February 22, 2012
Osamu Tezuka – Vertical – 2003 – 8 volumes
As I’ve mentioned, the Manga Moveable Feast for the month of February is upon us, hosted by Kate over at The Manga Critic. In the spirit of the thing, I thought I’d tackle the one Tezuka work I’ve passed over all these years.
I haven’t skipped Buddha for any particular reason. I knew it would be great, but I also knew it was going to be a long, dense read, and I have to be in the mood for such an undertaking.
Buddha is, essentially, the life story of Prince Siddhartha of Kapilavastu, who later went on to be the father of Buddhism. I know literally nothing about this historical figure, and while I’m aware that a story like this is going to be greatly exaggerated, one of the best things about historical figures from this long ago are the legendary lives they led. Certainly an epic like the Buddha manga will satisfy my love for these types of stories. And teach me something along the way, too.
The story here alternates between two different settings and characters. The volume begins with an army invading the small kingdom of Kapilavastu, but a plague of locusts turn them away. It is fortuitous, because the Queen is pregnant with what is believed to be a very auspicious child. Miracles like the locus swarm keep happening, such as plentiful water during the drought season and animals that gather to see the mother. The baby is born, and the prophet of the day announces that he will lead a great life.
That side of the story is relatively straightforward, and other than being a portent to things that come later, isn’t terribly interesting. To keep the story moving, we meet with Chapra, his mother, Tatta, and the Brahmin monk Naradatta. Chapra and his mother are slaves, victims of the strict caste system of the time. Chapra one day meets up with Tatta, a 7-year-old pariah (an outcast, a rank lower than a slave), and his life changes forever. The army of Kosala raids the town the three live in on its way to Kapilavastu, and the only survivors are Naradatta, Chapra, Chapra’s mother, and Tatta. Chapra winds up getting adopted by the Kosala general, and swears to work his way up the caste system to provide a better life for his mother and Tatta.
Chapra’s story is what we’re reading volume one for, and all four of the sympathetic characters are interesting. Tatta teaches the four the lesson that animal life is just as sacred as that of man, and that give and take are necessary for the circle of life for both men and beasts. There are several instances of this, and Tatta willingly gives his life more than once to selflessly help others, including animals. Naradatta is an aid for the reader, interpreting the events for us. His status as a Brahmin was also interesting to me. As such, he was apparently above any sort of punishment, and was welcomed all over as a holy figure. I assume most could tell by his appearance, or the fact that he was a monk, that he was a Brahmin. But Naradatta never abused his powers, and that he was “ranked” higher than others was only apparent twice in the story. Chapra is the most interesting of all, though. I can’t spoil his story, but I’ll hint at it by saying that I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak, the entire time. It never did, and I liked Chapra a lot better for it. His wants really were as simple as they seemed.
It has been a long time since I’ve read Phoenix, but Buddha is more comparable to that than any of Tezuka’s other works. There’s a narrative here, but it seems a lot more structured and purposeful than most of the other adult-oriented work I’ve read. Even the best stories, such as Ode to Kirihito, seem to have several parts that don’t relate to the main story. Maybe Buddha will get to that later, but this volume read a lot more like one of the cohesive stories in Phoenix than anything else I’ve read by Tezuka.
It’s equally serious and as cosmic as a volume of Phoenix, too. Phoenix has a lot of very Buddhist themes about death, rebirth, and the value of life, and all those values are obviously reflected here, in a series about the beginnings of Buddhism. I kept looking for parallels between the story here and the stories in Phoenix, too. Was the unborn child really going to be Siddhartha, or was the pariah Tatta going to turn into the great teacher? This had me recall the plot to the Karma volume of Phoenix, with the two dueling sculptors that go through several personal transformations each. Tatta’s role in the story is clear by the end, as is Prince Siddhartha’s, so that’s not the case at all. But it’s still fun to look for parallels between the two stories.
As for the usual Tezuka suspects… Tezuka himself appears in a cameo, and the character then turns into Professor Ochanomizu. I suspect the archer that faces off against Chapra might also be among the usual cast, though I can’t place him. Maybe Biwimaru? None of the others have turned up yet, that I’ve spotted anyway, but I also feel a little out of practice in identifying them.
One thing that stuck out here… Tezuka’s usual sight gags and breaking of the fourth wall. Such quirks appear in all his stories, and he uses the same hyoutan-tsugi (a recurring nonsense character) shorthand style for all of them. I remember someone commenting that they disliked Tezuka’s work for this reason, that the gags take the reader out of the story. I hadn’t noticed it as much in Phoenix, but there are a handful of such gags in this volume, and they really do feel out of place in a story this serious. Especially the breaking of the fourth wall. I remember reading that this style of humor was a stumbling block for most Western readers in that it reads particularly out of place for us. It doesn’t spoil the narrative or anything, and they don’t even really appear once per chapter. But still. It’s worth mentioning.
This was just as epic and cosmic as I was hoping it would be all these years, and I’m very glad I waited until I felt ready to read it, rather than forcing myself. I enjoyed the first volume of this immensely, and it does read like a complete story arc. But still, I know this is only the opening act, and I can’t wait to see where all this is going. And I know that Prince Siddhartha will take center stage soon, probably next volume… but I have to say, it’s Tatta I’m most interested in at the moment.