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.

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.

Oishinbo, A la Carte: Ramen & Gyōza

Author: Tetsu Kariya
Illustrator: Akira Hanasaki

U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421521411
Released: May 2009
Original release: 2005
Awards: Shogakukan Manga Award

Oishinbo, written by Tetsu Kariya and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki, is an incredibly successful and well-loved manga series in Japan. The manga began serialization in 1983 and is still ongoing; more than one hundred volumes have been published so far. In 1987 the series won a Shogakukan Manga Award. Oishinbo, A la Carte, the only version of the manga that has been licensed in English, selects stories from throughout the original series to create thematic collections that focus on a particular food or cuisine. Oishinbo, A la Carte: Ramen & Gyōza was the second of these collections to have been published in Japan and was the third volume to be released in English by Viz Media, following Japanese Cuisine and Sake. As a bit of a foodie myself, I have really been enjoying the Oishinbo, A la Carte collections. I was particularly interested in Ramen & Gyōza because those foods, although Chinese in origin, were my introduction to Japanese cuisine. I’m finally getting around to reading the volume thanks to the Oishinbo Manga Moveable Feast.

The basic premise of Oishinbo is fairly simple: Yamaoka Shirō has been charged by Tōzai News to create the “Ultimate Menu” of Japanese cuisine. In response, their rival newspaper Teito Times has hired Kaibara Yūzan, who happens to be Yamaoka’s estranged father, to develop the “Supreme Menu.” The father-son relationship between the two men was already strained; the menu projects give them yet another reason to come into conflict. They can’t help but challenge each other, Yamaoka constantly trying to show his father up and Kaibara constantly trying to put his son into his place. I find the six stories collected in Ramen & Gyōza particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. Although ramen and gyōza have been incorporated into Japanese cuisine, they were originally developed from Chinese cooking traditions. Additionally, both ramen and gyōza are everyday comfort foods and are therefore frequently considered to be low-class. It amuses me greatly that Yamaoka and Kaibara, who are so concerned with finding the pinnacle of Japanese food culture, can get into fights even over dishes that they had both at one point written off as not worth their time.

It should be fairly obvious that Ramen & Gyōza is about ramen and gyōza, but there was another theme that I particularly noticed in this volume of Oishinbo, A la Carte. Importance is placed on the quality of the ingredients used in a dish, although it is not the only factor needed for it to be successful. Yamaoka and the other characters, especially his father, emphasize the need for a safe and sustainable food culture, free of chemicals and ideally locally produced. This is certainly a notion that I personally support, but Kariya has never been subtle with his characters’ opinions in Oishinbo. In some cases their apparent activism can be somewhat distracting from the story while at other times it is expertly incorporated into the narrative itself. Of course, the fact that the characters get so worked up over food is one of the reasons that Oishinbo is so entertaining. Take away their ranting and raving and suddenly the series would be much less engaging.

Because Oishinbo, A la Carte: Ramen & Gyōza only collects selected stories from the original Oishinbo manga, it is difficult for readers to get a good sense of the overarching plot and chronology of the series. However, the six stories in Ramen & Gyōza make good selections because they stand on their own rather well. Any important plot points that aren’t immediately obvious are explained in the translation notes. Ramen & Gyōza is actually mostly about ramen and other Chinese-style noodles. I was a little disappointed that gyōza was only featured in one of the stories, but at least it was the longest one. Perhaps because ramen and gyōza are so common and familiar, the manga didn’t go too in depth into the particulars of the specific foods but focused more on people’s interactions with them instead. For some reason I didn’t find Ramen & Gyōza to be quite as compelling as the previous two volumes of Oishinbo, A la Carte, but I still enjoyed myself immensely and look forward to reading more.

Dorohedoro, Volume 1

Creator: Q Hayashida
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421533636
Released: March 2010
Original release: 2002

When Dorohedoro, Volume 1 by Q Hayashida was first published under Viz Media’s Signature imprint in 2010, I never quite got around to reading it. Lately, however, I keep seeing the series mentioned and so my interest in Dorohedoro has steadily grown. Since April 2012’s Manga Moveable Feast focused on Viz Signature manga, it seemed an opportune time to finally give Dorohedoro a try. The first volume of Dorohedoro was originally released in Japan in 2002. The series, running in the magazine Ikki, is still ongoing but has so far been collected into sixteen volumes. Viz Media published the sixth volume of Dorohedoro in April 2012. The series has a small but devoted following in English, but otherwise it doesn’t seem to be very well known. In fact, if it wasn’t for word of mouth from fans, I probably would have never gotten around to reading Dorohedoro, which would have been a shame.

A battle has broken out between sorcerers and non-magic users. The sorcerers travel from their world to the Hole to practice their magic on the people there, leaving the Hole polluted and their victims deformed and often near death. Caiman is one such victim, although luckier than most. His head might look like a lizard’s, but it is perfectly functional (which is unfortunate for the sorcerers he meets) and he only suffers from a bit of amnesia. But the fact that Caiman can’t remember exactly who he is or who transformed him doesn’t stop him from trying to kill any sorcerer who crosses his path as he searches for the answers to those questions. The deaths haven’t gone unnoticed. A cleanup crew is sent after Caiman in an effort to put an end to him and the damage he is causing. The sorcerers are now in a hurry to find whoever transformed Caiman, too.

