Anime On the Big Screen: “Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha: The Great Departure”

buddhaVenue: Arc Cinema, National Film and Sound Archive, McCoy Circuit, Acton ACT
Date: Saturday 3 March 2012
Distributor: Toei Pictures/Warner Bros Japan (presented by the Embassy of Japan and the Japan Foundation)
Format: 35mm print, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 111 minutes
Production Date: 2011
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

I really didn’t expect Arc to screen any more anime (well anything that hadn’t already had a video release here) for another six months or more. The last anime film they played was the somewhat obscure “Colorful” back in September last year. So I was surprised to find this film mentioned in the paper on Thursday morning and decided to ring up and book a ticket. Good thing I did, as the next day the Arc website stated that the screening had been completely booked out. For whatever reason anime always seems to be big in Canberra. I’m not exactly sure why that is. Admittedly I was scratching my head that this film in particular had sold out. Surely there can’t be that many people who knew of Tezuka, nor read the Buddha manga, or even knew of the existence of this film. The film had only come onto my radar in the week prior due to a review on ANN. Perhaps the popularity can be attributed to the fact this was a free screening?

By the day of the screening, Canberra was absolutely drenched by several days of heavy rain. We’d already equalled had our average rainfall for March on the very first day of the month. I had already taken a trip out to Belconnen to run some errands and had stupidly decided to try and find a copy of “Usagi Drop” in the mall as Belconnen’s JB HiFi had none in stock. Of course it was a wasted trip and I left empty handed and had my sneakers soaking wet as the skies continued to bucket down. I was going to have to sit in the cinema for two and a bit hours with wet feet. I got there a bit early expecting a ton of people and got my ticket. I decided to have a look around the National Film and Sound Archive because I’d never really done that before properly, even when I was working there. There’s not much to the archive really. You could do it over in about half an hour. I went into the gallery which sort of gives a dummies view of the work they do at the archive. There were this couple walking around looking at the exhibits, occasionally strumming their ukuleles. Don’t know what the story was there, and I didn’t want to ask. Anyway the doors to the Arc cinema finally opened.

The audience did have a couple of otaku types (maybe Canberra otaku play ukuleles now?), but surprisingly a fair wack of the audience was made up of parents and their prepubescent children. This was a bit concerning. While the film was unclassified, the Archive stated that children under 15 had to be accompanied by their parents. Yes, more on that later… The rest of the audience was a mix of adults, naturally a mix of Asian people, some Chinese I think, not just Japanese (I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of the patrons were Buddhists), and a row of people from the Japanese embassy. As per all screenings in the cinema, the director of programming got up and said a few words on the film, all the while continually mispronouncing the word anime (as well as using the redundant term “Japanese anime”) and Osamu Tezuka. He also made the claim that this film was the biggest anime release of 2011 in Japan, ignoring the fact it only made a bit over $5 million, while the “K-On!” movie made over $21 million at the box office. The assistant ambassador also said a few words, nothing of note however. He was a little hard to understand at times, but I’m not gonna fault him for that.

Before the main feature, the audience had to endure “Pictures From An Exhibition”, a 40 minute experimental Tezuka film from 1966. The main feature was already more than 100 minutes long, so why, oh why do we have to sit through this? It’s not a bad film per se, but it’s already had a video release here (via Madman’s Experimental Tezuka compilation disc) for a couple of years now. Couldn’t they have just shown “Jumping” instead which only runs for a few minutes? By half way, the kids where becoming restless. One can only wonder what the parents thought of the nipples in the short. At least most adults got a laugh or two out the film.

