Vagabond is a manga series created by Takehiko Inoue based on the novel ‘Musashi’ by Eiji Yoshikawa. This story is a fictional take on the origin of Japan’s most renowned sword saint Miyamoto Musashi. There have been thousands of analysis videos and articles around this critically acclaimed series, which begs the question: Why did I write about it as well?
To put it simply, Vagabond helped change my way of thinking. My first introduction to Vagabond was back in 2017, when I was going through an ‘Action/Battle series’ phase, where I searched for any and every kind of action manga series currently in publication. I stumbled upon this brutal samurai story where a swordsman cuts down his enemies like paper, and my interest was piqued. But on reading the first few chapters, I got put off by the highly detailed depiction of violence, which to me, felt gratuitous and extra, which led me to drop it.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I decided to pick it up again and give it another try.
To win any battle, you must fight as if you are already dead
Vagabond mainly follows Miyamoto Musashi(previously Shinmen Takezō) on his journey to become the greatest swordsman in Japan. He starts out at an age of around 18 or 19, wildly swinging his sword upon his enemies, killing them through brute force alone. What Musashi had going was his sheer determination and his monstrous strength to make it through a fight. Musashi fights with instinct — he had no formal training and lived out in the wild. He picked up survival instincts from the wilds after being shunned by his village. These instincts became his vital advantage when he picked up a sword. But becoming the greatest was easier said than done. He encountered stronger and stronger opponents who had trained all their lives, overwhelming him gradually.
The swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, was strong when we first met him at the end of the Battle of Sekigahara. He could break heads and limbs with just a wooden sword. Unfortunately, that was all he knew. The man could not hold a proper conversation even at the cost of his life. He got either jumpy due to being on guard or angry at himself for not being as strong as he’d like to be. It’s extremely sad and pitiful to watch the man go through fight after fight, sinking in deeper and deeper into a bloodthirsty, battle-hungry maniac, starting fights with one school after another.
The opponents that Musashi faced were from various backgrounds, coming from highly prestigious samurai schools to fellow vagabonds, and he cut down everyone he came across. Two additional characters have their points of view in later chapters: his childhood friend Matahachi Hon’iden and a deaf swordsman Sasaki Kojirō. Otsuu, the childhood friend of Matahachi and Takezō, and the lovable and sassy monk Takuan Sōhō become characters who significantly affect Takezō’s decisions.
There are various other recurring characters being introduced as the story progresses, and they contribute a lot as they pit themselves against our protagonists.
Samurai Action and Philosophy
“Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world”
Underneath the unfiltered action of Vagabond lies deep-rooted philosophical questions. Vagabond masterfully explores the themes of Life, Death, The Mind, The Human Condition and concepts like Will and Strength. Life in Vagabond is portrayed as a fragile piece of glass— one clean strike to cleave the body in two. Every character is given the power to take away lives. It becomes difficult to be constantly reminded of the fleeting nature of human life; it takes but a second to reach its end. Death is every man’s best friend and worst enemy, always accompanying these warriors. Death causes pain to the recipient; it affects those around them, their family, their loved ones, and their companions.
Every fight is as much a mental effort as it is physical. Does having a stronger motivation help someone win at a pivotal point? Life is valuable. It has inherent value that each of us is entitled to. No one has the right to take away another life.
Being an action-samurai series set in feudal Japan, the morality of these characters is questionable at best and deplorable at worst. By accepting these morals as appropriate for the period, the readers are presented with multiple dilemmas. Becoming the strongest was the dream of not one but hundreds of aspiring martial artists across the land. And many were willing to pay the price by taking others’ lives.
Invincible Under the Sun
“You must understand that there is more than one path to the top of the mountain”
Musashi is depicted as a rage-filled vagrant focused on becoming the strongest. But becoming strong is impossible if one does not know the meaning of ‘Strength’. The power to take lives is not ‘Strength’. The power to save them is also not ‘Strength’. He set out on a quest at the behest of the monk Takuan across all of Japan to find what it means to be truly strong.
Takuan guides Takezo by giving him a second life and names him Musashi of the Miyamoto village. While searching for his contemporaries in swordsmanship and martial arts, Miyamoto encounters the age-old Japanese trope of the ‘old but badass’ character. Vagabond features a few of them — those who have realized that true strength does not require the use of violence. Without going into spoilers, our protagonist glimpses what being invincible under the sun means.
“to become Invincible under the sun,
to have no equal among men,
to be the strongest throughout the lands”
Situations where violence ends up being the wrong answer for the majority of problems pop up regularly, emphasizing the idea that being strong does not mean you have to fight.
Hatred Begets Hatred, Violence Begets Violence
“The path that leads to truth is littered with the bodies of the ignorant.”
People project their inner fears and insecurities onto others as a means of escaping reality. Musashi projects his insecurities, fear and animosity onto everyone he encounters, perceiving it as their hostility towards him. This leads to frequent conflicts with anyone passing by and a general restlessness in an unfamiliar environment. He cannot rest his eyes for an instant without putting up a guard.
Overcoming one’s inner demons and living in this reality is a major theme in Vagabond. Not projecting onto another is a small victory against oneself. There is nothing to prove to anyone but oneself, and one must strive for self-improvement. But clearly, these teachings are hard to practice, for it requires a complete change in mindset. It’s an arduous process for all, but perseverance is the only way to become the best version of yourself.
As I continued reading, I found myself pondering the ideas sprinkled in the story. Sinking deeper into this tale, I wondered how much we as humans projected our inner fears onto others, generated biases, and spread hatred among ourselves. The feeling of inertia when it comes to changing thoughts or mindsets is large enough to deter the majority of our species.
This is the cause of the perpetuating cycle of hatred and violence in the world.
The river meanders with seasons, a picture of it at any instance is incomplete. I decided to let my thoughts flow the way a river does and decided to forgo seeking absolute perfection. The lessons I learnt through Vagabond really did change my perception, and I believe it will surely change yours too!