Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Buddha by Osamu Tezuka

After a couple of hours of work on one of my own drawings I spent some time recently re-reading favorite parts of Osamu Tezuka's 'Buddha' series. I don't know if you're familiar with manga but Tezuka, who died in 1989 at age 60, is generally recognized in Japan as the grand master of the medium.  The first experience I had of his work was when I read the 8 volume, 3000+ page story of the life and times of Gautama the Buddha.

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.


As an artist I was awestruck by the gorgeous detail of Tezuka's magnificent pen and ink drawn landscapes. It took me only a little while to accept his cartoon characters as real personalities; it took Tezuka a decade (1974-1984) to complete the project. Nowhere have I read that he was a Buddhist but he was born in 1928 in Osaka and experienced the fire bombing of the city near the end of WWII. He trained as a doctor but devoted himself to manga as a means to help convince people to care for the world.


'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.


12 comments:

  1. What a fascinating and excellent artist, of so many talents yet so focused on his art. I had not heard of him though I know of manga and anime. His Buddha project sounds just amazing! I wish I had more time to read it all but I'll take some cracks at it. I'm rather ignorant of the story though I read Hermann Hesse's Siddharta while in art school, now forgotten. Makes me realize again how little I have read and know.

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    1. In Japan Tezuka is as famous as Walt Disney is here. He's the man who pretty much invented manga.

      If you're ever interested in reading a biography of Gautama the Buddha I highly recommend 'Buddha' by Karen Armstrong. It's pretty concise at about 250 pages but is quite fascinating as well as instructive.

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  2. I order manga and anime for the library but I had never heard of this artist. I would like to order it for the library if it is still in print.

    That tree illustration is awesome too!

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    1. Well, I'm glad I got to be the one to tell you about him. I don't know where you order your library's books from but they are all available at Amazon. I know for sure you'd love them as much as I do.

      It is a marvelous drawing, isn't it?

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  3. Thanks for the brief sketch of this author's life.
    I have been super busy, but wanted to stop by and say "Hi".

    Peace

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    1. Glad to hear you made it home safely.

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  4. My kids are huge into manga, I'll have to pass this on. It looks extra swanky.

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    1. I wonder if they already know about him?

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  5. Wow I that looks amazing. I must check out the link. Perhaps my nephew, a huge manage dan can point me in the right direction for other of his works

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    1. Many never got translated but some of the best did.

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  6. hello, my dear, this tree is fabulous given my meager recent attempts...i had no idea about manga and this master. i need to look him up! an "unusual" pov on buddha. i have never quite gotten shinto and presume that is his frame of reference but no matter, what a fascinating artist. the medium is not my "style" as in i am not particularly drawn to it but that' probably because i never understood it. long ago i asked you what it was and you did not give me an answer for whatever reason...probably because it's a figment of my imagination, so fertile as it is.

    i am connected right now...how about that. so will read your other post as i don't remember if i did but could comment or didn't or what. today is a day of trying to catch up. xoxox and hope the sun shines where you are. with a few flowers thrown in.

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    1. I'm so glad you made it by for a visit. Yes, this one was a particular favorite of mine as well but there are many other landscape pictures equally amazing. I'm sorry if I missed answering a particular question of yours - you know I'd never do that deliberately. Now what was the question again? :-) All of his work was done in straight pen and ink - a medium I love but am not especially proficient at.

      I'm delighted you got reconnected and may it remain. I hope the long time sun shines upon you too.
      xoxo

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