Takehiko Inoue – Viz – 2011 – 35+ volumes
this is an omnibus containing vols. 28-30

These are mostly caught up with the regular English release, so I haven’t read one in awhile.  I got volume 11 some time ago (which may catch things up to within less of an omnibus), and thought it was a good time to read this one.  This is the kind of series that, when I finish a volume, I want to know there’s another to pick up afterwards.  It’s a very powerful read, and I’d hate to be left hanging if I didn’t want more.  This is a particular reading quirk of mine though, and I do this with novel series as well (I want to read Dance with Dragons SO BAD but I can’t until the next one comes out, for instance).

This one’s all about Musashi recovering and trying to figure out where his path takes him.  He was severely wounded in his last fight, to the point where he may no longer be able to challenge the best fighters anymore.  So Takuan comes and advises him.  What could he possibly get out of his current lifestyle?  Doesn’t it feel good to be waited on by Otsu?

But it also seems like everyone knows this is in vein.  Otsu knows Musashi won’t settle down, and he wouldn’t be the same if he did.  Musashi reflects heavily on his path, and on Takuan’s words, and on what those he’s met along his path before this have said.  He reflects seriously on his actions, and what they mean to him.  In any other book, this much reflection would be boring, but somehow in Vagabond, the characters and Inoue’s art make it feel just as spiritual as it does for Musashi.  That’s the really incredible thing about this series.  Sometimes, there’s volumes like this where there’s not much action and nothing going on.  And yet, they are still somehow very full reading experiences.

There’s still Kojiro’s path too, and I love how this is building up to an intersection.  Kojiro is also just… such a likeable character.  His fights are also interesting.  Here, an heir to a sword school is randomly challenged to a match by Kojiro idling with a stick.  The heir, a powerful swordsman, sees his death come at Kojiro’s hands just as if they had actually fought, and as if he had a real sword in his hands.  Kojiro apparently just has that much presence, and again, it’s conveyed amazingly well in the comic.  Far better than it has any right to be, in fact.

I read this some time ago (it was at the bottom of my to-review stack, and I’m just now getting to it, which is a shame), so a lot of the details are hazy.  All three of the volumes within are mostly in-between volumes though, while Musashi recovers from his fight, Matahatchi still tries to find his place, Kojiro continuing on to great things, et cetera.  But again, the presence these books have, the experience you get reading them, is incredible.  I would highly recommend the omnibus format as well, because one volume of this series just isn’t enough.  And it’s an amazing enough series that I’m heavily addicted, despite having not much interest in Japanese period stories or samurai.  It’s likely one of the best manga out there, and I’m delighted to be able to experience it.  I think he’s going to wrap it up soon as well, so I’ll be curious to see how that will be done over the course of the next several volumes.

Vagabond 9 (VizBig ed.)

August 9, 2011

Takehiko Inoue – Viz – 2010 – 33+ volumes
this is an omnibus containing vols 25-27

In the first of the three volumes, Musashi takes on Denshichiro for the second time. The duel is a sad thing, since Denshichiro knows he can’t win, Musashi knows Denshichiro can’t win, and neither one wants to fight. But, you know. Honor and all. The end of this fight is quite crushing, even when you know it’s coming.

Interestingly, the story takes a break from fighting at that point and has Musashi meet up with old friends. Matahachi’s mom is at the duel, and Otsu is spotted in the crowd as well. Later, Musashi meets up with Matahachi, and the two go drinking. This is a bizarre scene, since it leaves several opportunities for Musashi to make jokes, and he just doesn’t do that. It’s wrong, on some level. But highly enjoyable all the same. One of the issues discussed between the two is that Matahachi has built an image of Musashi in his mind that has little to no bearing on what Musashi is like now. It’s based solely on public opinion and Matahachi’s own perceptions of it. Harsh words are spoken. I loved that the incident between the two is implied rather than shown.

And there’s the Yoshioka school. Both their masters have been cut down by Musashi. Honor demands vengeance. But if Seijuro and Denshichiro couldn’t cut Musashi down, nobody can. They challenge Musashi, and he overhears plans about all 70 members of the school ambushing him and cutting him down on the appointed day. There’s no honor, but the school’s reputation will be saved when they claim one of their members demanded vengeance and succeeded.

Takuan randomly shows up, and he and Musashi discuss the fact that Musashi can’t engage in this fight. Musashi sleeps on it, and then takes the mountain road out of Kyoto.

I was slightly disappointed by this. I mean, Musashi was right. It’s insane to take on 70 swordsman. Why would he knowingly walk into a fight like that.

