5 out of 5
Sure, you can completely change characters and focus after 12 tankobons of material – nearly 130 chapters – and not lose a beat, but likely only if you’re Takehiko Inoue.
This is Musashi’s rival, Sasaki Kojiro, who we witness from being rescued from the sea as a baby by an elder, retired swordsman, up through his rambunctious childhood and first exposures to battle as a pre-teen. …But I only know this as Musashi’s eventual rival from info on the book’s inside flap; otherwise, we’re not given any winky hints by Inoue as to who this is, and yet, Vagabond’s brilliance never lets up – this does not feel like a distraction or aside from Musashi’s journey (which we leave in the middle of another flashback, detailing Tsujikaze Kohei’s taking up of the sickle and chain), rather, it arrives in a fully formed and confident fashion, never leaving any doubt that there will be a reason for this, down the road. Meanwhile, the road can be as long as Inoue wishes.
And as usual, every moment and part of our tale carries a large, emotional weight: Musashi’s sense of honor evolves in his bloody battle with Tsujikaze; Tsujikaze himself is given great depth and tragedy – no longer just a smiling villain – via his background; and Kojiro’s story is immediately epic, building up to wave after wave of emotional upheavels, both for the deaf Sasaki, and his adoptive father, Kanemaki. For the former, this cute, drags-a-sword-with-him-everywhere child is seen progressing from relative innocent to a young man with a taste for violence; for the latter, a once-brutal swordmaster must crawl through his own redemption arc, berating himself for his own perceived weaknesses at every step. Every page feels so relevant that it’s almost sinful, a malicious act against manga that simply can never be this precise – every panel purposeful, and beautiful – and powerful.
As to the art, Inoue’s line becomes interestingly sketchy towards the end of the collection (book 15), while maintaining the artist’s excessive realism, and the character’s emotionality. The looseness seems fitting for Kojiro’s personality.
In short, another gorgeous, impactful set of work from Takehiko, taking Vagabond – for those of us unfamiliar with Musashi lore – in completely unpredictable directions, never losing steam or a sense of story linearity throughout.