Sunday, June 24, 2012

Vagabond VizBig vol. 1

When I heard that Takehiko Inoue was going to be the subject for the June 2012 Manga Moveable Feast, I just knew I had to participate. But what to write about? 'Slam Dunk'? 'REAL'? 'Vagabond'? All three, amazing series in their own right. I thought about it a while, and eventually settled on 'Vagabond', and my decision mostly came from this beautiful set of VizBig editions that have been sitting on my shelf and calling out to me for a reread.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Sekigahara, Shinmen Takezo is laying belly up in the mud, contemplating his failure to make a name for himself. Takezo and his childhood friend, Matahachi had gone off to war, determined to do great things with their lives, but they didn't expect that they would end up on the losing side of the battle. Now fugitives on the run, Takezo and Matahachi are eventually found and rescued by a young girl, Akemi, and nursed back to health by her mother, Oko. After a brutal encounter with a gang of bandits, the duo get separated, and Takezo sets out for his and Matahachi's home town of Miyamoto. Intent on informing Matahachi's family that he did in fact, survive the war, Takezo breaks through a province border, killing two men in the process, and becomes a wanted man. After informing Matahachi's mother of his status, instead of given hospitality, he is instead treated with betrayal. On the run from soldiers and his own, fellow villagers, Takezo takes to the mountains, but is eventually caught by resourceful monk Takuen Soho. Strung up from a tree and left for dead as punishment, Takezo soon learns the monk's true motives in not granting him a quick, warrior's death. After much inner reflection, and absorbing the monk's wise words, Takezo is set free, and with a new lease on life, Shinmen Takezo is reborn, "Miyomoto Musashi".

Without a doubt, the highlight of these three volumes for me was getting to the transformation of brutal but insecure Takezo, into the still brutal, but more focused Musashi. On the surface, Takezo had all the confidence in the world. Determined to collect a general's head and become "Invincible Under the Sun". But he didn't truly live by the way of the sword. He was no more than a savage beast. A Demon. Deep down, he actually felt lonely and in pain. Abandoned by his mother and shunned by his father, he questioned why he was even born and if he deserved to live. The direction he was headed was a path of self-destruction. But once monk Takuen got a hold of him, he was able to accept the value of his own life and restart on the right path. After being reborn as Miyomoto Musashi, he is still a brutal fighter with aims of being the best, but as I said, with more focus and a tad bit more maturity. He was able to recognize that the Yoshioka brothers were stronger than him, and cut his losses. Surely he would have kept pressing his luck in his old, "Takezo" mind state and have been killed. Now, he still has a long way to go and a lot to learn, but he developed quite a bit in these three volumes, and we got to see it in a realistic and natural way. With this spectacular introduction, I look forward to following Miyomoto Musashi down whatever path he may take. Takehiko Inoue truly brought this real-life samurai and manga character to life in the pages of the first three volumes of 'Vagabond'.

The art. Oh, God, the art. It's beyond fantastic. Pardon me while I gush over the beautifully crafted images Takehiko Inoue produces in his manga. Now, I enjoy all kinds of art styles, from realistic to avante-garde. I also have nothing to gain by lauding Inoue's artwork. There's no bias here. I just genuinely find his art to be extremely aesthetically pleasing. Making that clear, it is my personal opinion that Takehiko Inoue has the best, realistic style art, that I have come across in manga. It's simply amazing. And this VizBig, three volumes in one, 600+ page door-stopper of a book showcases that incredible art very, very well. It's a feast for the eyes. It even includes the color pages, which most standard manga volumes that I have encountered print in black and white. These color pages are a real treat, and really show off the full range of Inoue's skills. Another interesting aspect of the art is that sometimes Inoue uses brush strokes instead of the usual pen. Now, I don't know how common this is in manga production, but this is the first I have encountered it, and it impresses me. I actually don't care if the artist draws with a chainsaw as long as it looks good. I'm not simply impressed with the fact he uses that technique. It genuinely adds a lot to the art. It has a certain affect on the image it is used in, and while a slight change in style, it doesn't clash with the rest of the art and doesn't take you out of the story. Another area where Inoue excels is facial expressions and conveying emotions. One look at the cover and Musashi's intense glare can tell you that. With this realistic style, we get to see the full range of emotions wash over the characters faces, from wide-eyed fear, to crushing sadness. I'm continually blown away by the art in 'Vagabond', and I think you will be too.

The deluxe, VizBig editions of this manga aren't just good for getting a massive dose of great art. They are also a great way to break into this 33 volume and ongoing series. I know that can seem kind of daunting for new readers, but with these 3-in-1 books, you are getting a great deal. Retailing for $19.99, you are essentially get one out of every three books for free. And don't think that because it's an omnibus, they skimp on the production costs. As I said, you get all the color pages included, printed with fine ink on high quality, thick paper. This book is anything but cheap looking and feeling. Though, if there is any drawback to the VizBig editions, it would have to be their size. They are quite heavy and can be uncomfortable to hold. Not only that, but unless you want to bend the book's spine, the thickness can make it hard to fully open the book in the middle section, and can obscure double page spreads.

If you have read this far into my review, I don't think there should be any question as to whether or not I recommend this book and series. Of course I do. It brandishes stunning art that I think could be almost universally enjoyed, and an exciting main character based on a real-life samurai that lead an amazing life. Fans of samurai stories: This book's for you. Historical fiction fans should also like this story. Though I can't say I recommend this series to young readers. Parents who have been buying their kids volumes of Takehiko Inoue's Shonen, basketball manga, 'Slam Dunk': Be sure not to miss that "Explicit Content" warning on the cover. This series has intense and graphic violence, as well as some nudity. So maybe wait a few years until you let your kids graduate to 'Vagabond'. I highly recommend this series to everyone else though. To me as a manga fan, it is a must read and one of the jewels of my personal collection.

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