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Manga Review: Vagabond, Vols. 1-6

Posted by: on December 13, 2007 at 6:35 pm

Vagabond, Vols. 1-6

By Takehiko Inoue
Published by Viz
Rating: Mature (18+)

vagabond6.jpgMiyamoto Musashi: the famed seventeenth-century Japanese swordsman who reputedly had over 60 life and death duels to his name. He fought in several major battles of the period, would apply to become a sword instructor to the Shogun, founded his own martial arts school, and wrote The Book of Five Rings, a military strategy classic. But before he became a legend he was simply Shinmen Takezo, a wandering outcast looking to make his mark in the world. Vagabond is based upon the novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa, a fictionalized retelling of the life of Miyamoto Musashi, and the first six volumes of the manga cover a very early period in his life. In them, we see Musashi’s humble beginnings as a foot soldier on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara, his fateful encounter with the monk Takuan which would lead to his name change, the destruction of the Yoshioka Sword school during his first encounter with its students, and his first confrontation with the second generation master of the Hozoin Spear technique, Hozoin Inshun.

The story is one that any manga fan should recognize: a young man sets out on a journey to become the strongest warrior there is. Sound familiar? Despite the fact that Vagabond is a seinen series, it follows this typical shonen formula to a tee. Musashi wanders from place to place, battling swordsman and other fighters all in his quest to become the strongest fighter alive. Along the way, some enemies become friends, and some friends become enemies. Inoue pulls off the formulaic plot with an expert hand, taking roles that we’re all familiar with and adding a layer of depth and complexity to the characters without that feeling of “been here, done that”.

One of the wonderful things that Inoue does is divide his attention between Musashi and his former friend Hon’iden Matahachi. The two friends start out in the exact same situation: survivors of the Battle of Sekigahara, stumbling along trying to make their way home, declaring that they each intend to become the strongest warrior in Japan. From there, however, their paths diverge. Whereas Musashi follows through with his vow and endures hardships, duels, and more, Matahachi… well, Matahachi becomes a bit of a failure, a useless drunk who still clings to dreams of greatness yet always manages to find a reason not to act on his word. The contrasts and parallels between the two are entertaining at first, but begin to take on a rather tragic tone as Matahachi rechristens himself with a new name that those familiar with Musashi’s life should instantly recognize. It’s an event which echoes Takezo’s transformation to Musashi from earlier in the series, but is tainted by the half-assed nature of just about everything Matahachi does.

Inoue’s art is absolutely fantastic. It’s dense and detailed with lush backgrounds. His characters and settings just don’t look good, they feel good. Inoue’s art is dripping with texture that’s rarely seen in most sequential art. His characters’ faces are beautifully drawn, whether it’s the withered face of Granny Hon’iden, the feral look in Musashi’s eyes, or the innocent playfulness on Inshun’s face, they’re all amazingly detailed and expressive. He uses line thickness and inks to convincing effect as well, often using it on a character in the foreground to give him a blurred, out-of-focus look. (I personally prefer this method to the photo shopping equivalent that’s used in many western comics. It looks better and doesn’t give you a headache.)

On a purely visual level, Vagabond is nothing short of stunning. The attention to detail on each page is fantastic, placing it head and shoulders above just about every other book on the shelf. Add this to Inoue’s deft retelling of a classic tale full of new twists and turns and you’ve got the makings of a classic must-read.

Volumes 1-25 of Vagabond are available now. Viz will begin re-issuing Vagabond in its new, three-volume Big Edition format in September 2008.

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7 Responses to "Manga Review: Vagabond, Vols. 1-6"

1 | Jon Haehnle

December 13th, 2007 at 10:41 pm

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Vagabond is awesome. I want those big editions NOW!

2 | Ken Haley

December 14th, 2007 at 1:26 am

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I can’t wait until those start coming out! Hopefully even more people will start checking it out once those start hitting the shelves.

3 | Katherine Dacey-Tsuei

December 14th, 2007 at 12:51 pm

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I stopped collecting Vagabond around volume 10 because I already had too many other series I was trying to follow. I was doing backflips of joy when I learned about those Viz Big Editions.

Great review!

4 | Ken Haley

December 14th, 2007 at 7:05 pm

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Mmhmm! I pretty much backed off for a similar reason. Nice to know that I’ll be able to jump back in soon, and with more bang for my buck too!

5 | Jon Haehnle

December 15th, 2007 at 10:41 am

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Ken, I hate to say this but September 2008 is nowhere near “soon”!

6 | Ken Haley

December 15th, 2007 at 6:36 pm

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Well, true.. ;>_>

7 | jodi

June 10th, 2008 at 9:32 am

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Free vagabond comics please. Since I move to another it’s dificult for me to find vagabond series. Can I get free vagabond comics please ?