A lot of action manga follow an almost-standard formula: there’s a main character and he needs to get stronger because he wants to be the best in the world, or something similarly grand. Dragon Ball, Naruto, One Piece and countless others follow this formula. It’s tried-and-true, and pretty hard to mess up.
But, it can be a little repetitive, especially for a manga that runs for a long time. The author just has to keep finding new ways to up the stakes and force the protagonist to be even stronger. That’s the crux of all conflicts within these kinds of manga: the protagonist needs to figure out how to get stronger. But there’s a manga that deconstructs that formula, and instead becomes about a man figuring out why he even wants to get stronger in the first place.
“Vagabond” by Takehiko Inoue is a fictionalized version of the story of real-life ronin Miyamoto Musashi, who was undefeated in 61 duels and became one of the most renowned swordsmen in Japan.
The story starts about the way you’d expect: a young Musashi decides that he wants to be the strongest in the world, “invincible under the sun.” So he begins to travel throughout feudal Japan, dueling and beating people, and growing stronger and more experienced with each fight.
Throughout, there are small moments where this goal is briefly questioned. But, there’s a specific point when it becomes very clear that “Vagabond” is starkly different from the other manga of its kind.
Musashi eventually meets a man named Yagyu, a legendary samurai and the head of a clan. Musashi takes on an entire castle to get to him, but when he finds him, he’s just an old man, ill and bed-ridden. He tries to kill Yagyu in his sleep, but he wakes up and manages to fend Musashi off while remaining in bed, and momentarily thinking that Musashi was his young nephew playing around.
Stunned, Musashi gives up, and asks Yagyu what it means to be “invincible.” Yagyu’s response makes Musashi storm out, and his words continue to echo long after the encounter. It’s from these words that the entire theme and tone of the manga change.
“’ Invincible’ is just a word.”
From this point on, Musashi’s entire journey is called into question. In trying to become invincible, he became entangled in a cycle of endless violence, cutting down everyone who stands in his way. But for what? What does he have to show for it?
This is amplified later on when he suffers a major injury during a fight. While other manga might have the character be in bed for a while and then just train even harder afterwards, “Vagabond” doesn’t do that. Musashi is injured for the rest of the manga, forcing him to slow down. For a while, he can’t even stand up.
He begins to consider what is truly important in life, what he really wants out of it. He talks about the idea of finding someone to settle down with and making a home he can always return to, instead of aimlessly wandering Japan looking for fights.
In a manga that was earlier on almost entirely about fighting, now Musashi is forced to sit with his thoughts. And somehow, that’s even more compelling than the thrilling battles that came before.
Musashi’s journey towards being invincible is one born out of an all-consuming self-obsession, and it’s only by confronting this that he’s able to grow and mature. I think everyone, at some point in their lives, has to ask themselves the same question that Musashi does: what’s the point of it all? It’s important to take the time to ask yourself why you’re doing the things that you are. You only have one life, one chance to live the way you truly want to.