On the Art and Cycle of Proper Suffering:

The Artist-Figure in Phoenix: Karma Part 2

In the first part of this article, we looked at the beginnings of the artist-figure Tezuka Osamu, the cultural time period that informed his work, the era he chose to create Phoenix: Karma in and the beginnings of his characters’ journeys as artists themselves. Now we will witness their trials and the discovery of their processes as artists.

Paul Gravett in his book Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics states one great challenge that Tezuka himself faced with the advent of other developments in the popular manga form. Tezuka found himself needing to keep his own work vital and essential in competition to the innovations of gekiga: of manga that was gritty, realistic and sometimes political. In response to this challenge, Tezuka created Phoenix and the manga magazine COM in order to experiment beyond the limits of both manga form and with the complexities of philosophical ideas and storylines that he wished to convey (Gravett 42). Yet for all of this, the vehicle for all of these ideas and stories–Tezuka’s aesthetic of choice–remained relatively the same.

Tezuka has a very distinctive and purposeful style of illustration. Sharon Kinsella explains in her work Adult Manga: Culture & Power In Contemporary Japanese Society that “manga was influenced by the large ‘pie eyes’ and distorted physical features of the characters featured in American Disney animation. Disney comics and animated films were distributed in Japanese bookshops and cinemas during the Allied Occupation between 1945 and 1951. Their influence could be felt through the work of that early pioneer of post-war story manga, Tezuka Osamu” (28-29). It is a very subversively “cute and childlike” cartooning style–especially in that he uses this form to occasionally depict violence, blood, pain and suffering “on screen”–and while it is not necessarily realistic drawing or a native Japanese aesthetic, Tezuka’s form does seem to draw from something very elemental in origin.

Indeed, Tezuka was actually surprised to learn that foreign audiences failed to understand why he drew faces with such large eyes. He explained that he made these features to be idealized (Koyama-Richard 152). In fact, another cartoonist and comics creator expands on this idea. Scott McCloud in his work Understanding Comics states that the function of a “cartoon” is to eliminate detail in order to bring out the archetypal or simplified essence of the image and idea that one wants to convey (30:4-5). Ironically enough, this is something that not only Tezuka does, but also something that Akanemaru and Gao attempt to do as they discover themselves as artists and spiritual people: paring down all unnecessary matter to attempt to bring out the true essence of a thing.

Tezuka’s two protagonists have a lot of work to do to this regard. After Gao abandons him, Akanemaru manages to make it to the Temple, stripped of his belongings, clothes and the use of his left arm (30:1-4). The monk that treats Akanemaru’s arm even tells him, “This cannot be cured. The tendon of your arm has been cut … and save for a miracle you will not regain the use of it” (31:3-4). There are many Buddhist undertones in this already: namely, the recognition of how arbitrary and ephemeral material possessions truly are in the grander scheme of things.

There is, in fact, a Hindu aphorism to consider here. It states, “… the causes of man’s sufferings — are ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion and the desire to cling to life” (qtd in Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood 94). It is an apt aphorism to consider with regards to Akanemaru at this moment in his life.

It is his own sense of self–his ego– that is now challenged as his role as an artist has been compromised. As he himself says, “This is the end of Akanemaru. I might as well die … I’ll never be able to sculpt again!” (31:7). But it is at this point of despair that the monk attending his arm teaches him a lesson. He shows him a series of life-like statues made from sandstone (32:4). When Akanemaru asks who created them–placing special emphasis on the importance of the individual and the ego to this regard–the monk indicates that a hollowed out bamboo shoot is the sculptor (32:7-8). The monk then explains that he made the sculptures: painstakingly sculpting them by using drops of rainwater from a hollowed out and elongated bamboo shoot (33:2-4). Essentially, the monk uses Nature itself to create these works.

It is an act very reminiscent of the seventeenth century artist Tosa Mitsuoki’s own philosophies. Mitsuoki claimed that, “If there is a painting which is lifelike and which is good for that reason, that work has followed the laws of life… if there is a painting which is not lifelike and which is good for that reason, that work has followed the laws of painting” (qtd in Ueda 130). Makoto Ueda in “Mitsuoki on the Art of Painting: In Search of the Lifelike” further adds that an artist must observe Nature and also realize that everything is governed by its laws. In this schema, the laws of nature and art are not contradictory, but complementary (131).

