4 out of 5
We’ve been here before. That’s only the real “problem” with the chapters contained in Vagabond vol. 12, in which Inoue seeks to further strip Musashi of any self-serving values, evolving him through trial and tribulation into the ultimate form that will one day fight Sasaki.
A little abruptly, the flashback framing that was being previously used is somewhat dispensed, but it’s the right choice for the story, which I’d probably (without looking up what it’s called) deem “the farming arc:” Musashi’s travels take him to a desolate land and a recently orphaned boy; he calls himself Takezo and very nearly stops training, and becomes incredibly focused on getting crops to grow on the boy’s farm – which has otherwise always been fallow. Because this is a very down-to-Earth premise, breaking it up with Matahachi’s interruptions would likely drag it out; we need to be in the moments with Musashi in order to understand his obsession. And Inoue takes great pains to do just that, expanding this out over three tankobons+ of material – a much longer stretch of actionless material than a samurai-focused manga would generally allow.
But it is incredibly affecting, and effective: the parallel of Musashi trying to understand what makes one farmer’s crops grow while the field he’s working on is useless aligns with his continued need to “forget” the sword in battle and just merge with it; become the ultimate warrior by not fighting. Such zen koan-type thoughts occur here, but they don’t feel forced, thanks to the patience of the storytelling. That also earns us a great sense of accomplishment over the small successes Musashi experiences, painful empathy for the farmers as they wait out a starving winter in the hopes of a successful crop, and a keen awareness of how tumultuous it is when Musashi makes some life-changing choices along the way.
Again, though, we have been through this cycle of knock-him-down-and-wait-until-he-recovers, as recently as the last volume, with Musashi recovering from his injury. Similar to some other arcs, once the whole picture is painted and the tale can be revisited, experiencing the totality of these cycles will likely be perfection; taken chapter by chapter, though, it can sometimes feel like we’re just repeating the same things. Depending on the immersiveness of those “things” can make that more or less tolerable; this farming arc is a grand example of such immersiveness, though, making for another page-turning volume.