5 out of 5
A stunning achievement. Again.
It’s one thing to start off an epic story epically well – as Takehiko Inoue did in manga-izing a fictionalized version of swordsman Musashi Miyamoto’s life, kicking things off with a teen Musashi, then known as Takezō Shinmen, seeking an outlet for his perpetual rage after the battle of Sekigahara. It’s certainly another thing to keep that sense of epicness ramped up for hundreds of pages and chapters, and since I’m reading this series in “VIZBIG” collections which gather three tankobons in one, I’m well past the general sophomore slump of such attempts, amazed at how not even a single chapter has let me down.
The structure of the first three volumes could have led one to assume this would be an ongoing story of bravado: the essentially untrained Miyamoto just traveling to and fro, headfirst into challenges, and besting those who seemingly cannot be bested. …But then Inoue challenges that, as Musashi finds his force butting up against the immovable object of the Hōzōin school of spear fighting. The next typical variation on the “baddest of badass protagonists fights and wins all the time” is for the protag to fail, learn a lesson, conquer anew and move on, and while that will probably be the way this thing goes, Inoue tweaks it into a longform tale of suffering – though not without humor – that somehow maintains Musashi’s ferocity, while also allowing him to wallow in an expression of cowardice. He is learning the lessons he needs to, but it’s not at the cost of that core, driving rage; it’s a fascinating dynamic, brought to life by succinct, smart writing, and simply amazing art.
We also circle back around to ne’er-do-well Matahachi Hon’iden, and cripes, you can just tell this guy is gonna be a love-to-hate-’em type, who can sink no lower, but then does anyway. Surely he and Musashi will cross paths again.
Vagabond shows zero signs of slowing down, with, in tandem, signs in every chapter of growth. I suppose I should temper my belief that the next volume (which I’m of course tearing into immediately) will be equally amazing, but… nah.