Due to its wide readership, ‘Manga’ has been a popular art form in Japan. Outside Japan, it refers to comics that are originally published in Japan. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English defines the term as “a Japanese form of a comic strip, often one with violent or sexual contents” (Oxford, 935). For the convenience of both the researcher and the reader, ‘manga’ and ‘graphic novel’ are used synonymously in this paper. Takehiko Inoue’s Vagabond is an exemplary work of fiction in the form of graphic novel.
The aim of this research paper, however, extends beyond that. It attempts to explore the experimental narrative features, the root of which goes back to the mid 20th century, in Inoue’s novel. In order to lay a premise for further exploration of the novel, this paper sheds some light on the concept of experimental fiction in the beginning. Furthermore, with sole reference to Inoue’s Vagabond, it will deal with important experimental features: a graphic novel; intertextuality; history of the vanquished; female eroticism; and the dichotomy between fact and fiction.
What is Experimental Fiction?
At the heart of postmodernism is the idea that the notion of absolute truth has become obsolete. With the same concept in mind, it can be said that there is no exact answer to what ‘experimental fiction’ means. Every work of art is produced to bring new impacts in the world of art. What makes experimental fiction different from other forms of narrative is that innovation is at its center. Julie Armstrong, in her book Experimental Fiction: an Introduction for Readers and Writers, says: “experimental fiction departs from conventional expectations or Aristotelian principles: that a novel has a beginning, middle and an end, with steadily rising action and conflict that builds to a climax and then resolves – a closed text” (Armstrong, 5).
Hence, readers who are used to reading conventional forms of fiction often find experimental fiction strange and difficult to comprehend. Some critics, including Armstrong, argue that most readers respond to experimental novels with frustration and anger, for their expectations are subverted. In its official journal Map Literary, William Patterson University, under the title ‘Experimental Fiction’, writes: “Experimental fiction is like a foreigner in a new land – a stranger who does not know the social etiquette.” The journal further mentions that experimental fiction forces readers to realize that the world can be imagined in ways different from those by which we are so accustomed to imagining it. A graphic form is a basic thing that makes Vagabond different from conventional fiction which assumes that stories are told solely by means of words. It unquestionably makes a departure from the conventional nature of fiction writing which will be dealt with in the succeeding paragraphs.
Features of Experimental Fiction
Graphic novel simply means a book that tells stories through pictures. The pictures are basically sketches in black and white. The primary means of telling the Vagabond story is sketches. Few words have been used and they are subordinate to pictures. The concept of graphic novel emerged towards the mid 20th century in the western literary world. Manga contrarily has a quite long history. Most references claim that manga originated in the 12th century with scrolls of Japanese art. Like prose fiction, western comics are made to be read from left to write. In addition to being graphic, Vagabond, however, is to be read from right to left. Hence, as readers of conventional left-right style, we obviously get an odd experience while reading this novel. Moreover, except for few words, all emotions and feelings are expressed through the changing expressions on the face of characters. The pictures have been made even livelier by the onomatopoeic words. There are pictures of horses marching away after the battle of Sekigahara is over and the word ‘tromp’ is used several times. There are other similar words like ‘fwip,’ ‘ur,’ ‘huf,’ ‘thunk,’ ‘whud,’ etc. to describe different actions and circumstances. Such mixing up of genres is another important feature of experimental fiction. Hence, rather than reading, it is more a visualizing experience while going through Inoue’s Vagabond.
To refer to the relationship between texts, especially literary ones, Julia Kristeva coined the term ‘intertextuality.’ The Wikipedia definition of intertextuality is:
the shaping of a text’s meaning by another text. It is the interconnection between similar or related works of literature that reflect and influence an audience’s interpretation of the texts. . . . Intertextuality is a literary device that creates an ‘interrelationship between texts’ and generates related understanding in separate works. These references are made to influence the reader and add layers of depth to a text, based on the readers’ prior knowledge and understanding (Wikipedia, 1-4).
When text is written in relation to another already existing text it is known as intertextuality. Readers are directly informed on the back cover of the book that Inoue’s Vagabond is based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi. The meanings of both texts are therefore interconnected. For a full understanding of Vagabond, the knowledge of Musashi is a prerequisite. The period between 1470 and 1600 was a time of decentralized authority in Japan. The Shogun held much of political and military power but failed to win the loyalty of local daimyos. The daimyos, hence, battled each other among which Musashi was one of the young fighters who wanted to become invincible. Since Vagabond is based on Yoshikawa’s novel even the characters are borrowed from there. Battle of Sekigahara is the historical background of both novels. Those who can make neither head nor tail of the first novel can have difficulty in understanding the second novel in the graphic form. Both texts are fictional
accounts of the historical figure Miyamoto Musashi who is considered to be one of the greatest swordsmen in Japanese history. Armstrong also says that postmodern writers recycle narratives, enjoying the practice of intertextuality, referencing other texts, in order to generate novelty and creativity (Armstrong, 104). Vagabond is no exception. In spite of being intertextual, it creates a novelty by transforming words into lively sketches.
