Legendary Feats of Swordsmanship: Berserk & Vagabond; Guts & Miyamoto Musashi

berserk vagabond guts vs miyamoto musashi

While the sword duel is easily what transfixes our imaginations when it comes to combat, there is something to be said about sheer statistics. Guts of Berserk massacred 100 mercenaries under the command of Lord Adon in a dark forest. Miyamoto Musashi of Vagabond slaughtered 70 swordsmen of the Yoshioka-ryu dojo in a smoky wood.

These are unassisted feats. They killed all those opponents by themselves. Guts’ record is like Wilt Chamberlin’s 100 point game vs. the New York Knicks only better, while Musashi’s battle was like Kobe Bryant torching the Toronto Raptors for 81 points. All are sterling examples of incredible individual feats against a large number of foes.

vagabond the yoshioka wait in ambush

While both efforts are undoubtedly unbelievable, the presentation by their respective works should endeavor to make them believable. The onus is on Vagabond in particular because the events are supposedly historical. Musashi really existed and he was supposed to have took on and killed 70 swordsman all by himself.

I think the manga is successful with this. The battle lasted several chapters and seemed to never end, with Musashi fighting through loss of blood, fatigue, and the menace of an entire school of swordsmanship. Japanese swordsmanship doesn’t translate well into formation combat, so there was never going to be an organized rush to overwhelm Musashi.

Instead there were small pockets of fighting wherein Musashi would be in 3 vs. 1, 2 vs. 1, or 1 vs. 1 matchups. This made it far more manageable for a legendary swordsman to take on a company-sized force. In effect it wasn’t quite a lynching that the Yoshioka intended but really just an overwhelming amount of sword duels.

True enough, Musashi barely made it out alive. Furthermore, he had serious injuries that would limit his movement (legs) for a very long time, compromising his swordsmanship significantly. As serious a work Berserk is, Vagabond is painstakingly devoted to realistically presenting such an implausible event. While it wasn’t the pinnacle of Musashi’s career, it was treated with utmost significance in the amount of chapters after it seemingly focused on Musashi’s recovery from that battle.

Vagabond miyamoto musashi

Guts made 100 kills in a single engagement. It was thrilling to watch. A big part of the thrill was the incredulity and the mounting dread among the opponents at how such a disaster is unfolding inexorably before them. Does it look like anything that would resemble an actual swordfight? No, but this isn’t as important a detail as it is perhaps in Vagabond.

At some point, the mercenaries fighting against Guts would’ve figured out that nothing seems to work. Rushing him only gets them killed. What they needed to do was get themselves in formation and attack Guts with a column led by spears and flank him with swordsmen. Even Guts has to recover balance after swinging his huge sword in such wide arcs. This will be enough opening to get inside and smother him, making it impossible to swing, he would then be vulnerable to thrusting attacks, even from daggers up close.

Berserk - 13.ogm_snapshot_14.21_[2010.08.20_05.06.34]

In fact, the band of mercs could simply keep shooting at him with their crossbows. He can’t dodge them all and the rest of the band could defend the archers. Guts can’t storm an organized column all by himself. But since the whole band was in a constant state of disarray, Guts just kept on swinging, killing at least one opponent every time.

At some point the rest of the mercs could’ve retreated or even deserted. Guts did take a lot of damage which would make it difficult for him to give chase. Also, Guts would not be likely to give chase anyway. And yet, everybody had a disastrous go at him. The most Berserk can give in the service of plausibility is how Adon would appeal to the idea that Guts must be tired, and/or Guts must be injured and unable to fight properly.

Berserk - 13.ogm_snapshot_18.08_[2010.08.20_05.08.38]

These problems of depiction are avoided when at around 50 kills, the action moves elsewhere (Casca’s escape). When Casca returns for Guts along with other fighters from the The Band of the Hawk, the “100” kills were already completed and Guts was resting by a tree with his many wounds. Berserk doesn’t make Guts’ incredible feat any less implausible, but make no mistake, it was amazing to watch.

I won’t argue how the anime stands in quality relative to the manga here. What’s important to me is that there is an anime, and it is done excellently. I can only wish that Vagabond is given the same opportunity and lavished with the same care and effort. Musashi will get a film treatment though, written by Oshii Mamoru which is very exciting news. Still, this isn’t Vagabond, so I think I have to wait a few more years at the very least.

If they make more Berserk anime though, I’m going to be all over it.

Further Reading

Vagabond’s visual style (along with Shigurui) [->]
Surveying the swordplay anime I’ve seen [->]
The Mythological power of the Berserk Finale (Shinmaru 06/17/2010)
Counting Musashi’s kills against the Yoshioka [->]
Counting ALL of Guts’ kills [->]

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
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29 Responses to Legendary Feats of Swordsmanship: Berserk & Vagabond; Guts & Miyamoto Musashi

  1. H says:

    The Oshii movie is already out and it was incredibly informative. Most of the movie isn’t Musashi though, it’s an Oshii CGI stand-in and his mute assistant giving a lecture about the historical nature of the myths and facts around the man’s life. Though the parts of the film depicting Musashi were marvelous. If anyone has any interest in the history of Musashi or Japanese swordsmanship in general the movie is excellent.

