I would like to say that I adore Stan Sakai’s work and Circles is perfect and I wouldn’t have it changed for the world. I’m just looking at it fits within the framework of romantic fiction.

My post, Manga and Romance, explains what I’m trying to do. 8 Essential Elements of Romance Novels defines terms and explains the framework.

This post covers the last part (pages 100-163) of Stan Sakai’s graphic novel Circles – specifically Mariko and Usagi’s relationship. As Azure Flame would say, merciless spoilers begin here.

Usagi Yojimbo 6: Circles Fantagraphics 2005. ISBN 9781560971467
Art: Stan Sakai
Text: Stan Sakai


Miyamoto Usagi – Hero. Masterless samurai who is returning to the village of his birth. Biological father of Jotaro.

Mariko – Heroine. Wife of Kenichi the village headman. Mother of Jotaro.

Kenichi – Rival. Village headman and husband of Mariko. Has reared Jotaro as his son.

Jotaro – Secret baby†. Young son of Mariko and Usagi.

Secret Baby “the secret baby plot, in which the heroine is pregnant with or has given birth to the hero’s child without his knowledge” Romantic Times


The boy Jotaro is lost in the woods when he is confronted by a menacing figure in the mist.

At the same time, Usagi is returning to the small village of his birth after years of wandering. He reminisces about his last picnic with Mariko whom he left behind to join the war.

Usagi’s reverie is interrupted by Kenichi, Mariko’s husband, who announces that Jotaro is missing. Kenichi and Usagi make plans to find Jotaro.

Usagi is momentarily distracted from this goal by Mariko when the two of them are alone. She tells Usagi that she still loves him. Kenichi interrupts them and sends Usagi on a task. After Usagi leaves, Kenichi glares at Mariko who turns her head away. Kenichi looks sad.

Usagi rescues Jotaro from an enemy but then Usagi nearly falls to his death. Kenichi rescues him but rejects his gratitude since neither is now indebted to the other.

Two weeks later, Mariko arranges a tryst outside the village with Usagi. She asks him to leave the village. Usagi questions her and she shocks him by confessing that Jotaro is his child. Usagi agrees to leave the village to protect his son’s bond with Kenichi.

Jotaro surprises Usagi further down the path. Usagi says goodbye without revealing their relationship.

Usagi is left alone to return to his wandering life.

Society Defined:

All three of the main characters (Usagi, Mariko and Kenichi) belong to the samurai class. The basic tenets of this warrior class is based on bushido which is, in short, a code of behavior that values honor and loyalty above all else. (More detail: The Way of the Warrior. Bushido and the Samurai. Bushido, the Soul of Japan – ebook.)

In an example from an earlier volume (forgot which one), Usagi is questioned whether it is better to serve an ignoble master or a virtuous one. Usagi laughs at this old conundrum. A samurai would prefer to serve a corrupt master which makes loyalty more difficult and more honorable.

According to Regis, the society in a romance story is flawed and oppresses the hero and heroine. In Circles, Usagi and Mariko are not freely able to create a union because of their loyalty to the social structure. However they both, reluctantly, strive to maintain the status quo.

The Meeting: Not included.

The Barrier:

The main barrier is their status as samurai. Neither can betray their social system. The may passionately care for one another but they will never publicly acknowledge their feelings.

In Circles, Mariko and Usagi must act within the standards of their samurai class. When Mariko and Usagi are alone at the beginning of the story, she asks him why he left. Usagi tells her it was his duty as a samurai to join Lord Mifune in war. She complains that duty and honor always come between them.

Later, when Usagi learns that Mariko had become pregnant with his child, he tells her that he would have returned to her. She reaffirms that his duty was to serve Lord Mifune on the battlefield.

I wonder why they didn’t have some version of marriage by proxy. It would have settled the legitimacy issue for Jotaro and the couple could have been reunited at a later time. Of course, there wouldn’t have 20 plus volumes of adventure either, so I’m not really complaining.

Kenichi follows these bushido standards too, when he saves Usagi from falling. Mariko says Kenichi saved Usagi because it was the honorable thing to do since Usagi is part of his village and part of his clan.

Mariko begs Usagi not to make her choose between him and her family. She states that she would fight against Usagi to defend her husband and son; her loyalty to them overrides her love for Usagi.

Moreover, Mariko feels that Kenichi has been more of a father to their son than Usagi since Kenichi raised him. I would like to say in Usagi’s defense that he had no idea that Jotaro was his son and not Kenichi’s. Why would he try to act as a parent to a child who already had two fine parental figures? I think Mariko is being unfair here.

Kenichi is briefly revealed to care about his wife, enough to be pained by her emotional betrayal. However, he does nothing but grimace throughout the story. Kenichi may have been Usagi’s rival when they were youths but now he has the leadership of Usagi’s home, his woman and his son. He really ought to smile once in a while.

I would like to to point out that Mariko comes out the winner in the situation with a delightful son, a good husband and her social status as the village headman’s wife secure.

While Usagi regrets his fate, he will not undo it. He even claims he prefers the life of the wanderer, which is a complete lie, so that he may leave the village gracefully.

Usagi ends with no one and nothing and without any hope of gaining either.

At the end of the story, the barrier is not removed; it is reinforced by additional layers of social and emotional ties. The couple is separated from one another and pursue different lives. Therefore, according to Regis’ definition, Circles is not a romance.

Mariko and Usagi Part 2: The Attraction and the Scapegoat Exiled


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