Author’s Note: For consistency, all Japanese names in this review will be in traditional order – surname first, and given second.
Inoue Takehiko has created a masterpiece in Vagabond – not just for the breathtaking artwork, but for the story as well. A loose retelling of Yoshikawa Eiji’s 1935 novel Musashi, in turn loosely based on history, this manga series follows Miyamoto Musashi as he follows the way of the sword, testing his skill in mortal combat, ultimately transforming him through introspection into a more whole and compassionate human being. Yet, despite the action-heavy premise, characters drive the plot and interest.
The author’s previous experience with the high school basketball saga Slam Dunk informs the fight scenes with the crackle of tension and physical struggle, yet the characters and their development through slow growth and sudden insight hold just as much interest, if not more, as duels to the death. Tightly plotted encounters and fleshed-out characters illustrate facets of the journey to enlightenment in the way of the sword. What to do with pain and rage or even kindness in an unfair and often violent world – this question, and the success different characters have in answering it, lies at the heart of the story. Is it possible to run away forever, from pain and responsibility, as Matahachi tries to do? What if rage grows unchecked, as it does for Gion Toji? Grief, love, and death stand as open and complex questions underpinning the plot. Despite characters’ places in the story as questions or foils, they each grow, or fail to, thrive, or die, in a vivid and electrically realistic way.
Inoue has taken liberties with the original novel, but even those update and refresh aspects that would not be as relatable to a modern audience. The character Otsu, for example, while a blank, rather flat archetype of a love interest in the original novel – is a much more developed, complex person in Vagabond, struggling to transcend her own abandonment and rejection, first by her birth parents, then by her fiancée, and even her own adopted mother.
It takes a lot of guts for an author to adapt a classic and acclaimed work of literature from the past for the present. In addition to the pitfalls inherent in re-telling a well-known story (how to keep it fresh?), every decision the author makes comes under microscopic scrutiny (what to change, what to keep?). Even more challenging, then, is an adaptation across media, such as turning a Shakespeare play into a film. Adapting a beloved work of the modern literary canon for a comic book, however, is audacious, bordering on career suicide. Yet, Inoue Takehiko has done just this, and triumphed. Whether you love manga already, or if you have never tried the medium, Vagabond is a thrill to read – intelligent, sophisticated, and driven by the sensitive depiction of its characters.
Formats Available: Manga
Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch