Friday, September 11, 2009

Review - Buddha

by Osamu Tezuka
2004, 2005 Eisner Winner for Best U.S. Adaption of Foreign Material

Religious comics have a bad reputation that is well deserved. Their creators tend to be people with better intentions than ability. But when that creator is a man who effectively created the medium for an entire country the results are something that will far exceed the usual standards of the genre.

If every comic book artist in the United States wanted to be Will Eisner then every one of them in Japan wanted to be Osamu Tezuka. While Japanese comics existed before Tezuka came on the scene his work like Astro Boy defined the storytelling and stylistic conventions that would be used in the future. Not just the style for comics but animation as well. Tezuka branched off Japanese comics into their own distinctive form and for that reason he's known as "the god of manga" (Japanese comics). Tezuka died in 1989 but thanks to the emergence of the manga market in the US a little more than five years ago some of his greatest works have only recently become available in English.

Buddha is the story of Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism. Born into royalty he witnesses the suffering that exists in the world and seeks to know why it exists. He seeks enlightenment first through self-flagellation as a monk and later through meditation. Eventually he finds it and founds a religious movement.

The thing about Buddha is that Siddhartha is the least interesting character in it. His story is known. He's not going to be killed by the marauding armies that march back and forth through the land. He's not going to succumb to temptation and walk away from his meditations. Once he achieves enlightment what little conflict there was in his character melts away. So it's a good thing that Tezuka divides his attention between Siddhartha and a cast of mostly apocryphal characters. In fact Siddhartha doesn't even get involved as a character until the second volume! The first book is the story of two young friends who belong to the lowest of castes and how that caste system consumes them.

It's that attention to other details that turns Buddha from being a simple religious screed to a comic worthy of attention. There are other life stories that run parallel with Siddhartha's and they find their paths crossing at different points in the eventual Buddha's spiritual journey. A thief seeking to use Siddhartha's royal family for revenge, a monk who believes that enlightenment can only be achieved through the greatest personal suffering, and a child doomed to know his own death in advance are a few of the stories that are used. They're the ones that the story turns on as they change with time and not always for the better.

A pleasant surprise is how little proselytizing there is in Buddha. I suspect this is because it is a comic written for people who would already be familiar with Buddhism so there isn't an attempt to use the story as anything beyond a retelling of the life of Siddhartha. His teachings are an unavoidable part of that and they are presented simply and directly as part of the narrative. If you don't subscribe to the Buddhist philosophy (and I don't) then it's easy to think about Buddha as just the story of a major historical figure.

Something that may take some getting used to with Tezuka is how he swings back and forth between comedy and drama. A character may be making a profound statement about the nature of the universe in one panel only to shift to cartoonish reaction in the next. I personally had no problem with it though some people will find it jarring.

Tezuka's artwork is consistently beautiful through all eight volumes of the story (only the first four won the Eisner). Tezuka blends incredibly detailed images of the Himalayan plateau with his extremely cartoonish figures. As you'd expect from a man who founded an animation studio (well, industry for that matter) his figures are simply drawn but lively. They're expressive in how simple they are.

I do need to add a mild warning here. There are a lot of topless women in these books. Tezuka adds a sexual dimension to a religious story in way that is rarely seen (even when it exists most modern religions prefer to politely cough and look away than address that aspect of their stories). Only the most prudish of reader would call it pornographic but I wouldn't want to recommend Buddha without that caveat since it may put off some.

Buddha is one of the high points in the career of a man who transformed the medium and consequently it is not to be missed. Tezuka has created an engrossing story out of a traditional narrative by adding to the events surrounding it. He turned what could have been an unpleasant chunk of preaching into a thoughtful biography.