To my eye, Takehiko Inoue is the most extraordinary draftsman working today in manga or comics: His ability to draw the human figure in any pose and from any angle puts him in the rarified company of Burne Hogarth (“Tarzan”), Hal Foster (“Prince Valiant”) and Milt Caniff (“Terry and the Pirates”). “Vagabond,” a fictionalized account of the life of samurai hero Miyamoto Musashi, is his masterpiece to date.
Musashi (1584?-1645) is a Japanese national hero: One of the greatest swordsmen in history, he was also a skilled artist (with works in painting, calligraphy, sculpture) and the author of “A Book of Five Rings,” a treatise on strategy. (It’s still studied in Japan, and gained a cult following in America during the 1980s as a way of understanding — and fending off — Japan’s surging economic power.)
Inoue based “Vagabond” on “Musashi,” Eiji Yoshikawa’s sprawling historical novel. “Musashi,” which has been filmed seven times, is often compared to “Gone with the Wind”: history not as it happened but as people like to think it happened. Yoshikawa presents an endless series of separations, reunions and fights that allow his characters to strike heroic poses and deliver speeches: Musashi; his feckless childhood friend, Matahachi; Otsu, Matahachi’s beautiful ex-fiancée, who loves Musashi; the irreverent monk Takuan.
Although “Vagabond” also rambles, Inoue trims many of the digressions and deepens the psychology of the characters. In Yoshikawa’s version, Musashi’s father was “only a country samurai” whose family once served a noble clan. Inoue makes him into a cruel disciplinarian: Musashi’s struggle to become “invincible under the sun” grew out of his desire to surpass his father.
Inoue discards Yoshikawa’s duller chapters, focusing on action sequences suited to the visual format of manga. In the novel, Sasaki Kojiro, Musashi’s greatest rival, is an overcivilized young fop who drops in and out of the story as needed. Inoue devotes a substantial portion of “Vagabond” to the origins and training of Kojiro, whom he depicts as a deaf-mute with a childlike delight in his dazzling skill as a martial artist.
Inoue first won widespread attention for “Slam Dunk” a hugely popular manga series about high school basketball. But in “Vagabond,” those broadly comic images gave way to powerful pen and brush lines that showcase his polished draftsmanship. Even when he draws a close-up of a foot touching the ground, the reader senses the weight of the entire body and the intention behind that step.
The influence of the films of Akira Kurasawa can easily be seen in “Vagabond.” Like Kurosawa, Inoue uses black and white to create a rich but subtle palette of grays. His elegant pen and brush lines capture the power, beauty and horror of the bloody duels. When Musashi fights Inshun, a young monk who is the master of fighting with a pole similar to a Western quarterstaff, Inoue shows the moves each combatant executes–and the intensity of their concentration in the face of a formidable opponent.
But “Vagabond” takes the reader beyond mere feats of derring-do. When Musashi strikes a foe with a wooden bokun (practice sword) or his razor-sharp katana (long sword), Inoue communicates the pain of each blow. In his climactic battle against 70 students of the Yoshioka school whose leaders he’s defeated, Musashi is badly wounded in one knee. In Yoshikawa’s novel, he heals in a few paragraphs and is none the worse for wear; Inoue draws him barely able to stand, unsure if he will ever walk normally again. Inoue’s Musashi also learns from this terrible encounter that “invincible,” the title he sought so fervently, is “only a word.”
Inoue, who has sold more than 157 million books worldwide, has put “Vagabond” on hold. The ten volumes published to date by Viz (and priced at $19.99 each) are as far as he’s taken the story — although he’s only a little more than halfway through the Yoshikawa novel. He’s been concentrating on “Real,” his manga series about wheelchair basketball players, and did paintings to celebrate the 750th anniversary of an important temple in Kyoto. Inoue also created “Smile: Pray for Japan,” images drawn on an iPad with the app Zen Brush, to raise money for the Japanese Red Cross to aid victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Even a cursory glance at “Vagabond” shows that manga and graphic novels have a greater artistic potential than even devoted fans suspected—when they’re drawn by a talent of Inoue’s stature.
— Charles Solomon
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