In August 2010, Vagabond went on hiatus because of creator Takehiko Inoue’s physical health, but then remained on hiatus even after he recovered and continued working on his other ongoing series, Real. Vagabond remained untouched for over a year and a half, finally resuming in March 2012 with chapters on a monthly basis instead of the weekly or biweekly schedules the manga had been following before.
The following is an abridged version of one interviewer’s series of conversations with Inoue just before, and then during, that 19-month gap.
April 2010 — just after chapter 296, the last chapter in volume 33, ran in Morning.
–The part with Musashi staying at the carver’s house and spending days carving out buddhas really stuck with me.
Inoue: I’d just gotten to talk with a real Buddhist sculptor at the time. I didn’t use him as a model for the character or anything, but it made me think that a sculptor would make a great character to help Musashi reach some sort of realization.
–There are countless substories in Vagabond, like this one with the carver. Then you have Real, which is almost like a story driven by a collection of substories, while Slam Dunk doesn’t seem to have many substories at all.
Inoue: It’s true, you could say Slam Dunk had virtually no substories. But with Vagabond, I don’t think of any of the stories in there as substories. I don’t see it as divided between the duels as the main story and everything else as mere substories. Vagabond is the journey of Musashi the person. With Slam Dunk, the matches themselves were stories about life, but most people’s lives aren’t like that. Sure, sometimes Musashi goes through duel after duel, but it’s not something he does every single day. Life consists more of time spent on inane things.
Life is a series of moments of being stuck, unable to move forward. You meet people and interact with them, you worry, you get depressed, and they’re all important stories, so I can’t see them as divided into main stories and substories. Slam Dunk was about basketball, so it was okay for it to just have match after match, but with Musashi I can’t have him do nothing but go around dueling people. He’d wind up dead in no time.
–Is there any sort of shift that you’re making now when drawing Vagabond, like how you made the move from pen to brush?
Inoue: One shift is — and this is kind of a crude way to put it, but — my style up until now has been to see my work as something to be done by myself alone, but lately I’ve been trying to use other people’s ideas and create my work using them. I’m sharing the work, you could say — I’ve loosened that border I’d set up between me and other people in terms of work. The idea for the part with Kojiro on the bridge in Kokura, for example, came from some advice from my editor. It left me able to focus my effort on the actual execution and details. It was like I was able to look down from above and get a clear view of it all, when normally I’m too deep in the thick of things to be able to see things objectively like that. It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve ever taken advice from my editor, but it has been pretty rare with Vagabond, so it was a real discovery for me with that chapter.
–That scene where Kojiro plops into the water at the end, and then all the men in Kokura start following him in and carry the boat with him and the kid in it, all of them cheering — it was so lively and dramatic that you could almost hear it… but I did actually find myself thinking that it didn’t really seem like your usual style.
Inoue: I think it’s a good scene, but for me, it went a bit too far in playing on the reader’s expectations and pulling the rug out from under them. The reason I’ve always been afraid of taking other people’s advice is that I’ve been worried that I’d end up betraying my reader’s trust by doing one too many things that seem out of character for me to do. I believe that up until now I’ve managed to maintain a kind of stylistic purity by doing the work all by myself, even if it meant the quality of the work might suffer for it, but now I feel I’m ready to take advice from others and then turn it into something my own.
–After rereading the entire series from volume one, I found that both the art and the story have loosened up and lost the stiffness of the earlier volumes. It seemed like you were really under the influence of the Eiji Yoshikawa novel that the manga is based on.
Inoue: At first, yes. I hadn’t really decided how much distance to put between Vagabond and the original novel, so part of me was playing it safe in order to keep from upsetting the novel’s fans. It’s true, though, I really did start off by sticking quite closely to the book. I was told that it was okay to go off and do my own thing, but that was hard at first, and I didn’t really have any reason to diverge until I had the characters up and running anyway.
I’m not really interested in telling a story, though — what I want to draw is what Musashi Miyamoto the man was like. I basically see what I’m going for as more like poetry than a story.
–You’ve said something along those lines before — “Really I’d be happy just drawing pictures, but then it wouldn’t have a story, and it wouldn’t be a manga.”
