One of the things I’ve learned about constructing a story is that you want to be sure to introduce your main character as soon as possible. And yet, in the entire 400-page first volume of Buddha by Osamu Tezuka, we only see Siddhartha, the Buddha of the story, twice, and as a small baby.
So, why does Tezuka choose to start the story this way? It would seem that he’s giving Buddha a slow start by putting the focus on other characters first, especially ones who will only die before the “real” story of Siddhartha gets underway. Tatta remains a major player, as does the Brahmin monk Naradatta. But can’t their stories be told through dialogue or flashback? By including this volume, essentially a stretched out prologue, what exactly does Tezuka accomplish?
A bit, actually. This part of the story is told through the eyes of Chapra, a slave; Tatta, a pariah; and Naradatta, a Brahmin. Chapra and Tatta are of the two lowest classes, and thus are perpetually treated unfairly, hardly viewed as human and not even allowed an attempt to better their situations. The Brahmin monk is of the highest class, who would normally also look down upon slaves and pariahs. But as he travels with Tatta he becomes humbled by the boy’s pure heart and selflessness. Combined with viewing Chapra’s determination to better the lives of himself and his mother, the Brahmin begins to understand the flaws of the caste system.
We see the beginnings of other problems in this volume. There is the war between Kosala and the Shakya kingdom, in which Kosala is perpetually trying to crush their neighbors. This creates hate between two sets of people, but also specific hatred for the character of Tatta, who becomes driven by a need for revenge against Kosala after everyone he loves is taken from him. We also meet Bandaka, a villain who will not only create problems for Siddhartha in the future, but is also the progenitor of another foe.
Buddha is a character driven tale, and it is a key part of the story to see how the infant Siddhartha grows into the Buddha history knows. But just as important as character – possibly even more important – is the milieu, the location and culture in which the story takes place. What the first volume of Buddha does is set up this world so that we understand the culture and the people. We see the issues that are caused by the way society is set up, and the world-spanning problems brought about by other characters. It is the world that Siddhartha will step into as he enacts change on his journey to become a Buddha.
It may seem unnecessary to spend so many valuable comic pages on the world before Siddhartha, but by beginning his story this way Tezuka wraps us up in the world. Had Tezuka told the story of the time before Sidhartha, of Tatta, Chapra, and Naradatta, through flashbacks, we may have understood the gist of what he wanted to get across. But then we would not have really experienced these scenes, and we would not feel so deeply tied into the heart of the story. By spending so much time on his world, on the milieu, Tezuka immerses us in the story of Buddha in a way that carries us through all 8 volumes.
This post was written as a part of February’s Manga Moveable Feast, hosted by Kate Dacey on The Manga Critic.