Anthropomorphism is one of those words that most of us rarely hear in our daily lives, yet have seen numerous times. When something is anthropomorphic it means that it isn't human, but we've given it human qualities. A good example is deities. Deities are obviously not human, yet we have attributed many human characteristics to them. Anthropomorphism isn't just the stuff of religion though; it also permeates pop culture. Disney and Warner Brothers studios have generated numerous icons of an anthropomorphic nature that children watch nearly every day.
A little closer to the heart of this entry, and a fairly well-known phenomenon, were the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They made it big in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, first sparking a black and white comic book craze, then moving onto the big screen and Saturday morning cartoons. The reason they are close to the heart of this entry is because in one of the episodes of the cartoon series, they included a guest anthropomorphic character who was from a different world. He was a rabbit samurai from a parallel universe living in feudal Japan. His name was Usagi Miyamoto.
The main character, Usagi Miyamoto, is based upon the historical figure of Miyamoto Musashi. One day in 1983 the author, Stan Sakai, was considering a story based upon the legendary samurai, when he doodled an anthropomorphic rabbit samurai with his ears tied up in a traditional samurai topknot. As with so many things in this world, something great was born by chance, accident and a little bit of goofing around.
The comic book Usagi Yojimbo1 is the story of a ronin, a master-less samurai, on his Musha-Shugyo2 in 17th Century Japan. Having just emerged from a civil war that established Tokugawa Ieyesu as Shogun, it is a tumultuous country. The shogunate is bringing order to the land and has unified Japan for the first time, though parts of the country are still unaffected. The country is by no means in a state of chaos, but it is still a dangerous time.
Many people, when they first look at Usagi Yojimbo, are very caught up on the fact that there are no 'people', just 'animals'. These people are perhaps missing the point somewhat. Sakai's ability to weave a story around these characters using simple, but well-drawn, sequential art is astounding. He pulls his story ideas from many sources, such as ancient Japanese myth, common samurai folk stories and popular culture. He uses in-depth research to bring his readers into Japanese life and immerses them in the culture. He draws upon historical controversies to present alternate history stories that accurately reflect the Japanese culture and mythological thinking.
In some of the comic books, he also presents the historical notes that he made during his research for the stories. In these, he takes the reader on his or her own journey, separate from Usagi's. Having grown up in Hawaii, Stan did not always experience the full range of Japanese culture and has chosen Usagi's story as one of the ways of exploring his own heritage. It is this personal aspect of his stories, where he admits that he is telling us the things that he has learned about himself, that only adds to the depth, richness and beauty of his art.
Usagi is a character that many of us can identify with easily on some level. He is a little naïve, although clever and wary. He is hot-tempered when dealing with personal issues, but can be cool, calm and very morally upright. He has many friends, although often he has to deal with life on his own. He is highly skilled and very intelligent, though few people recognise his full potential. It is these dichotomies that make him seem so real to us, because much of real life is contradictory. It is hard to forget that Usagi is a rabbit, but it is easy to forget that he isn't real.
Exemplifying Bushido - 'Way of the Warrior' - Usagi lives his life honourably. At times he is a little rash and impulsive, but he is often compassionate, loyal, dutiful and reasonable. He does not allow himself to be constrained by any one virtue and attempts to apply them all equally, although like anyone, he does fail at times. While willing to sacrifice his own life for duty, honour and those to whom he is loyal, he is not willing to sacrifice the lives of others for the same. Usagi often shows kindness to strangers and more than returns the kindness that others show him.
As a young boy, Usagi was taken under the wing of an old fencing master, Katsuichi, who had taken up life as a hermit near Usagi's home village. In his youth, Usagi was very impetuous and rash. These traits continue to colour his actions a great deal, but Katsuichi was able to curb them to a certain extent during the years of training. Living with the old sword master for many years, Usagi became a very powerful swordsman himself. His training took him to such a high level, that he has rarely been defeated, even in the many unfair fights he has faced.
Once his training was complete, he went to the local lord, Mifune3, to become a retainer. Here, Usagi's skill, dedication and bravery quickly earned him a place of honour as one of Lord Mifune's bodyguards. Usagi lived a good life there, serving a lord he loved who was both honourable and good. However, his world was turned upside down at the battle of Adachigahara, when Lord Mifune was betrayed by one of his retainers in the battle against his enemy, Lord Hikiji. Mifune fell during the battle and Usagi, being the last loyal bodyguard, cut off Mifune's head and escaped with it from the battlefield, to keep it from being despoiled by the enemy. He buried the head and began his wanderer's life. Since then Usagi has become a shugyosha, a warrior student on his pilgrimage, searching to perfect both his fighting skills and his spirit.
Find Out More
To learn more about Usagi Miyamoto and friends, check out the official website that's run by and for fans at the Usagi Yojimbo Dojo, where you can learn anything and everything about the world's favourite samurai rabbit.