On the Art and Cycle of Proper Suffering:

The Artist-Figure in Phoenix: Karma Part 3

In the second part of this article, we looked at the challenges that faced each artist-figure in Phoenix: Karma. Now, in the final part of this article, we will look at how they come to terms with their process and what legacies they might represent.

So, in the end, what art or legacy do Akanemaru and Gao leave behind and, more importantly, what do they end up representing? For that matter, what does Tezuka leave behind and symbolize as an artist figure as well? Frederik L. Schodt actually states that, “Of all the stories that Tezuka created in his lifetime, Phoenix is the only he always referred to as his raifu waaku, or his ‘life work.’ He began drawing it in 1954, and he was still drawing it thirty-five years later when he died, in 1989” (262).

Paul Gravett, in his book Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics also references Tezuka. He quotes Tezuka just a few years before his death, stating that, “Now we are living in the age of comics as air” (qtd in Gravett 17). By saying this, Tezuka means that while a particular art-form now permeates everyday life, some forms of it can serve to be both polluting and damaging: without passion or originality (Gravett 17). This seems to be a warning in some ways that is reflected by the path of Akanemaru and is identified and fought against by Gao’s final decision at the end of the story.

Gao and Akanemaru evolve in different ways as human beings and as artists. While Gao seems to follow the trope of the Buddhist path towards enlightenment–accepting and transcending his own considerable moral flaws and suffering–Akanemaru moves in the very opposite path due to nationalism and politics: towards greed and selfishness.

It is already clear that Akanemaru does not start out this way. In fact, he starts out with good intentions. But it is the worst of the temporal world that begins to degrade and influence him into embracing the worst of emotions. Before Akanemaru is brought back to Nara, he meets a young girl named Buchi (137:10). Buchi is similar to the character of Baya in that she pretends to be someone else, namely the legendary Phoenix (145:3-7) to convince Akanemaru to be with her, except she attempts to kill him first out of a sense of pathological amusement several times by telling the woodcarver that the Phoenix is in several hazardous areas (138:1-8, 139-140, 143) even he rescues her from being buried and exposed as a thief earlier on (137:1-6). Yet it is very clear that he already knows she is lying about being the Phoenix (147:5) and after a time they become very close companions: to the point where he actually uses her as a model to create a sculpture of the Goddess of Mercy (151: 3), even going as far as stating that “This will be my best sculpture. It will be my gift to the world” (151:6). They are some pretty telling words when one considers what Akanemaru will attempt to do afterwards.

Like Gao, Akanemaru seems to lose the woman in his life as well. When soldiers come to take him back to the Capital, Buchi attempts to stop them only for her to seemingly get struck down (166:3-8). When Buchi whispers “I… can’t go with you …” (166:7-8) as she kneels over on the ground, one also gets another sense of those words. Buchi has been Akanemaru’s link to a world outside of politics and his relationship with her perhaps the only truly positive thing about the material world that he ever had. Losing her in the way he does, by the world, makes him change in a very different way from Gao. With Buchi and the statue of Mercy bathed in her own blood (165:7-9), one can see the last truly good and altruistic act of love and art that Akanemaru fulfills before the world and its laws swallow up his soul.

Long after his artistic achievement with the Phoenix, Akanemaru has gained influence in the Capital, becoming the overseer of the Great Buddha statue. He has become arrogant and proud and is not beyond using the nobles to back up his own creations: to make himself “the greatest artist in the world” (286:1-6). He even ignores and has nothing but apathy for the people and living beings dying from the drought afflicting Japan at the time: just so long as the project continues and glorifies his own art (287). This is a far cry from the modest character introduced at the beginning of the story that cared only for perfecting his craft to approach simplicity and spirituality. Even Buchi’s return does not change him and it is only after she denounces everything he has recently embraced that he realizes he loves her, and that it is too late for them (284-291). In this way, Buchi might as well be dead to him or the thing that she represents: that flow of life that he had once truly respected.

By this point, politics, appearances and power have corrupted Akanemaru. By the time the large sculpture of the Great Buddha is completed the captions even state: “Its very size seemed to symbolize the oppression of the people” (291:3). This so far seems to be Akanemaru’s physical legacy.

Then there is Akanemaru to personally consider as well. In his quest to sculpt the Phoenix, he has a vision of the bird telling that after this life he will no longer be incarnated as a human being (183:1-2). There is no moral judgment, at first, seeming to just be the way of things, but later this realization plays a role after the artist’s own downfall. Akanemaru’s complete moral downfall reaches its culmination during a sculpting contest between him and Gao. It is only when the empty beauty of Akanemaru’s sculptures fail to surpass Gao’s violently charged spiritual ones that he informs the judges about the other’s past: asking them to cut off Gao’s remaining arm as punishment (325:1-4). This is done not only so Akanemaru can save face with the nobility, but to maintain his illusion of pride in being “the best artist in the world.” There is no compassion or pity inside of him now. There is only Akanemaru’s selfishness and pettiness.

