(2006) Osamu Tezuka, Harper Collins, £10.00, pbk, 400pp, ISBN 0-00-722451-6
Also available is vol.2: The Four Encounters (as above, 416pp, ISBN 0-00-722452-4). Osamu Tezuka, often seen as the greatest influence on the Japanese manga art-style, retells the story of the Buddha in eight volumes of four hundred pages apiece. This epic aims to follow all of the Buddha's life through the stories of a handful of fictional characters, an aim that turns an otherwise hard-going story into something more accessible and allows the author to explore his themes with more depth. In these first two volumes we follow Prince Siddhartha, destined to become the Buddha, from birth to childhood, a theme that the Japanese tend to deal with very well in their comics. As such, the material is well-realised, though in the first volume the birth of Buddha is very much background to the stories of characters who will play an important part later: Chapra, the slave that becomes a warrior, and the orphaned thief Tatta among them. Volume two follows Siddhartha's progress into adulthood and the experiences that lead him to a life as a monk. Tezuka is quite explicitly wrestling with issues of class, fate and childhood experience, and the occasional existential monologues and observations on the injustices of time make this more meaningful than your standard tale.
As with most manga, it is the juxtapostion of serious issues with slapstick comedy that tends to cause most difficulties for readers. Buddha is clearly aimed at adults, but the frequent bursts of silly humour seem at odds with the serious issues that Tezuka is tackling. It is the same with his artwork which mixes breathtaking vistas of ancient India with beautifully drawn simple characters, but which become cartoon exaggerations almost at random. It's a feature very common in manga but seems out of place here. This is definitely an ambitious attempt that Tezuka has made, and these first two volumes are only setting the scene for what should be more powerful stuff in later volumes. For what is quite 'dry' subject matter, particularly for those new to it, he has made the story of the Buddha quite readable. Yet I don't think I could call this a manga classic as, despite its ambitious premise, Buddha just does not seem to take itself seriously enough.
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