Inoue: I like manga, and I choose it as a means of expressing myself because it’s what I’m good at, I suppose. But while manga do inevitably take the form of stories, I don’t think story is what I’m trying to do in my manga. I’ve never been especially good at making stories. In Slam Dunk, what I was drawing was basketball, with some daily life stuff in between matches. That’s all. Now, maybe the result comes out as something that looks like a decent story, but I wasn’t thinking about making a story at the time — all I was thinking about was putting a good basketball game into picture form and drawing some sweet plays. I think I just go along drawing things, and then it turns out in the end to be something like a story. Since starting Vagabond, there’ve been times where I’ve dared to dream of maybe pulling off a story, but really, it hasn’t turned out very different. Maybe the problem is that I’ve just never really tried to do story.
–This isn’t quite the same as what you’re talking about when you say you’re not telling a story, but “being stuck” is a common motif in Vagabond. Musashi is stuck and unable to move forward. We often see water in the manga, flowing freely, almost as a contrast. Is Musashi stagnant? Will he eventually break free and become clear? Is that what Musashi is searching for? This is what I find myself wondering. If you have an ending in mind and it really is near, will we see something like that?
Inoue: That depends how deep I’m able to immerse myself in Vagabond. If I reach a point where nothing else matters to me, maybe I’ll be able to cruise right through to the end in one go. My only experience with hitting that groove as I work toward an ending is Slam Dunk, so it’s hard to say if that’ll happen with Vagabond too. Maybe it’s too late and I’ve missed my chance to get into that zone.
October 2010 — after holding a manga exhibition and workshop in Sendai during the summer, Vagabond goes on hiatus due to problems with Inoue’s health. Inoue undergoes a physical check-up, but is told that there is nothing medically wrong with him.
–Are you not suffering from any symptoms anymore?
Inoue: As long as I don’t do any work, no. (laugh) With the exhibition over and Vagabond on hiatus, I’ve been sleeping well lately, so my stress levels are way down. I don’t smoke or drink and I watch what I eat, so if it weren’t for the repeated all-nighters I pull for work, I should be leading a pretty healthy lifestyle. I was getting these headaches and I couldn’t concentrate. Hard to say if it was caused by work, or by not wanting to do work…
–But you must feel the desire to draw manga, though, right? Vagabond in particular.
Inoue: I’d reached a point where I wasn’t even sure of that. I became unsure of where I was heading, couldn’t even remember where I’d started from in the first place. That’s how busy I was. I was stuck doing the work for external factors for so long that I’d forgotten to look inside myself.
–With the manga exhibitions like the one you just finished in Sendai, you can literally take a step back and actually see the defined boundaries: from the entrance to the exit. A manga series, on the other hand, is a sort of endless journey, with no exit in sight. Is that stressful for you?
Inoue: I’d say it’s just the opposite, actually: The problem is that I started thinking too much about the ending. I went around talking about how I’d end it this year, even wrote it on my blog. That was the problem, I think. The exhaustion from the exhibit was part of it too, though, but… you know, I still don’t really have an answer for what it is. It’s an accumulation of multiple things.
–Do you have at least some sort of vague idea of when you’ll return to Vagabond?
Inoue: Well, speaking in terms of what I want to do: As I said before, I really don’t at all have the urge to work on it right now, but I do know that if I don’t work on it, I’ll be in trouble down the road, and that’s basically what was keeping me going up until I went on hiatus. I don’t think that’s a good way of going about it. My hope is to stay away from Vagabond until all those unnecessary worries and emotions are gone and I’m ready to draw it because I want to draw it. I’m not sure if I’ll be allowed to wait that long, though.
I see this hiatus as sort of a death for myself as an artist, which sounds like a pretty dramatic way to put it, I realize, but there’s so much baggage that I’ve been dragging along for so long, and I know I’ll become a much better artist if I shed all of that. After I return to that state of innocence, the manga I make will be several times better than what I’m capable of now, I’m sure of it. If I prematurely go back to working on it before that, I’ll just end up going through this all over again. I mean, I’d manage to churn out something decent, I suppose, sheerly out of a sense of professional duty– but it probably wouldn’t be anything outstanding. Although, really, the fact that I’m still talking about making it something “outstanding” is itself a sign that I’m still carrying that baggage around. Anyway, I’m not touching Vagabond for now, because I think that’s what I need to be able to eventually produce something that feels right to me.