Akanemaru’s fate is sealed when the drought finally sets fire to the Great Hall where the Great Buddha resides (336:1). Akanemaru rushes in to try to save his creation, but he falls and gets trapped instead (340:1-3). As he lies on the ground, burning in the fire, he sees the Phoenix hovering over him. Even as he marvels at her beauty and aches to carve her, she tells him that he will never create another sculpture again, that his time as a human being is now over (341-343). Akanemaru finds the Phoenix, only to have forgotten what his quest for it truly represented: or having never really known at all. There is part of a Buddhist sermon that describes Akanemaru’s dilemma well. It states that, “It is desire leading to rebirth, joining itself to pleasure and passion, and finding delight in every existence — desire, namely, for sensual pleasure, desire for permanent existence, desire for transitory existence. This, O priests, is called the taking up of the burden” (qtd in Warren 140). Ultimately, it is not only Akanemaru’s dilemma; it is also his end … as a human being.

The irony is that even as Akanemaru’s spiritual existence as a human being ends, the Great Buddha survives to have its eyes painted by Japan’s elite: symbolizing not spirituality, but the power of nationalism and politics over the masses (Tezuka 350-351). Akanemaru’s journey began in earnest spirituality and artistic discovery, with an embrace of the natural world and his legacy only ends in ashes. What is left of Akanemaru’s existence supports the continuation of soulless politics: of missing true spirituality and his chance to be something more forever. This can be construed as a critique of modernity, of the political aspects of Japanese culture as much it is a pre-modern Buddhist cautionary tale of sorts.

In contrast, after staying at the Temple that once had him confined, Gao seeks his lost Master: who turns out to be the Abbot Roben. He finds out that Roben is seeking “instant Buddha-hood”: mummifying himself in an underground meditation (241:9). Gao comes to Roben’s hole where the Abbot reveals to him the real reason why he left him behind in the village to be imprisoned and tortured. He explains that Gao’s gifts are spiritual in nature and that the ordeals of the dungeon were the best kind of spiritual training for him. Roben also tells Gao that “religion for the sake of politics” is not for him and that one day Gao himself has the potential to become a true Buddha (247-248).

Roben explains how with the best of intentions, he was the one who convinced the Emperor to build the Great Buddha: which ultimately depicts the Buddha Shakyamuni as supreme ruler, his Bodhisattvas as retainers and essentially makes Buddhist doctrine into state law. This is why Roben is disillusioned with his calling and why he seeks to kill himself by the ritual of living mummification (250-252).

It is ultimately when Gao looks at the mummified corpse of his Master in conjunction to a moth flying in the room that he understands: that he finally gains enlightenment (258:1-9). He realizes that all living beings can become Buddhas and that all existence is nothing–that life and death–mean nothing (259-261). This is the ultimate expression of the Buddhist pre-modern.

Gao ends up fleeing the monastery where his Master has died, and travels the land for three years, continually carving Buddhas and deities and actually becoming loved by everyone he encountered (263:2). By the time the soldiers of the capital of Nara come to find Gao: to get him to make gargoyles for the Pavilion of the Great Buddha he is sitting on the ground and surrounded by animals (265:1-9). This is a sign of enlightenment that mirrors Siddhartha Gautama’s own awareness of the true nature of existence and his harmony with Nature.

However, there is another side to Gao’s nature as well that must be considered to this regard. Just as with Akanemaru, the Phoenix also visits Gao and tells him that he has and always will be reincarnated as a man that eternally suffers (308:1). She even shows him someone in a suit being executed by a firing squad for defying the government (307:1-5) and a futuristic ancient version of himself dying alone in the last days of planet Earth (310-311). Then the Phoenix, just like Roben, encourages Gao to continue using his anger and suffering to give him the strength to create (313:1).

It is only after Gao loses his other arm due to Akanemaru’s jealousy and wanders again that he finally understands the purpose of existence is life: that life is something unique and special (356:1-6). Ultimately, Gao makes it his life’s goal to live in Nature and help all life remember what it is like to feel alive (357). It is this dichotomy between Nature and the artifice of society that may well, on one level, identify Tezuka’s own distinction between the pre-modern and modernity in Japan. The seventeenth century painter Mitsuoki has other words with regards to art and spirituality to consider. He claims that, “The painter can give spirit to his painting only by growing into the object of the painting itself” (qtd in Ueda 138). In a way, this mirrors the concept of Nirvana, or of the Buddhist concept of enlightenment: accepting one’s place in the world and existence. Then there is another Buddhist mantra to consider however, the sister quote to warning against ignorance, and karma, and ego.

