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June 21, 2011 6:41 pm

Buddha: The Story in Manga and Art, Tokyo National Museum

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 A detail from ‘Buddha Volume Two’
by Osamu Tezuka

Mounting an exhibition that matches some of Japan’s most precious Buddhist sculpture with the work of a comic book artist might sound like an exercise in going from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Not so. Though Buddha: The Story in Manga and Art, which runs until Sunday at the Tokyo National Museum, is certainly an unusual cross-genre exercise, it offers some intriguing parallels between the work of late artist and author Osamu Tezuka and more classical Buddhist iconographers.

Nor would many Japanese see anything silly or sacrilegious in this unprecedented exercise in putting manga, as comics are known here, on a level with sacred art. Thanks in no small part to the work of Tezuka – who died in 1989 but is still revered as the “god of manga” – comics and animation are now almost universally seen as part of mainstream Japanese culture.

The exhibition is structured around Tezuka’s epic life of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. The multi-volume comic series, produced between 1972 and 1983, blended accounts of the legends surrounding Siddhartha’s birth, enlightenment and death with explorations of Buddhist ideas, additional invented dramas and plenty of humorous asides.

 A standing Buddha of the Kushan period, 2nd-3rd centuary AD

Here, manuscript pages from the comic are used to chart key stages in Siddhartha’s life, alongside 20 sculptures portraying the same themes or periods. The effect is to offer the visitor a simple and clear account of how a dissatisfied prince from the foothills of the Himalayas two and a half millennia ago became one of the world’s greatest sources of religious inspiration.

At the same time, the sculptures show a different, but still extraordinary, process of transformation. Religious scruples barred early Buddhists from venerating images of their religion’s founder. It was only around the first century AD that such injunctions were abandoned by sculptors influenced by Hellenic art, which was first brought to Asia by Alexander the Great.

The fruits of that artistic cross-fertilisation are represented by lively 2nd and 3rd-century stone carvings from Gandhara, in what is now Pakistan, that show scenes such as Siddhartha’s conception (in the form of a white elephant entering his mother’s womb), a drinking party to celebrate his birth, and his post-enlightenment preaching.

The western influence is particularly clear in a delightfully naturalistic standing statue from Gandhara, a treasure of the national collection that is one of the earliest known images of the Buddha and which shows him wearing a flowing Greek-style robe.

The Buddha is still wearing such robes – though in more stylised form – as a fine, gilt copper seated figure produced by Japanese artisans in the seventh century, and as a rare 13th-century wooden statue that shows him lying down in peaceful death.

Yet such conventions were hardly universal. One statue from Cambodia features a bare-torsoed Buddha wearing a fine pointed hat and being cradled by a nine-headed snake. And a 14th-century Japanese, gold-painted wooden statue of an emaciated Siddhartha emerging from ascetic practice in the mountains seems to rise above all convention in its portrayal of mental victory over physical suffering.

If there is any weakness to this exhibition, it is that Tezuka’s manga can hardly hope to compare with such masterworks for sheer artistry. The comic creator’s pictures are bold, lively, inventive and clear, but his enthusiastic use of correction fluid and the roughly affixed texts that fill his characters’ voice balloons are reminders that he was a prolific workaholic who often had multiple comic series under way at the same time. Each picture is a means rather than an end. Tezuka was a storyteller not a painter.

Still, it would be foolish to try to draw too clear a line between Tezuka’s Buddha manga and more conventional Buddhist works. Both are attempts to create a simplified and sympathetic focus for a figure whose original unflinching recognition of the impermanence of all things might otherwise be found too daunting.

Indeed, some of the works on display seem no more sophisticated than the line-drawn characters that people Tezuka’s epic. A set of 7th-century figures, for example, are rendered without fuss in gilt copper.

In line with legend, the figures show Siddhartha being born from his mother’s side, with the infant prince popping his head cheerily out of the sleeve of her robe. As it happens, Tezuka’s manga version stopped short of portraying the miraculous arrival. Maybe the comic artist – a trained doctor – found the idea of such a birth just too outlandish.

‘Buddha: the Story in Manga and Art’ continues until June 26

Budda Tezuka

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