Then again, they don’t write manga about guys that don’t walk into a fight like that. Musashi turns around and engages. I’m not sure why I was fooled by this for a second. Maybe because these characters are actually rational, to some extent, and their decisions usually bear a resemblance to real logic. But at the same time, it’s very much like Musashi to take on 70 swordsman. He acknowledges he likely won’t walk away from the fight, which I would have believed at the time, but I know that there are more volumes after this, so it was less exciting.

This fight is given all the attention it deserves. Taking on 70 swordsman is no laughing matter, and what would be blown off as a simple feat of strength in any other series is an ordeal here. It lasts for two volumes, and it’s a terrible thing. The Yoshioka men are scared, Musashi acknowledges time and again that he can’t stop to think or he will be killed. Blood is spilled all over the field. The scared men die terrible deaths. Everyone dies a terrible death. I’d like to go back and count the engagements actually documented on the pages here, to find out if it really does show him cutting down 70 men individually. It sounds unlikely, but again, this lasts for two volumes. Almost every page has Musashi cutting a man down. I think it’s likely that it shows all 70 of the battles. And that is astounding. It shows just how much thought went into this fight.

The aftermath is just as terrible as the battle itself. The field is full of crows and blood and dismembered corpses. Dying men beg for mercy. Many pray. Musashi has to find the sword that was sharpened especially for him, and must pick among his opponents for it.

It’s a terrible thing. And astounding. I really can’t believe what I just read. And that Vagabond can still be so stunning, even after all the story I’ve already read. By rights, two volumes full of nothing but fighting guys should be boring. It’s not here, though. It’s heart-wrenching. Truly terrible.

What an incredible series. I lack the words to truly describe it. It deserves any and all the praise it gets, and I hope it is read as a classic for years to come.

Vagabond 8 (VizBig ed.)

November 28, 2010

Takehiko Inoue – Viz – 2010 – 33+ volumes
this omnibus contains volumes 22-24

Once again, I am going to have a hard time talking about this series because it is superb in every way, and reading it in these 3-in-1 volumes is a pretty special treat. More than the other omnibus volumes I read, this series flies by, and I just cannot imagine reading it on even a bimonthly schedule.

For instance, this volume starts with the resolution to the duel between Musashi and Seijuro. After this, you know that Musashi will duel Denshichiro. The duel with Denshichiro doesn’t actually come until the very end of volume 24, and they are still dueling after the volume finishes. The implication is that Musashi is no match for Denshichiro, but all the same, that’s some cliffhanger, and it had a lengthy prelude, too.

With that duel hanging over the heads of the characters (the Yoshioka school does its best to prevent it, in order to keep their honor intact, since they assume that Denshichiro will lose), there is another interesting development. Musashi recuperates in the home of Hon’ami, a famous sword sharpener. Who else is staying with Hon’ami’s family? Sasaki Kojiro.

Waiting for those two to meet over the course of about three volumes was excruciating. To make matters worse, Matahachi appears and acts as a kind of spokesman for the deaf Kojiro. I was waiting for all three characters to meet up. Far from being the tense affair that Matahachi seemed to expect, I think that Musashi would have simply been a little surprised to run into Matachi. As for the meeting between Musashi and Kojiro… well, that didn’t go at all like I imagined. The Yoshioka swordsman made plans the whole volume to replace Denshichiro with Kojiro in the duel, so I was expecting something really spectacular. Of course, a confrontation the likes of what I imagined… neither character would walk away, so I can see how that might not work.

I still think Matahachi is an interesting character. He is mortal, following in the path of Musashi, who isn’t quite. He’s a regular guy that loves sex, booze, and not working. He can’t really do anything well. In this volume, we learn about his friendship with Musashi and what it still means to him, and that is used to contextualize his new relationship with Kojiro. It’s easy to hate Matahachi, but he doesn’t really deserve it, and I think it’s neat to see him ground the story from time to time.

I also love seeing Musashi develop. Far from the battle-crazed beast of early volumes, he’s calmed down, and almost has a sense of humor as he’s waiting for his duel with Denshichiro to start. He’s still trying to perfect his craft, and with his somewhat looser state of mind, he taps into a oneness with nature he experienced as a boy. The state of mind helps him immensely, and the way he brings himself to this new awareness is drawn absolutely beautifully. I mention this every time, but I really do love Takehiko Inoue’s art. It’s amazing, and such a huge part of why this series is magical.

I am one behind on these big volumes, so now I have the privilege of reading another set of three volumes. The omnibuses should be all caught up by the time Inoue finishes the series, which will reportedly be very soon. I think I will adore every page as I slowly catch myself up to the present events.

