3 out of 5
Setting up Sasaki Kojiro – Musashi’s fated rival – has been a challenge. Deaf and mute, Inoue put forth the challenge to himself to not “cheat” the character’s development: one who cannot hear language will not think in the same word bubbles as our other cast members, and combined with not having the ability to communicate “normally” means relying on completely different cues for signaling learning, or thought, or understanding. As such, Kojiro has been established as part established, and part one-track mind: he is fascinated by violence and swordplay, and seems to only really respond when in scenarios involving those. Initially, this was fascinating, as we had Kojiro’s “father” – Kanemaki Jisai – struggling to learn how to communicate with the boy as well, half filling in Kojiro’s internal narration for us. It also created an interesting conflict in that Jisai sought to push Sasaki away from the sword. This is then juxtaposed by the appearance of Itō Ittōsai, who wants nothing more than to push Sasaki toward the sword – and we hear his tunnel-vision motivations for that in this volume. While I felt like Inoue was starting to belabor the points of Kojiro’s upbringing somewhat, the transition from Kanemaki to Ito was certainly important to track.
But that belaboring feels even more apparent here. Once more, I can understand the high level necessity of the extended battle into which Kojiro is thrown in the first two thirds on this 3-in-1 set: it’s the final crucible to knock him out of his fighting fascination and into a frenzied state beyond that – facing down fear, and death. In order to do this, though, Inoue introduces a slew of new characters (some Sekigahara survivors; refugee hunters) who, frankly, are a bit hard to tell apart, and who get their own somewhat cluttered narrative told in confusing flashbacks and forth when they are only to be fodder to Kojiro’s sword. Wound into this is the dichotomy of the pointlessness / holy pursuit of living by the sword – where the “reward” is to be struck down in battle – but achieving that commentary is almost tiresome, as we do not have either Kanemaki or Ito to reflect Kojiro’s potential thoughts, and so we’re just left with the enigma, smiling, exhausted, as he cuts his opponents down. Structurally, it’s sound, but in execution, I felt like I “got it” after one chapter… and then its keeps going for ten more. Is it amazingly depicted? Yes, and there are flashes of emotional resonance that make it worthwhile, but it’s the end result of so dedicatedly sticking to the limited narrative approach Inoue chose for Kojiro.
The return to Musashi is wonderfully welcomed, then, in the book’s final third. And perhaps to counter such heaviness in the prior chapters, the humor feels like it’s edged up a notch – including some moderately chibi-ized art! (…Which is super weird in Vagabond, so good that it’s done with a light touch, and sparingly.)
Musashi is preparing to challenge Denshichiro, and is watched by a curious Seijuro in the interim. Just as the initial shift to Sasaki was executed without a break in immersion, same is true for the shift back: we are immediately in Musashi’s wandering thoughts, immediately caught up in his preparations, and the thrill as he engages Seijuro in a fight…