Archive for the ‘Osamu Tezuka’ Category

A few words about Tezuka’s Buddha

September 10, 2010

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.

Phoenix 10-12

June 23, 2010

Phoenix Vols 10 & 11: Sun Parts 1 & 2. Osamu Tezuka. Viz, 2007. $15.99/$16.99, 344/344 pages.

Does doing it twice count as a motif? Because it’s striking that two of Tezuka’s best works, viz. Ode to Kirihito and the two-volume Sun (which is reprinted here as Phoenix Vols 11 & 12) feature protagonists with the heads of dogs. Well, okay, it’s a wolf’s head here in Phoenix, but still.

That’s not even the weirdest part of Sun, however. No, that dubious honour goes to the curious theology on display here. The gods are real, it seems, but not exactly how we imagine them. They’re more like political powers than spiriual ones. One of the chief conflicts in Sun arises from the introduction of foreign-born Buddhism into hitherto animist Japan. The Buddhist gods are thus presented as a sort of expansionist, imperialistic power being foisted on an unwilling populace.

And none of this metaphorically. We actually see the gods themselves in combat with the local forest spirits.

What makes this truly weird is that Tezuka had of course, a decade earlier, created a major, 2500-page biography of the Gautama Buddha. So what had previously been presented as a force for good is now seen as a foreign intrusion. Had Tezuka changed his mind? Or was he simply presenting another side of the story?

As with much in Phoenix, we’ll never know — Tezuka died before creating the final installment, which he had promised would explain how all the previous volumes tied together. In a way, I think it might have been best for Phoenix that Tezuka never finished; without the overarching web of connective tissue that a final volume would have produced, what we have instead is a series of volumes suggestively connected by theme, allusion and the occasional carry-over character. The result, I suspect, is richer than Tezuka’s grand plan could ever have been.

Recommended? Some of Tezuka’s best work, so yes. Don’t worry about starting a series at the end; the stories in Phoenix don’t, for the most part, tell a single continuous narrative from beginning to end, so it’s quite possible to start reading here.

Phoenix Vol. 12: Early Works. Osamu Tezuka. Viz, 2008. $14.99, 188 pages.

So in a way it’s fitting that the end to Phoenix isn’t some puzzle piece that connects all the dots, but rather this volume, which reprints work from decades before Tezuka had started the Phoenix saga proper. The Early Works of the title come from Tezuka’s days working on shojo manga, and it shows — there’s plenty of frilly, pretty stuff on display here.

Not that these works are entirely unconnected to the “real” Phoenix. They revolve around the immortal bird, which looks here much like how Tezuka would later draw it, and indeed it’s noteworthy just how similar these stories feel to the later, “real” Phoenix stories. Characters seek in vain to drink the immortality-giving blood of the magic bird. Futile, tragic wars are waged. Key figures are reincarnated in later eras. These Early Works really do seem like Phoenix 1.0.

So, as I say, it seems only fitting that the mad, sprawling epic of Phoenix should end with shojo romance and funny animals. In a work that spans millennia, and covers slapstick, war, fantasy, science-fiction, comedy, tragedy and everything in between, why not? Phoenix contains multitudes — and then some.

Recommended? Definitely, but only for those who’ve already read the other volumes.

Warlord versus Phoenix

May 10, 2010

About nine months ago, I caused some minor controversy among Vince Colletta fans with my review of The Essential Thor Vol. 4, where I repeated the old charge that Colletta was overly fond of erasing pencil detail that he didn’t feel like inking. To which controversy my response was, naturally: there are Vince Colletta fans? As I suggested in the original post, even if Colletta had never erased anything, his thin, feathery line was all wrong for Kirby’s work on Thor.

But I was recently reading DC Showcase Presents The Warlord, featuring Mike Grell’s titular pulp hero. Warlord was a lost world fantasy about an undiscovered land inside the hollow earth, where dinosaurs roam amongst semi-barbaric human tribes and the ruins of a long-lost and technologically-advanced civilization. So: hardly Proust, but competent enough as a genre entertainment. Thanks to Grell’s layouts, the action is usually easy enough to follow (with a few exceptions), and I’ll be damned if the stories don’t positively zip along.

Anyway, for the first chunk of stories in the volume, Grell is credited as sole artist (as well as writer), but eventually he is joined by Colletta on inks. And blow me down, the inks actually mesh with Grell’s pencils. Maybe Colletta wasn’t so bad after all, at least not when paired with a suitable artist. And judging from the work in DCSPtW, Grell’s cut-rate Neal Adams pencils were well suited to Colletta.

That said, Warlord is far from the best of its genre. For mine, that honour goes to Mark Schultz’ late, lamented Xenozoic Tales aka Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, which likewise mixed modern- and future-tech with pulpy adventure amongst the dinosaurs and barbarians. That series is long-since defunct and unlikely ever to be finished up; owing no doubt to the long time it takes Schulz to draw, he now makes his living primarily as a writer. Shame that, as Schulz’ lush artwork  (heavily influenced by Wally Wood and Alex Raymond) and exotic locales are sorely missed.

***

Lest you think I’ve been solely rotting my mind on mediocre reprints from the 70s, I’ve also been re-reading Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix for the first time since they came out. (And is it really already seven years since Viz published the first English volume?). Tezuka evidently considered Phoenix his masterwork, and it’s hard to dispute the man’s own judgement.  Among those of Tezuka’s works thus far translated into English, it’s matched in seriousness of intent perhaps only by Buddha and (my personal favourite) Ode to Kirihito. And in sheer scope it surpasses both of those, sweeping as it does across thousands of years, from Earth to far-flung galaxies.

How disappointing, then, that when Tezuka gets around, in Volume 2, to sharing the grand philosophy behind the series, that it turns out to be the lamest, most sophomoric philosophy imaginable.  See, the microcosm is just like the macrocosm: elemental particles contain miniature suns and orbiting planets, eachteeming with their own life.  And the macrocosm, well that’s just like the mesocosm: “the whole universe is only a single cell in a living creature”. Sheesh. I haven’t seen this much one-too-many-bong-hits “philosophy” since I Heart Huckabees (which, admittedly, I liked regardless).

Ah well. Even Homer nods. And this misstep aside, Phoenix is excellent. Reading the volumes in quick succession, one after another, only brings home the cleverness of Tezuka’s bold structure, as characters and various sci-fi conceits recur across volumes, as distant memory, or transformed, or reincarnated. Fittingly, the only constant is that symbol of immortal life herself, the Phoenix. Phoenix gets the highest possible recommendation from, its minor flaws notwithstanding.