Takehiko Inoue – Viz – 2010 – 33+ volumes
this omnibus collects volumes 19-21.

I’m just blown away by the consistency of this series.  I never really feel like I’m reading three volumes, I always want more when I finish, and every time it’s more amazing than the last.

Reading this after the volumes of Real and Slam Dunk is interesting.  You can see a little of Slam Dunk in Real, though Real does completely different things with basketball.  You get the impression that Hanamichi and Nomiya would be friends, though.  And in Vagabond, which has nothing to do with either of those series, there’s still a little of the punk school kid in Musashi.  Reading that last chapter made me smile, because I don’t think I ever would have picked up on that unless I’d read it immediately after the others.  Musashi’s just too serious a guy to really think of in that way, but he acts exactly the same as the others.  It also helped that I went from Hanamichi, the most comical, to Nomiya, pretty serious but still funny, to Musashi, who doesn’t have a funny bone in his body.

Anyway.  The first two volumes in this collection stick to Kojiro, throwing him into an incredibly elaborate and frightening survival situation.  I’m not clear on all the history behind it, but basically the locals think that any strangers they see are part of the invading army that completely ravaged their villages and ruined their lives, so they are hunting down any stragglers in big groups.  Kojiro is separated from his “sensei,” and with no way to hear what the people are saying or a method to explain who he is, he is hunted relentlessly for days.  He cuts down dozens, even in his sleep.  He knows terror, and he must survive.

The second volume narrows the focus down to a group of men who really are soldiers trying to flee.  They have the unfortunate luck of running into Kojiro after he’s been fighting for his life with no food, water, or sleep for what may have been one or several days.  This scene is stretched out into an entire volume, but covers several different reactions to Kojiro, and he even makes a friend, of sorts.  His handicap does figure into all the fighting, and I still can’t get over how interesting it is to structure a psychologically-oriented series on swordfighting and personal motivation around a character with limitations to personal interaction.

This is made even more interesting by the jarring switch back to Musashi in volume 21.  Musashi converses with his opponent and himself, and where we’ve been accustomed to silence and reflection in the past several volumes there is now a running commentary.  I think it is this transition that made the punk high school kid connection even more solid in my mind, because after Kojiro’s simple way of life (he knows nothing but swordfighting, and enjoys it in a way that he cannot express), Musashi’s obsession with becoming invincible and simply cutting down everyone in his path seems… well, silly.  And it didn’t really, before.

Musashi’s back in Kyoto to face Denshichiro Yoshioka.  Interestingly, the volume starts with a color sequence where Musashi cuts him down, but given the number of strange premonitions the characters have about death (basically, graphic scenes that are near-indistinguishable from the narrative) I wasn’t really taking this scene at face value.  The rest of the volume builds up to their showdown after Denshichiro issues a challenge and date to Musashi.  There’s Denshichiro’s preparation with the fellow swordsmen in the Yoshioka school, there’s Musashi’s preparation out in the woods by himself… and then there’s Seijuro.  He’s the lazy head of the Yoshioka school, the one who’s preternaturally gifted without having to train.  He puts down both Denshichiro and Musashi, and yet he persistently guards his brother under the guise of frequenting a brothel (although, yes, he does do some of that).  It’s the fight between Seijuro and Musashi that the volume ends on, with a cliffhanger for next time.  I found Seijuro’s devotion to his brother, and his quiet pursuit of Musashi, pretty touching, and it gave me an unexpected appreciation of the arrogant guy.

Notable moments include the very beginning of the fight with Seijuro where Musashi is honestly angry that Seijuro cut his forehead yet again, and a cute scene towards the end of the volume where all the characters (Musashi, Matahatchi, and Otsu) celebrate New Year’s Day in their own separate parts of the country.  It’s a little funny, but mostly depressing and very sad, especially from Matahatchi and Otsu’s points of view.

I cannot get enough.  I’m torn as to whether this or Real is my favorite Inoue series.  Both are very good in different ways… but I think I enjoy Vagabond more, which is fun in these huge chunks, whereas Real gives you more to chew on in each volume.

Vagabond 6 (VizBig ed.)

April 18, 2010

Takehiko Inoue – Viz – 2010 – 33+ volumes
This VizBig volume includes volumes 16-18 of the regular series

I was happy to see a lot more of Kojiro in this volume, because I think he’s an incredibly interesting character, but I think I’ll be happy to go back to Musashi in the next volume I read.

