The date: October 21, 1600. The place: Sekigahara, Japan, located in the present-day Gifu Prefecture. The battle that was fought there on that day paved the way for the last great shogunate in Japanese history, the Tokagawa bakufu, which lasted until 1868, providing a period of great stability for the nation. But this same stability also proved to be the undoing of a large number of samurai who were no longer needed for peacekeeping tasks, and many of them were forced to become rōnin, which is a samurai with no lord or master. Some turned to teaching, while others were assimilated into the general populace, either on farms or in towns. And still others roamed the land in an effort to sell their services to those in need of a skilled swordsman. They were displaced men, seeking to find some meaning to their lives, which had been so upended by the cessation of hostilities. And being a rōnin was not necessarily a position of honor, either….
A fictionalized story of one of Japan's most famous rōnin, swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, as told by Takehiko Inoue in his manga Vagabond, begins on that battlefield, as 17 year old Shinmen Takezo comes to grips with what has happened there. He and his friend Matahachi find themselves very much alive as the smoke of battle clears, and must decide what to do now. Matahachi's natural inclination seems to be toward defeatism, but Tazeko forces him up and off the ground, telling him they are going, supporting his friend with his own strength. When they are beset by refugee hunters, it is Takezo that displays courage and skill in besting them, while Matahachi cowers in fear – a pattern which will repeat itself throughout the course of their relationship. Continuing their trek to find some sort of help, they come across a number of corpses left behind by the battle, and in the midst of them a strange sight – a young girl removing their swords! This is Takemi, and she and her mother Okō make their living by taking items from corpses and selling them at a profit. They take in the two young men, and Okō is drawn to Takezo, although he does not reciprocate her interest. Matahachi – who should not be interested, as he has a fiance, Otsū, back in their village of Miyamoto – is, and goes to Okō in the middle of the night; when she mistakes him for Takezo, he doesn't correct her false impression, even if it means living vicariously through his friend's name. When a group of brigands – whose specialty is robbery, rape and murder – by the name of the Tsujikaze Gang, pay one of their sporadic visits to Okō to take whatever she has accumulated since their last visit, she denies having anything, which they don't believe. Returning to force her to turn over the loot, Takezo confronts them, in order to save the two women, and his friend, unaware that they have already escaped. Matahachi, espying his friend's valor in a fight in which he is badly outnumbered, waffles, knowing he should help him, but he is reunited with the escaped Okō and decides to have sex with her instead, leaving with her and Takemi the next day, believing Takezo to have been overwhelmed and killed. Quite the contrary, Tazeko is very much alive, having slain Tsujikaze Tenma, and he decides to embark upon a journey of discovery, in order to learn to become one with the sword.
Volume 6 of Vagabond is a continuation of the Sasaki Kojiro arc begun in chapter 14, so for the moment we must set Miyamoto aside. As an infant, Kojiro is left in the hands of Kanemaki Jisai, the retired teacher of Sasaki Sukeyasu, Kojiro's father. Jisai plucks the infant from a small boat on a stormy sea, saving him, and then proceeds to raise him, unaware for the first few years of the boy's life that he is actually deaf (which makes him rather unobservant, in my book). The two live on the outskirts of a small coastal village, barely eking out an existence. Despite this, Kojiro thrives and grows strong, even if he is an outcast, both for his deafness as well as his association with Jisai, whom the villagers consider to be crazy. Kojiro befriends the local bully, Kusanagi Tenki, who wishes to be known as "invincible under the sun", and together they practice their swordsmanship, and plot to kill Fudo, an aging swordsman who holds the villagers in terror of him, and who has a nasty habit of stealing their young daughters for his own designs once they reach puberty. Tenki has a particular grudge of his own against the old pervert, for Fudo cut off Tenki's father's arm, leaving the man an invalid. The two youths force a confrontation, which would have ended badly for them if not for the intervention of Jisai, who takes down the old man with one stroke, earning him the gratitude of the village. And now he has no trouble finding pupils for his school of Chujo-ryu swordsmanship, which had been empty prior to this. The grateful villagers offer Jisai a new place to live, but he decides that the squalid hut which he and Kojiro call home is good enough for them. Kojiro has been fascinated by the blade from birth, for the only thing that he had from his parents was a long sword, which he learned to handle early on. Even being deaf, he has an instinct for self-preservation which is astounding, almost bordering on the preternatural, for he cannot possibly hear his opponents approach, and yet he seems to be attuned to those he fights. Kojiro wishes Jisai to instruct him in the way of the sword – he desires this very badly – but his foster father refuses, having seen the savagery which Kojiro displayed in the actions he took upon Fudo's body after his death. A one-time pupil of Jisai, Ito Ittosai, who has come to pay a sporadic visit to his former mentor, sees something in the young man – recognizes that he is a "tiger" in the same way that he and Jisai are, and with the proper training can achieve much. Wishing to see what Kojiro can do, he takes advantage of the presence of some wandering swordsmen, among whom are Ueda Ryohei and Denshichiro of the Yoshioka (whom we met in the Yoshioka arc). Ito incites a duel, and watches the result with great interest. Kojiro and Deschichiro go up against one another in a pitched battle, each taking the measure of the other, and although Kojiro is deaf, his swordsmanship speaks volumes to them both, and when it is over, they know that they will face one another again.