Then it was time for the main feature. I’ll just point out now that this film is the first in a trilogy and as I understand it only covers the first two graphic novels of the 14 volume Buddha manga. I know of the manga but have never actually read it. It is Tezuka’s own interpretation of the story of life of Gautama Buddha who founded Buddhism. Very first sequence shows a monk traveling though a blizzard. He is cold and very hungry. The animals kindly offer him food they have caught. A rabbit, not being able to provide the monk with food, sacrifices himself by throwing himself into the fire to provide the monk with a meal. Now, remember the amount of children mostly under 10 brought to this screening by their parents? It gets a lot worse, there are a numerous battle sequences, a child is whipped with a close up of the damage to the skin on his back, people are executed and speared, there’s a ton of animal deaths in the film etc. There was a mother who brought a young child (about 8 or 9 years old) sitting the row in front of me. A scene appeared on screen where a poverty stricken couple crudely cremate their still born child and the mother the audience tried to cover her child’s eyes. I’m unsure what these parents thought they were bringing their children to.

Back to the film… So after the rabbit roasting sequence, we begin the story proper. The story, set in ancient India, first focuses on a young low caste boy named Chapra. Born as a slave, on this particular day he finds himself transport cloth to his master when it is stolen by a group of street urchins around his age. He tries to reason with his master but he beats him and demands he retrieves the goods. If he does the master will sell off his mother. Chapra soon finds the thief, a young boy his age named Tatta. Chapra begs him to return the stolen goods explaining that if he doesn’t, he’ll never see his mother again. Tatta takes pity on him and hatches a plan to free his mother. He is able will his spirit into the bodies of animals to control them. Using a tiger, he attacks Chapra’s master on the way to the market to sell his mother. While mother and son are now free, Tatta’s troubles have just begun. An invading army wipes out Tatta’s village killing his family. Chapra attempts to repay Tatta for his kindness by helping him kill the army’s general, but has second thoughts and saves him. Naturally the general is grateful (he is unaware that Chapra was part of the attempt to kill him) and decides to take him under his wing as an adopted son and train him as a soldier. In doing so, Chapra hopes to leave his low caste life behind and rise through the ranks of the army. At the same time Siddhartha Gautama, a prince of the country of Shakya tribe is born. While rather gentle in nature, his father appoints a rather cruel solder, Bandaka, to train him at age 10. Some years later both Chapra meet on the battlefield on opposing sides. Siddhartha is horrified at the carnage on the battlefield as well as the poverty in his kingdom.

Now unfortunately there are a lot of problems with this film. First there’s the drastic character design changes from the manga. Sure, I really don’t mind when studios update designs of old manga, but most here they barely resemble Tezuka’s originals. And unlike Tezuka’s manga, there’s not a great deal of humour either. With the violence, almost continual animal deaths at one point and poverty, it makes for pretty bleak viewing. Also rather disappointing was the animation, which seemed to be of TV anime quality, and sometimes of low TV anime quality. I also found the fact that two stories were being told simultaneously, yet they only intersect a couple of times during the film and they don’t really tie together well. I am rather unfamiliar with both the manga and much of the history of Buddhism, so I felt the first half of the film a bit of a hard slog, but warmed to it a bit during the second half as it became a bit more dramatic (especially Chapra’s story). And I suppose the battle scenes helped a bit to.

The film ends with Prince Siddhartha giving up his privileged life for a simpler one due to the horror he has witnessed and the indifference people have to suffering of the poor. And now we wait for parts two and three. At the end of the film I thought “well at least it’s not as violent of Fist of the North Star”, because it is terribly violent. Perhaps I felt a bit uncomfortable that there were so many parents covering their children’s faces when any of the frequent horror would appear on screen. Bizarrely a lot of people clapped at the end of the film. I think the Embassy staff started the clapping and others followed. Certainly I didn’t clap because it was a mediocre film and none of the creators or anyone connected with the film was in attendance. Seriously why applaud a film in a cinema? It’s like clapping at the end of a CD or a DVD at home. Pointless. This time around the embassy didn’t bring much touristy pamphlets like they brought to “Colorful”. Seeing as Japan’s tourism has taken a big hit, you’d think they’d do a bit more. It was nearing 7pm when I left and it was still pissing down outside. It was an OK film, but I’m not really sure it was worth getting drenched just to watch it for free. I can only give it 6 out of 10.

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