Author: Osamu Tezuka
Artist: Osamu Tezuka
Publisher: Vertical (2003)
Between 1972 to 1983, Osamu Tezuka created the eight-volume manga masterwork on Prince Siddhartha, who became the Buddha. Gene Kannenberg notes that instead of simply telling an autobiographical tale of Buddha, Tezuka provides “a context for Buddhist philosophy using a mixture of historical and fictional characters.” In 2004-05, Buddha was awarded both the Eisner and Howard Awards for the Best United States Edition of Foreign Material.
The story of Buddha is staggering in both its length and breadth. Instead of just telling a straightforward autobiographical story of Siddhartha’s life, Tezuka does not even introduce Siddhartha to the story until page 268 in the first volume. He is focused on explaining both the world Siddhartha was born into and how this environment gave birth to his beliefs. He wants to explain how and why Siddhartha became Buddha.
At the heart of Tezuka’s Buddha is the impact of systemic discrimination in India that prevented people from improving their lives and forced them into cycles of violence, slavery, and oppression. According to Tezuka, Buddha’s teachings were an effort to undo the Indian caste system that forced people into lowly statuses that were almost impossible to undo. He also makes it clear that violence was counterproductive and ultimately useless.
Before Buddha is born, Volume 1 follows characters who lived in the caste system and sought to overcome it. For example, Chapra, a low-caste slave, is adopted by a general after saving his life. Chapra convinces the general that he was orphaned after the death of his higher caste warrior father. This ruse allows him to grow up in a higher caste, but ultimately he can not hide from his lower caste status nor escape his fate.
Tezuka’s characters are a mixture of fictional and non-fictional characters. While Chapra is fictional, other characters such as Bimbisara, Princess Yashaodora, Prince Ajasattu, Virudhaka, and many others are familiar figures from early Buddhist texts. By introducing fictional characters, Tezuka can clearly illustrate both the impermanence and interconnectedness of life.
A big part of Tezuka’s storytelling is his stunning artwork. The books’ characters are often enmeshed in stunning backgrounds. Tezuka was first and foremost an artist. Before he made a living as a writer, he was an artist. One of the most interesting things about the book is that it draws various characters in different styles. Some characters fit Japanese manga, while others, such as Master Aista, are drawn more realistically. While this mixture could have been jarring, it works remarkably well throughout the books.
While Tezuka’s Buddha story does not necessarily adhere to Buddhist cannon, that should not be surprising. Tezuka considered himself a humanist, not a Buddhist. Still, Dan Zigmond, a Zen Priest, states that the “philosophy of Tezuka humanism draws heavily on traditional Buddhist ethics.” He adds, “It’s hard to imagine any reader…not coming away moved by this captivating rendition of Buddhism’s most fundamental story.”
It should be noted that Buddha like many Japanese manga can quickly move between violence, dark themes and humor. The mangas can be quite funny, but this humor can crop at unusual times for Western readers. While we have listed Buddha as appropriate for 12+, some children may be frightened by the violence and unsettling situations.
Regardless of whether or not Buddha is canonical is almost irrelevant. Besides being a beautifully told story, Tezuka provides an on-ramp to both Buddhism and his humanist beliefs.
Osamu Tezuka is arguably the most important innovator of Japanese manga and animation. He has been compared to Walt Disney to demonstrate the scope of his influence. His work fundamentally altered “the concept of the Japanese cartoon, transforming it into an irresistible art form and incorporating a variety of new styles in creating the ‘story cartoon.'” In 1947, he created his first manga, The Lost World. From 1947 to his death in 1989, Tezuka created over 280 different mangas.
In addition to being a prolific manga author and illustrator, he also became involved in developing the Japanese animation industry. He made ASTRO BOY, Japan’s first animated television show in 1960. Over the next thirty years, he either made or had stories of his turned into over 110 animated televisions shows, specials, and movies.
Today, you can learn more about the Tezuka’s life at the Osamu Tezuka Museum in Takarazuka in the Hyogo Prefecture.
How to get the entire Buddha series
All 8 Volumes of Buddha are available in paperback, hardback and on Kindle.
- Buddha, Vol. 1: Kapilavastu
- Buddha, Vol. 2: The Four Encounters
- Buddha, Vol. 3: Devadatta
- Buddha, Vol. 4: The Forest of Uruvela
- Buddha, Vol. 5: Deer Park
- Buddha, Vol. 6: Ananda
- Buddha, Vol. 7: Prince Ajatasattu
- Buddha, Vol. 8: Jetavana