Japan's most influential comics creator, Osamu Tezuka, continues his personal exploration of the story of the Buddha in the third volume of a mammoth manga series. This time around, the main theme is choices. Namely, the choices an individual makes in the face of suffering and adversity.
Prince Siddhartha has forsaken his kingdom to become a monk. He meets Dhepa, a warrior who has also given up his station to seek enlightenment. Dhepa attempts to teach Siddhartha about undertaking ordeals to strengthen one's spiritual resolve, but for as much as the young prince wants to walk the path of knowledge, there is something inside him telling him there is another way.
Running parallel to this is the story of Devadatta, the lone descendent of one of Siddhartha's greatest rivals. Devadatta's destiny is to clash with his father's enemy, whom he has never met; however, he has been expelled from the world of men and has taken to living with wolves in the wilderness. Bounced around by the cruel whims of fate, Devadatta is learning a Darwinian approach to existence, which ultimately shows him that most humans are weak and selfish.
So, for all of Siddhartha's love for humanity and his desire to see a world where we are all spiritual equals, Devadatta is developing an alternate philosophy where the individual must always put himself first. (Perhaps the first clash of religion and existentialism?) Each chooses to react to their fates differently, and that sets the course for their place in larger events.
All the charming elements of Tezuka's storytelling from the first two volumes are on display here -- the anachronistic jokes, the Disneyfied animals, the history lessons, etc. This isn't so much an accurate retelling as a modernization, one man's adaptation of a story with great historical resonance to a decidedly 20th century form of storytelling. In lesser hands, the deeper religious questions couldn't rest so comfortably next to cheap gags, yet Tezuka makes it work. Ultimately, his goal seems to be less about education than inspiring his readers to look at the wonder the classic tale has to offer -- and given the addictive nature of the series, he clearly succeeds.
Jamie S. Rich has edited comic books for ten years, over half of them as editor in chief at Oni Press. In 2000, he published his first novel, Cut My Hair, and is currently exploring his second. When it's done, he swears his website, confessions123.com, will make a lot more sense. In addition, he has written film and music criticism for various publications, and has worked on scripts for far more Tokyopop manga translations than he cares to count.