December 2010 — Vagabond remains on hiatus, though Inoue continues to work on Real.
–How are you feeling these days?
Inoue: I’m okay now, I think. I haven’t gotten myself checked since the summer, but my workload’s gone way down thanks to the hiatus, so I’m feeling better. My headaches have gone away, which is the most important thing. I have occasional pains in my back, but maybe that’s just because I’m getting older. In any case, I’m not that swamped with work anymore. Once I get Real out of the way I’m done with work for the year, which feels just great. (laugh)
–Still no idea when you’ll be returning to Vagabond?
Inoue: Nothing’s been decided. Haven’t even been talking about it. Remind me again what I told you in our last interview?
–You were laughing two months ago about how your editor at Morning has stopped e-mailing you about it.
Inoue: Ah, right. I told my editor that I still didn’t want to set any dates for it, and… wait, no, I was asking if it would possibly be okay to not serialize it in a magazine. Like, do we really still have to maintain the weekly magazine serialization method we’re doing now? Or — I didn’t say this, but I was thinking — could I maybe run it in a different magazine, something that isn’t weekly? Morning is a major magazine, and it’s an honor to have my manga run in it, but I can’t produce chapters regularly right now, so you couldn’t really call it a proper serialization. I asked my editor if he was really okay with all of that.
–And what’d he say?
Inoue: He wanted Vagabond running in Morning, in whatever form they can get it in. Can’t really complain about that.
–-So you ARE going to return to Vagabond eventually though, right?
Inoue: Well, eventually, yes.
–Do you do any thinking about what you’d like to do differently?
Inoue: I’m not doing any planning for Vagabond at all right now. But I have wanted to change something about it for a long time. I just can’t do that whole twenty-pages-every-week thing anymore. If I go back to that, the same thing will happen again and I’ll be causing problems for everyone, so I’ve decided that I’ve finished with that method. What I think I can do is draw for a while and then release it when I’ve gotten a certain amount finished. As vague as that sounds.
–Do you rarely think about Vagabond these days?
Inoue: Ideas pop up in my head every once in a while — that Vagabond creator part of my brain hasn’t totally shut off. I’ll see something — it could be anything, like a tree or a bird — and something will come to me. “What if X happened to Kojiro, and then Musashi would think Y, and…” But even when these thoughts pop up, I don’t write them down or anything.
–You’ve distanced yourself from it, I see. Is there anything that’s piqued your interest recently instead?
Inoue: The first thing I did when the hiatus became official was go to a gym and get a membership. I haven’t gone since then, though.
–How about movies or books?
Inoue: I haven’t seen any movies lately. Hmm. What have I been doing? I suppose I’ve been doing some reading, or at least I’ve been buying a lot of books, anyway. I’ve got a lot of books piled up that I plan on reading eventually.
–Have you been reading manga at all lately? Anything at all.
Inoue: No, I’m afraid not.
—So: You’re still continuing to work on Real.
Inoue: Yes, I haven’t become totally disconnected from society just yet. (laugh) I always think that’s the incredible thing about Real: I can draw it under any circumstances. Now, part of that is the help I get from the editor who works with me on it — all the research he does, the way he knows just how to get me motivated, et cetera. But while Real and Vagabond are both manga, I see Real more as something that I do professionally, as a professional manga artist. If Vagabond is an attempt to escape from being fenced in by what a manga is supposed to be, then Real is me working within that frame.
–What do you suppose will happen if you continue to not work on Vagabond for another year or two?
Inoue: I’ve gone on hiatus before, and when I eventually came back to the series, I found that Musashi seemed quite different. After a long break, not only does the artist change on the inside, but the pictures come out different, too. It’d be pretty incredible, in a way, if Musashi came back looking like Tensai Bakabon.
–How’d you spend your summer?
Inoue: I got a new editor for Vagabond. We’ve been meeting once a month to talk about things. The pressure inside me is steadily building.