Dorohedoro is well deserving of its mature rating—the manga is extremely violent, elaborate, and graphic. Whether it’s crushed eyeballs and brain spatter during a fight or the grotesque aftermath of a sorcerer’s experimentation and magic, Hayashida’s detailed artwork doesn’t miss a moment of it. There is blood, guts, and gore galore and the manga is both literally and figuratively “in your face” about it. I mean, the very first panel shows Caiman with a sorcerer’s head shoved down his throat. Hayashida’s character designs are very imaginative although the variety is a little dizzying since no cohesive theme is readily apparent. The only obvious similarity (and it’s not much of a similarity since they are all different) is that each of the sorcerers wear a mask of some sort. Caiman’s design is probably my favorite though and his facial expressions are great.

I did not expect the first volume of Dorohedoro to be as funny as it was. I certainly wouldn’t call Dorohedoro a comedy, but there is a black sense of humor that underlies the entire manga. If I had to call Dorohedoro anything, it would probably be “bizarre,” and not at all in a bad way. The characters, too, are all a little quirky and odd. Caiman, as incredibly vicious as he can be, is also somehow charmingly endearing and goofy. (Maybe it’s just seeing how delightfully happy he is eating gyoza that makes him so likeable.) The other characters are fascinating as well and all have very distinct looks and personalities; there is absolutely no chance of confusing one for another. Although there are still plenty of mysteries left to unravel, Hayashida’s world seems to be fully developed in all its grungy glory. Once again the artwork captures all of the dirt and grime and unpleasantness perfectly. Ultimately, Dorohedoro, Volume 1 is a rather strange manga, but it is also highly entertaining and visually engaging.

House of Five Leaves, Volume 1

Creator: Natsume Ono
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421532103
Released: September 2010
Original release: 2006

My introduction to Natsume Ono and her work was through the 2010 anime adaptation of her series House of Five Leaves. Since then, I have been devouring her other works available in English, so far all a part of Viz Media’s Signature line, but House of Five Leaves remains my favorite. Ono completed House of Five Leaves in eight volumes which were initially published in Japan between 2006 and 2010. It was also in 2010 that Viz Media began releasing the English translation of the series. Currently, the first four volumes are available; the fifth volume is scheduled to be published in December 2011. Although I haven’t been reviewing the individual volumes as they have been released, I have been reading them, and rereading them, as soon as I have a copy available. But because Ono was the focus of November 2011’s Manga Moveable Feast, I decided to be a little more vocal in my love for House of Five Leaves.

Akitsu Masanosuke is a highly skilled swordsman although most people wouldn’t expect it to look at him. Often they are surprised to discover that he’s even a samurai at all. He’s extremely shy, embarrasses easily, and is not even close to being intimidating. Masa’s unfortunate personality makes it difficult for him to keep a job. His lord let him go as a retainer and no one wants to hire a timid bodyguard, and so Masa wanders Edo as a hungry rōnin looking for work. At least until he meets Yaichi, who is looking for a samurai in name only. Yaichi, perfectly capable of defending himself, simply needs a bodyguard for show. Preferably one that is easily controlled. Masa is glad to have the work, not realizing at first that Yaichi happens to be the leader of a kidnapping group known as Five Leaves. Despite his misgivings, Masa slowly finds himself drawn into their circle.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Ono’s manga is her art. I have never mistaken her illustrations for anyone else’s, nor have I ever taken another artist’s work to be hers. Admittedly, Ono’s style is not one that everyone will appreciate. I wouldn’t describe it as pretty, but the loose, deliberate lines have a certain attractive elegance to them. I have become quite fond of Ono’s artwork. The style seems to be particularly well suited to the story of House of Five Leaves, especially in the portrayal of the characters and their personalities. The droopy-eyed melancholy fits Masa’s timidity perfectly while at the same time the artwork also easily embodies Yaichi’s lazy, slightly unsettling intensity. My only real complaint about the art in the first volume of House of Five Leaves is that it is difficult to discern what is happening in the few action-oriented sequences.

House of Five Leaves is not a quickly paced manga by any means. It’s strength lies in its characters and their interactions, and especially in the relationships developed between Masa and the members of Five Leaves. Probably most important is Masa and Yaichi’s strange sort of friendship. Yaichi is fascinated and intrigued by Masa and his unusualness. In return, Masa admires Yaichi’s confidence and is curious about him. Yaichi is a charismatic, enigmatic, and intensely private man. Not even the members of Five Leaves know much about him. At this point in House of Five Leaves, not much is known about any of the characters yet, but Yaichi is the most guarded. The groundwork for the story has been established in this first volume and the major players have been introduced. Masa still isn’t quite sure what he’s gotten himself mixed up in or who these people are, but that will all be revealed as the series progresses.