Vagabond, Omnibus 3

Creator: Takehiko Inoue
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421522456
Released: April 2009
Original release: 2000-2001
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award, Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize

The third volume in Viz Media’s omnibus release of Takehiko Inoue’s manga series Vagabond collects the seventh, eighth, and ninth volumes of the original edition. Those volumes were initially published in Japan between 2000 and 2001 and then in English by Viz Media between 2003 and 2004. The third omnibus was released by Viz Media in 2009. Inoue’s Vagabond is based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s epic historical novel Musashi, which is a retelling of the life of the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. In addition to being an extraordinary adaptation, Vagabond has also earned Inoue a Japan Media Arts Award, a Kodansha Manga Award, and a Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize among other honors. Because March 2013’s Manga Moveable Feast celebrates historical manga, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to dig into Vagabond again.

Along his journey to determine and prove his worth as a swordsman, Musashi confronted Inshun, the second-generation master of the Hōzōin spear technique. Musashi nearly lost his life in the resulting encounter and was forced to retreat. Ashamed that he ran away from the battle, Musashi has been developing his mind and body in the nearby mountains. Surprisingly enough, he is training under the guidance of In’ei, Inshun’s master. Musashi struggles to conquer the fear that the battle with Inshun has instilled in him. As for Inshun, never before having the opportunity to experience mortal combat, he looks forward to the chance to fight Musashi again. Although their goals may be similar, both young men have their own reasons for seeking to become stronger and more powerful.

One of the prominent themes in this particular omnibus of Vagabond is fear and, more specifically, how the characters deal with that fear. Both Musashi and Inshun have their own personal demons to face, but they confront their fears in very different ways. Musashi tends to approach things head on while Inshun subconsciously attempts to bury much of his past. These differences not only influence their personalities, but their martial abilities and fighting styles, as well. Becoming a skilled fighter and following the way of the sword isn’t just about brute strength, a lesson that Musashi is still trying to learn and master. Strategy, awareness, and mental clarity and preparedness are also extremely important. For a fighter, a strong mind is just as crucial as a strong body, especially when dealing with matters of life and death.

Another point that is emphasized through Inshun and Musashi’s conflict is the need to be able to see and understand not only the details of a situation but also that situation as a whole. This is something that is reflected nicely in Inoue’s artwork. In Vagabond, Inoue uses a detailed, realistic style which works superbly with the story’s realistic approach to traditional martial arts. I love the attention that Inoue devotes to the characters’ physical presences—their feet, stances, and grounding. At the same time he conveys the intensity of their mental and emotional states through their facial expressions, eyes, and demeanor. Inoue’s focus on these and other details doesn’t overwhelm the larger picture; instead, it enhances it. Vagabond is a great adaptation but the cohesive vision that Inoue brings to both the story and the art makes it a marvelous work in its own right. I certainly look forward to reading more.

Hikaru no Go, Volume 1: Descent of the Go Master

Author: Yumi Hotta
Illustrator: Takeshi Obata

U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781591162223
Released: May 2004
Original release: 1998
Awards: Shogakukan Manga Award, Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize

Hikaru no Go, written by Yumi Hotta and illustrated by Takeshi Obata (who is also the artist for the very popular manga series Death Note), is one of the first manga series that I made a point to collect in its entirety. I had first borrowed Hikaru no Go from my local library, but less than half of the series was available there. But I was so impressed by what I had read, I went and bought myself a complete set of Hikaru no Go, all twenty-three volumes. I was pleased when Hikaru no Go was selected for the December 2012 Manga Moveable Feast because it is a series that I’m quite fond of. I’m not the only one, either. Hikaru no Go received a Shogakukan Manga Award in 2000 and was later awarded an Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize in 2003. Hikaru no Go, Volume 1: Descent of the Go Master was originally released in Japan in 1998. Viz Media first serialized the manga in issues thirteen through sixteen of Shonen Jump before publishing the collected volume in 2004.

