A seinen manga about the legendary "sword saint" Miyamoto Musashi, said by many to be the greatest samurai of all time. Written and drawn by Takehiko Inoue, the author of the extremely popular Slam Dunk, this series boasts amazing artwork, an engrossing story, and some of the best Character Development seen not just in manga, but in any media.
The story itself is based on the novel Musashi, a semi-historical fictional account of Musashi's life. So while the series is firmly rooted in truth, artistic liberties were definitely taken.
The story starts with two 17-year-olds, Shinmen Takezo — a half-wild loner raised by the sword — and his only friend Hon'iden Matahachi. Having fought on the losing side at the Battle of Sekigahara, the young men struggle to survive until they're rescued by a girl named Akemi and her mother Oko, who make a living by robbing corpses. After Takezo and Matahachi save the two women from the Tsujikaze gang, Matahachi decides to elope with Oko to Kyoto instead of returning home with Takezo to his fiancée, Otsu.
Matahachi's mother refuses to accept this, instead blaming Takezo for her son's absence, which leads to a village-wide hunt for Takezo (not helped by his inhuman aggression and tendency to beat men to death with sticks). He's eventually captured by a monk using cheap tricks—namely convincing Otsu to track him down, knowing he'd lower his guard—and hung from a tree to think on his sins.
Unbeknownst to the villagers, the monk, the legendary Takuan Soho, frees Takezo after a few days, rechristens him, and sends him off on the journey that changes him into a Living Legend and, eventually, the figure we know today.
This series contains examples of:
- Art Evolution: Actually starts in Slam Dunk, but the art, though terrific to begin with, becomes more complex and detailed.
- Back-to-Back Badasses: Takezo and Kojiro do this at the Battle of Sekigahara, though both of them probably forgot all about it.
- Badass Boast: "Invincible Swordsman Under The Heavens Ganryū Sasaki Kojirō", "Number One Martial Artist Under the Heavens Muso Gonnosuke"
- At least one villager spotting them travelling together ended up noticing the redundancy.
- Based on a True Story: More like based on what was based on a true story.
- Blood Knight: Musashi. Ito Ittosai is even worse, and unlike Musashi, does not get his bloodlust tempered through Character Development.
- Bishounen: Sasaki Kojiro, Yoshioka Seijuro.
- Black and Gray Morality: Musashi starts off as A Lighter Shade of Black against his opponents and mellows out with Character Development. Though despite that most of his foes are slightly worse, there are some instances where everyone's as dark a shade of gray as he is.
- Blue and Orange Morality: A major focus of the story as Musashi and other characters strive to match morality with their pursuit of the way of the sword. Musashi uncovering and developing his own moral code as a swordsman is one of the central themes of the story, especially in the aftermath of his duels against the Yoshioka school.
- Cast of Snowflakes: Every character looks so different from the other in terms of body type and facial features that it's pretty much impossible to mistake one for the other.
- Character Development: Most notably for Musashi and Jisai, but subverted with Matahachi. A good argument could be made that watching the characters grow is the entire point of the series.
- Character Focus: The first arc featuring Kojiro took up about a third of the then-twenty volume series by the time it was done.
- Charles Atlas Superpower: Musashi, who spent his childhood jumping around in the mountains swinging logs and a sword he found on a corpse.
- Along with having an incredible physical toughness allowing him to survive a ''lot'', a good bit of his survival is from being physically gifted.
- Even the legendary dual-wielding technique is partially due to this — when he first dual-wields in seeming desperation, his opponent is pleased to see Musashi seemingly splitting his strength between two blades and supposedly weakening himself... only for Musashi's one-handed strike to cleave through his sword. (Considering the surprise at this feat of strength, it's entirely possible that they had experience with others who'd tried to dual-wield without being as strong as Musashi.)
- Children Raise You: Kanemaki Jisai and Sasaki Kojiro.
- Combat Pragmatist: Musashi
- Conservation of Ninjutsu: Musashi and the Seventy.
- Contemplate Our Navels: Much of Musashi's growth from an immature glory hound to a true Warrior Poet takes place as part of his Inner Monologue. Philosophical themes, such as the nature of battle and the ideal state of the soul, are visited with increasing frequency.
- Disability Superpower: Sasaki Kojiro is portrayed as deaf here, which supposedly makes him an insanely skillful swordfighter due to being able to hear only his "inner voice".
- Doomed by Canon: Most of Musashi's opponents, but specially Kojiro and the Yoshioka school, at least to readers with some knowledge on Musashi's real story.
- Eye Scream: Happens quite a few times throughout the series.
- Foregone Conclusion: If you've read this page, you know what happens when Musashi duels Kojiro, which hasn't happened in the manga yet.
