Realism, iconography, and duality in Tezuka Osamu’s 2006 manga Buddha.
Tezuka Osamu’s Buddha (vol. 3) is rife with greatly contrasting stylistic elements whose interwoven dynamics create a world of excessive duality. While Tezuka effectively employs iconic character design in order to relate with a wide audience on a basic level, it is only through the contradicting device of realism and a sense of otherness that his work is able to deliver a poignant lesson in human weakness and the power of selfless sacrifice.
Each character in Buddha, while he may differ slightly from other players on the scale of McCloud’s artistic realism, is drawn in an emblematic style—a device which puts both them and the reader in stark opposition to quite graphic landscapes throughout the volume. Although the audience is naturally inclined to identify with Tezuka’s iconic characters, they are simultaneously entranced by the alluring and mysterious beauty of the far more realistically drawn natural elements. It can therefore be argued that the backdrop itself, with its distancing realism, acts as the ultimate icon in Buddha, serving to represent humanity’s near unattainable escape from an eternal cycle of suffering.
On page 53, for example, simplistically drawn characters march noisily atop a serene and detailed landscape. The collage-like arrangement of panels below house excessively emotive portraits in order to both exemplify the scene’s binary tonality and to suggest that these children are loud, lewd, simple-minded, and indulgent. Devadatta’s panel however, lacks such noisy movement, and is instead adorned with quiet flowers and a single, withered note which hangs heavily in the air. One needn’t see his tired eyes to sympathize with the symbolic disillusionment of his plain, upside-down note, and to long instead for the beautiful peacefulness of the detailed nature which surrounds him.
Tezuka employs a seamless blend of the hyper real and the relatable cartoon with a single character at the start of chapter two: the boa constrictor. The avarice snake, when battling for his prey, is drawn with soulless, angry eyes, yet the moment he succumbs to gluttony, his features stretch and writhe in human-like fear. The snake is destroyed by his greed, and in his last desperate moments, Tezuka shocks his audience by essentially forcing the reader to see himself—and perhaps reflections of his own inherent selfishness—in the eyes of an over-zealous wild beast.
Tezuka’s lesson, however, ends not with the snake, but with Devadatta. It is clear that Devadatta, though he adamantly despises the human race, is burdened with their same inherent weakness. He is a slave to his wants and desires, and cannot yet comprehend the power of selflessness. As he bites down on the flesh of a freshly caught fish, Nadaratta explains that fish had wished itself to be caught so that its own kind might survive. The fish, who gives his life so that his kind might survive, is drawn to mirror the vast and unknown night sky on the facing page as if to represent longevity in a vast and unknown world.
Through the device of realism, Tezuka is thus able to effectively hammer in his lesson that an endless cycle of greed can only lead to a single fate. In a sense, his iconic characters are but villains in world they cannot yet understand. They are alienated from their realistic settings, and are therefore unable to peacefully coexist with nature or even with their own society. Thus, through the devices of iconography and realism, Buddha shows that humanity can overcome its selfish nature only when individuals can learn to respect and accept their place in the vastness of an ephemeral universe.