Friday, September 9, 2011

Kusaka Riki: Kumarajiva (2009-present)

The title of this shows up as "Kumara jiva" (from the original Sanskrit), クマーラジーヴァ (a Japanese phonetic rendering of same), and 羅什 (the Chinese equivalent of same);  often two or three of these elements appear together, and in seemingly miscellaneous order.  Anyway, the point is clear: this is a manga bio of Kumārajīva, the Indian monk who went to China and translated the Lotus Sutra into Chinese, thus making it available ever after to the entire East Asian tradition.  It's by Kusaka Riki くさか里樹 (there's a nice pun in her name), and it's been serialized in the weekly newsmagazine Ushio since 2009, although there was a long lag between the start of serialization and the appearance of the comic in book form.  The first volume came out in July of this year, and it's all that's out so far, and it's all I've read.

It's probably worth mentioning that Ushio is put out by the publishing arm of the Soka Gakkai.  I don't think that necessarily means that this comic is going to be mere hagiography;  not only is Ushio a seemingly fairly mainstream publication, but they're the same publisher that did Tezuka's Buddha, although it ran in a different magazine.  The pedigree doesn't seem to have prevented that work from being taken seriously.  So I'll take this seriously.

Tezuka's life of the Buddha is the obvious precedent for this, and the thing I couldn't help but compare it to even before I noticed that they were from the same publisher.  After only one volume it's not going to be possible to say much, but we can start with the art.  This is a lot less distinguished, artistically:  I doubt anybody would disagree.  But visually, I like it a lot more.

Here's what I mean by that.  Tezuka famously never managed to leave behind his Disney-influenced art style.  His characters always had that roundness;  they always looked like they were rubber bendy-toys.  And his backgrounds, his things, weren't much different - they could boast a high degree of detail, and he could do atmosphere, but they always looked cartoony.  I've written about how for me that ruins some of his more ambitious work.  That's more or less my take on his Buddha.  In it he takes his cartoony style about as far as it can possibly go - I can recognize that he's really pushing himself there, and he does achieve some marvelous effects.  But in the end it's still rubbery, and it's off-putting to me.  I just can't get around this.  I don't love Buddha.

I find myself much more at home in Kusaka's art.  But the thing is, objectively I would probably rate it lower than Tezuka's.  She's drawing in a quite typical contemporary seinen-manga style:  utterly typical.  I'd be hard pressed to cite anything at all about the art in this volume that sets it apart from any other average manga aimed at your average late teen or adult.  It's reasonably well executed, but artistically unambitious.  Undistinguished.  As opposed to the great ambition, care, and skill evident in Tezuka's work.

So why do I prefer Kusaka's?  Idiom.  It's simply that the seinen style, even when executed in an uninspiring way, feels more appropriate to this story, this kind of story.  It's somehow more effective at conveying adult emotions, adult thoughts, than the cartoony style of Tezuka, no matter how well executed.  At least, that's my impression.  This story, even though the characters are shallow, begins to move me, reflexively, in ways that Tezuka's didn't.

Maybe the best way to get at what I'm trying to say is this.  I tend to think of the art in manga as being equivalent, in some ways, to the words that it's replacing:  and artistic style can be likened to prose style.  In that metaphor, Tezuka's art in Buddha is the visual equivalent of:  a story in short words! aimed at a boy with a fifth-grade reading level!  with lots of exclamation points!  There's a lot you can do with that! kind of writing! sure! but it still has! lots! of! exclamation points!

Whereas Kusaka's art is the visual equivalent of adult prose, aimed at adults.  Certainly not the most eloquent prose, but at least it only has a few! exclamation points.

I feel like such a heretic now.

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