Reviewby David Cabrera, Jul 12th 2011
Buddha: The Great Departure
The first in a planned three-film adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's fictionalized biography of Buddha, starting from Siddartha Gautama's youth as prince of Shakya and gradual disillusionment. Meanwhile, a young boy attempts to escape the life of a slave by becoming the military champion of the warlike kingdom of Kosala, a nation with its eye on Shakya's wealth of natural resources...
Osamu Tezuka's Buddha opens with a retelling of a well-known legend: a monk, dying of starvation in the Himalayas, is brought food by the animals of the wild. The humble rabbit, unable to find food, bids the old man to build a fire. When he does, the rabbit throws himself onto the flames, offering his own life to save another.
Tezuka tells this story in eight pages, with grace, dignity and cosmic wonder. The Buddha movie tells it in thirty seconds, as if checking off a shopping list. The rabbit appears, he immediately jumps into a fire, the old man holds his charred body to the sky and lets out a howl. There is no emotion in the scene itself, so the overwrought score swells: the orchestra notifies the audience to start caring now. Rather than moving, the scene is merely absurd, approaching unintentional comedy. The tale of the selfless rabbit is the foundation and emotional core of Tezuka's Buddha: the way the film botches it at light speed sets the tone for the two misguided hours to come.
Though the “God of Manga”'s own production company did work on this film, it often feels as though Tezuka's fingerprints have been meticulously wiped from it. The character designs have been smoothed out to a “contemporary anime” look: only a few characters (who stick out like sore thumbs: most notably young Tatta and Princess Yashodara, who keeps her Betty Boop face) are at all recognizable as having come from Tezuka's pen. The modernization of a '70s comic for today's audiences is understandable and commercially necessary, but the most we see of Tezuka in this film is in the title.
Fond as Tezuka was of whiplash tonal shifts into comedy-- pratfalls, cartoonish violence and silly, anachronistic asides-- the film Buddha deprives the wartime tragedy of any levity at all. The violence is all hard and bloody now, and the film takes itself too seriously to ever stop for a chuckle. Cutting Tezuka's goofiness makes this tragedy that much bleaker, and at the same time robs the story of much of its humanity.
Production values are lower than expected for a theatrical anime of this lineage: somehow an adaptation of one of manga's most celebrated creators seems not to have commanded a huge budget. There are spots in Buddha that look good-- the natural beauty of Shakya, the war scenes, and the animals-- but the movie's not consistent. Too often the film often looks like a mid-budget TV show. Characters frequently go off model, and strange cuts of animation betray a disappointing lack of polish for a theatrical anime production. The Happy Science cult got much better work out of Toei.
The Buddha manga poses a problem for a film adaptation right away: the title character isn't even born until close to the end of the first book. The film opts to move the main storyline of the second book, the young life of prince Siddartha, to take place concurrently with the storyline of the first, that of Chapra the young slave turned soldier.
While this move is understandable-- it would be strange to lead a film called Buddha with an hour-long tale that appears completely unrelated-- tying these storylines together chronologically introduces major, unresolvable issues to the story's continuity. One character, inexplicably, remains ten years old for the duration of the film (which takes place over the course of Siddartha's entire young life, at least fifteen years). Another major character from later on in the manga isn't even born in this version. The script is practically falling apart with such inconsistencies, as it tries to force two volumes of manga into happening at the same time and as fast as possible. If a trilogy truly is planned, this plot is only going to get more tangled as it moves on.
The pacing is equally confused: the film opens in what feels like quadruple fast-forward, covering a major event every minute with no breaks. It slows down towards the middle, particularly at battle scenes, and then pushes the rest of the story through as fast as it can. Very little time is left to actually get to know this very large cast, and when the doubled-up tragedy of two sad stories starts to pour down rapid-fire, it's hard to feel anything for even the principal characters. In two hours, the audience is given no time to care.
At moments like these, as with the rabbit, the orchestral score swells dramatically. The score's problem is that it's been swelling the entire movie. At every possible dramatic moment, the same sound. After half an hour, it's swollen up so much that it's gone numb. Rather than actually being majestic and touching, the way the Buddha manga is, the film adaptation only insists to the viewer that it is.
As an adaptation of its source material, this film is poor: Tezuka fans can safely avoid it. As a stand-alone entertainment, it's merely forgettable, a little overstuffed and confusing. Don't let this be your introduction to Tezuka's Buddha, or to the author himself, because you won't see him here. The manga has been available in English for years. Read it. Don't go to the trouble of seeing this.
Overall (sub) : D
Story : C
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B-
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