- Friendly Enemy: Kojiro and Musashi. Bordered on Ho Yay at times, what with them thinking about each other at odd moments and all.
- Gentle Giant: A downplayed case in Yoshioka Denshichiro, although he shows enough signs that by the time his rematch with Musashi starts, he comes off as the more sympathetic figure. (It helps that despite expelling his "third brother" Ueda Ryohei for trying to protect him, he also stipulated that if he were to die, that Ryohei was to be reinstated and succeed him in leading the school.)
- Kick Them While They Are Down: Subverted in Musashi's rematch with Inshun. At first it looks like Musashi was pounding the unconscious Inshun with his wooden sword, but from another perspective we see that he was just hitting the ground next to Inshun in manic celebration of his victory.
- Magic Realism: There are a few spirits here and there who sort of interact with the characters.
- Manchild: Kojiro, surprisingly enough.
- Mook Chivalry: Sometimes justified; would truly honorable samurai gang up on you? Yes, if they're the Yoshioka school, but in their defense, they tried the honest way first and failed horrendously—they were desperate at that point.
- Ironically, they failed at the ganging up the because they still had the chivalric mentality and overall retained an individual warrior mentality — allowing Musashi to fight "one against one, seventy times." The only group of them to (almost) succeed in contrast "got it," but hesitated at the fateful moment when their leader held Musashi down for his men to drive their swords through them both.
- Old Master: Shinmen Munisai, Houzouin In'ei, Yagyu Sekishusai, Kanemaki Jisai.
- One-Man Army: Musashi cuts down more than 70 highly trained and nationally respected Yoshioka swordsmen. Basically the entire school. And that's after he took out their leader, nominally the best of them, at the start of the battle, by diving right into their center. This single-handedly catapults him to a national figure and doubles as a Crowning Momentof Awesome.
- Out of the Inferno: Variation, where master Fudo first steps out of his house because it's on fire, then goes back in again because he forgot his sword, only to walk out as described in the trope.
- The Perils of Being the Best: The manga spends a lot of time exploring this theme. Any swordsman who makes a name for himself becomes a target for every glory seeking wannabe around. The psychological weight of constantly being attacked and constantly having to kill takes a frightful toll on several figures. Examples include Shinmen Munisai, who became unhinged and paranoid to the point where he treats even his young son as a competitor looking to overthrow him, and Tsujikaze Kōhei, who goes from being a Blood Knight to becoming so completely burned out on fighting and killing after he was challenged by many samurai that when he is defeated and maimed so that he cannot duel again he is thankful for being maimed, etc. Musashi himself only barely avoids this, and only because he realizes the pitfalls of the trope and he tries really hard to avoid being a slave to his reputation after he becomes a national figure, even when that means avoiding challenges and living as a peasant and farmer for a time.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni
- Musashi and Kojiro. Variation in that Kojiro, while calmer than Musashi, is also much more cheerful.
- Musashi's entire character arc is about undergoing a transition from the impulsive, Hot-Blooded, Blood Knight version of himself as a youngster, (definite Red Oni) into a calmer, more philosophical, more caring man who is saddened by a life of violence and killing and starts looking for ways to avoid needless death.
- The Yoshioka brothers consist of the bigger, more impulsive, and physically fearsome but kinder Denshichiro, and the superior, Brilliant, but Lazy, pint sized Aloof Big Brother Seijuro.
- For a brief time, Blood Knight supreme Ito Ittosai formed such a pair with Kojiro, which only lasted until he tried putting Kojiro through a version of sink or swim training, and Kojiro responded by not only besting Ittosai in a duel but also cutting off half of Ittosai's hand.
- Scenery Porn: Where to begin? This is the manga equivalent of calligraphy.
- Screaming Warrior: Hoo boy. This trope is extremely plentiful throughout the series, although it's pointed out several times that the fighter who is screaming is usually trying to fight off their own fear, (and probably lessening their ability to fight effectively because they're causing their entire body to tighten up) while the fighter who is calm usually has the upper hand.
- The Storyteller: Eventually it's revealed that the story of the manga is told entirely by an elder Matahachi, who incidentally charges for every story.
- Strange Minds Think Alike: When Musashi and Seijuro duel, both of them think "What's the worst that could happen", followed by a mental image of being cut in half.
- Title Drop
- Tranquil Fury: In one instance, while Kojiro is visiting a prostitute, her pimp walks in and starts berating and abusing her, and ends up killing her pet frog. Kojiro confronts the man with a calm, flat expression on his face (contrasted with his usual joyous expression), and cuts him open with a  in a blink of the eye.
- True Companions: The Yoshioka swordsmen very much had this going on.
- Younger Than They Look: Shinmen Takezo.