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Osamu Tezuka:

Buddha

Aside from the remakes recently screened on children’s TV of his animated robot Pinocchio, Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka is little known in Britain. To the Japanese, however, he has long been a national treasure and 20th-century icon, honoured with his own museum and hailed as the “God of Manga”.

As a young man, Tezuka had qualified as a doctor, but chose to devote himself to revolutionising two of Japan’s principle post-war creative industries: modern manga, which are long, story-driven comics for both sexes and all ages and tastes; and their close relation, anime, or animated films.

By his death in 1989, only three months or so after his 60th birthday, Tezuka had produced some 150,000 pages of comics. Out of this huge output, the eight-volume graphic novel Buddha is the first to be published in Britain.

Over the course of the series, which Tezuka began work on in 1972, he unfolds the life-story of Prince Siddhartha and his quest for enlightenment. Instead of a precise biography, he opts for a broad sweep of history, enabling him to weave together fact and fiction and to explore peripheral characters. In the first volume, the prince does not appear until more than halfway through and only then as a newborn in Kapilavastu castle.

Buddha

Before this, Tezuka carefully develops his ensemble cast and their environments, backgrounds and motives. This length allows him to convey fleeting emotions and to develop a scene gradually, with the effect that the reader experiences the action almost in “real time”.

From the start, Tezuka’s tone and approach is varied. The first volume opens with large, meticulously depicted landscapes. This is followed by a nine-page mountain episode, devoid of any words, except for an occasional sound effect, such as the howling wind, and a few symbols in the animals’ “speech” balloons. A starving wise man collapses in the snow. He is discovered by a bear, fox and rabbit who try to find him food to cook, but - returning empty-pawed - the rabbit sacrifices itself for him and jumps into the fire. In tears, the man lifts up the charred corpse and the rabbit’s spirit-form soars into the night sky. This is visual narrative in its purest, most seamless form.

Buddha

With a turn of the page, we meet the narrator of this past event, a wise brahmin who instructs his novices to join in the search for “the great one”. In one panel he says, “I feel a strong pull in this direction”; in the next, a watch, a snack on a stick and a pack of cigarettes are shown being sucked from under his billowing cloak. This brief moment of farce is disconcerting, and shows that Tezuka is both a storyteller and a showman, eager to engage but also to entertain.

Perhaps these humorous intrusions serve as private confidences, knowing winks that remind the reader that, however realistic a comic strives to be, it is in the end a fabrication of drawings and words that only move and speak in our imaginations.

Nevertheless, in Tezuka’s inventive panel shapes and layouts, atmospheric sequences, sympathetic characterisations and heightened drama, that fabrication can come vividly to life. Western readers may need to adjust to the way his drawings juxtapose realistic settings, notably of beautiful trees and skies with cartoonish humans and creatures, cute and large-eyed as if they have stepped out of a Disney cartoon.

The American cartoonist and theorist Scott McCloud has suggested that “this combination allows readers to ‘mask’ themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world”. This process is not so different from the way simplified figures were placed on acetate cels (clear plastic sheets) over lushly painted backgrounds in classic American animated films.

Tezuka was not a Buddhist. He was morally concerned and not always optimistic about our attitudes to life and our relationship with the world. He believed in the validity and communicative power of comics, a belief amply borne throughout all eight volumes of Buddha.

Buddha

For a fascinating insight into Tezuka’s life, work and later years, check out this 1985 NHK documentary:

 

Posted: September 17, 2006

The original version of this article appeared on 24 April 2006 in The Daily Telegraph.

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