The month of March saw the release of two volumes of the critically acclaimed “Vagabond” Manga by legendary graphic novelist Takehiko Inoue. For someone like me that absolutely adores the series it was comparable to that of Christmas day when my review copies of the volumes finally arrived. With three volumes per Vizbig Edition I felt somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer number of chapters I had ahead of me, but my excitement to see just what comes next in the story of Miyamoto Musashi possessed me to spend every possible waking moment engulfed by the series that has not only inspired me but millions around the world.
After completing the first volume I then made the decision to combine what would usually be two individual reviews into one. It was only at those final pages of volume five did I realise that the series had entered a new arc that would likely span not only the next volume but long after that. Volume five took us back in time to a point in history long before the battle of Sekigahara and long before the point in time that we were introduced to Miyamoto Musashi. A flashback arc? In some ways yes, but not in the ways you’d imagine.
This pair of volumes introduces audiences to a character that not only matches Takezo in protagonistic quality and overall swordsmanship but that features enough complexity to make him almost identical to but leagues away from the Manga’s “hero” Miyamoto Musashi. His name is Sasaki Kojiro and throughout volumes five and six the audience is taught something very crucial to the continuation of the “Vagabond” story as a whole; this will be the man to match the invincible swordsman, this will be the man to equal the killer beast, this will be the man to push Miyamoto Musashi to his limits…Sasaki Kojiro.
Glimmering Waves: In a remote seaside village, an abandoned infant is left to the care of a reclusive old man who has all but renounced the ways of the world. This helpless child is destined to become Sasaki Kojirō – the legendary archrival of Miyamoto Musashi. Inoue’s unique take on this enigmatic figure lays the foundation for his fictional account of the most famous rivalry in Japanese history. – Volume Five (Madman Entertainment)
Sasaki Kojirō is the man destined to become Miyamoto Musashi’s greatest rival and opponent in the most well-known duel in the annals of Japanese history. As a deaf-mute young man coming of age in a remote seaside village, Kojirō’s innate ability with the sword compels him to become even better. This drive takes him beyond the borders of his peaceful village into the violent and chaotic world of feudal era Japan in the midst of a bloody war. – Volume Six (Madman Entertainment)
Much like in the way we saw the evolution of Shinmen Takezo, volumes five and six makes us privy to the life and development of a young boy who, surely without divine intervention, should have perished at see alongside his parents. Raised by an older man who had spent his life living by the ways of the blade, Sasaki Kojiro grew to love swordplay and everything that the life of a Samurai would entail…despite his foster father doing everything he possibly could to stop his new son from becoming something he has now come to hate about himself; a killer. The character of Sasaki Kojiro could be summed up by describing him as a young, deaf and mute man with a penchant for death and a glaring lack of fear. Qualities like this being tied to someone wanting to follow the path of the warrior would usually mean an early death…this is not the case for Sasaki Kojiro who’s other senses and instinctual sixth sense for swordplay raise him leagues above each and every challenger that comes his way.
Takehiko Inoue does a great job at showing the growth of a young boy afflicted with complete deafness in a time when the world was not accustomed to dealing with such things. What we see is the young boy being taught through actions what is right and what is wrong, what to do and what not to do, how to live and how not to live. These are the things any parent would try and teach their child but when that child cannot hear a word you’re saying nor can it read or write…that task becomes so much harder. Learning lessons are paralleled with depictions of Kojiro’s bloodlust and need for combat. From page to page you’ll be able to see Kojiro’s respect for his Samurai father but then his total disregard for what is right and what is wrong by mercilessly cutting down those who stand before him with their sword in hand.
Despite Kojiro never saying a word, we get this amazing image of him not only through how he acts but by how others think of him. Throughout the books I picked up on a few characters who, after facing him, react as though he’s actually spoke to them through their bout. At times, we’re even shown Kojiro actually speaking, but it turns out to be just a dream had by one of his opponents who survived or someone wanting so badly to be like him. You’d be surprised at just how much you can learn from a character without that character saying anything and without the characters around him or her blatantly explaining that which the character in question cannot. Most characters that talk of Kojiro only ever talk of their thoughts about him not of what he himself is thinking or feeling. There are only two men in the whole arc that do; his father and his future mentor, both of which have justified reasons for doing so.
Despite the story of Kojiro’s growth spanning over a decade, the story never gets boring nor does the progression ever feel monotonous or unnecessary. Everything seen throughout the volumes is absolutely necessary to understand this man as a whole and to fully understand just how it is he would interact with Miyamoto Musashi come the right time. More goes unsaid than said about this man and I think it worked entirely to the advantage of the tale being told. Sasaki Kojiro’s story in two volumes is as enlightening and exciting as that of Miyamoto Musashi’s which has, so far, spanned four volumes.
From volume one up until now the visual quality of Takehiko Inoue’s artwork has never declined, in fact, it has only continued to grow stronger and stronger. I couldn’t help but think to myself while reading through these volumes that I am experiencing the work of a man who has truly mastered the practice of sequential art. Not only is this man a fantastic illustrator but he’s also a master of the brush and uses what looks to be water colours to begin most chapters and to kick off the events of a fresh volume. It’s safe to say that Takehiko Inoue truly is the greatest Mangaka of our generation. He has a fantastic grasp on panel layout and understands perfectly how to use pure dark spaces in a series known for the detail of its images.
Speaking of which; there’s no lack of detail in this pair of volumes. Inoue understands what it takes to drive a point home and uses intense visual cues to do so. A hard zoom on a shocked face or the splatter of blood across a moon-lit beach are just two of the examples from the newly-released volumes that really allows an audience member to understand just what it is they’re apart of. Sasaki Kojiro, throughout his entire story, is told that he has too soft a face to be a killer. At times, Inoue emphasises this by highlighting the soft features of Kojiro’s visage while in murderous and dangerous situations. Inoue didn’t even have to have the characters explain this out loud because he made it clear through drawings but it actually would have been less believable if no-one expressed this intimidating sight.
Incase it isn’t absolutely clear; “Vagabond” is my all-time favorite Manga series…and I’ve only read six volumes. It’s a Manga series that grabs you within the first chapter and almost forces you to continue reading until you’re physically unable to do so. It’s a series that can go for four volumes, entirely switch the main focus of the story, and still manage to stay just as interesting. There aren’t many series’ out there that can do anything even close to that. What can I say about “Vagabond” that hasn’t already been said?
You can learn from it the things that Miyamoto Musashi wanted those who’ve read his book “The Book of Five Rings” to know with all the excitement of an action Manga written and illustrated by someone who has a clear grasp of his life’s work. This Manga is amazing, this Manga is brilliant, this Manga is…absolute perfection. The next volume can only feature more of Kojiro and Musashi’s crossing paths; something that will somehow make this Manga leagues better than what it has been up until this point. Though it seems ridiculous I guarantee you, had you read these two volumes, you’d know that what I’m saying is, if anything…an understatement.
Purchase Volume Five through Madman Entertainment’s online store: Click Here
Purchase Volume Six through Madman Entertainment’s online store: Click Here