While scavenging through his grandfather’s attic, Hikaru Shindo comes across an old go board which he hopes he can sell for some extra cash. Instead, he finds that he must share his consciousness with the ghost attached to the board, Fujiwara-no-Sai, a go master from the Heian period. Although Sai died long ago, his spirit lingers on due to his great love for the game. Even in death he strives to play the Divine Move. But for some reason, he’s stuck with Hikaru, a sixth-grader with absolutely no interest in go. But Hikaru isn’t a bad kid. With the right kind of encouragement—namely Sai agreeing to help him out with his history classwork—Hikaru is happy to allow Sai the opportunity to observe and even play a few games of go. And Hikaru can’t help but be impressed by the intensity of the players he sees, some who are even younger than he is. A spark has been lit in Hikaru. He started paying attention to go for Sai’s sake, but now a small part of him wants to play for his own.

Hikaru no Go has a great, engaging story, but it’s Obata’s artwork that really brings everything together. At it’s very core, Hikaru no Go is a manga about a boardgame. Now, I personally love games, but I still wouldn’t necessarily think that they would make a compelling subject for a manga series. Hikaru no Go shows that they can. Obata’s artwork captures the excitement and drama surrounding go and its players with effective and cinematic panels and page layouts. The character designs are memorable and distinctive without resorting to caricature; even the individuals in groups and crowds each have their own look. Obata also adds some nice touches to Hikaru’s design, often incorporating the number five (pronounced “go” in Japanese) into his clothing choices. And I love Sai’s design, too. He can go from elegant to adorable at a moments notice.

One of the greatest things about Hikaru no Go is that it requires absolutely not prior knowledge of go to enjoy the series. To be completely honest, almost everything I do know about go I initially learned from reading Hikaru no Go. The series even inspired me to give the game a try. Hikaru himself is a complete beginner at the start of the manga. But Hikaru no Go also reveals the “tenacious perseverance and hard work” that is required of players who are serious and passionate about go. The series is even supervised by Yukari Umezawa, a professional go player holding the rank of go-dan at the time of the publication of Descent of the Go Master. As Hikaru learns more about the game, so do the readers, but the technicalities and rules of go never overshadow the story and characters of Hikaru no Go. The series really is a lot of fun; even having read it before I still enjoy it immensely.

Vagabond, Omnibus 2

Creator: Takehiko Inoue
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421522449
Released: December 2008
Original release: 1999-2000
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award, Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize

The second Vagabond omnibus, published by Viz Media in 2008, collects the fourth through sixth volumes of Takehiko Inoue’s award-winning manga series Vagabond. These three volumes were originally released in Japan between 1999 and 2000 and were published in English by Viz Media as individual volumes between 2002 and 2003 before being collected into an omnibus. Inoue’s Vagabond is based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s epic historical novel Musashi, which I made a point to read before delving into the manga series. So far, I have really been enjoying Inoue’s version of Japan’s legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. And I’m not the only one. Vagabond received both a Japan Media Arts Award and a Kodansha Manga Award in 2000 and then a Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize in 2002. Because June 2012’s Manga Moveable Feast focused on the work of Takehiko Inoue, I figured it was a good opportunity to look at Vagabond again.

After Miyamoto Musashi’s duel with Yoshioka Denshichirō is forced to a draw, the walls of the Yoshioka dōjō in flames around them, the injured young swordsman takes the opportunity to leave Kyoto. It is agreed that he and Denshichirō will meet to fight again in a year’s time, allowing them both to recover and improve their swordsmanship, assuming they can survive that long. Denshichirō might not have much of a problem in that regard, but there are several people after Musashi’s life, including Gion Tōji, a highly skilled swordsman from the Yoshioka school who blames Musashi for its destruction. Now more than ever Musashi is determined to become invincible, deliberately seeking out talented martial artists and challenging them to fight. Musashi is a natural-born fighter but when he confronts Inshun, a prodigy of the Hōzōin spear technique, he is forced to realize that brute power and blood-thirst may not be where true strength lies.

