Classic Fantastic: Vagabond

Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format — please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.

How do you make an often idealized historical icon endearingly human? By putting him in the hands of a master storyteller like Takehiko Inoue. The award-winning creator of the exceptional REAL and best-selling Slam Dunk! series excels at pairing deeply relatable characters with visual and emotional realism. With Vagabond, he turns those prodigious talents to loosely adapting Eiji Yoshikawa’s 1935 classic novel Musashi, a fictionalized account of the life of Miyamoto Musashi, the author of The Book of Five Rings and Japan’s most celebrated swordsman. The result is a powerful yet personal historical drama that more than deserves its place on literature shelves and in the reader’s heart.

What’s it about?

Vagabond VizBig 1Scruffy young firebrand Takezô isn’t ruthlessly aggressive enough for his violent, invincibility-obsessed father, nor is he civilized enough for his rural mountain village. When political upheaval brings about a decisive battle at Sekigahara, restless Takezô and his best friend Matahachi leave behind the familiarity and commitments of home to join the fray and make their names. When the dust settles, the boys find themselves alive but on the losing side. Pent-up energy and frustrated ambition lead them in different directions: Takezô throws himself into building the most famous name in sword-swinging history, becoming the storied Miyamoto Musashi, while Matahachi ill-advisedly appropriates the name Sasaki Kojirô, unaware that his stolen identity’s rightful owner will become Musashi’s greatest rival.

Notable notes

Sympathetic, complicated characters are Vagabond’s lifeblood. Whether they’re destined to achieve greatness themselves, to help it along, or to simply witness it, Inoue treats them with the same gentle, humanizing touch.

Vagabond is the story of a giant among men. With his title choice, however, Inoue brings such titans down to earth by shifting the focus to the journey rather than the end result, the wandering soul rather than the legend.

Wild child Takezô may gradually transform himself into the “sword saint” Musashi, but he’s still a self-described bumpkin.  He pouts, he doubts, he cries, he makes a big, doofy fool of himself. As he picks out his difficult path step by faltering step, he brazenly chases after worthy men to challenge. He humbly, if hungrily, requests wisdom from those wiser and stronger than himself. It can be challenging: when it comes to his first true mentor, warrior monk Takuan, the great man thinks it’s hilarious to break the ice by breaking wind.  When Musashi later sees his younger self in a lost boy who looks to him for guidance, his heart won’t let him turn away. The fact that Musashi and his towering peers can be awkward, embarrassing, compassionate human beings and still inspire fear, awe, and respect endears them to the reader and makes their accomplishments all the greater.

Vagabond 14In the same way, characters of smaller stature display dignity and depth. Musashi’s earthbound, self-defeating, shortcut-taking best friend lands himself in one mess after another, yet he’s such a likeable, well-intentioned, and flawed everyman that his struggles tug at the reader’s heart. Matahachi’s stooped and wrinkled bulldog of a mother, who unfairly blames Musashi for her ne’er-do-well son’s bad choices, knows in her heart that she needs a scapegoat. Even the unnamed foes who fall on the edge of Musashi’s sword are understood to have lives, loves, fears, and dreams of their own. Inoue takes care to acknowledge their history and makes sure Musashi learns to, too.

Then there’s Sasaki Kojirô. Despite not being introduced until the fourteenth volume, enigmatic Kojirô is so fascinating a personality, and Inoue blends him into Musashi’s tale with such ease, that the reader instantly accepts him as an integral part of the story. His multi-volume backstory spans from the day a battered boat carrying his infant self and his dead father’s sword washes up at the feet of an aging hermit to the moment he and Musashi find themselves gleefully fighting back-to-back in the chaotic aftermath of Sekigahara. The main narrative seamlessly adds in Kojirô’s thread as characters’ paths diverge and converge.

Essential to bringing the characters, setting, and story to life is the series’ effective art. Telling details show fine or frayed clothing, expressive faces, ramshackle huts, gleaming dojos, muddied fields, and hushed forests. The reader is transported to Japan at the dawn of the Tokugawa shogunate, which is populated with diverse, expressive individuals. Due to Musashi and Kojirô’s affinity for all things wild, the natural world features prominently, with Musashi staring up at the night sky or Kojirô mesmerized by a tiny frog. Trees, in particular, are striking, including the solitary majestic giant under which Musashi confronts the Yoshioka. Continuity is carefully maintained as the reader sees Musashi accumulating scars and Matahachi’s slow-to-fill-in tuft of yanked-out bangs.

Inoue’s visual storytelling advances the narrative with impressive skill. Inoue’s striking portrayal of Kojirô is key. In addition to being a beautiful, selectively attentive young man with the smile of a child and a place in the heart of every woman he meets, the lethal swordsman is also a deaf mute. With no internal monologues for guidance, only Kojirô’s emotive vocalizations, the reader must rely on Inoue’s detail to be able to follow the young man’s keen eyes as he assesses threats, allies, and opportunities.

Vagabond 25Every panel sequence functions on multiple levels, defining personalities and relationships, establishing setting and tone, moving the story forward, and engaging the reader’s emotions. Take, for example, a scene in which supposed strangers Kojirô and Musashi run into each other while practice-dueling with the same snowman. The two quickly fall into a giddy, joyful, all-out twig-fight that only narrowly avoids evolving into a true and deadly contest. Then the pleasant aroma of supper lures them to the table. The reader giggles at the childish horseplay and grumbling tummies, takes comfort in the young men’s kinship, feels goose bumps at the crackling energy of their confrontation, and tearfully doubts such serendipitous interruptions in their future bouts.

