If not for its staggering length and breadth, Osamu Tezuka's manga series Buddha would read like a child's history of Buddhism. The cute, wide-eyed, Disney-influenced animals, diversions into goofy humor, and bouncy, propulsive pacing are all indicative of a story for younger readers. But Tezuka's expansive generational approach gives his narrative an ambitiously adult heft—it stretches out over eight chunky volumes, created from 1974 to 1984, and released by Vertical over the last two years—and Tezuka's approach to Buddha's teachings are as reverential and thoughtful as his sight gags and comic anachronisms are irreverent.
Beginning a generation before the birth of Siddhartha, the prince who became Buddha ("the Enlightened One"), Tezuka sets his primary protagonist aside for hundreds of pages at a time, building a mythic cycle out of the life stories of the kings, bandits, slaves, and monks who would later become his acolytes or enemies. Their experiences shape his and help explain the ends they each come to, but they also help establish the recurring themes of Buddha's life and teachings: the fear of death and the injustice of the Indian caste system, which justified savagery toward slaves and pariahs on the grounds that their lowly status was granted by the gods, and they can never aspire to better. From the beginning, Siddhartha challenges that system. The sickly, weak prince of a tiny country continually in danger of being swallowed up by more aggressive and powerful neighbors, he overcomes his personal obstacles by rebelling against his birth status and seeking a philosophy that will erase his fears and frustrations.
Over the course of the eight books, averaging around 350 pages each, Tezuka explores how Siddhartha escaped his kingdom, studied to be a monk, explored and rejected the conventional teachings of bodily mortification, developed his doctrine, earned a following, endured schisms and assassination attempts, and finally died at age 80. Tezuka's blobby, doll-like, comic characters—again influenced by Disney, and familiar from other Tezuka series like Astro Boy and Kimba The White Lion—often seem like an odd vehicle for such a dramatic and spiritual journey, effectively the illustrated Bible of Buddhism. But like so many Japanese masters, Tezuka balances his iconic characters with staggeringly detailed, realistic backgrounds that convey his story's majesty. His simple cartoon characters are just a highly accessible window into a deeper world. The same could be said of the Buddha series as a whole.