As Vagabond progresses, Musashi is slowly growing and developing not only as a swordsman, but as a person. Takuan Sōhō, the monk who in many ways is responsible for saving Musashi’s life when Musashi was still known as Takezō, advises the younger man that he needs to truly understand and accept himself before he will be able to accomplish anything else, something that Musashi hasn’t yet been able to do. Much of Musashi’s drive to fight and defeat strong opponents is due to the fact that he can’t see his own strength. The only way he can prove his worth to himself is by directly comparing his skills to those of others through battle. While Musashi may be naturally talented when it comes to fighting, he is still young, immature, and rough around the edges. He puts his entire self into and behind his sword; his fights not only forge and hone his physical skills but his very soul.

One of the things I love most about Vagabond is Inoue’s phenomenal art. It tends towards the realistic and his figure work is fantastic. The artwork also helps to emphasize and enhance Inoue’s storytelling. As might be expected from a story about a legendary swordsman and his rivals, there are plenty of fights in Vagabond. However, these confrontations don’t occur just to be forgotten. The characters learn from each other and their battles. Wounds, both physical and mental, aren’t sustained just to simply disappear after the fight is over. People have to recover from their injuries and that takes time. A bruised face may take several chapters to heal while graver injuries take significantly longer. They may even leave a person more vulnerable in later fights. How the different characters choose to deal with these consequences is fascinating; all of the prodigies, while intense, come across as just a little strange. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of Vagabond.

Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, Volume 3

Creator: Fumi Yoshinaga
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421527499
Released: April 2010
Original release: 2007
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Sense of Gender Award, Shogakukan Manga Award, Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize

Because Fumi Yoshinaga is such a skilled creator, it’s difficult for me to choose a favorite among her works but one of her most recent series, Ōoku: The Inner Chambers is definitely one of the major contenders. It is also her most awarded series so far, having won a Sense of Gender Award, a Japan Media Arts Award, an Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize, and most recently a 2010 Shogakukan Manga Award, in addition to being nominated for many other honors. Ōoku is currently up to seven volumes in Japan; the most recent volume to be published in English being the sixth. The third volume of Ōoku was published in Japan in 2007 and was released in English under Viz Media’s Signature line in 2010. Because Ōoku is one of my favorite manga series, and not just one of my favorite Yoshinaga works, I do intend to review each volume. The fact that August 2011’s Manga Moveable Feast features Fumi Yoshinaga doesn’t hurt either.

The Redface Pox continues to spread across Japan and more and more men are dying of the disease. Even the shogunate isn’t immune, but the death of Japan’s military leader has been kept a closely guarded secret. His daughter Chie is the only person remaining who can carry on the Tokugawa bloodline. Lady Kasuga is determined that Chie will bear a male heir and will stop at nothing to ensure that that happens. Chie and her chosen suitor Arikoto, who was initially brought to the Inner Chambers against his will, have managed to find some happiness together in these troubled times. However, their happiness is short lived when Chie fails to conceive. Although Kasuga’s power over them and the rest of the Inner Chambers is beginning to slip, she forces them to consider the fate of peace in Japan against their own happiness and desires.

The third volume of Ōoku begins about a year after the end of the second volume and continues the story for several more years. Some of the most noticeable things in the third volume are the changes and developments in the characters themselves, the Inner Chambers, and Japanese society. Lady Chie, who once was prone to violent outbursts, has matured greatly, much thanks to the presence of Arikoto. She has also shown herself to be quite keen and more than capable to act as the leader of state, much to the surprise of some of the senior ministers. Arikoto’s presence has also begun to change the nature of the Inner Chambers as he brings in aristocratic influences and is accepted by the other men there. Arikoto, as always, retains his dignity even in the face of tragedy; only Lady Chie and his attendant Gyokuei are privy to what he hides from others. And speaking of Gyokuei, he also has grown from a boy into a young man.