Since we have the youth of Kojiro out of the way, this volume takes an indepth look at his life as a swordsman, and how he got started on his path.  His deafness makes it impossible to communicate with people normally, so I think the fact he has a guide (first Jiai, his adoptive father, then Ito Ittosai) is important.  It’s interesting that neither of these men claim to understand him, they simply accompany him on his life’s journey and occasionally help out.  Jiai shelters him in his youth, but it’s Ittosai that identifies his fighting instincts and takes him out in the world.  But even Ittosai does little to provoke or otherwise lead opponents to Kojiro.  Kojiro has his own way of doing battle, and Ittosai simply watches.

One of his first serious opponents is Denshichiro Yoshioka, and the battle with him and his men takes up most of what I think is volume 17.  The way Kojiro steps naturally into battle and shows no mercy, and the way that Den and the others project feelings onto him, is interesting.  Ittosai identifies a weakness in Kojiro, the fact he knows no fear, but from there, Kojiro seems to have a knack for deciding which opponents will put up the best fight, dismissing those who he has no wish to spar with.  After the amazing fight with Yoshioka, Denshichiro has a dream about a conversation with Kojiro where he just wouldn’t stop talking about how much he loved the sword.  It’s an interesting way to show insight into a character who literally does not share his thoughts.

The fact that Kojiro is deaf is probably one of my favorite plot devices of all time and makes Vagabond about a hundred times more interesting from here on out.  There is a brief confrontation between Musashi and Kojiro at the very end of the volume, but it’s nothing serious, and I loved the way it was handled in the context of the story.  I’m very much looking forward to future meetings between the two.

With all the good stuff, I was a little disappointed in the fact that most character’s motivations for fighting were simply “a love of the sword” and “wanting to get stronger.”  I think I didn’t notice it so much with the Musashi stories up to this point because there’s more of an emphasis on his raw emotions and the fact that he’s like a force of nature rather than someone who wants to learn the sword.  That’s true of Kojiro too, and has to be, since we are given no other reason for Kojiro’s love of swordfighting.  But the emphasis on Kojiro wanting to learn the sword, and other characters discussing his lifestyle in this way, and all of Yoshioka’s talk about the art of the sword and wanting to get stronger and challenging other strong opponents and… whatever.  I know these are all perfectly valid reasons for wanting to live the life these men lead, and I know there are plenty of people that get really into that and love this kind of stuff… but I just wasn’t buying it.  It wasn’t working for me.  That’s probably one of the reasons I tend to avoid these types of series, but I’m glad Vagabond has a lot more to offer.

I love these VizBig editions of this series, because I think reading it a volume at a time would drive me crazy and really put a hurt on my wallet.  It doesn’t take me long at all to breeze through these, with the beautiful artwork and the well-orchestrated and ponderous fights, but a three-volume chunk seems adequate, and I don’t mind the wait between VizBig volumes.  Plus, with all the color artwork included and the fancy packaging, this really is the perfect way to read this series.  I couldn’t be happier.

Vagabond 31

January 7, 2010

Takehiko Inoue – Viz – 2009 – 32+ volumes

Holy crap, I didn’t realize the English volume releases were only a couple months behind the Japanese for this series!  That’s pretty amazing.  I guess it’s technically four months behind, but that’s still pretty good, even for a popular series.

Anyway, I wanted to see what it would be like to read the volumes out of order.  I started this one, then realized it is not the nature of this series to spoil itself, that the joy of reading it comes from the vignettes and the fights, which don’t really lead into one another.  I thought I would be coming in during a complicated relationship between Musashi and Kojiro, but that’s not the case.  The only difference seemed to be a calm that Musashi had here that he doesn’t have where I’m at.  I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything in the 15 volumes between this and where I’m at, which isn’t a bad thing.  It’s pretty incredible, actually, that it’s so consistently good that any volume can be picked up and enjoyed by itself.  It’s not a very common thing in manga.

I actually decided to pick this up when the cartoony drawing of Matahachi’s mom on the back cover made me smile.  She’s annoying, but a pretty funny character, and I was surprised that she’d stuck around the story for so long.  Little did I suspect what happened, and it was the best story for both her and Matahachi, and I like Matahachi even less than her.  Matahachi is forced to come to terms with his own nature and admit to her outright what has happened, which doesn’t change much of anything.  Still, the scene was sad, stark, and touching, especially when he failed to do something that finally made him snap and declare himself weak.  It was pretty incredible.

Otherwise… we still have Musashi prowling around, being challenged by errant swordsman who are struck down.  He seems to have more of a strategy, and talks out loud, something he usually doesn’t do where I’m at.  And as I said, he’s much calmer here, which is also interesting.  I wasn’t surprised to see him working his way back to the Yagyuu clan, which really is more of the same, but also not.  The opponent he meets on the way is amazing in a way that only Vagabond can make repeated encounters with swordsman, and the artwork helps to enhance the confrontation and drag it into the realm of the dark and fanciful.  I was also happy to see the Yagyuu master and Otsu still hanging around, though it’s a shame to see she isn’t more a part of the story at this point.  I pray I never see a cartoon drawing of her on the back of a volume.

