March 2004

Karin L. Kross


Ridiculous and Sublime: Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha

I am writing this column about a week before Mel Gibson’s already-notorious The Passion of the Christ hits over 2000 United States movie screens. That film, if hearsay is anything to go by, exists in amusing contrast to Osamu Tezuka‘s epic Buddha; one wonders what the reaction would have been, had a famous American comic book artist and writer decided to tackle a project like Tezuka’s with the cornerstone of Christianity. Especially if that hypothetical artist/writer decided to pepper his story, as Tezuka does, with invented characters, anachronistic jokes, potty humor, and cartoony characters closely related -- visually, at least -- to Mickey Mouse.

Clearly this isn’t Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha here. Tezuka’s eight-part story was originally published in the 1970s and 1980s, and is now being made available in a fine new hardcover edition in the United States. So far, Volumes 1 and 2 have been published, with the remaining books to appear over the course of 2004.

You’ve probably seen Tezuka’s work before -- perhaps the TV series Astro Boy, or the film Metropolis. If so, you’re probably familiar with his style: the rounded, Disney-esque line, the adorably wide-eyed animals, and the stylized character designs. You’ve also seen it if you’ve read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics; McCloud references a number of Tezuka drawings in his overview of Japanese comics style.

The story of Buddha goes beyond a simple biography of the Prince Siddhartha. The prince himself isn’t even born until page 264 of Volume 1; before that, Tezuka tells the tale of Chapra, a slave, and his pariah friend Tatta, who communicates with animals. It’s an important tale for the way it introduces the reader to the brutal caste system of the northern kingdoms of what is now India. Chapra rises to become the adopted son of a famous general, but his attempts to beat the caste system through ambition and violence eventually lead to his downfall, and that of those he loves. It is an interesting contrast to the story of Siddhartha that develops in Volume 2 -- equally unhappy with the injustice of the caste system, the prince seeks his own way to fight it. His path takes him out of the palace luxury of his youth and into the wilderness, where he must confront the human realities of age, disease, and death. Though he marries and fathers a child, he cannot stay in the palace of Kapilavastu, and at the end of Volume 2, he cuts off his hair, and departs into the wilderness to become a monk.

A summary like that makes Buddha sound deadly serious, and doesn’t do justice to Tezuka’s broad sense of humor. The books are full of wry visual and verbal jokes, ranging from Tezuka’s “director’s cameo” as a doctor to the depiction of King Prasenajit of Kosala as a wrestler in the La Lucha idiom. The artist isn’t above low humor either -- lots of brawls involve kicks in the groin, and there’s Tatta’s cry, “Check out my pariah piss, you bastards!” at the end of Volume 1. Irreverent, to be sure, but necessary. Not merely to balance the deeper philosophical ideas of justice and sanctity of life (which, believe me, is an idea taken very seriously in this book), but also because it illustrates one of the subtler ideas in the book itself: that where there is sublimity and loftiness, there must also be the low. Where there is a Siddhartha, there must also be a Tatta, or else the world is incomplete.

Buddha is also a work of exceptional artistic beauty; Tezuka was at the top of his game here, balancing stylized character concepts against finely detailed backdrops. There are some beautiful near-abstract drawings as well; I was particularly struck by a gorgeous two-page image of a child resting on an open lotus flower, representing Siddhartha’s birth.

If I’ve got any complaint about these books, it’s a small one: as with many Japanese comics, the pages are mirror-imaged so that those of us accustomed to reading our text left-to-right can follow it as we normally would. Apart from the apparent left-handedness of all the characters, this seems like a trivial nit, but what it does mean is that we’re seeing a slightly different drawing than what Tezuka originally intended. There are Japanese comics being published in the United States in the original right-to-left format; reading them requires the English-language reader to reprogram the brain slightly, but at least one feels that the book is being presented as its creator intended.

Still, that’s a small quibble. It’s a good thing these books are being published in English at all, and in such fine format. As with Dark Horse Comics’ reprinting of Lone Wolf and Cub, it’s good to see these highly influential masterworks in America, (mostly) as their creators intended them to be seen. Buddha by Osamu Tezuka
Vertical, Inc.

Vol. 1: Kapilavastu
ISBN 1932234438Buy this book >>>

Vol. 2: The Four Encounters
ISBN 1932234446

Buy this book >>>