Inoue: I’m starting to have things I want to draw build up inside me again. Here and there, I’ve been getting glimpses of that urge to draw. I still can’t promise anything yet, though, so my editor is no doubt facing a lot of pressure from the editor-in-chief and the management people who want to know what’s going on. He handles that stuff by himself, though — he doesn’t tell me about any of it. He says we’ll return to the series whenever I’m ready to.
–You’ve gone on hiatus a few times before. How’d it work for you then?
Inoue: There was a period after the Kojiro arc, between volumes 20 and 21, that was a really rough time for me, so I set the series aside for about a year. The urge really built up inside me during that time, so I remember really enjoying the work when I started doing volume 21. It even came through in the art: the characters’ faces changed a lot, because all that pent-up urge to draw made me extra attentive to every little detail when I got back to work. It really does show on the page when you come back to a manga after a break, so in that sense I don’t think going on hiatus is all bad.
—Vagabond is still on hiatus, and you’re still keeping up with Real. Are the two series so different from each other?
Inoue: Totally different. With Real, I almost never worry about trying to do something completely original or express things stylishly — or at least I don’t in terms of the artwork, anyway. Vagabond is where I try to do new things with the art and draw the best that I can, so in that sense, drawing it is pure enjoyment, whereas Real is me drawing squarely within my normal capabilities. It’s like I’ve got two different modes.
–There are elements about Real that you don’t know about personally — having to use a wheelchair, for example — but overall it’s a lot more grounded in reality than Vagabond.
Inoue: Obviously I haven’t experienced it first-hand, so I’m very diligent about doing the research behind Real, which is completely different from making Vagabond. With Real, you could say it really is a matter of assembly, in a way: I take the materials in front of me, and put them together. The process is almost like cooking, with Real. Vagabond is something more personal. There’s no formula. It feels like I’m making something that’s not quite manga. Vagabond is almost something like running around a mountain or swimming in a river, in that there are no rules, but I have to use everything I have in me, in every situation — which is also what’s so exhausting about it.
I’ve been putting a ton of effort into the whole manga process for Real lately, and I’ve rediscovered a joy in it that Vagabond never gave me — the joy of manga, and being a professional manga artist. It must be how everyone else feels when they’re drawing manga. For example: Up until now, I’d been drawing in order, starting at the start of the chapter and ending at the end, thinking it up as I go. I hardly ever used to go back and cut and paste or redraw things. With this latest chapter, though, I tried a new method, where I draw a bunch of scenes and then rearrange them around.
–Like when shooting a film, you don’t know which scene you’re going to shoot first. Depending on the budget and the weather and the actors’ schedules, you might end up shooting the final scene first.
Inoue: You can’t just shoot it in order, yeah. So this time, I similarly tried playing around with things — like, what if I move this panel over there, and move that one over here, et cetera. Of course, there were circumstances that made it so I sort of had to do it that way this time, but having tried it, I thought it was pretty fun. I’d tried doing it that way before, but I’d sort of forgotten about how fun it is, I guess.
–Getting off topic for a minute: Did you see Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life this summer?
Inoue: I did. I knew I couldn’t miss that one. Saw it just recently, actually. It really is a hell of a film. Reminded me a bit of 2001: A Space Odyssey — they technically take the form of a movie, but both really escape from that mold, I think. Watching it, you wonder how just how far they’re going to take it — like, how did they manage to get the go-ahead from the producers? The film has really stuck with me.
–There were some beautiful scenes, like the water ripples, that really left an impression on me. I thought it shared something with Vagabond there.
Inoue: When Musashi comes face to face with Sekishusai (volume 11), there are these images of nature — rocks, flowers — and I’ve had someone tell me before that they didn’t get what that was all about. I’m not sure I could give you the exact meaning behind it, but basically, I want something about it to stay with people. The idea is for the reader to feel something, and then for that something to stay with him, whatever that something may be.
I think watching a film like Tree of Life gives me courage as a creator, in a way. How can I take universal things — soul, life, concepts — and give them form, in order to share them with the world? How much story do I need, how straightforward do I have to make it? Seeing how far other artists are pushing the limits helps me deal with these questions. If you focus too much on making something easy to understand, you limit yourself. My goal has always been to make something that isn’t so clearly defined, so it gives me courage when I come across works of art that are trying something similar. It makes me feel like I might be able to pull it off yet.
