Simply put, this manga is one of the best narratives ever created. It’s not just Takehiko Inoue’s masterpiece. It is a literary and artistic treasure. Takehiko Inoue’s Vagabond is relatable while also being distant and abstract. It reads better than an any historical fiction but is distinctively manga. It adheres to great traditions of storytelling while also displaying an incredible and tangible innovation. It has been my pleasure to read over the past 7 years. It’s releases can be rather sporadic so I like to wait until a couple of chapters come out to read them because the world of Vagabond is so immersive that I like to spend longer periods of time in it. I am sure you can understand. When you are reading a good story and then it stops and you don’t feel like you got to enjoy it long enough. When I first go into Vagabond I binged through like 20 volumes or something like 200 chapters straight. I didn’t read anything else. Honestly, I’m not sure that I did too much of anything else.
Vagabond follows the story of Shinmen Takezou, a boy who grew with a famous warrior as a father. Although that father was a celebrated warrior bestowed with the title of “Unrivaled Under The Sun (Heavens)” by Shogun Ashikaga. The heavy weight of the title became a monster in his heart that seemed to drive him insane. In the manga he even thought of his own son as a potential opponent and at least once threatened young Takezou’s life. His father dies when Takezou is young and so he isn’t mentioned much throughout the manga except at times when Takezou contemplates the concept of true strength. Takezou spends most of his childhood alone in the wilderness as the people of his hometown, Miyamoto Village, view him as a wild demon child. However he has a continuous friendship with a girl named Otsuu and his best homie Hon’iden Matahachi. Seeking a name for themselves as samurai Takezou and Matahachi run away from home to join the Toyotomi Army at the Battle of Sekigahara. They survive the battle and after that their lives take incredibly different paths. After the battle of Sekigahara, Takezou goes on an incessant and perilous mission to become the strongest samurai. Matahachi however spends the rest of his time as a vagrant man-whore after coming to the realization that he is absolutely not about that life. He struggles within himself to follow the path that Takezou’s fire set for them as unrivaled and revered samurai but he eventually realizes that he isn’t made of the same stuff as Takezou.
You may have read some synopsis of Vagabond somewhere else and are now thinking “Who the shit is Shinmen Takezou?”…”I heard this story was about the legendary sword saint who wrote The Book of Five Rings; Miyamoto Musashi. The undefeated and undisputed Legendary Samurai of lore. Well. Yeah. You are correct. Shinmen Takezou and Miyamoto Musashi are one and the same. The name Miyamoto Musashi was given to him by the Monk Takuan Soho, a traveling monk who plays a large part in his development, advises him and on looks out for him from time to time. You also probably also heard that his only rival is also in the manga; Sasaki Kojirou. Yes. Also true. I try to stay away from spoilers so I don’t want to get into all of it. It’s not one of those narratives which as long as you don’t give away the ending you don’t ruin the experience. For one, the releases are sporadic and slow so it’s still an ongoing manga. But also this narrative is all about the enjoyment of the ride. There are stories within stories and little bits that may seem inconsequential but give you tremendous pleasure in reading upon. It’s a masterpiece. That’s why.
What really pulled me into the story is that you such so much development and depth in each character. No character is a filler character. Stupid side characters show depth. Even if its just in facial expression or a few short lines here and there you get that feeling they their character is real. It’s like that guy cast as guy #15 in a stage play. If he just stands there on stage without getting into character then it throws the whole production off. Inoue portrays guy #15 like guy #1 or the main character. That’s thoughtful storytelling.
When people say a narrative has it all they are probably speaking in hyperbole but I assure you that this one has it all. It has action and adventure. It’s steeped in history and traditional nuance. It’s for the manga fan but also for the history buff. It’s for the person who knows the Musashi legends as I hear it is to some degree based on Musashi written by Eiji Yoshikawa but the person who doesn’t have any idea about the legends surrounding Musashi and his swordsmanship can also just appreciate artful storytelling. If you want romance then there is a bevy of it. There is the developing, unspoken yet ever present love that carries on between Musashi and Otsuu. Then there are the many awkward loves of broke playboy Matahachi. And even further still there is the unbelievably and yet somehow totally understandable Casanova-ness of the deaf and mute Sasaki Kojirou. The story has the indomitable spirit of a warrior while at the same time taking time to realize that people develop. It ponders serious questions about life as we know it. It delves into the kind heart of compassion and also the brutality of life. Musashi is not simple. No character in this story is simple. At times you find yourself wishing to physically reach through the page and slap sense into dumbass Matahachi and right after you can empathize with his insecurities. Masterpiece.
And then the artwork. Oh. And I mean artwork. The style in which Vagabond is drawn is gorgeous and distinct. There is nothing like it. I would be upset that Inoue hadn’t come out with a chapter in a while and then I would look at the pictures and be like “Bruh. I’m sorry. It takes time to create art like that.” He never uses the prisma color looking stuff. Don’t get me wrong. Many manga do and I like there art just as much in certain cases. But Inoue uses various traditional utensils like charcoal pencils, traditional calligraphy brushes with simple black ink. I love his water color pages. Each page looks like a work of art. Uses traditional tools to draw and color the pages gives the story this rustic color that makes you feel like you are watching an old Japanese film like 7 Samurai or Rashomon.
One of the GOATs. Greatest OF All Time.