NYAFF/JAPAN CUTS 2011: OSAMU TEZUKA'S BUDDHA: THE GREAT DEPARTURE Review

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
The first part in a projected trilogy based on Osamu Tezuka's 8 volume manga, Toei Animation's Buddha: The Great Departure chronicles the early life of Prince Siddhartha in bombastic fashion, constructing an epic on a scale intended to rival old-school Disney, Studio Ghibli and many a live-action fantasy.

For what it's worth this should be considered more of a cinephile's review. I am a novice reader of manga, nearly ignorant of the culture behind the art form. I have read only a handful of manga series, though most of those have been works by Tezuka, namely his Adolf and Phoenix books (which are two of my favorite stories in any medium). I have only read the first few volumes of Buddha, which is what this film adapts from. My knowledge of anime doesn't stretch far beyond Miyazaki and Takahata pictures, and random episodes of Cowboy Bebop. If you'd like the opinion of an anime/manga expert, then look no further than Scott Green and his informative take on the film over at Ain't It Cool News.

The film's plot, like the manga's, concerns itself more with slave-turned-great-warrior, Chapra than it does with Prince Siddhartha. Chapra's story is one of revenge and the lust for power. A good third of the film plays out on the battlefield as the Kosalan army invades rival kingdoms across ancient India, including Shakya, the birthplace of Siddhartha.

While grandiose in scope with an eye geared towards a young adult audience, the film retains none of the majesty or intimacy found on a Tezuka page. I know, I realize I'm nearly contradicting myself from the previous paragraph, but it is clear that as an adaptation the film only takes the plot, glossing over themes, and all together shedding aside the spirit of the book. This makes it a powerhouse production with little to no heart, further lacking in an understanding of the humanism needed in a tale such as this. Siddhartha's melancholic lessons and sorrowful encounters with the dead and dying lower castes, his tragic love affair with the bandit girl Migaila, and his meeting with Chapra on the front lines all feel hollow, making the moment of "great departure" nothing more than yet another scene that tries way too damn hard at emphasizing the greatness and importance of this character's journey.   

The film comes in with the loftiest of ideas, makes a big fuss, and embarrasses itself by wanting to play with the big boys rather than focusing on doing its own thing well. This adds up to much ado about nothing, which when adapting an Osamu Tezuka story, not to mention that of the Gautama Buddha, is highly unfortunate. Only the very curious fans need apply. As for everyone else, I use the age old adage: 'read the book instead.'

Osamu Tezkua's Buddha: The Great Departure has it's North American premiers as part of NYAFF on Thursday, July 7th. As part of Japan Society's Japan Cuts: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema it plays on July 10th. More info and tickets at NYAFF's website.

 
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