animefringe may 2003 / reviews

Vagabond Vol.5
Format: right-left manga
Production: VIZ, LLC / Takehiko Inoue
Comments: The story of one of the greatest swordsman who ever lived, captured in gritty true-to-life detail by one of the most impressive artists I've ever read.
Animefringe Reviews:
Vagabond Vol.5

The most recent release of Vagabond, based on Eiji Yoshikawa's classic novel, Musashi, also happens to be one of the first touting a new style for Viz. Like Phoenix: Dawn, this is part of their "Editor's Choice" lineup. It appears I'm not the only critic to fall in love with this dark, bloody, and ultimately human retelling of the story of Musashi Miyamoto. Oh, and that price up there of $9.95? That's also part of a new trend Viz appears to testing out. Price-wary manga fans may have already noticed the lower price of Silent Mobius and the altogether new editions of Dragon Ball, Tenchi Muyo, and Inu-Yasha. Now you have no excuse to miss out on Vagabond, since it's $3 cheaper than it used to be. If you still need more convincing, by all means read on.

Picking up from volume four, this book moves along better than the last volume despite only featuring one fight. And, by one fight, I mean nothing happens in this entire volume except for a single battle. One long, incredibly cool battle between an opponent that will either kill Musashi or make him more formidable than ever.

As can be expected from the story of a philosopher, many of Musashi's teachings (later penned as part of The Book of Five Rings) surface from time to time. However, at this point in his life, he is still more bloodthirsty savage than enlightened sword-saint, and thus he's learning about the finer points in life just as much as we readers are. The book begins with a fight between Musashi and Gion Toji, but the staff-wielding warrior monk Inshun swiftly breaks it up to measure his own skills against the vagabond.

The novel that this manga is based upon is a tapestry of tightly woven threads, each representing a specific plot point. The manga takes those threads and cuts some out completely, ties others together where there was no connection before, and adds in a few strings of its own pattern. While Vagabond diverges significantly in many places from the original work, Takehiko Inoue does an incredible job of staying true to the spirit of the novel. The subdued romance, the dark humor, and the unending quest to improve one's self is conveyed without question as Musashi seeks to become the best warrior in human history.

This volume displays the same high end realistically detailed artwork as the previous four. Cross-hatching and complex screen tones appear in almost every panel, lending an almost woodcut feeling to the amazing visual style created by Inoue. This volume's cover is easily the most eye-catching yet, with an enraged and blood-soaked Musashi looking more like a demon than a legendary philosopher.

Also as before the technical presentation of this series is unmatched by any other publisher in the industry. Aside from a very sturdy binding, the book is unflipped, large (about 5.5" x 8"), released promptly, and even contains color pages periodically. The only way the presentation could be better is if the book came with its own weapons, but I bet that would raise the price a bit. Ah, but did I mention the price? This lovely book costs a few cents less than the majority of TOKYOPOP's lineup, but it's larger and has some color pages! How wonderful is that?

I've said it before, so unsurprisingly, here we go again. Buy this book. Buy the other four, as well. It has a fantastic historic foundation, raises some fascinating philosophical points, and it's technically one of the finest graphic novels ever published. There are few works that I can wholeheartedly recommend, but this is one of them. Especially to fans waiting for a domestic version of Rurouni Kenshin, this will tide you over pretty darn well until the other famous swordsman makes his American debut. Vagabond has some graphic violence, but so does the daily news. I think this is something everyone should read, if only to gain a better understanding of one of the foundations of Japanese culture. If Viz applies these new standards to all of the books it publishes, then it is likely TOKYOPOP may have something to worry about after all.