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Buddha, Volume One: Kapilavastu by Osamu Tezuka.  Vertical, Inc., 2006.

Decades after establishing himself as the most influential comic creator in Japanese history, and among the most influential in world history, Osamu Tezuka, often called the “father” or even the “god” of Japanese comics and animation, turned his attention to one of the great spiritual leaders of the world, in his long-running series combining adventure, history, and biography, Buddha.

Acclaimed worldwide following its publication in the early 1980s, Buddha was finally reprinted in the U.S. beginning in 2003, by Vertical, Inc.  A grateful American readership promptly voiced its approval, awarding the series both the Eisner and Harvey Awards for best reprints of foreign material.  The American edition of the series spans eight volumes, each sporting a striking cover by renowned designer Chip Kidd.

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Osamu Tezuka introduced the look of Japanese anime and manga to the world, adapting the “big eye” animation styles of Walt Disney and Max Fleischer films of the 1930s to create something truly new and unique.  In the process, his work of the 1940s and 1950s came to define the comics medium for tens of millions of people around the world.

Tezuka’s early manga works like Astro Boy and Metropolis, all in print in English, and well worth checking out, borrowed from animation in their use of sequential panels to illustrate almost-cinematic movement, in a manner far more sophisticated than that found in American comics of the time.   Tezuka and his studio were also far more precise and detailed in their illustrations than most of their American counterparts.  While Tezuka’s figures were cartoonish in nature, they were also consistently and sharply rendered – a remarkable achievement given the sheer volume of his work, reportedly over 170,000 pages. 

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Readers familiar with the story of Siddhartha, the 28th and most well-known Buddha, will be surprised to see that Tezuka begins his story long before this Buddha is even born.  Being Tezuka, he audaciously populates the biography of a religious icon with characters of his own creation: Chapra, for example, is a slave child who is adopted by a king and becomes a great warrior and prince, a trope borrowed from the stories of Moses, Joseph and many other tales from various cultures.  Tatta, a diminutive criminal and urchin who roams about naked (and who bears a striking resemblance to Tezuka’s most famous creation, Astro Boy), exhibits such a close affinity with nature that he can transfer his soul into animals.  And Naradatta is a devout Brahmin monk who befriends them, and who presages the coming of the Buddha.

As the book begins, an elderly monk called Asita relates a tale of his own master, lost in the snowy mountains, and how a rabbit sacrificed himself so that the old man could live.  Upon hearing the story, Naradatta is sent to find someone who understands the meaning of Asita’s story, for this person will become a great leader.  The imagery of Asita’s parable interestingly conflates Buddhist and Christian notions of sacrifice.  And in case the reader misses the Christian imagery, shortly after Naradatta begins his journey, he is hung on a cross-like post, beside the criminal and “pariah” (or untouchable) Tatta.

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The most remarkable trait of Tezuka’s art is the adept switching between diverse tones and styles.  For example, while the initial fable of the dying monk is serious in its theme and visual style, Tezuka paradoxically illustrates the following scene, depicting the monk’s rescue, with a wordless sequence featuring forest creatures that appear to have scampered out of a Disney film.  Rather than undercut the seriousness of the scene, this artistic decision instead makes the rabbit’s self-sacrifice to save the monk’s life even more touching.

Similarly, upon the Buddha’s birth near the end of Volume One, the animals that gather around his birthplace appear to be refugees from a dress rehearsal for The Lion King, which appeared a decade later and featured a remarkably similar scene.  (Disney has also been accused of plagiarizing another prominent Tezuka work, Kimba the White Lion, in its 1993 blockbuster featuring a princely lion named, ahem, Simba.)

Scenes of touching tenderness or religious awe, portrayed in realistic fashion, are interspersed with some of the most expertly conceived action sequences to be found anywhere.  Much of the action has a playful tone, in the spirit of later shonen (or “boy’s comics”) series like Dragonball. In contrast, the final sequences of Volume One, as various characters learn the true meaning of sacrifice, remind the reader that violence has consequences, and these scenes conclude the volume with a gravitas appropriate to the subject matter.

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Fans of Jeff Smith’s Bone will recognize in Buddha the effect, on a similarly epic scale, of a creator exulting in the sheer joy of cartooning, whether it’s in crafting exciting battle scenes, portraying tender moments, or filling entire pages with the awesome detail of mountainous Indian landscapes.  And the spiritual elements of the work give it a depth and resonance beyond the scope even of Smith’s great adventure story.

In the end, Tezuka introduces deeper themes of sacrifice and equality into his story with the seeming adroitness of an ancient legend.  Buddha renders absurd the question of whether comics can be literature, demonstrating further that a work of sequential art can represent great and lasting literature.

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