It is neither a new nor a culturally specific idea that art is created through suffering: that the figure of the artist is an individual who must experience great ordeals in order to accomplish his or her goal. However, with regards to some aspects of Far Eastern culture, the suffering of the artist attains another level of consideration: that of a successful or failed enlightenment with regards to his or her surrounding world.
Tezuka Osamu’s Phoenix: Karma is an interesting piece to this regard: because both the artist in his time and his characters in theirs seem to fulfill the idea of the suffering artist seeking enlightenment: as though art and truth are inseparable. While Tezuka illustrates and writes this manga in Japan from a more modern time period, he also makes sure that the artist-characters–as creators and spiritual figures–in his work best symbolize the era that they exist in.
To some extent Tezuka himself is also an artist-figure that needs to be examined in this way, but ultimately his creations are the ones that will garner the most attention in this work. Tezuka Osamu has faced his own fair share of suffering and hardship as a human being and as an artist. According to Frederik L. Schodt, one of Tezuka’s primary English translators and the writer of Dreamland Japan, Tezuka was greatly influenced by “the destruction he witnessed first-hand in World War II …” (237). In fact, as an adolescent Tezuka had been heavily indoctrinated by Japanese nationalist propaganda.
Tezuka worked in a factory during WWII and was exposed to the worst fire-bombings of that period in Osaka by American bombers. A drunken U.S. soldier even physically struck him during the Occupation. As a result of these events, “he became a convinced internationalist” (Schodt 251). Yet these negative events are not the only forces that shaped Tezuka. Schodt even states that “[Tezuka] was fascinated by life and learning … not only was he an intellectual, but a licensed physician” (239). The fact that Tezuka started out in a time of conflict, but also with the knowledge of nature is a very important distinction to make: especially with regards to his own characters and the lives they begin from in Phoenix: Karma.
According to the Notes Section at the back of Phoenix: Karma, the background and setting of the story takes place in the Japanese Nara Period (710-794 CE) during the national enterprise of creating the Great Buddha (Tezuka 364). This setting for Phoenix: Karma is actually a very fitting one. According to Brigitte Koyama-Richard in her book One Thousand Years of Manga, the art of Japanese painting also came into its own during the Nara period of the eighth century: including samples of frameless sequential art considered to be the predecessors of the very manga form that Tezuka and others work with (9). This is most likely not an accident on Tezuka’s part or at the very least a very excellent example of artistic and creative synchronicity. In Dreamland Japan Schodt goes further on to specify that this is also period in the eighth century CE when Japan was still consolidating itself as a nation-state (266). These aesthetic and socio-political elements are important to keep in mind as the setting and the lives of its protagonists unfold.
There are two main characters in Phoenix: Karma to consider: Gao and Akanemaru. Gao is named after one of two demons from China, and according to him it is the “uglier one” of the pair (Tezuka 29:1). Gao starts out as a healthy and perfect baby in a small little fishing village (7:1-7), but as his father takes him to visit the Mountain Spirit, he falls on some rocks: killing himself and maiming his child as he drops him (9:1-7). Fifteen years later, it is clear that not only is Gao’s face scarred, but he is also missing his right arm and his left eye (9:7). Thus even before Gao’s adult life begins, he is physically damaged and flawed. Due to external forces, or the auspices of karma, he is no longer a physically perfect work of human art.
Gao grows up being ridiculed by the other villager children and has to win a tug of war contest just to get enough resources for his mother to survive (12:1-6). This, along with the origins of his disfigurement serves to illustrate the beginnings of the anger that will drive him for the rest of his life. This anger–this will–is a key in understanding Gao as a murderer: in which he kills his childhood opponent (16:2-7) and also a family’s child he is holding hostage (22:1-7) and even later when he becomes an enlightened artist.
Then there is Akanemaru to consider. Yamato Akanemaru is a woodcarver from the capital who is going to the Temple of Eiho-Ji to look at a new Miroku statue–a Bodhisattva of the Future–from Kudara (an older name for Paikeche one of the ancient kingdoms of Korea): to “let its beauty fill his heart” (24:6-7). In a fit of anger created by the culmination of his ill-treatment at his village and the murders he committed and despite Akanemaru’s generosity in letting him sit by his fire in the woods, Gao slashes Akanemaru’s left arm: the hand that he uses to sculpt (26:6). In this way Gao inflicts his own spiritual damage in a very physical and visceral way on Akanemaru.
Thus there is an interesting parallel here. Both artists here begin as whole beings, but whereas Gao has not yet consciously started down the path towards art and enlightenment, Akanemaru is already a very conscious artist: whose perception of reality and himself has now been dramatically and traumatically put into question and crisis. Therefore while Gao and Akanemaru start from different places in their lives towards the quest for artistry and enlightenment, both suffer hardships and gain the abilities to continue on their paths. This is also true with regards to Tezuka–their creator–and some elements of his own methods and life.
And in the next part of this article, we will move away from how the artist-figures began in Phoenix: Karma and explore both their challenges and their torments.