Indeed, Tezuka himself always, “maintained that his studies had been an immense advantage to him, encouraging him to reflect on the meaning of life and death” (Koyama-Richard 148). In this way, Akanemaru is further reminded of the power of the natural world, something best illustrated through his own view of the elements around him (Tezuka 33:6-12) and the rewards of knowing one’s place in it. Not only that, but in a sense, this also serves as an admonition for Akanemaru not only to learn from Nature as all artists do, but to remember the limits of the self and the ego. Both of these are very much pre-modern Buddhist elements.

Akanemaru decides to stay at the Temple after coming to the realization that he has one good arm and is determined to continue his work and learn from the monks there (34:1-6). Akanemaru embraces the ways of asceticism and spiritualism: exemplified by him sitting under a waterfall for apparently one hundred days in meditation (47:1-3). The artist even says, “Until now I was absorbed in my own conceit … but through quiet meditation I’ve seen the foolishness and pettiness of my ways …” (47:4). In fact, Akanemaru even admits that he would never have experienced this revelation, of how overconfident and conceited he must have seemed. He even goes as far as to want to thank Gao for wounding him (47:5-6) and beginning his exploration into art. In this way, by realizing the nature of reality around him and his own previous spiritual flaws made apparent in the flesh, Akanemaru begins to actually truly seek to improve himself and hence his craft.

Despite this, Akanemaru still must overcome the trial of his physical limitations. Even in the process of chiseling a statue and tying a hammer to his arm, he still cannot hold his tool properly (51:1-5). However, Akanemaru’s greatest challenge does not occur until the Tachibana Moroe travels to the Temple and orders Akanemaru to create a sculpture of the legendary Phoenix (90:1-6): promising riches and fame if he is successful in three years time and, alternatively, death or dismemberment for failure (92:6-7). With this ultimate task in mind, Akanemaru returns to the capital of Nara. As he enters the city to he actually goes as far to say that the city and by extension civilization seems quite artificial to him now (97:1-5). This one statement is the closest one so far that has been made to creating a dichotomy between what is natural and what is artificial: an idea that is explored in further depth with regards to Gao’s particular journey.

Whatever the case, Akanemaru is forced to return to the capital city to look for any information with regards to the Phoenix so that he can actually render a proper replica of it. This becomes Akanemaru’s life goal: a quest that supersedes everything.  Akanemaru even turns down a chance to get revenge on Gao in order to continue on this quest: supposedly to save his own life by succeeding, but in reality very much interested in finding a likeness of the Phoenix (112:1).

However, three years pass and Akanemaru still does not succeed in finding the Phoenix. Akanemaru is then taken back to Lord Moroe and it is only due to the timely intervention of Moroe’s rival Lord Kibi that his life is saved (171:1-7) and he has the added bonus of being shown a Chinese mural of the Phoenix bird (176) in order to continue a work that has become less about his own survival and more about the edifying feeling of creating a masterpiece. However, this change of events also proves to shift Akanemaru’s fate from spirituality into the “artifice of politics” that he identified once before.

As opposed to Akanemaru’s need for perfection, it is Gao’s anger at the world that gives him strength. Gao’s trials started far earlier than Akanemaru’s. In fact, he also discovered his tools first. From the very beginning, when Gao squishes a ruined rice ball into the earth (13:1-6), his instinct to sculpt from anger is made very plain. After Gao leaves Akanemaru he meets Baya–a strange white-haired woman who claims to be the artist’s sister (28:4-9)–and kidnaps her. She becomes his companion throughout his entire life as a brigand: even as he slaughters people in their sleep (38:2-6). Gao explains to her that his ultimate goal is to live and survive for as long as he can (42:1-2). In fact, he is ultimately focused on his sense of self and the ego: killing and stealing to further his own ambitions and thinking it the natural way of the world.

Gao’s trials prove to be tremendously challenging. His first trial is that of the knowledge of his own death. It is a traveling monk who claims to see death on Gao’s face (44:1-7) in which he states that he will ultimately die of a nose disease (45:2-3). This leads to Gao’s second and most personally devastating trial. Gao kills Baya, mistakenly thinking that she has been poisoning him (62:1-9) and, by doing so, her true nature is revealed.

