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AICN Anime - In Depth With Adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's Buddha - Screening at NYAFF

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Column by Scott Green

The New York Asian Film Festival ( at Lincoln Center July 1 - 14, at Japan Society July 7 - 10 ) is turning 10 years old. Presents include a Takashi Miike World Premiere and the long-awaited animated epic based on Osamu Tezuka's life of Buddha. Special guests include Tsui Hark, Ryoo Seung-Wan, Su Chao-pin, Takayuki Yamada, Tak Sakaguchi and many more.

For ticket and scheduling information, check out this post.

And, we're fortunate to be able to discuss some of the films being screened.


Alongside his magnum opus, Phoenix, Osamu Tezuka’s fictionalized biography of Buddha (released in North America by Vertical) was one of the "God of Manga’s" major older audience works. (The "older audience" bit of that is a bit complicated. It ran in Tezuka’s own alternative manga anthology COM, but when that magazine folded, Buddha had to find new homes in the likes of Shounen World and Comic Tom).

In Buddha's, Tezuka found the ideal subject for the often testy conversation with humanism and morality that pervaded his work.
Buddha is comparable to Phoenix in its themes and scope, but while each volume of Phoenix moved back and forward through time with its own story, as Natsu Onoda Power’s God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga notes that, Buddha was Tezuka’s longest linear narrative, lasting over 10 years and covering Siddhartha's life from birth, through trials and teaching, to his death. The With full effect, the Buddha manga possessed the cinematic quality that established Tezuka's fame going back to his early New Treasure Island, but with different visual inclinations than Phoenix. While Phoenix was quicker to bend the form with graphical experimentation, marking its distances from an overly religious approach, Buddha was quicker to shift the seriousness of the material with regular, cartoonish gags. (Neither was devoid of the more used quality of the other) There's a scene after the material covered in this movie in which Siddhartha argues for human exceptionalism against the monk Asaji, as depicted by perpetually drippy nosed recasted version of Hosuke Sharaku: The Three Eyed One. Siddhartha goes on "insects are just insects. Birds are just birds. Mouse or elephant, they're all beasts. Humans aren't the same. We're smart." To which Asaji whacks Siddhartha over the head with a baseball bat, declaring "repeat daily and get stupid, guaranteed!" A Tezuka head pops up in the corner of the panel and observes "what kind of biography is this?!"

Though Tezuka's Astro Boy was instrumental in setting the template for the televised anime that dominates the industry, adapting his work for anime is rarely straight forward business. Look at works like the Rintaro/Katsuhiro Otomo adaptation of Metropolis or the Ryousuke Takahashi adaption of Phoenix, there’s a not too well populated pattern of Tezuka adaptation that are often interesting, often laudable, and often don't cast a long presence. I’m a proponent of Metropolis, and I can name a half dozen other very vocal fans, but it hasn’t maintained a large place on the anime landscape. When Madhouse produced an adaptation of Tezuka’s Ancestor Doctor Ryoan, it looked like a prestige project, but hardly anyone, Madhouse included, has mentioned it since it ran on Japanese TV back in 2000.

Kozo Morishita, a mostly behind the scenes lifer at anime mega-power Toei, whose previously directed parts of Transformer, international popular fight series Saint Seiya,Tiger Mask and Grendizer had big plans for this Buddha adaptation.

Toei is currently a big name in anime as the folks attached to many anime biggest franchises: One Piece, Digimon, Pretty Cure, Dragon Ball. And, they were a big part of when post war anime kicked off its push into theaters with films like 58's The White Snake Enchantress (Hakuja den), 59's Magic Boy (Sho-nen Sarutobi Sasuke) and 60's Alakazam the Great (Saiyuki). Tezuka created his own business apart from this with Astro Boy and his artist break with the short Tales of the Street Corner.

For better and worse, Buddha is a Toei take on Tezuka. Its ambitions are in terms of magnitude. The movie has been staged as a big deal, with revivals of the manga and prominent related exhibitions. And, Morishita goes for the Cecil B. DeMille of anime productions... big, grand, reverent - more reverent than the manga. A powerful demonstration of what Toei can do with an anime production, up to and including its X Japan theme.

It doesn't grapple with conceptual or artistic questions the way an anime out of Mushi Productions would, but Mushi Pro went out business and Toei certainly hasn't.

Especially in light of all the narrow cast anime for anime fans, regardless of enthusiasm for the results, there's something to say for its intensions towards broad appeal. Buddha is certainly the kind of focused, event anime that many people who talk up the medium, myself included, see as a corrective measure to the anime production industry's woes.

