Filed in Books & Media

Comic Book Buddha

The master's touchDan Zigmond

BUDDHA, VOLUMES 7 & 8, by Osamu Tezuka

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BUDDHA, VOLUME 7: PRINCE AJATASATTU
Osamu Tezuka
New York: Vertical, Inc., January 2006
420 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)
 

BUDDHA, VOLUME 8: JETAVANA
Osamu Tezuka
New York: Vertical, Inc., January 2006
368 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)

ANYONE WHO HAS SPENT more than a few minutes in Japan, even if only changing planes at Narita, has encountered manga, those thick tomes of monochrome comics that someone always seems to be reading there wherever you look. You see dark-suited salarymen flipping through manga on the train to work and uniformed schoolgirls clutching manga on their way to class. There are manga about superheroes, of course, but others feature sports, gambling, war, romance, parenting, and almost every variety of sex, with titles geared to everyone from children to pensioners.

America has nothing like this diversity and ubiquity of comics. But next year marks the twentieth anniversary of Alan Moore's Watchmen series, a groundbreaking deconstruction of the superhero ideal that launched something of a comic book renaissance here. Along with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (a noir retelling of the Batman story) and Art Spiegelman's Maus (a Holocaust survivor's tale recreated in comic book form), Watchmen spawned a new wave of serious American comic books that appealed to adults as well as children. This in turn has led many readers in the States to explore the Japanese phenomenon of manga. Now, with the publication of volumes 7 and 8, all eight volumes of Osamu Tezuka's epic manga series Buddha are available to the English-speaking world.

Osamu Tezuka is known in Japan as manga no kamisama, the god of manga. Born in Osaka in 1928, he began drawing comics after the Second World War. Although trained as a physician, his innovative drawing style and creative stories quickly catapulted him to the forefront of the burgeoning manga industry. Before his untimely death from cancer in 1989, he had written well over 500 works, comprising more than 150,000 pages, plus several much-loved animated TV series and feature films.

Buddha is Tezuka's reimagining of the story of Siddhartha Gautama from his birth in Lumbini to his years of seeking, enlightenment, teaching, and eventual death. But the Buddha is only one of many characters populating these pages, and his story represents less than a quarter of the material (even less in the first volumes). The rest is a richly constructed fantasy world of thieves and soldiers, royalty and slaves, sorcerers and ascetics, set against a backdrop of the ancient feuding kingdoms of Magadha and Kosala. These three thousand pages show us love affairs, betrayals, wars, and plagues, all the while tracing one man's path to find truth.

There are many departures from the Buddhist canon, both small and large, as Tezuka blends his own fictional world with Buddhist tradition. Buddha's birth is presented as more ordinary than miraculous, for example, and Tezuka has the Buddha's mother die in childbirth. In other places, Tezuka plays with the literal words of the sutras, such as having the Buddha preach to an audience of actual deer in his sermon at the Deer Park. Tezuka takes even greater liberties with other characters of Buddhist lore, so that many with familiar names behave in unfamiliar ways: Ananda, for example, starts life here as a petty thief.

Caste is a recurring theme in the early volumes, emphasizing the radical social implications of the Buddha's teachings. Even the young Siddhartha of volume 2 refuses to accept the caste distinctions the local holy men teach. Enumerating the four traditional Indian castes, he insists: "Brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya, or shudra, we all must die one day!" Several key characters are born slaves or outcastes, and Tezuka vividly illustrates the cruelty of such institutionalized bigotry and champions the fundamental equality of all people. The inherent value of animal life is another preoccupation, with human characters scolded several times for abusing our fellow species.

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