Monday, 24 December 2012

手塚治虫のブッダ 赤い砂漠よ!美しく/ Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha: The Red Desert! Beautiful / Buddha: The Great Departure

Tekuka, so often called the ‘God of Manga’, never really paid much attention to the original stories he was adapting. When it came to Metropolis, for example, he simply riffed off the impression he got when seeing the poster for the film. When it comes to the life story of the key figure of one of the most significant religions that make up the melting pot of Japanese syncretic faith, one might expect a little more reverence. And reverence there is, even though this account is highly fictionalised – what Tezuka opted to do was to create an original story about the Indian caste system and run it in parallel to the early life of Siddhartha Gautama, providing action and drama to complement the biographical story and bringing the main characters of each strand together as prominent figures in a key battle. Unlike most accounts of the life of Buddha, Tezuka opts to not to take an abstract, historically isolated view of the young prince, in which he is kept in his palace and sheltered until as a young adult he goes out into the world and sees the hardships there, leading to his becoming a mendicant, here he is shown training in martial arts, participating in battle and being exposed at an early age to death, poverty and, as a result, compassion – but being too young to do anything about it. This nuanced version could be argued as bringing a sense of realism and thus maturity, or as being more juvenile because it allows for typical shounen elements like battles, swordplay training, melodrama and cackling battle-freak antagonists, which is an interesting microcosm of the general reputation Tezuka maintains.

The manga ran from 1972 to 1983, and this adaptation contained perhaps the first third of the story, which tallies with reports that there will be a further two parts of this 2011 animation, though it having cost a billion yen to make this one and the result being…not exactly spectacular may throw a wrench into those plans. There is a lot of appeal to the production here, and it’s clear a lot has been spent, but, well, even for a Toei movie it doesn’t exactly look superb. The aesthetic finds an uneasy medium between slick new-millennium character design and Tezuka’s charming caricature style – though it seems the Buddha manga was even more restrained than Black Jack in terms of characters with exaggerated features, reflecting the historical background and reverence due – ultimately ending up with a style that looks slightly retro but mostly a bit generic. The major characters also stick out from the background cast as over-attractive and pale in a rather jarring way – and not just the sheltered prince. There’s a notable lack of that charming, somewhat babyish Tezuka humour I’m certain was in the manga.

Shortly before Siddhartha is born, a lower-caste urchin called Chapra transcends his station in life by aborting an assassination plot at the last moment and instead saving its target’s life, for which he is adopted and raised as noble. Meanwhile, the young Buddha is born and raised in a martial tradition. Sneaking out of the palace, he falls in love with a girl named Migaila, but when the possibility of a relationship reaches his father, she is flogged and has her eyes put out, while he is given an appropriate bride. At first a rather wet child, not apparently divine other than the Lion King-esque gathering of animals for his birth, Siddhartha becomes a warrior, and when his father’s army must clash with that of the rival kingdom of Kosala, headed by Chapra, the two meet – if only for a fraction of a second, where Chapra, poisoned by an arrow, falls just short of killing the prince. Chapra survives thanks the intervention of his magical friend – a small, seemingly eternally young boy named Tatta who can possess animals in the strangest supernatural element of the film – but ultimately the caste system will once again prove its inequalities cannot be held at bay forever.

Though I enjoyed this, liked the unique spin on the traditional story and found the art appealing overall, it fell well short of really wowing me, and structurally was a mess. It may have worked in an ongoing manga paced this way, but in a feature film it was confusing and uneven, resulting in batches of boredom. The voice cast was also odd, for while I’m sure no expense was spared, Toei seem to have decided to bring in a large chunk of the cast of Naruto, including many of the most distinctive seiyuu: Takeuchi Junko (Naruto himself) is the young Capra, while Tatte is Konohamaru (also Pikachu and Chopper). Temari (Paku Romi, in female mode) plays Tatta’s sister, while the slug Katsuya shows up as Siddhartha’s child bride and Hinata goes a little against type as Migaila. Hinata’s seiyuu, Mizuki Nana, was also Collette in Tales of Symphonia, and is joined by Orikasa Ai as the young Siddhartha, who played Genis – as well as the boy in the third One Piece movie and Quatre in Gundam Wing. While there’s much to say for an all-star cast, this one was just too full of distinctive shounen voices – which got distracting.

Overall, well worth seeing, and I want to see more, but this could and should have been a whole lot better. 

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