Reviewby Carlo Santos,
G. novel 1 (paperback)
In a small town near the castle of Kapilavastu in ancient India, four people of different castes are brought together by chance: slave boy Chapra and his mother are rescued by Tatta, a scrappy little outcast with unusual powers, while the Brahmin monk Naradatta follows along, believing that Tatta has a greater destiny. When an invading army wipes out the towns along the way to Kapilavastu, this unlikely group of four must struggle for survival. Chapra sneaks his way into the military and trains as a warrior, while Tatta, Naradatta and Chapra's mother forge on in the wilderness, wondering if they will ever see Chapra again. Meanwhile, in Kapilavastu, a series of miracles and a much-heralded royal birth catches the attention of Naradatta's master. Perhaps he has found the child that will change the world.
There was a time, a few years ago, when Buddha might have seemed like the exclusive province of devoted übernerds with deep pockets. Hardcover volumes for $25 apiece? That's two and a half volumes of regular manga, or a DVD and a half of anime (if you know where to go for discounts), or several boxes of Pocky. Most of us had to content ourselves with glowing reviews from professional outlets and the wild praise of comic-book intelligentsia Who Are Much Better Than You. But at last, Buddha is within the reach of normal people. The paperback edition, priced at $15 for 400 pages of material, lets us confirm with our own eyes that this is, in fact, a fantastic series. Osamu Tezuka is in top form here, balancing deep personal stories against the framework of a historical epic. So don't just read this because the smart people tell you to—read it because it's really, really good.
In a way, Volume 1 might be considered a disappointment. After all, it says "Buddha" on the cover, and the guy isn't even born until Chapter 7! The events of this epic prelude, however, are still essential to the story at large. The struggle of the four main characters in Kapilavastu paints a picture of Indian society at the time, setting the stage for the Enlightened One's cultural upheaval. As usual, Tezuka revels in tackling big ideas and philosophies, this time emphasizing the equal value of all life—Chapra's journey is ultimately a condemnation of society's class divisions, while Naradatta's story arc is even more severe, insisting that animals should be accorded the same respect as humans. But amidst these big ideas are some deeply personal thoughts as well. The intimate link between mother and child is a central theme of this volume as Chapra and his mother struggle to reunite after years apart; meanwhile, the miraculous birth of Siddartha shows a more mystical side of that relationship.
Tezuka weaves all these story threads with amazing dexterity, somehow switching viewpoints at just the right time, every time. If he leaves one character hanging in the clutches of fate, it's always for a very good reason, because just as soon as you've forgotten about that character—maybe thirty pages later—boom! Suddenly he's back in the story again, worked seamlessly into the current chapter, now with a new focus and new purpose. Again and again, these sharp turns of plot keep things fresh while maintaining the story's cohesiveness. But even master storytellers slip up sometimes—towards the end there is an apparent plot hole involving Tatta's soul and his special power. Masters can fall short on the comedy side too; Tezuka occasionally breaks the fourth wall to make goofy modern-day references and character cameos, which are not nearly as funny as he seems to think, and mostly just detract from the story.
Creating a portrait of ancient India is about more than just historically accurate storytelling, and Tezuka proves his abilities with breathtaking background art. The opening vista of the Himalayas sets the standard for things to come: parched plains, lush forests, bustling cities, and extravagant palaces. Period costume is also rendered carefully, from royal finery all the way down to loincloths for the slave caste. The simple character designs might take some getting used to (especially for those raised on modern manga), but the main characters all have standard, eye-pleasing proportions. The supporting cast has a more exaggerated comic-strip look, however, and the animals are completely distracting with their unrealistically huge eyes. Deformed horses and rabbits straight out of Disney are jarring enough to disrupt the historical feel of the story. And yet Tezuka is still talented enough to overpower this weakness: towards the end of the volume is a sort of spiritual relay race between animals, and the sequence is so gripping that their cartoony appearance doesn't matter. After all, this is the manga-ka who invented the cinematic layout, and the action scenes throughout this volume—sword-fighting, archery, horseback riding, even scrappy hand-to-hand combat—showcase his ability to place every panel for maximum effect.
Just as Tezuka's layouts provide a brisk visual experience, so the translation from Vertical makes for smooth reading, despite some odd wordings (okay, so Tatta speaks in street slang, but "my peeps" is just weird to say). Japanese sound effects have been entirely replaced by English equivalents, which feel a little awkward at first, but eventually fit in as a natural part of the artwork and text. The flipped left-to-right direction may throw off readers who are used to reading backwards, but it is a testament to Tezuka's layout skills that the visuals are just as effective in the opposite direction. You might read a couple of speech bubbles in the wrong order, but the artwork itself is still emotionally powerful when it needs to be. The overall package—paper quality, printing, and binding—is all top-notch, making it well worth the $15 price tag even if it were 200 pages instead of 400.
So don't feel intimidated about reading a really thick volume from the "God of Manga" and having puffed-up critics breathing down your neck. Just take it as a sweeping historical adventure with a dash of the spiritual and magical, as well as a personal reflection that will make us think about the value of life. It doesn't matter that Buddha only shows up as a baby in this first volume—when Tezuka spins a tale, people sit down and pay attention, because only he can deliver emotion, action and introspection quite like this. As a stand-alone work, the first volume of Buddha is supremely satisfying—but the best part is, there are still seven more to go.
Overall : A
Story : A+
Art : B+
+ A masterful tale of love and sacrifice that sets the stage for the series' main character.
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