4 out of 5
This is, essentially, Musashi taking on all of the Yoshioka school – first, Densichiro in an essentially brief, but brilliantly tense stand-off; and then 70 members of the school, elicited to attack en masse as revenge for reputation’s sake.
That “brief” showdown with Densichiro still takes several chapters, thanks to the way Inoue is able to extend a moment by going into the two warriors’ thoughts, and none of this feels wasteful, or indulgent. It can be moving, or even comical at points, despite the drama, all of it giving ultimate weight to the smallest changes in stride or stance, or the slight alterations Densichiro and Musashi both make in their internal monlogues in which they assess their personal pursuits, and motivations. Vagabond does basically boil down to a study of that – of what dedicating one’s life to the sword meant, and could mean today – and these deep dives into thoughts and feelings underscore the forefronted hack and slash; we get our action, but it’s elevated to the Nth degree.
The battle that takes place thereafter is the full circle of comparing Musashi’s experiences to Kojiro’s, both now having gone through an endless onslaught of warriors. This sequence is given the same treatment as that of Densichiro’s, but it’s from a slightly different perspective, as Musashi could have walked away from this one – there was no pledge to fight – and it’s an unfair battle besides. Then, as he flips in and out of a warrior’s trance throughout, we keep bouncing back between his self doubt and fears and what the lessons that grow out of all of this.
I only detract a point for the concluding chapters, because I started to get really unclear as to what Inoue was trying to tell us, sometimes from a choreography point of view, and sometimes from the storytelling. While I think some of the point is Musashi’s exhaustion encouraging a more loose-limbed, surreal, dreamy POV, it feels like understanding that is going to hinge on reading the next couple of chapters, so at this stage, it’s more puzzling than not.
Art-wise, Inoue’s figurework is again reflecting a slightly more jagged, Janson / Romita style, and I’m really digging it – it’s a fine fit for the bedraggled, drawn out slaughter in the muddy fields.