity. One of my old film professors was obsessed with this particular storytelling device—especially its use in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It goes something like this (forgive me for working from memory): Kim Novak dives into the San Francisco Bay. Jimmy Stewart rescues her. Cut to Stewart’s apartment. Novak lies unconscious in his bed, covered up to her neck in blankets. Her clothes are drying in the kitchen. It’s clear that Stewart undressed her sometime between the edit; considering his infatuation with her, that’s an intriguing omission.
Whether or not Sakai intended to imply that Tomoe wanted that kind of company is irrelevant (though other details support the implication; in the previous chapter, when Usagi throws himself on top of Tomoe to shield her from an explosion, the normally-economical artist devotes two whole panels to a lingering glance between the warriors). When we encounter a narrative gap, we’re compelled to fill it—and with our overactive imaginations, we’re capable of inferring just about anything. And that’s beautiful. It involves the reader/viewer in the storytelling process. A work of art that invites such participation is that much more memorable.
[Originally written February 8, 2012.]