Creator: Takehiko Inoue
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
Released: September 2008
Original run: 1998-ongoing (Weekly Morning)
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award, Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize
Takehiko Inoue's Vagabond is a series I have been looking forward to starting for quite some time now, but I promised myself that I would read Eiji Yoshikawa's epic historical novel Musashi first since the manga is loosely based on that work. Now that I have read Musashi, nothing is holding me back from reading Vagabond. Vagabond is a popular and highly regarded series in Japan, winning both the Japan Media Arts Grand Prize and the Kodansha Manga Award in 2000 as well as the 2002 Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize. The manga began serialization in 1998 and although it is currently on indefinite hiatus it is up to thirty-three volumes. Viz Media began publication of the English translation in individual volumes in 2007 as part of their Signature line. In 2008, they began releasing the series in an omnibus edition, each collecting three volumes of the original manga along with a bit of additional bonus material. It's a nice format for someone just starting to read Vagabond as it makes the long series a little easier on the pocketbook. (We do miss out on some of the nice cover art, though.)
Takezō Shinmen and his best friend Matahachi Hon'iden left their home to make a name for themselves as warriors and samurai. Instead, the young men are put to work clearing roads for the army. After the Battle of Sekigahara they find themselves alive but seriously wounded and, perhaps even worse, on the losing side. Shamed, Takezō and Matahachi begin their journey home. Matahachi is from a good family and has a fiancée waiting for him. Takezō on the other hand has nothing but bad memories and is disliked and feared by most of the village. Pursued by the authorities and having killed many in the process, his homecoming is less than welcome and he goes into hiding in the nearby mountains. It isn't until the monk Takuan Sōhō, close friend of the local lord, becomes involved in the search for Takezō that any progress is made quelling the violent youth.
Inoue is a phenomenal artist and storyteller. Although Vagabond is based on Yoshikawa's Musashi, Inoue has made the story his own. While the core elements remains the same and some scenes have been taken directly from the novel unchanged, Inoue isn't afraid to make changes to the story's pacing, characters, and plot to better suit his medium. And of course, it is always different seeing something visually presented rather than only reading about it. I adore Inoue's illustrations. Using a realistic style and beautiful figure work, he brings the characters of Vagabond to life and quite a few of them to their death as well. Vagabond is a very bloody, graphic, and violent work. Throughout the manga, Inoue uses interesting and dramatic points of perspective for his artwork. And beginning in the second volume he begins to incorporate more traditional looking ink brushstrokes to emphasize certain people and panels.
Each of the characters in Vagabond, whether primary or secondary, have unique designs and personalities and are easily distinguished from one another. And Takezō? Holy hell is he scary; completely deserving to be called a demon by the others. He is incredibly strong but extremely undisciplined as a younger man. He doesn't hesitate at all to kill another person, sometimes even delighting in it. Even after the three year break between volumes two and three he seems incapable of restraint. While he does appear to have gained more control and focus, Takezō (now going by the name Miyamoto Musashi) still lacks in maturity. I do wonder if Inoue will explain what happened in those three years or if he'll just let things stand as they are. I also want to know what happened to the characters who don't reappear in the third volume. However, I am confident that that will be revealed in subsequent volumes. Vagabond is definitely a series I will be following to its end; I look forward to experiencing more of Inoue's fantastic artwork and storytelling.