This first third of the anime trilogy combines the first quarter of the manga, collected in its first two volumes. Siddhartha Gautama (Sakyamuni Buddha) is born in volume one, but his education in his father's household is covered in volume two. He starts a child grappling with social dictates, such as the rigid caste system, and natural dictates, such as life and death, and that second collection end with him as a young man, leaving behind his family, possessions, and status.
Volume One introduces a number of reoccurring characters. Of the 400 page collection, only three specifically relate to Siddhartha - his biological mother’s pregnancy and her dreams of her child, his birth, and a monk prophesying the infant's future role after observing the infant. The chief narrative of the volume concerns the Tezuka invented tragedy of Chapra. As a slave, Chapra chases down a group from the even lower caste pariah after their theft of his master’s merchandise threatens his mother being sold off. Chapra’s mother is rescued by Tatta, a boy whose sympathy with nature is so strong that he can possess the body of animals. However, when Chapra and Tatta seek to retaliate against an army that burns Tatta’s village, Chapra abandons his new comrade. When the moment for vengeance comes, Chapra seizes the opportunity to save the response army’s general and convinces him to present him to the military caste as an adopted son.

Chapra changes visually with his advance in station over the course of the story, but Tatta remains close in age. Alternatively, Siddhartha goes from birth to ... it isn't 29 years old the way many biographies have his life, but it is adulthood. That the discrepancies in time's passage isn't more apparent is telling. At issue, the movie is may not be disjoint, but it connected by weak tendons.

Buddha, the manga and the movie, opens with an episode 2500 years ago in which a holy man travels the Himalayas. A bear, a rabbit and fox find him fainted. The bear brings him fish. The fox brings him berries. The rabbit can’t manage to bring any food, so it gathers kindling wood, coaxes the man to light a fire, then jumps on, cooking itself. Man, bear and fox weep. "That the event taught Gosala, Master of Asita the truth of the world." After relating the story to his students, an elderly Asita then sends his disciple Naradatta into the world.
The scene between Asita and Naradatta isn’t long in either version. It’s only a couple of pages in the manga, yet the movie aggrandizes it into confusion. It uses a female narrator rather than have Asita speak the lines, casting the rabbit episode as something further out, not specifically for Naradatta contemplate. It sets the scene in dramatic torchlight. The character’s identity is pretty obvious on second consideration, but when Naradatta shows up again in bright sunlight, captured in very different tones, broken from the send off, further broken from the rabbit story, muted by the more essential to the movie events of Chapra and Tatta's story as well as the lead in to Siddhartha's, the Naradatta through line is obscured. Honestly, later in the movie, after he’s grown out his hair and filled out his physique a bit I forgot who the character was at the point at which he’s punished for being party to the death of a great number of animals.

A second rabbit incident, this one from volume two, is also captured in the movie. Siddhartha is out with a pair of boys. They spy a rabbit and one of the boys tries to shoot it with his bow. Siddhartha tries to stop him, and following the scuffle, the boy scrambles off into a bog and drowns. Between the attempt on the rabbit and the lethal accident, the movie has Siddhartha wander off, through a host of animal eyes reflecting from the underbrush, into a bright light, in which he has a vision of the spirit Brahman in the form of an ancient holy man. The impact of the anime's sequence is the lushness of the green scenery and the haunting lighting rather than the strange course that life and death take. Sure, there's a difference in media. Tezuka can establish in one painstaking panel what the anime has to continually work towards, but even as this anime tries to simplify matters (in the manga, the rabbit dies, in the anime, implicitly, the rabbit lives and its Siddhartha offers the plain statement "how awful to harm living creatures" before the Brahman vision) its presentation muddies them.

If Osamu Tezuka had created his own adaptation of Buddha, it probably would have been far more mystifying than this production, but it would have been mystifying by virtue of its quirks and probably overreaching experimentation. However, I also think that Tezuka would have manage to capture some of the scheme in which the manga presented conundrums, then developed conversations around them. Rather than that sort of framework, the movie strings together events render in eye popping animation. Fights follow confrontations, follow incidents. It's not that the movie requires a deep read to follow the plot or suss out the meaning, but the movie is always trying to be visually impactful and always presenting something essential without enough to govern the rich adaptation of the rich material. What hurts the feature is that too little attention was paid to offering the spaces and hooks that would have established depth and comprehension .


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