A few words about Tezuka’s Buddha

After re-reading Phoenix, I recently decided to re-read Buddha. As was probably the case with many English readers, Buddha formed my first exposure to Osamu Tezuka’s more serious works. And it’s a good starting-point for Tezuka, containing as it does many of his stylistic themes, habits and quirks. E.g. formal play (as when characters break through the panel walls); cute animals; a broad humanism; his famous “star system” (although there are fewer cameos and roles for his regular cast than in some of his other works); the juxtaposition of cartoony figures against quasi-realistic backgrounds; patchgourds and the little pleased-to-meet-ya guy; and above all the wild variations in tone from pathos to bathos and back again from page to page — and sometimes even within a single page. It’s also his longest single continuous narrative thus far published in English and, I would guess, probably his longest one in any language. [Phoenix, for mine, being more a series of short stories connected through theme and the occasional cross-over character; while Astro Boy and Black Jack, although longer, are episodic by nature.]

The result is a vast epic, by turns raucous and calm, deeply respectful and irreverent, tragic and comic (see what I mean about the variations in tone?). In terms of the Buddha’s own personal journey, the climax comes at the end of Volume 4, when he achieves enlightenment — uh, SPOILER, I guess, in the way that you’d spoil The Passion by revealing that Jesus gets it in the end. I mean, the whole point of the Buddha is that he achieves enlightenment; that’s why he’s called the Buddha, the name meaning “Enlightened One”. But Tezuka fills his pages with secondary characters, each of whom has a gripping, moving story to tell and so you barely notice that there’s nowhere really for the nominal protagonist to go, or grow, after halfway through the series. Indeed, I had forgotten how much of this series is given over to business with other characters than the Buddha himself.

That said, I felt a slight dip in the series around Volume 6, when Ananda is introduced. I’m not sure that the series needed another bandit to be converted by the Buddha, or another figure who hates the caste system, or another woman whose muteness is cured by the Buddha. Tezuka seems to be repeating himself here, with diminishing returns. But things pick up again in the final volume. Another quibble — I thought the telling of the Four Encounters (where a pre-enlightenment Siddharta first encounters death, disease, old age and asceticism) was somewhat fumbled. This is one of the greatest myths in the world, and Tezuka rather hurries over it in his haste to cram in as much of human interest as possible.

(And I still bloody hate those Chip Kidd dust-sleeves on the hardcovers)

Still, these are minor quibbles with a monumental, deeply moving epic worthy of its subject matter. If anyone was going to draw a three thousand-page manga biography of the Buddha, I’m glad it was Tezuka.

Recommended? Absolutely.

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2 Responses to “A few words about Tezuka’s Buddha”

  1. James Moar Says:

    Some of the repetition might be the result of the manga being serialised over 11 years. It weakens the unified work, but over that length of time some things might seem worth reiterating.

    I wonder if the underplaying of the Four Encounters might be because it rests on a rather stylised element — the idea that Siddhartha was entirely isolated from all these things beforehand. Tezuka’s grounding of the Buddha in his highly populated epic tends to work against the credibility of that.

  2. Jones, one of the Jones boys Says:

    You’re right on both counts, I think. As a matter of fact, I disliked that latter part of the series — the fact that Siddharta wasn’t isolated from the real world before the Four Encounters — precisely because it downplayed the importance of the Encounters.

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