5 out of 5
Are you really surprised by the utter excellence of this series at this point? But then you are actually surprised at how Takehiko has somehow exceeded that excellence?
Volume 4 of Vagabond continues Musashi’s training and quests, with almost the entire first half of the book devoted to his infiltration of the Sekishusai camp, and then tracking down its master, Yagyu Sekishusai – meeting again with Otsu along the way – wavering over the elder leader as he sleeps, suddenly thrust into the deepest of contemplation over what, exactly, he – Musashi – hopes to achieve. This is post an insane showdown with the other senior warriors of the clan – four against one – and fascinating interludes into our protagonist’s subconscious, as he becomes ever closer to enlightenment; one with his environs.
His ultimate failure at besting the slumbering master is but another learning experience: he is not ready to proceed; a grand change from the ever-moving-forward Musashi of before. He scales a mountain, just to know what is at the top: a vision of other, taller mountains. He laughs. Inoue effects all of this so, so brilliantly; paced majestically to milk out the most emotion, the most meaning, and even the most humor at choice spots.
Segue to the tragedy of Matahachi, still faking a warrior’s name, and now boasting to his grandmother and Uncle of his prowess, though his Uncle is curious: why does he never spar? …And Matahachi runs, and the trouble that follows just deepens the tragedy, and the character’s inherent cowardice. Again: love to hate this guy.
We end with our cast converging around a new, violent challenge: the wielder of the sickle and chain, Shishido Baiken.
Takehiko’s conservation of visual energy and slight tweaks to his style along the way are masterful; the use of symbolism, occasionally wholly surreal but always understandable in context similarly so; and then the emotional undercurrent running ‘neath all of this is what elevates it to the most top tier. …At least until Inoue bests that limit again at some point.