With a heavy heart, Jisai realizes that Kojiro is destined to fight, and gives his reluctant blessing to his leaving with Ito in order to follow the path he wishes to take. After their departure, he sends Tenki after them with money for his adopted son, as well as a certificate of swordsmanship – but as you may recall that ultimately ended badly, with Matahachi acquiring the certificate and passing himself off as the unknown, to him, Sasaki Kojiro (which takes place at some point later in the story). Ito and Kojiro encounter an unusual fellow by the name of Muso Gonnosuke, who sports a banner which proclaims him to be '#1 Martial Artist Under The Sun', in contrast to Kojiro's banner, which claims that he is the '#1 Swordsman Under the Sun'. The two #1's fight, Kojiro besting Gonnosuke, after which they join forces in their travels – and come upon a certain battlefield in Sekigahara….. and now we have arrived at the point from which we originally began…
Reading this manga is comparable, in my estimation, to watching a vintage Kurosawa film. It is based, albeit somewhat loosely, on the life of the great swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, but more than simply a telling of his exploits and his deeds, it explores his development, from the untried youth Shinmen Takezo, into the swordsman seeking the path of enlightment, Musashi. We not only follow him, we get into his head, and his heart, share in his disappointments, his setbacks as well as his hard-won victories. It is hard not to root for him to somehow cross paths with Otsū and Jotaro once again, and I have been silently screaming for several volumes now for them to declare their mutual affection for one another. Alas, I see I am destined to wait a bit for that. And I am also waiting for their paths to cross with that of Matahachi and his evil mother (I'm crossing my fingers that she receives the comeuppance she so richly deserves!) I was disappointed when the story took another path at the beginning of the Kojiro arc, but I quickly adjusted, becoming a fan of the talented young man who doesn't let what some might consider a handicap slow him down. From his youth, he has always been eager to learn, and he shows a remarkable intelligence, picking up the kanji his foster father teaches him, desirous of communicating with the world around him, not to mention wishing to take it on his own terms. He doesn't consider his deafness a disability, but accepts it as just the way it is, although he does seem to attempt to imitate those around him in his pretend speech at times. Some of the best scenes revolve around Kojiro and Jisai and the obvious affection between them, which only goes to show that blood alone is not what makes a caring father. Caring for Kojiro has given Jisai a purpose which was lacking in his own life, and he has done a fine job of raising this young man singlehandedly.
The artwork in Vagabond is amazing. Inoue has taken remarkable care, and gives great attention to detail in the portrayal of his scenes. I cannot praise the visual beauty of these novels enough! If you are a fan of samurai films, you will surely enjoy this, for there is a great deal of swordsmanship displayed in the many battles played out – no skimping on the details here! – and we are privileged to witness various styles of fighting which were prevalent during the period in question. Vagabond contains elements of history, action, and romance, as well as being full of the very nature of humankind itself, which tends to be timeless – people are people, no matter when or where they live. Takezo/Musashi is a great swordsman/hero, and I look forward to following him for some time to come.
Comicsonline gives Vagabond 5 out of 5 crazy tigers.