Vagabond vol. 1 (VIZBIG Edition) – Takehiko Inoue

5 out of 5

This is simply a stunning piece of work. Writer / artist Takehiko Inoue, in a quote provided in the back of the 3-tankobons-in-one VIZBIG collection, seems to suggest that Vagabond has no merit beyond entertainment, but the explorations of the personas within – those driven by anger; those living their lives in fear; people dedicated to the sword for “right” reasons or “wrong” reasons; those doing what they must to get by – make it more than just a samurai slasher epic, though it certainly succeeds at being that as well.

Based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel about Miyamoto Musashi, I have no previous awareness of the famous swordsman, or the book about him, but bringing the material into a visual realm must surely add a new dimension to it, and I have to assume that some of the humor and characterizations contained within belong to Inoue. But even if this was a straight adaptation, it doesn’t carry the stiffness of that: Vagabond is made for its format, flowing effortlessly across its pages, whether being contemplative or violent or funny or sensual.

We start with 17-year old youths Shinmen Takezō and Hon’iden Matahachi, wandering the corpse-strewn aftermath of the Battle of Sekigahara, and deciding what comes next. Immediately, that’s shacking up with Okō and Akemi, a mother and daughter who take the duo in, and this leads to diverging paths for Takezō and Matahachi – the latter finds himself distracted by his own bravado, and then the allures of nearby flesh (despite protesting that he has a fiancée back at home); the former survives a vicious attack on where they’re all staying, and pledges himself to continuing down that road – to become “invincible.” He will, eventually, be reborn as Musashi, looking for anyone to challenge on his way to that peak, carrying a wooden boken sword to do so.

The second volume of Vagabond painstakingly lays out this transition: Takezō returns home but is unwanted; the monk Takuan seems to punish him but is helping him to divest himself of his past, so that he can truly begin on his quest for greatness. The third volume is the newly christened Musashi’s first steps toward that: challenging the head of a swordsmanship school in Kyoto. Musashi ends the collection bloody and broken, still looking for a fight.

The way Miyamoto is represented by Inoue is fascinating. The unbeatable protagonist – kept alive by his boundless energy and goodness – is a pretty general manga archetype, but this isn’t that, exactly. Takezō may not get drunk or sleep around the way Matahachi does, but he behaves like a lout: he is solely focused on fighting, and walks about unshowered and unkempt. He is not a “leading man.” Surrounding him are fascinating parallels and juxtapositions to that, made very “human” by Inoue – no one comes across as one-dimensional plot fodder. The artistry maximizes this humanity, delivering clean, recognizable models for all of our principles, such that it’s easy to keep the growing cast straight, but Takehiko also employs some stylistic variations – heavier brushstrokes, choiceful use of background details versus open space – to make sure the effected mood is always in sync with the script. Every page feels controlled, and deserving of attention; every page makes you want to flip to the next to find out more.

The big-ol’ several hundred page edition of this can seem intimidating, but as soon as I’d cracked the cover and gotten a few pages in, I knew I was in good hands – a feeling that’s absolutely maintained the whole way through.