As I was walking through Chinatown last weekend, admiring the endless tanks filled with multicolored koi (which is my new passion of the moment), I noticed something very odd. The little Asian kids were mostly wearing Spider-Man shirts, while the young Occidental boys were wearing shirts with Gundam and Gogeta and the like emblazoned on them. Granted, if the Lakers hadn’t choked harder than Jimi Hendrix and Keith Moon at the local vomitorium, I probably would’ve seen more Shaq and Kobe jerseys than anything; but that still is a remarkable sight for someone who likes geeky shit like comics. Imagine, young Asian kids liking Western stuff while the Western kids are into the Asian stuff.
Never the twain shall meet my ass. I saw it and it was good.
As I sat on a bench in front of the giant bronze Sun Yat-sen statue, I thought about the cultural exchange that goes on in the Chinatowns across this great land. OK, I was thinking about Kung Pao chicken from Chow Fun, because a guy’s gotta eat; but the fact remains that kids take something away with them when they leave Chinatown. It might be a tiny fan or wooden toy dragon they bought at one of the gift stores, but they still leave with the trace of another culture ingrained in their little minds.
I sincerely believe manga has that same effect. Although Shonen Jump got rid of their little Kanji segment, where they would teach kids about the Japanese language, the fact remains that these youngsters are learning about a culture foreign to their own. Kids read something like Love Hina or No Need For Tenchi and they see how Japanese kids live (albeit, in an odd fictional setting) and they learn about Japanese sensibilities and the subtle cultural quirks that make manga unique to the market. Manga literally transports you to another world.
Granted, Spider-Man doesn’t swing around in our New York, but we tend to have a fairly good idea of what New York is. There’s a certain mystique to Japan right now among kids, because it’s literally foreign to them. Is it better than New York? Hell no, but it carries a certain fascination that the royal we can’t duplicate at the moment. And thank God. We need this kind of diversity in the world.
End of Sermon 1, on to Sermon 2..
Osamu Tezuka is the undisputed God of Comics. An entire nation has dubbed him as such, and no one, inside or outside of Japan, has ever disputed it. In Japan, he was the pioneer in the art forms of manga and anime, creating new genres and storytelling devices, along the way. He was the consummate master of decompressed storytelling, in that his stories never disappeared in the middle as most of decompressed tales are apt to do. His wide body of work ranges from science fiction to romance to historical fiction, and every Japanese comics creator, and a good chunk of Western ones, owe him a debt of gratitude. Everyone from Walt Disney Pictures (Jungle Emperor Leo) to Frank Miller (Astro Boy) has either cravenly ripped him off (The Lion King), or reverently paid him homage (Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot) in their works. Homeboy was doing transforming robot stories way back in the late 50′s, before we forsook our Jawas and R23POs for Grimlocks and Bumblebees. Tezuka didn’t simply reinvent Japanese comics, he made them in his own image. If that doesn’t earn you God status, then the term “God” has absolutely no meaning.
Tezuka’s Phoenix is one of the most, if not the most, ambitious comic series in human existence. Told over the span of centuries, alternating from ancient past to distant future getting closer and closer to present time as each of its 12 volumes progresses, these tales are linked by the mythical bird of rebirth who interacts with various characters who are repeatedly killed and reborn from story to story in order for us to understand our position in the universe. Karma is the fourth volume in the Phoenix series, and it was chosen for review over the others because it best encapsulates the over-arching themes of the Phoenix series.
Karma has fascinated many manga enthusiasts since a short snippet was presented in Frederick Schodt’s excellent book Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics (ISBN 0-87011-752-1), which is easily still the best resource for Manga education today. A story of punishment, redemption and the overwhelming power of faith, Karma presents life as both finite and perpetual, and is one of the best representations of Buddhism I’ve ever read (even more so then Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha or Tezuka’s own excellent Buddha series).
It is the story of two men, the horribly disfigured bandit Gao and the vain, yet seemingly kind, sculptor Akanemaru. As one descends and one rises, and vice versa, their lives are intertwined as one’s kindness is rewarded by the other’s cruelty and one’s piety is punished by the other’s jealousy.
Gao, who is “reincarnated” as Saruta throughout the various historical stages of the other volumes, is easily the standout of Karma (and of the other volumes as well) with his heartbreaking origin to his heartbreaking epiphany at the end. Injured on the day of his birth, Gao feels the heavens have punished him and leads a life of anger and brutality. It is through a chance meeting with Akanemaru and a mysterious girl named Baya that his life is changed forever.
Although not much information is given on his past, Akanemaru is a young sculptor who has lived a fairly easy life of luxury and arrogance. Although he and Gao were both essentially orphans, one does not feel the seething resentment bubbling through his guts as with his deformed counterpart. He seems to internalize a lot more than the hotheaded Gao. It is through a chance meeting with Gao and a mysterious girl named Buchi that his life is changed forever.
As they both go through various trials and learn of the Buddhist Cycle of Transmigration (reincarnation), we begin to see how their lives are linked together and that one action affects another throughout eternity. Before this life, you were something else and after this life, you’ll be something entirely different. And we all shine on.
The beauty of this entire series is that it is the Cycle of Transmigration put into comic form. One seemingly random act is not at all random, but as predetermined as the distance between two spokes on a wheel. Nothing is left to chance or to arbitrary accidents in this series — everything is meant to happen exactly as it happens — and only someone with the meticulous attention to detail of Osamu Tezuka could have pulled off such an intricately woven tale.
Tezuka’s storytelling mastery is a sight to behold. He’s able to tell an epic, heartbreaking tale with a kind of elegant wisdom you really don’t see in most comics, all the while dropping in odd sight gags, anachronisms, and bizarre images juxtaposed in an odd manner without undermining the integrity of the story. Blogger John Jakala hit the nail right on the head when he intimated that one of the greatest strengths a manga creator has is his utter fearlessness when it comes to being silly at times. This is mostly because they know the story will stand on its own even when it breaks “out of character” from time to time. That kind of confidence is staggering, when you consider most western creators are sometimes seemingly afraid to be themselves, heavily relying on “grim n’ gritty” posturing that would make Fred Durst blush.
Although this is the fourth volume in a series of 12 (more were scheduled before Tezuka’s unfortunate passing in 1989), Karma is still a self-contained story in spite of references made to other volumes. The other volumes include (in chronological order): Dawn (ISBN 1-56931-868-9), Future (ISBN 1-59116-026-X), and Yamato / Space (ISBN 1-59116-100-2). Anyone serious about manga, and comics in general, should have these in their library. I know the term masterpiece is bandied about a little too liberally in our subculture, but these books are the reason such a word exists.