It is stated that “… the complete fading out and cessation of ignorance ceases karma; On the cessation of karma ceases consciousness …” (142). Not only does this not apply to Akanemaru, this also does not apply to Gao who is always told, first by his Master and then by the Phoenix himself to embrace his emotions, and his anger in order to fully understand life and reveal its vitality. In this sense, Tezuka’s work deviates from the form of a traditional Buddhist tale and perhaps says something about modernity: about how while selfishness should be avoided, real emotion and life is human and natural and therefore should be understood and embraced.

In the end, it is Schodt that points out something about Tezuka’s work and mentality that may serve to shed some light on the issue of ideological divisions or the lack thereof. He says that, “What links all of [Tezuka’s Phoenix narratives] together is mankind’s foolish quest for some sort of immortality, as symbolized by the pursuit of the semi-mythical phoenix” (Schodt 262). Thus, Tezuka is very much aware of the eternal folly that human beings are capable of.

However, Schodt brings attention to perhaps the most important thing about Tezuka as an artist. He explains that, “Tezuka infused nearly all of his stories with what came to be known as ‘Tezuka humanism.’ Tezuka respected all people and the sanctity of life. He had an ability to look beyond the superficial actions of people and to view them in their totality, to assess them in the context of their environment, history, and even (occasionally) their karma” (Schodt 236-237). This observation about Tezuka’s understanding and his respect for life ties well into Gao’s achievement.

Gao’s legacy becomes one of creation and the preservation of life’s meaning. He spends the rest of his life creating Buddha carvings. There is even a legend that states that he lives to be over a hundred years old and becomes an object of veneration to the local people around his land. Phoenix: Karma finally ends with a picture of all the Buddha statues that Gao has ever created: embodying the spirit of all living beings (360-361). It is a very fitting image with an eerie parallel to what happened to Gao’s own creator. Tezuka Osamu died in 1989 before creating an end to his Phoenix series: if indeed there ever was one. Considering how the artist’s work is a narrative on karma, death and rebirth, Schodt notes that perhaps it is appropriate that there is no ending to the saga (268). Gao’s art–and ultimately Tezuka’s vision–both continue to live on with vitality.

Works Cited

Osamu, Tezuka. Phoenix: Karma. Vol. 4. Trans. Dadakai (Jared Cook, Shinji

Sakamoto, and Frederik L. Schodt). U.S.A.: Viz, LLC., 2004.

Gravett, Paul. Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics. U.K.: Lawrence

Publishing Inc., 2004.

Kinsella, Sharon. Adult Manga: Culture & Power In Contemporary Japanese

Society. University of Hawai‘i Press: Honolulu, 2000.

Koyama-Richard, Brigitte. One Thousand Years of Manga. Paris:

Flammarion, 2007.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York:

HarperPerrenial, 1994.

Schodt, Frederik L. Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga. Berkeley

California: Stone Bridge Press, 1996.

Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood (trans). How to Know God:

The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. Hollywood: The Vendanta Press, 1969.

aphorisms 1-7, 28-55.

Ueda, Makoto. “Mitsuoki on the Art of Painting: In Search of the Lifelike” in

Literary and Art Theories in Japan. Cleveland, Ohio: Press of Western

Reserve University, 1967. Pp. 128-143.

Warren, Henry Clarke. Buddhism in Translation. Cambridge, Massachusetts:

Harvard, University Press, 1896. Pp. 159-60, 162-63, 165-66.

Works Consulted

Deutsch, Eliot and J.A.B. van Buitenen. A Source Book of Advaita Vedanta.

Trans. J.A.B. van Buitenen. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii,

1971. Pp. 14-16.

Karatani, Lojin. Origins of Japanese Literature. Trans. and ed. Brett de Bary.

Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993.

Schodt, Frederik L. Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics.  Japan:

Kodansha International Ltd., 1983.

Munson, Todd S. “Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix Series: Teaching Manga in the

Literature Classroom.” ASIANetwork Exchange: Teaching About Asia.

Fall. (2007).  Pp. 17-19. http://www.asianetwork.org/exchange/2007-fall/anex2007-fall-munson.pdf.

Japan Foundation. “Interview With Mr. Frederik Schodt. ‘Manga: A Medium to

Tell Stories’” in The Japan Foundation Newsletter. Vol. xxx/ No. 5.

(June/July 2005). Pp. 1-3.


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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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1 Comment

  1. Horaz SC says:

    Impressive analysis and a fantastic article.
    Tezuka is an artist that should be mentioned more often, considering the ways
    he always constructed plots around humanity and their neverending possibilities
    that permeates most of the modern manga’s highlights.

    “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”
    This quote… WOW.

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