    • Finally saw it, and was very informative indeed for a medieval buff like me. I love how he’s characterized as a wannabe cavalry general which was why he kept talking about the battle here while saying so little about Ganryu.

  2. I thought Oshii’s Musashi movie has already been out for a while now? I heard it wasn’t great from somewhere or another.

    Guts’ 100-man slaughter just can’t be put into words of how incredible it is. There’re so many things running through your mind as you watch ‘really, the guys won’t retreat?’ I can justify at least some people thinking ‘well, there’s no way he can STILL be that powerful’, but at some point, fear of his demonic power surely would’ve overcome everyone, right? But it doesn’t matter – what matters is Guts DID kill 100 men. However it happened, why things went they did, is inconsequential. After the battle, it’s impossible not to have the sensation that this guy just killed 100 men, and the fact that everyone else he meets for a while reacts exactly like the reader does is I think the best part.

    • H says:

      Yeah, a lot of people went into Oshii’s Musashi thinking it’s going to be the novel animated instead of a 72 minute edutainment show. I don’t blame them though since all the trailers were basically the flashy Mushashi animation and dramatic music which is nothing like most of the movie.

      • The duel with Kojiro makes it worth it, not that the information isn’t extremely valuable. The fact that it’s mythic and historical makes it more interesting than the technically superior final duel in Sword of the Stranger.

    • The unofficial count for Guts is around 80 for that battle. It is indeed awesome. It’s probably the most important feat in GAR tradition.

      Interestingly, none of his exploits against demon hordes and monsters quite compares. Maybe it’s just how I prefer human vs. human combat over human vs. anything else.

      • Jack says:

        Ultimately I had little interest in seeing Guts vs. humans after this battle : it was already clear that he’s on a level far beyond them.

        Guts final stand in the finale of the series is also something I find fairly memorable.

        I actually think Guts’ battles against other monsters might be more interested when/if they get turned into anime (if the action is well directed and well animated). I just sometimes have trouble following the action in the manga.

  3. they’re making another berserk anime last I heard which was pretty recently! I gave up on the manga, I couldn’t get into it anymore.

  4. Rakuen the Mercenary says:

    I haven’t seen the anime for Berserk, but I’m getting around to read the manga. I’ve always been a fan of swordplay, that’s why I love playing stuff like Devil May Cry and Dynasty Warriors.
    This is like how Jason Bourne in The Bourne series, managed to kill a large number professional marines. One part is about instilling anxiety to your foes, much more if they’re like a hundred. Anxiety is contagious, especially with the grizzly environment of war, and the natural capacity of the man standing against dozens to prove his balls are golden. Sometimes it’s a matter of overwhelming the other enemies by making a sample out of the first ones to begin the fray, like how gruesome their deaths will be. I love how stuff like this can be carried out in an entertaining fashion. And so I will continue reading Berserk once again.

    • The anime is one of the very best so I wholly recommend it. There’s nothing realistic about Guts and his humongous sword, and yet the fighting is grounded on what’s plausible. So yes, even someone like me who’s biased towards technique finds much to enjoy.

  5. Marigold Ran says:

    In the manga, Musashi is a genius and the reason is because he uses his attraction to Otsu to improve his sword techniques. For most people, the direction works in the other way (they use their fighting skills to attract women).

    • I’ve never thought he used his attraction to Otsu to improve his swordsmanship. It was first a wild instinct to win, then Takuan’s provocation “to be invincible under the sun,” then Yagyu’s spiritual swordsmanship.

      If anything, Musashi thinks he can’t be with Otsu because of his path, despite Takuan’s advice that he gain employment as an instructor so he can have a salary and marry Otsu.

      • Marigold Ran says:

        There was this one chapter where Takuan hit Musashi on the head with a stick after tricking him into becoming distracted by thoughts of Otsu. But Musashi learned very quickly from that experience that the correct way to deal with these distractions is not to fight them, but to go with the flow so that his attraction to Otsu will not hamper his fighting abilities.

        In other words, Musashi is internally motivated at getting better at fighting for the sake of getting better at fighting, and this trait is something that all geniuses have. Unlike others, Musashi is not fighting for women or glory. Musashi’s friend, Otsu’s former fiancee, notes this on multiple occasions in his musings on why Musashi always seemed to be progressing faster and further than himself.

        The other necessary trait for genius is talent, of which Musashi has an abundance of. The most successful fighters in Vagabond are all extremely talented and internally motivated (Kojiro, Musashi, Yagyu, and Ittosai). The second tier of fighters are extremely talented but are not particularly interested in fighting for the sake of fighting (Yoshioka Seijiro, and Inshun). Musashi improves the most from his fights with the second tier. The third tier are the characters are interested in fighting, but lack the talent (Yoshioka Denchischiro, Matahachi, and Gion Toji). These characters suffer terribly in the manga because they are never able to attain the genius-level of fighting they see in their colleagues despite their desperate, and frantic efforts. In the end, these third-tier fighters fall apart psychologically from the strain, or get chopped to pieces, or both.

