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Buddha Vol. 1-3
By Osamu Tezuka
Published by Vertical; $24.95 USD each
Reviewed by Jeet Heer

There was once a prince who enjoyed all the good fortune life has to offer. When he was born his parents were assured by a soothsayer that the boy was destined for greatness, so they took special care in raising their son. Growing up in a loving royal household, he was shielded from anything unpleasant or ugly. When he came of age, he married a beautiful princess, who bore him a son.

One day while going for a walk, the prince saw an infirm old man on the street. He was puzzled and distressed by the sight, his first encounter with human pain. The next day he saw a dying man, and the following day a corpse. Suddenly, the prince became aware of the reality of misery, of aging, sickness and death. Now he realized that his whole life was built on a lie, on a denial of pain as a part of existence.

The prince sought relief in religion and became a monk. Yet he grew quickly dissatisfied with the standard pious message of his fellow ascetics, who complacently accepted the evils of life as part of the natural order of things. No, the prince argued, pain is real and powerful but we can't simply become acquiescent. We can transcend the binding fetters of our existence, he thought, by extinguishing the selfishness in our own hearts and pushing towards enlightenment.

As he developed a deep-rooted philosophy for overcoming pain and selfishness, the prince gathered many students around him. When I was young, the prince would say, I slumbered through life but now I am awake. Therefore he became known as the "Awakened One" or the "Enlightened One", that is to say, the Buddha.

Like Christianity, Buddhism started as biography and became theology. It was a compelling life story prior to becoming a set of doctrines. Just as countless artists have been irresistibly drawn to retell the life of Christ, the story of the prince who woke up is a perennial inspiration for all sorts of cultural artifacts.

In the 1970s Osamu Tezuka, the most influential and beloved of Japanese cartoonists, started working on a very bizarre and wonderful freestyle recounting of Buddha's story in a comic book serial that ran to 3,800 pages. Tezuka's Buddha is now available to English-speaking readers thanks to a New York publishing company called Vertical, which is releasing an 8 volume translation of the series. The first 3 books are already available. The series offers an occasion to not only revisit the life of the Buddha, but also the career of Tezuka, who was one of the true giants of Japanese popular culture.

Born in Toyonaka City in 1928, Tezuka was the child of middle-class parents who loved popular culture. His father has an early cinephile, who cherished American animated cartoons and the films of Charlie Chaplin. Tezuka's mother was an aficionado of the Takarazuka Revue, a sort of Japanese music hall tradition that mixed together song, dance and broad physical comedy. In his mature work, Tezuka would often try to recapture to the broad burlesque comedy he saw on the screen and Takarazuka stage.

During the second world war, Tezuka worked in a factory but would frequently break-off from his monotonous duties in order to doodle. He belonged to the generation of Japanese that were deeply seared by their wartime experience. He had seen his country brought to ruin by a cabal of mad militarists who preemptively attacked other nations. The war came home to Tezuka with particular ferocity when Osaka, the city he grew up in, was reduced to a cinder by firebombing. Tezuka's lifelong engagement with antiwar politics and Buddhist philosophy can be traced to this period.

After the war, Tezuka studied medicine but drew cartoons for magazines as a way of paying for his studies. While he eventually became a doctor, his passion for cartooning overwhelmed his plans for a medical career. In those early post-war years, Tezuka more or less created the modern genre of Japanese comics, known as manga. Manga were distinguished from earlier comics partially by their length (they would run for hundreds if not thousands of pages) and also for their fast-moving cinematic style. Reading a manga is often like flipping through the story-board of a movie, following the swift movement from one scene to the next.

Influenced by Walt Disney cartoons, Tezuka's early manga were also notable for the extreme simplicity of their style, which pushed the inherent iconic tendency of cartooning to the limit. In Tezuka's manga, cartooning almost became a form of calligraphy, a visual short-hand language that melded elegance of form with a break-neck narrative momentum.

Tezuka was phenomenally productive: he created more than 400 novel-length books which totaled at least 150,000 pages. He also found time to direct and supervise many animated cartoons.

