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Shinmen Takezo a feared young man of 17 thought to be born with a demon, must fight his way though the Sengoku era in Japan. Against prejudice, fear, jealousy, revenge, and the law, Takezo must defend himself from murder.
His own father thought he was a demon, possibly killed his mother (it's left open) and abused the boy. Takezo cuts away from his town to join in war against the shogun's armies. He joined the losing side and as a survivor of a decisive battle, he is forced into crime to defend himself from samurai looking to clean up the battle fields of any survivors. He is aided and sheltered by two women, and accompanied by another survivor Matahachi who happened to be a friend of his from childhood. The women turn out to be admitted thieves collecting stolen weapons off the dead. This leads Takezo to more trouble defending the girls his friends and himself. Matahachi falls in love with one of the girls, but in doing so is breaking off an arranged marriage to a fiance. The families involved however blame Takezo already believing him to be a demon and known criminal and set out to trap him.
Under the guise of an ally Matahachi's grandmother aids Takezo and set him up with a bath. Once unarmed and naked, she springs a trap on him of militia. Takezo fights his way through the ambush utilizing a wooden staff and makeshiuft weapons around him. The writing is on the wall however and Takezon is forced once again to flee into the wold to live off the land and avoid capture.
Eventually, in large part because of malnourishment, Takezo is captured by a monk Takuan but is not turned in to the town. Takuan binds him and hangs him dangling from a tree for three days. His only food would come from a sympathetic Otsu the woman Matahachi fell in love with. Takuan has conversations with Takezo who at first just asks the monk to kill him. Instead the monk allows the idle time and near death experience act as a shocking method of reflection. He mocks him and challenges him philosophically until Takezo has an epiphany.
From that moment on his old self and the baggage are dead and he changed his name to Miyamoto (after the town that tormented him) Musashi. The monk cuts him down and travels with him.
Takezo travels from Nara to Kyoto but wherever he goes for one reason or another many times not of his own doing, Takezo is forced into a position of killing in self defense or in defending another. He is right back on the path of being hunted again and living like a gangrel bouncing quickly between towns and slaughtering his would be captures.