From the start, Tezuka's tone and approach is varied. The first book opens with large, beautifully detailed landscapes, followed by a nine page episode - a story told only in pictures of a starving wise man who collapses in the snow. A bear, a fox, and a rabbit all try to help him by gathering wood and starting a fire but there is no food to cook. The rabbit sacrifices himself by jumping into the fire. In tears, the old man lifts up the charred corpse and we see the rabbit's spirit form soaring into the night sky. It's a very powerful and moving narrative to say the least. On the very next page we meet the old brahmin who has told the story about the Buddha's last birth and instructs his disciples to join the search for 'the great one'. In one panel he says, ' I feel a strong pull in this direction'; in the next we see a watch, a snack, and a pack of cigarettes being sucked from under his billowing cloak.
In another episode a character was confronted by his haunted conscience, seeing a vision of Buddha speaking to him but, since it was a vision, he wakes to discover he’s been talking to his horse all along. Characters from Tezuka’s other works show up not infrequently and even Tezuka himself appears in cameos, taking the place of a character for a single panel.
These odd juxtapositions of reverence and irreverence continue throughout the series. Instead of writing a biography of Prince Siddartha and his quest for enlightenment, Tezuka decided to cover a broad sweep of history that includes the Buddha but doesn't always focus on him in particular. In the first volume the prince doesn't appear until half way through and then only as an infant. Instead, we meet the first of a wide variety of characters, some historic and some purely made up, whose stories are interwoven with a semi-fictional account of the life story of the central figure of one of the world's great religions.Tezuka clearly thinks very highly of the Buddha and his teachings but his brilliance lies in showing us what trials a fairly ordinary man of his time (or ours) was up against when it comes to finding the deepest spiritual connection. Throughout the series there are constant humorous episodes - this is a comic, after all, and not a religious polemic. The books are filled with jokes, antics, and general nuttiness besides the tragic results of normal human behavior. A main character might die, followers lose faith, or enemies be redeemed. There's just no knowing and that's what kept me fascinated.
'Buddha' was just one of many books and serials penned by Osamu Tezuka. He's reputed to have created more than 700 manga series, 170,000 pages of drawings, and another 200,000 anime storyboards and scripts. Japanese manga artists call him "Manga-no-kami sama" [the god of manga].
If you're interested in reading 'Buddha' or looking at the art without purchasing the books first you can find it online here. Even if there were no others, this would have been sufficient for a lifetime's work.