In his early days, Tezuka's manga were aimed mostly for children: He told tales of buried treasure, wacky adventurers, and robots that fought for peace (in the popular Astro Boy series). Starting in the 1960s, Tezuka moved on to more serious and adult stories: exploring the global rise of fascism in historical novels and meditating on the futility of trying to overcome death in a multi-volume series entitled Phoenix. His work on Buddha dates from this mature period of Tezuka's career, and he finished it only 2 years before he died in 1989. Even after his death, Tezuka's books continue to sell in the tens of millions in Japan.

It is difficult to overstate the pervasiveness of Tezuka's influence on Japanese popular culture. He is sometimes described as "the Walt Disney of Japan", yet arguably Tezuka's artistic range was larger than even the mastermind behind Mickey Mouse. After all, animated cartoons have an audience but they remain only a small part of the film industry. Manga, by contrast, is a fixture of everyday life in Japan. A quarter of all books sold in Japan each year are manga.

As Frederik Schodt, an expert on Japanese popular culture, noted in his 1983 book Manga! Manga!, Walt Disney was more of a business man than an artist. Disney's success was based on his ability to package and sell other people's idea. Tezuka, although he dabbled in running an animation studio, was a creator more than anything else. His works always bore the imprint of his own sensibility, although they also influenced innumerable other artists. In Japan Tezuka was often described as "manga no kamisama" or "the God of Comics". (Some people also thought that Buddha was a god, although he was demur enough to deny divine status).

In recent years the God of Comics has been gaining many followers outside of Japan. The success of animated cartoons like Pokemon and Sailor Moon (both influenced by Tezuka's early work) has created a market for manga translations. While other publishers are reprinting Tezuka's Astro Boy series and his Phoenix chronicle, Vertical has undertaken the task of bringing his Buddha series to North America. In handsome volumes designed by Chip Kidd, the Vertical books present Tezuka at his best.

In recounting Buddha's spiritual journey, Tezuka also wanted to present a panoramic view of ancient Indian society. Thus he created a host of fictional and semi-fictional characters who represent the many facets of Indian society: Tatta, an "untouchable" street urchin who wages war on the social order; Chapra a slave boy who aligns himself with the ruling elite; Migaila, a beautiful girl that falls in love with Buddha; and General Budai, a roughneck soldier who dreams of conquest. Their stories are intertwined with Buddha's biography to show that life offers many paths. In finding his own way in the world, Buddha had to overcome the temptations presented by these other paths, the lure of revenge, social success, physical beauty and victory on the field of conquest.

The visual splendor of Tezuka's work is on full display. With quick deft stokes, he evokes the natural and manmade wonders of India. His early scientific training shines forth in many fine delineations of landscape and wildlife. Yet these decorative touches are always in the service of the fast-moving narrative. Like a trusty friend guiding us through a teeming city, Tezuka shows us wonders but keeps moving toward the destination he's seeking.

Those who like their religion to be solemn and high-toned will be put off by Tezuka's Buddha. Even in this series, Tezuka maintained his stance as a popular entertainer, so his work brims over with a giddy cartoony exuberance. There are many anachronistic jokes along the way and the minor characters often look like extras from a Warner Brothers cartoon. If you can imagine Bugs Bunny re-enacting the final days of Christ, then you have some sense of how outlandish Tezuka can occasionally be.

Yet in his antic ebullience, Tezuka was faithful to the spirit if not the letter of Buddhist thought. Those who are hostile to Buddhism often accuse it of being a life-denying religion of renunciation. Some blinkered Christian polemicists even use the word "nihilistic" to describe Buddha's thoughts. Nothing could be further from the truth. While seeking to transcend the pain of life, Buddha remained deeply alive to the surface pleasures of the world. The images of the laughing Buddha give the true face of this sage.

We live in a world where religion often seems to be the enemy of enlightenment, indeed even the foe of simple kindness and decency. Sikh-Canadian fanatics are on trial in Vancouver for blowing up an airliner. Faced with death threats from Hindu extremists, Sonia Gandhi chooses not to become Prime Minister of India. Nick Berg was beheaded by those who claim allegiance to Allah. In Washington, the Bush White House draws up plans for the Middle East in consultations with frothy fundamentalist Christians, addled souls who hunger for the apocalypse.

In our dire situation, it is good to remember that religion doesn't have to be evil. At its best, as in the life of Buddha, religion is a balm that heals the deepest wounds of our condition. For all its occasional wackiness, Tezuka's Buddha reminds us of the inspiring story of the prince who woke up.

This review originally appeared in The National Post.



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