–Do you ever feel like you can’t quite express yourself through manga?
Inoue: If I had to say what manga is, I’d say it’s something cheap and easy to read, something fun, something about something. Now, there’s a lot of wriggle room to try different things within that frame, but in the end, it does have to be something that can be understood. There’s no point in making something that can’t be understood by a wide audience — or at least, there’s no reason to make something like that into a manga. I would start thinking I might as well do it in some other form. So, when I was doing Slam Dunk in Shonen Jump, which is a popular boys’ magazine, I had to work within the constraints of doing something that would sell a lot. You could almost say it’s like an amusement park — you want people to enjoy themselves and come away saying, “That was fun!” But that stopped being what I wanted to do. The world needs that sort of manga that anybody can enjoy, but I decided I don’t have to be the one making it.
But I am aiming for a mass audience. I think there’s plenty of stuff out there that doesn’t need to reach a mass audience, but I personally don’t want to work the indie scene. I try quite hard to reach a wide audience and to make something that people can understand — but on the other hand, I don’t need everyone to completely get it. It’s a tricky balance.
I’m hoping that in becoming a monthly series, Vagabond‘s position will change a little. It’s come this far, and now it’s entering a new stage. Almost like the manga has become an old man now, as opposed to Slam Dunk, which was a young manga. When I say that, I’m not talking about the two series being aimed at younger or older audiences, here — I mean that the manga itself is like an old person.
Let me put it this way: Michael Jordan retired at his peak, came back, won the championship three times, then retired again. I remember saying something at the time along the lines of, “But don’t you have to eventually peak and start losing ?”
Michael Jordan is a very competitive man. For his first six years, he was criticized for not being a team player, but he slowly started overcoming his weaknesses until he was unbeatable, and then he retired. Something about that retirement struck me as unnatural, though. Sure, it’s Jordan, but he’s still part of a greater whole, I thought. Now, this is just my opinion as a total outsider who doesn’t really know anything, and I know that one has to consider all the suffering and sacrifice that it takes to keep on winning, but at the time what I remember thinking is that everyone has to eventually go through a decline and becoming a stepping stone for the next person.
Jordan owns a team now, but he doesn’t seem to be doing a great job managing it.
In sports, your time as an active player really is your youth. It’s only a fraction of your life — what comes afterwards is much longer. This might not be a great comparison, but I think this might be the difference between Vagabond and Slam Dunk.
I feel right now like I need to accept the fact that I’m maturing, or maybe even starting to dry up. It’s something I always technically knew was true, but it’s time for me to truly accept the fact that there’s no need to be the most popular artist out there, or the trendy artist that everyone’s talking about, or even a particularly cool one. If this manga’s reached that point, then maybe it’s okay for me to just shrug it off when people make cracks about how this old manga’s dragging on.
But then, it’s not really in my nature to be able to just draw manga without an audience out there for it. Now, obviously things haven’t gone that far downhill yet, but I just feel like I should be able to accept it if it does come to that. Hmm. I don’t know how to put it.
–Are you saying you’re going to draw that process of maturation in your manga?
Inoue: I’m saying that it’s alright if my manga becomes something unspecial, and I’m ready to try being a little dried up. Part of me had accepted it a long time ago, but really, if I heard someone make one of those “Isn’t that manga finished yet?” cracks, the me until now would’ve gotten pissed off, whereas now I think I can take it a little better.
If I were to put it in terms of music, it’s like now I don’t care if I’m not playing at the Budokan or Tokyo Dome or whatever, because playing out on some street corner is just fine by me. In fact, what I want to do is recapture the fun of drawing manga precisely without being fenced in by exterior influences like that. Drawing when I feel like it. That’s what I’m saying.
–It sounds less like a matter of maturing and drying up and more like going back to an almost childlike innocence.
Inoue: Hey, you’re right! They say that people become childish as they age. That makes me pretty old, then. Or pretty young, or something.
I haven’t really worked this all out mentally just yet. I might change my mind and start saying I had this all wrong. ♦