        Ueda Ryohei and Tsukihaje Kohei (the only character to survive a death match with both Musashi and Kojiro) are special cases. Ueda Ryohei has the desire and the talent to match Musashi, but he is hampered by his sense of comradeship and responsibility to the Yoshioka clan. This is why he loses. Kohei is special because he has first-tier fighting talent and the desire too. However, unlike Musashi or Kojiro who fights for the sake of fighting, Kohei fights for the sake of killing. In the end he loses too because clarity of genius (as expressed through Musashi and Kojiro) is stronger than clarity of malice.

        • Got it, pretty great analysis here thanks!

          I really enjoyed how you tiered the fighters and noted how Musashi grew the most fighting the 2nd tiered ones.

          clarity of genius (as expressed through Musashi and Kojiro) is stronger than clarity of malice.


      • Marigold Ran says:

        Most of the enjoyment in Musashi comes from watching the second and third-tier fighters fall apart over the course of the story.

        Matahachi finally learned, after losing everything precious to him, that trying to copy genius, when you’re not a genius, is a bad idea, but by then it’s too late for him and he’s already an old man.

        Toji learned that his power was a the reflection of Seijuro’s genius, and that without Seijuro, he is nothing.

        Denshichiro learned that he’s simply not up to par with people like Musashi or his younger brother. Not enough talent. Bad genetic luck.

        Ueda learned in his final moments that his sense of responsibility kept him back as a fighter.

        Kohei learned the hard way that there is always someone stronger than you.

        Seijiro never learned anything. He was… beat. The only thing he may have regretted at the end was not killing Musashi when he had the chance.

        Inshun learned that he never really wanted to fight at all.

        • Haha, I didn’t think of it this way, but I think I get this kind of schadenfreude.

          How these fighters fall apart after the boorish and simple Musashi beat them is indeed very enjoyable and I’m glad you pointed this out, because it’s a great handle on one of the important things about Vagabond.

  6. vendredi says:

    “If they make more Berserk anime though, I’m going to be all over it.”
    This may probably be relevant to your interests:

    In regards to the article, I think you’ve really hit on something here – individual heroics can display a high degree of verisimilitude with the correct cues – the suggestion of ill-disciplined foes; greater than ordinary, but not infinite, strength on the part of the hero; and excellent choreography that exhibits the hero’s superior – but again not completely superhuman – skill and discipline – the last bit, especially, is something that really requires a subtle touch.

    I watched just the first few episodes of Berserk years ago but never really managed to get on board; recently I’ve gotten into the manga and I’m struck by how different it is from what I remember. If I recall correctly, the anime seems to chronicle the earlier times in Guts life as a mundane mercenary, while the manga starts us out after he has become Branded and follows his demonslaying exploits. In that sense Berserk is a little two-faced.

    • Hooooly Crap. I know that there’s a new anime in the works but this is the first PV I’ve seen. The Skeleton Knight wasn’t even in the first anime, though he is a very important character in the manga.

      Both the anime and the manga start off while Guts is already on his revenge quest, though the manga indulges it for three full volumes (ugh) prior to telling the back story (the Golden Age arc) which the anime focuses on. I think it’s still the best story within the whole narrative, and the anime does superbly with it.

      I will publish a demoniacally long-winded post on the totality of Berserk (though I won’t be able to account for vol 35 which wasn’t released as of the writing of the post). I mention it because I think I will address some of the concerns I discern emerging from our conversation.

      I do prefer Guts killing hordes of soldiers than hacking boss battles into chunks. The problem with these “varied” challenges lies in the nature of the solution: A REALLY BIG SWORD.

      Branches of demon trees: HACK THEM
      Tentacles: HACK THEM
      Giant Tentacles: HACK THEM
      Flying Insect Demons: HACK THEM
      Rock Armor: HACK THEM
      Monsters made of water: HACK THEM
      Multi-headed monsters: HACK THEM ALL


  7. Pingback: Marigold Ran on Vagabond « The Ghosts of Discussions

  8. Lord Zero says:

    Well, while i do really love Berserk, you certainly cant measure
    by the same ruler a seinen like Vagabond to a shounen hack and slash series
    like Berserk. Tecnically and narratively they are nothing alike between each other.

    But deep on it, the sword battles enact the same reaction on the reader. “OMG awesome!!”. Musashi travels alone. And his its a path of enlightment. Its more like
    a tale of the inner evolution of his character rather that a sequence of delicious looking watercolor duels.
    Then you have Guts fighting to retain his sanity while struggling to survive in
    a nightmarish world which should be enough to throw any of us in the deepest pits of despair even without all the monsters.
    To be honest i agree that Berserk gets monotonous with time. But after the shift that the story took in the Fantasia Arc, you got a lot of character development. Guts became like a father figure on his AD&D party. And you cant deny that having Guts as your dad would be badass. I mean, he kind of looks like my grandpa, wahaha.

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  11. RedHann says:

    Just found this and finished reading with “If they make more Berserk anime though, I’m going to be all over it.”

    This is so sad…

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