As always, excellent stuff.  I was also surprised that the single volume didn’t leave me wanting more like I thought it would, since I’ve been spoiled on the 3-volume doses of the VizBig editions.  I guess that’s just the magic of Vagabond, it always satisfies.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

Vagabond 5 (Big ed.)

November 16, 2009

Takehiko Inoue – Viz – 2009 – 31+ volumes
this Big edition is volumes 13-15

I was mostly successful in my omnibus week, though I still want to read the last two before I call it quits.  This had just come in a few days before I decided to read all my omnibuses, and it was a big part of why I decided to do that, since I thought reading Vagabond after finishing the others would be a reward.

Vagabond is, quite simply, amazing.  I have no words to describe how wonderful every single volume of it is.  A big part of it is Takehiko Inoue’s art, which is fantastic, and more suited to this type of story than it is to Slam Dunk and Real (as much as I like those two as well).  More than anything, a big part of that is the way Inoue renders nature, which is almost like a character in the story.  No matter what someone is doing, they do it while standing in a grassy field, in a forest, on a beach, or wherever.  As they ponder whatever challenge it is they are overcoming, we see them doing so while surrounded by beautifully-drawn backgrounds, which provides context and makes the problems seem that much more real, or immersive, I suppose.

Of course, there’s a lot to be said about the fight scenes, too.  While the action scenes in Slam Dunk are still quite well-drawn, even considering the age of that series, they are better here, and I love that Inoue draws the fights with a looseness to the inking that transforms them into sumi-e scenes.  It’s just beautiful.

And the story is no slouch, either.  Here, the three volumes cover a chain-and-sickle fight between Musashi and an opponent from earlier in the series, and then we (I assume) flash back to look at the childhood of Sasaki Kojiro, a deaf orphan reluctantly raised by an outcast swordsman.

Now, the chain-and-sickle fight was pretty amazing.  I loved the challenge posed to Musashi by the new weapon, but the experience wasn’t as transcendent for him as his other fights have been.  We see him strategize more than we see him explore himself, and most of the pathos is pushed to the opponent, who lives with the daughter of a man he killed.  He learned chain-and-sickle from her, since the two live silently together and she periodically tries to get her revenge with that weapon, the same her father used.  The fact that so few words are exchanged is quite lovely, and leaves what goes on between them up to interpretation.

I also liked that we were reminded of who the character was through the use of a one-panel, wordless flashback.  I had no recollection of him, but that one panel worked far better than the standard lengthy recap.  It’s concise methods are another reason I like Vagabond.  It has few words, but still communicates so much through image and emotion alone.

The chain-and-sickle fight was blown completely out of the water by Kojiro’s childhood.  I don’t think I’ve ever run across a deaf character in a manga before, especially one handicapped from birth like this.  I couldn’t believe how touching and sincere the story was, either.

There is very little Vagabond has to do to succeed.  It could succeed by being swordfight after swordfight, but it strives to make the struggles as realistic as possible, and it gives all the characters personalities, so they’re not just braggarts swinging swords.  In Kojiro’s case, he quieted down when he clutched his father’s sheathed sword when he was a baby, and the father let this continue for a number of years since he felt very uncomfortable about raising the child.  He eventually took the sword away, since he doesn’t want the life of a swordsman for Kojiro, but Kojiro latches on to the sword anyway, and later, it’s revealed that he learns how to use and wield it based on watching others and is almost supernaturally gifted with it.

Kojiro’s deafness, the way the townspeople and his father react to it, and the ways Kojiro adapts, really has been the highlight of Vagabond so far.  It’s incredibly sensitive.  The quiet reactions as well as the ways Kojiro is treated because of his hearing , his good looks, and the outsider status of his father mix in interesting ways.  At the end of the volume, there’s the standard villain that needs to be slayed, and Kojiro and the townspeople all have a role.  Kojiro never speaks, and we never know what he is thinking, which make his actions that much more mysterious, or even heartfelt when he shows genuine affection for someone.

I’m really looking forward to more about him.  It’ll be a long wait for the next omnibus.  And again, I am blown away that Takehiko Inoue can win me over again and again in these series that I have absolutely no interest in.  I can’t believe I’m reading a samurai comic and loving every page, but Vagabond… yeah, it’s great.  It transcends that, just like Real is more than it seems.