She is not the sister of Akanemaru after all, but a true innocent soul that sought to be with Gao (70:3-6): a ladybug that he saved (72:1-8). In fact, she may well have been the only living thing he ever saved after killing so many people. It is only after she dies and vanishes into the snow from the sword blow he gave her (71:1-5), only to change back into her real form and vanishing that despair over destroying someone precious and irreplaceable to him finally hits Gao’s soul (72:3-8). It begins his greatest journey into pain and artistic mastery yet.

As Gao’s spirit is broken, he is rescued from capture by village authorities by the very monk who predicted his death years ago (76:2-7). The monk–an old man named Master Roben–wants Gao to become his bodyguard and explains to him that Baya’s death not only began a battle of  “good” and “evil” within his soul but also introduced him to the entire idea of all life being equal and sacred (78:1-8). Then Master Roben introduces a curious Gao to the cycle of transmigration or reincarnation of which Baya represented to him with her very physical existence: making him aware of the idea that one’s next existence depends on the deeds committed or the karma–or energy–gathered from the previous one (83) or, as part of a Buddhist mantra would have it, “On ignorance depends karma; On karma depends consciousness …” (qtd in Warren 142). This is very similar to the Hindu ideal of how clinging to life and fearing death–narrowly embracing the ego and the self–causes only suffering. This begins the process of Gao’s own enlightenment.

It is only later that Gao encounters that provide between the spiritual and the artifice of society: or Nature and human materialism. After refusing to offer a prayer for a dead peasant they come across, Roben tells Gao about true nature–as he sees it–of Buddhism in Japan at this time: as a corrupted vehicle for politics and lacking anything resembling true spirituality (117:5-7). This can perhaps be seen as an interesting a parallel to the nation-sponsored militaristic Shintoism of Tezuka’s own youth in WWII. But as Gao runs in anger over the artifice of the current social order revealed to him, he comes across a village ravaged by plague and it is here that he creates his first carving. He makes it to placate the desperate villagers and “exorcise the demons” that plague them, but in reality it is a construct made of his own hatred and scorn for human existence (122-123). Despite this, Gao’s art becomes something to express natural demons or fears, and perhaps by expressing them allowing to eventually be exorcised.

Gao even tells Roben later that, “I don’t hate you in particular … just the world and everything in it!” (125:5). It is this claim that prompts Roben to state, “The anger you feel … and the agony in your heart is shown in your carving. You carved from your heart,” and then asks Gao to create more of these carvings. (125:6-8). As Gao literally attacks a tree-trunk with his blade, Roben encourages the former brigand to, “Carve! Use your anger … Throw your body into your work!” (126:1-6). By the time Gao is done, under the guidance of Roben he has constructed a multitude of clay sculptures (129). It is Roben who, in fact, is the first one to call Gao an artist and mention that his carvings will save “tens of thousands of souls” (131:3-5) and move the hearts of people “more than those of the most famous men” (132:1-2).

This is a fate that Gao firmly and violently rejects until he and his Master reach a village where he is accused of being a bandit and burning down their temple gate (211:3-4). Then the villagers and monks capture and begin to torture him, only after revealing that his Master abandoned him (1-6). They torture Gao for years and he spends the time carving on the cave wall in which they hold him (218-222) until, finally he creates his most potent mosaic: each one of them an image of a Buddha (226). When one of the villagers confesses that he accidentally burned the gate, the Abbot releases Gao: marveling at how each carved image in the rock possesses “a soul” (227:1-6). Gao’s time as a prisoner is a hermitage with penances that focus his anger and his mind to the point where he can now start to achievement the artistic enlightenment that has always been buried within him.

In the next and final part of this article, we will transition away from the creative processes of Phoenix: Karma’s artist-figures and look at the legacies that they represent.

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Matthew Kirshenblatt is a graduate from York University, Toronto, Ontario, and is a writer and blogger living in the city of Thornhill. He is a comics and mythology fanatic; having written his Master's thesis, "The Spirit of Herodotus in Gaiman and Moore: Narrative Spaces and their Relationships in Mythic World-Building," he also contributes science-fiction, horror, and revisionist short stories to Gil Williamson's online Mythaxis Magazine. Nowadays, he can be found writing for G33kPr0n, and creating and maintaining his Mythic Bios: a Writer's Blog, in which he describes his creative process and makes weird stories, strange articles, reviews, overall geek opinion pieces and other writing experiments.

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