Stan Sakai likes to spin multi-layered tales. Several of his Usagi Yojimbo one-shots—“Kaiso,” “Jizo,” “Kite Story”—seamlessly weave aspects of Japanese culture, history, and mythology into the narrative structure. Of these, “Chanoyu” is the most elegantly-crafted I have yet encountered.
The plot could not be simpler: Tomoe Ame treats Usagi to a tea ceremony before he leaves the Geishu province (where he has spent the past half-dozen issues or so). Sakai examines each individual step of the process, no matter how seemingly insignificant: “Wipe the rim of the tea cup three and a half times,” “Turn the bowl clockwise so that it faces your host,” “Pick up the bowl and admire its art and craftsmanship." Sakai doesn’t allow this attention to detail overwhelm the story, however; the pomp and ritual are never quite as important as what they reveal about the characters. An intense undercurrent of emotion drives every word, every subtle gesture.
“Your tea has just the right amount of bitterness,” Usagi remarks after taking his first sip. “It reminds me of the winds blowing through the autumn grass.”
“The bitterness of life, to match its sweetness,” Tomoe replies.
Sakai’s artistic choices make it clear that the samurai are using the formality of the ceremony to conceal their true feelings. Instead of drawing Tomoe with her customary “female-style” eyes, he gives her his far less expressive “dot-style” eyes. Only twice, when Tomoe briefly allows her façade to crack, does Sakai render her eyes with the usual level of detail.
Even Sakai’s framing says much about his characters’ emotional states. The most poignant example occurs on page 21, after Usagi’s departure. Tomoe sits alone, situated at the very top of the suddenly empty panel. The design on the floor further isolates her within the image, conveying a powerful sense of loneliness. It’s one of those gorgeously tragic Usagi Yojimbo moments—like the final page of “The Duel,” or Usagi’s farewell speech to Jotaro in “Fathers and Sons” (vol. 19)—that remains forever tattooed on the reader’s memory.
[Originally written February 10, 2012.]