The characters are not the only things to change in the third volume of Ōoku; the society in which they live is also slowly developing into the Japan seen in the first volume of the series. While women, especially those in the upper classes, are still subject to their expected gender roles, the social system keeping them there is beginning to break down. Out of necessity, they will have to take on the work and leadership positions once reserved only for men, but at this point in the story it is still considered a temporary measure. One of the most interesting things for me, as someone with a particular interest in the Tokugawa period, is that with all of the changes Yoshinaga has made to history in Ōoku, some things remains the same, such as Japan’s seclusion policies, but for drastically different reasons. Ōoku fascinates and engages me on multiple levels which is one of the reasons I like the series so well.

Vagabond, Omnibus 1

Creator: Takehiko Inoue
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421520544
Released: September 2008
Original run: 1998-ongoing (Weekly Morning)
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award, Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize

Takehiko Inoue’s Vagabond is a series I have been looking forward to starting for quite some time now, but I promised myself that I would read Eiji Yoshikawa’s epic historical novel Musashi first since the manga is loosely based on that work. Now that I have read Musashi, nothing is holding me back from reading Vagabond. Vagabond is a popular and highly regarded series in Japan, winning both the Japan Media Arts Grand Prize and the Kodansha Manga Award in 2000 as well as the 2002 Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize. The manga began serialization in 1998 and although it is currently on indefinite hiatus it is up to thirty-three volumes. Viz Media began publication of the English translation in individual volumes in 2007 as part of their Signature line. In 2008, they began releasing the series in an omnibus edition, each collecting three volumes of the original manga along with a bit of additional bonus material. It’s a nice format for someone just starting to read Vagabond as it makes the long series a little easier on the pocketbook. (We do miss out on some of the nice cover art, though.)

Takezō Shinmen and his best friend Matahachi Hon’iden left their home to make a name for themselves as warriors and samurai. Instead, the young men are put to work clearing roads for the army. After the Battle of Sekigahara they find themselves alive but seriously wounded and, perhaps even worse, on the losing side. Shamed, Takezō and Matahachi begin their journey home. Matahachi is from a good family and has a fiancée waiting for him. Takezō on the other hand has nothing but bad memories and is disliked and feared by most of the village. Pursued by the authorities and having killed many in the process, his homecoming is less than welcome and he goes into hiding in the nearby mountains. It isn’t until the monk Takuan Sōhō, close friend of the local lord, becomes involved in the search for Takezō that any progress is made quelling the violent youth.

Inoue is a phenomenal artist and storyteller. Although Vagabond is based on Yoshikawa’s Musashi, Inoue has made the story his own. While the core elements remains the same and some scenes have been taken directly from the novel unchanged, Inoue isn’t afraid to make changes to the story’s pacing, characters, and plot to better suit his medium. And of course, it is always different seeing something visually presented rather than only reading about it. I adore Inoue’s illustrations. Using a realistic style and beautiful figure work, he brings the characters of Vagabond to life and quite a few of them to their death as well. Vagabond is a very bloody, graphic, and violent work. Throughout the manga, Inoue uses interesting and dramatic points of perspective for his artwork. And beginning in the second volume he begins to incorporate more traditional looking ink brushstrokes to emphasize certain people and panels.

Each of the characters in Vagabond, whether primary or secondary, have unique designs and personalities and are easily distinguished from one another. And Takezō? Holy hell is he scary; completely deserving to be called a demon by the others. He is incredibly strong but extremely undisciplined as a younger man. He doesn’t hesitate at all to kill another person, sometimes even delighting in it. Even after the three year break between volumes two and three he seems incapable of restraint. While he does appear to have gained more control and focus, Takezō (now going by the name Miyamoto Musashi) still lacks in maturity. I do wonder if Inoue will explain what happened in those three years or if he’ll just let things stand as they are. I also want to know what happened to the characters who don’t reappear in the third volume. However, I am confident that that will be revealed in subsequent volumes. Vagabond is definitely a series I will be following to its end; I look forward to experiencing more of Inoue’s fantastic artwork and storytelling.