Previous Retro Reviews...
- MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO *** KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE *** PRINCESS MONONOKE
- HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE *** NAUSICAA *** CASTLE IN THE SKY *** PORCO ROSSO
- AKIRA Vol. 1 *** Vol. 2 *** Vol. 3 *** Vol. 4 *** Vol. 5 *** Vol. 6 *** TRIGUN Vol. 1
- LITTLE NORSE PRINCE VALIANT *** DRAGONBALL Vol. 1 *** GHOST IN THE SHELL
- MACROSS II *** LUPIN III: THE SECRET OF MAMO *** SPACE ADVENTURE COBRA
- BAKUMAN Vol. 1 *** MONSTER Vol. 1 *** DEAD LEAVES *** 20th CENTURY BOYS Vol. 1
- LONE WOLF & CUB Vol. 1
Stripped of context and the legendary reputation Tezuka’s oeuvre, this retelling of the life of Siddhartha has to be one of the stranger works of graphic fiction ever rendered.
Imagine the Walt Disney Studio’s animation staff, circa 1942 or so, trying to reach again for FANTASIA’s high-brow in between the productions of BAMBI and DUMBO. Imagine them retelling one of the most meditative, abstract and complex narratives of world religion in their signature cute cartooning style. Imagine them also channeling - - through some metaphysical displacement of consciousness, perhaps - - the sensibilities of their successors from the 90’s, who just loved to add sidekicks voiced by comedians like Eddie Murphy and Cheech Marin to make old stories hip and current.
Imagine all of that and you’ll have a sense of how Tezuka’s BUDDHA plays, sight unseen. If you need a closer comparator, though, then the classic anime feature LITTLE NORSE PRINCE VALIANT is the most useful in terms of adult material being presented with incongruously kid-friendly art.
A little outside research reveals that this is the first in an eight volume set; the first 400 pages of a 3020 page epic. Additional snooping clarifies why so much of the plot doesn’t recall any version of Buddha’s life story I’ve encountered before. See, while it may have felt a bit redundant to summarize a story that two out of every seven persons in the world have presumably centered their spiritual lives on, some recap is still necessary here since Tezuka does a fair amount of embellishing. Indeed, the birth of Siddhartha doesn’t actually occur until close to the end and the hundreds of pages leading up to that moment are concerned with a handful of characters he’s inserted with some rather mirthful poetic license.
Two adventuresome young boys on the lower end of ancient India’s Hindu caste system lead this portion of the story. First, there’s Chapra, a slave (or “Shudra”) bitter about he and his mother’s wretched placement in this society. One day, while on the way to deliver a luxurious carpet for his master, he’s mugged by Tatta, an untouchable (or “Pariah,” in this translation) leading a gang of naked, thieving street urchins. The two butt heads when Chapra tracks Tatta down to take the carpet back but, after some surprisingly cruel rounds of torture and humiliation, they become friends with a near-brotherly bond.
Tatta has earned much renown in the region for his mysterious ability to take psychic/spiritual possession of animals. Though he’s able to free Chapra and his mother from their master by assuming the form of a vicious tiger, Tatta is tragically helpless to prevent an invading army from massacring his home village. Only the miraculous appearance of a locust swarm winds up saving these boys from execution and, in a latter bout of ironic circumstance, their rescue of this enemy army’s leader gets Chapra adopted up into the prestigious warrior class.
Despite Chapra’s best intentions and Tatta’s heroic use of his power, the two boys’ lives are fated to continue the very cycle of suffering which Siddhartha’s birth has been prophesized to end. So… enter the Buddha, then?
Without doing another, deeper round of research, I can only speculate upon Tezuka’s motives for crafting this ambitious tome. Is it a work of spiritual devotion? Did he simply find the story of Buddha to be great raw material to spin a good, ripping yarn out of? I think of Simon Bisley’s totally metal ILLUSTRATIONS FROM THE BIBLE, R.Crumb’s surprisingly-straightforward BOOK OF GENESIS ILLUSTRATED and Kyle Baker’s two-fisted KING DAVID while trying to interpret the mixed messages of this comic.
I expect that, sooner or later, Siddharta’s message of non-violence will predominate this series - - and that’d seem at odds with all the thrilling action sequences centered on Chapra and Tatta’s kickass super moves. There’s also Tatta’s potential as a false prophet whose misdirection will presumably be rectified by the Buddha’s coming of age. Grouped with the Tex Avery-style slapstick gags, the anachronistic jabs at modern cities and the cheeky cameos by Tezuka and his other creations, that would seem to easily set this up as some sort of iconoclastic satire of the order of LIFE OF BRIAN.
However, the tone of BUDDHA honestly doesn’t carry much sense of self-awareness. It’s maybe like a priest going on puzzling tangents about his picks for the NFL draft or his preference of KISS guitarists during a homily. The storyteller just keeps pressing on without much inkling that such digressions might contradict his overall message.
Look, there’s no questioning the regency of this book in the graphic novel cannon. I’ve opted out of enumerating its many merits because it’d almost feel like presenting tried, accepted and proven facts as my own novel insights (I must say, though, that the opening “silent” sequence with the riddle of self-immolating rabbit is a hauntingly virtuoso piece of graphic storytelling.)
Even though this review’s been written more than 25 years after press, the sight of such heady and heavy subject matter being presented with such simplistic tooning is still a novelty that remains hard to get over. And the novelty's all the more hypnotic for how BUDDHA never blinks once over its own strange and often unsettling contradictions.