Buddha Vol. 1: Kapilavastu (Vertical)

Osamu "God of Manga" Tezuka’s untraditional biography of the founder of one of the world’s great religions lives up to (and maybe even surpasses) the hype.

 

400 pgs., B&W; $14.95

(W / A: Osamu Tezuka)

Sometimes you hear so much about a graphic novel that you start to wonder whether it can possibly live up to all the hype. Osamu Tezuka’s 8-volume Buddha is like that: you have the creator of the modern manga and anime styles writing the story of one of the founders of one of the world’s great religions and scooping up consecutive Eisner awards (in 2004 and 2005) for the English-language releases of the first four volumes. That creates a lot of expectations for anyone, even the God of manga, to live up to.

I’ve only read the first volume of Buddha, but I have to say that it lives up to the advance billing and maybe even surpasses it. Tezuka’s Buddha is an epic tale with something of just about everything in it: noble philosophy, great art and an absorbing story, but also coarse jokes, modern slang, and breaking the fourth wall (“My daughter has been pale with worry. She can’t sit still.” “Pale? You mean white. Can’t afford color printing.”) There’s even a cameo appearance by Tezuka himself, lampshaded so you don’t miss it. My point is that although Tezuka takes his subject seriously he’s not afraid to have some fun with it: you might say that he’s serious about his subject without being solemn.

I love the fact that much of vol. 1 is taken up with the story of several fictional characters while only 26 pages out of 400 are devoted to telling the story of Buddha’s birth. The main characters in these side stories are two young boys from the lowest castes: Chapra is a shudra or slave and Tatta is a pariah or untouchable. As in many classic male friendship tales, first they knock heads (Tatta leads a band of ragamuffins who rob Chapra), then they become pals and, finally, brothers in all but their genetic makeup.

Chapra and Tatta  have the kind of adventures which will appeal to young readers, but Tezuka also uses their stories to make two important points which are central to Buddhist philosophy. One is about the equality of all men and, therefore, the evils of the caste system or any artificially created hierarchy of human beings. The opening pages open with the voice of an omniscient narrator describing how the Brahmins created the caste system and placed themselves at the top, “introducing discrimination among fellow humans” and setting Indian society on an unfortunate course as “the hardship they created for Indian people endures even today.” Chapra and Tatta constantly challenge people who try to put them down or limit them based on the circumstances of their birth, and Chapra even becomes the adopted son of a king who cautions him to keep his humble origins a secret.

The second point is that of the sacredness of all life and the bond between humans and animals. Tatta has a special talent: he can “possess” an animal by temporarily passing his spirit into the animal and controlling it, a talent he uses to save the life of Chapra’s mother and later that of Tatta. There are also examples of animals sacrificing themselves for humans (early in the volume, a rabbit voluntarily gives its life so a monk may eat) and, even during a famine, a scarce cache of food is shared with wild animals as well as with fellow humans. Later in the story, a young monk is severely punished for causing the deaths of several animals in an effort to save a human.

Tezuka’s artistic style is as mixed as his narrative. He creates stunning views of landscapes, castles and the like but uses a more cartoonish style for the human figures, particularly the boys and the less savory male characters. There’s a clear correlation between appearance and goodness: Chapra’s mother is an idealized figure and as Chapra matures to a thoughtful young man, his representation becomes more nobly stylized as well. Tezuka includes a lot of bare breasts (on adult women) and penises (on little boys) but there’s nothing sexual about it: I’m assuming this is just a reflection of how people living in a hot climate might have dressed at the time.

You can see a preview of the first volume of Buddha at the publisher’s web site: http://www.vertical-inc.com/books/buddha/buddha_preview01.html. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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