Another experimental feature of Vagabond is that it tells a history of the vanquished. Conventionally, history is written about victors. In other terms, only the incidents and circumstances concerned with the winner is recorded in history. But Inoue has taken a new approach of history writing. Armstrong says: “Experimental fiction is attempting to have free playing voices none of which is privileged” (Armstrong, 5). It actually seems to break the conventional hierarchy in representation. Hence, it, thereby, ends up in truer or more objective history. In Vagabond, the Tsujikaje gang is victorious in the battle of Sekigahara. In spite of their defeat in the battle, roles of both Matahachi Hon’iden and Shinmen Takezo are heavily emphasized. There is a vast difference in the characters of Takezo and Matahachi: brave and cowardly respectively. However, they are given equal space in the novel. The conventional type of history would have celebrated the victory of Tsujikaje gang. Had Inoue not diverted from the route that historians had so far been walking through our reading of his book would have been vastly different.
Moreover, Vagabond openly expresses the female eroticism. Even today, it is difficult for females to talk about their sexual desires. It can be justifiable to say that Inoue has paved ways for females to release their repressed desires. There is a kind of role reversal in the characters when it comes to sex. Normally a male is supposed to be the first to propose sexual relation. But here instead of the violent warrior Takezo, Oko is the one who insists on keeping physical relation with him. Though he is refusing Oko forcefully kisses him and gives him her body. Throughout her presence in the novel, she mostly exposes her cleavage
which gives her a voluptuous appearance and her lips are no less attractive. These are the reasons Matahachi and Tsujikaje Kohei are drawn toward her. When she caresses Takezo’s lips and says “Can’t you feel it?” he looks terrified and does not seem to be sexually stimulated. We can assume that it is Inoue’s experimentation with the superiority of female’s sexuality. In the 6th chapter of the book, entitled “The Trouble with Hon’iden Matahachi at Seventeen,” Matahachi violently rapes Oko, but she does not take it that way, for she has equal, if not more, lust. Following this incident, both of them go to a river and do ablutions. They could be seen washing clothes when Oko says “you have to wash blood out immediately or it won’t come out.” Moreover, just after coming out of Tsujikaje gang’s trap, in which Takezo rescues her, she again makes love with the cowardly Matahachi. Compared to her fulfilled sexual desire, her successful rescue attempt by Takezo is nothing. Amid his life-and-death struggle, Takezo demands to know whether Matahachi and Oko are safe. But they are heedless while fully-immersed in lovemaking. Hence, like the Oxford dictionary’s definition of ‘manga’ mentioned in the beginning of this paper, Vagabond contains both violent and sexual contents.
The notion of absolute truth has become obsolete in the postmodern era. Postmodernism argues that reality is a construction. It is constructed by people who are influenced by social circumstances. Some critics have gone as far as to arguing that fact is more fictional and fiction is more factual. We cannot assume Vagabond as a complete historical novel, nor is it a mere fiction. It gives the battle of Sekigahara as the historical background, but Inoue bases his knowledge in another fictional work Musashi. Moreover, he doesn’t present all the incidents as they happen in the reference book. In a literary journal Talk Amongs Yourselves, HyConor has written an article entitled “Vagabond Vol. 1 & 2: Background and Review.” The article mentions: “Vagabond is based on real events, but it admittedly plays fast and loose with historical accuracy. The manga gives a great taste for the
struggles and upheavals of the Sengoku era, without being a straight up history book or biography.” As the representative of Miyamoto Musashi, Shinmen Takezo goes sword-fighting and undergoes obstacles after obstacles at quick succession. Though it tells a lot about the contemporary history of Sengoku era, due to its twists and turns in the story, we cannot assume Inoue’s novel as a pure history book or the biography of Musashi. Concerning the twisting of historical truth, in his article “Vagabond: Takehiko Inoue Creates a Samurai Masterpiece”, Charles Solomon asserts: “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 beome ‘invincible under the sun’ grew out of his desire to surpass his father.” Hence, Vagabond is a history not as it happened but as people like to think it happened.
Brief Summary of Inoue’s Vagabond and Experimental Fiction
Winding up, Takehiko Inoue’s manga Vagabond is a good form of art which is rich in experimentation of postmodern art’s features. It is one of the few novels which tactfully jumble so much of experimental fiction’s features. Most books give special focus to a particular feature, but this novel is quite out of the ordinary. Like the equal prioritization of characters, it gives equal priority to all the issues involved. If anyone wants to know what experimental fiction is, Vagabond might be a good answer. Though tiny in size, it has so many issues like, graphic form, intertextuality, exposure of female’s sexual instincts, dichotomy between reality and fiction, etc. Hence, Vagabond, without any doubt, is an exemplary work of experimental fiction.
Armstrong, Julie. Experimental Fiction: An Introduction for Readers and Writers. Bloomsbury, 2014.
“Experimental Fiction.” Map Literary: A Journal of Contemporary Writing and Art. William Patterson University.
Hornby, A S et al. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English. 8th Edition, edited by Joanna Turnball et al, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 935.
HyConor. “Vagabond Vol. 1 & 2: Background and Review.” Talk Amongst Yourselves. .
Inoue, Takehiko. Vagabond. English adaptation by Yuji Oniki, Viz Comics, 2002.
“Intertextuality.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 May 2018.
Solomon, Charles. “’Vagabond’: Takehiko Inoue Creates a Samurai Masterpiece.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 05 December 2011