Inoue’s story rings true even when cold logic dictates it should not, such as when Musashi takes on the entire Yoshioka school of pride-bruised swordsmen and overcomes their numbers through skill and desperate persistence. This conflict plays out over multiple volumes, yet the reader’s attention never flags as Inoue shifts perspectives and balances the stress of bloody action with moments of calm on the battlefield.

To understand and appreciate Musashi, you have to understand and appreciate the people, places, and experiences that shape him. It’s not enough to say a man is great. To believe it, you need context. And Inoue offers exactly that on page after lovely page.

Significance

Vagabond is a benchmark of both graphic literature and historical fiction, garnering numerous honors at home and abroad, including the Japan Media Arts Festival Grand Prize for manga (2000), the 24th Kodansha Manga Award (2000), the Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize (2002), and an Eisner Award nomination for Best Writer / Artist (2003).

Appeal

Vagabond 30Although originally published in a seinen (geared toward men in their twenties and thirties) magazine in Japan, Vagabond’s appeal is in no way limited by gender. Despite the focus on the men folk, there are a number of strong female characters who appear throughout the story, particularly Musashi and Matahachi’s childhood friend Otsû. While there are occasionally sexually explicit situations and nudity, they are always in service of the story and are far from gratuitous. Likewise, graphic violence is prevalent, but it’s an absolutely necessary facet of the story being told and is never played for shock value. The richly detailed and lovely art, the story’s emotional heft, the characters’ sympathetic and approachable natures and the bonds between them, the heart-racing life-and-death action, the enlightening history, the touching moments, the silly ones, the heartbreaking ones, the breathtaking ones: they all meld together to create something rich and involving and wonderful.

Why should you own this?

Vagabond breathes life into a celebrated legend and a defining period that may be unfamiliar to some readers, provides context for those who know a little something of Japanese history already, and expands the concept of what manga (and comics in general) can be and do (at least in the minds of those who mistakenly think it is limited in the first place).  It’s also a lot of fun to read.

After the release of volume 33, Inoue put the series on hiatus for about two years to address health concerns and renew his creative spirit. He has since resumed drawing the series, with the English volume 34 just released this spring, volume 35 slated for March of 2014, and the conclusion to the wanderer’s journey drawing ever closer.

Earlier original single-volume editions appear to be dropping out of print, but VIZ is reissuing the series in 3-in-1 VizBig omnibus editions. These ever-so-slightly-larger formatted volumes include the color pages and cultural notes from the original printings, as well as a few new extras, such as interviews. Sadly, they lose the original individual volumes’ attractive color covers, which have been replaced with new two- or three-tone cover art. While the single-volume editions may be preferable for their readability (200 pages are a lot easier to hold in your hand than 600) and pretty covers, the omnibus editions are a more efficient and affordable way to add the series to your collection, especially now that the others are becoming less reliably available.

Vagabond

by Takehiko Inoue, inspired by the novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa

Viz, 2002-2013

Vols. 1-34, ongoing

  • Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781421519111
  • Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781591160359
  • Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781421519135
  • Vol. 4 ISBN: 9781421519142
  • Vol. 5 ISBN: 9781569318935
  • Vol. 6 ISBN: 9781569318942
  • Vol. 7 ISBN: 9781591160731
  • Vol. 8 ISBN: 9781591161196
  • Vol. 9 ISBN: 9781591162568
  • Vol. 10 ISBN: 9781591163404
  • Vol. 11 ISBN: 9781591163961
  • Vol. 12 ISBN: 9781591164340
  • Vol. 13 ISBN: 9781591164517
  • Vol. 14 ISBN: 9781591164524
  • Vol. 15 ISBN: 9781591164531
  • Vol. 16 ISBN: 9781591164548
  • Vol. 17 ISBN: 9781591164555
  • Vol. 18 ISBN: 9781591166429
  • Vol. 19 ISBN: 9781591166436
  • Vol. 20 ISBN: 9781591165835
  • Vol. 21 ISBN: 9781421507415
  • Vol. 22 ISBN: 9781421508184
  • Vol. 23 ISBN: 9781421508269
  • Vol. 24 ISBN: 9781421508276
  • Vol. 25 ISBN: 9781421509754
  • Vol. 26 ISBN: 9781421519838
  • Vol. 27 ISBN: 9781421520087
  • Vol. 28 ISBN: 9781421527086
  • Vol. 29 ISBN: 9781421531489
  • Vol. 30 ISBN: 9781421534381
  • Vol. 31 ISBN: 9781421536316
  • Vol. 32 ISBN: 9781421538136
  • Vol. 33 ISBN: 9781421538143
  • Vol. 34 ISBN: 9781421549309

VizBig 3-in-1 editions, 2008-2012

Vols. 1-11, ongoing

  • Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781421520544
  • Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781421519111
  • Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781421522449
  • Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781421522456
  • Vol. 4 ISBN: 9781421522463
  • Vol. 5 ISBN: 9781421522470
  • Vol. 6 ISBN: 9781421522807
  • Vol. 7 ISBN: 9781421522814
  • Vol. 8 ISBN: 9781421522821
  • Vol. 9 ISBN: 9781421523132
  • Vol. 10 ISBN: 9781421529158
  • Vol. 11 ISBN: 9781421549293

Related media: Sumi and Water art books

Awards: Japan Media Arts Festival Grand Prize for manga (2000); 24th Kodansha Manga Award (2000); Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize (2002); Eisner Award Nominee for Best Writer / Artist (2003)

Suggested Age Rating: M (18+)

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