I had the opportunity to see the Buddha animated movie recently, thanks to the New York Asian Film Festival. Based off of a manga by that one-and-only god of comics, Tezuka Osamu, it is meant to be the first part of a trilogy. I have no prior experience with the Buddha manga, so my reflection on it is not influenced by a comparison to the source material.
Following the life of Prince Siddhartha from birth to adulthood, the Buddha movie tells us about the life of Buddha. And by that, I mean it really tells us. Repeatedly, over the head, with a hammer gripped by two ham fists. Scenes which actually start out with some subtlety soon after get bludgeoned by the desire to make every message as clear as possible, whether it’s through excessive narration (literally telling and not showing), dwelling too long on certain details, or having an extremely overwrought musical accompaniment. I found myself at times getting into the movie, feeling for the characters in their lowest hour, and then in comes the music which really, really wants you to know that this is a sad moment. This turned out to be a recurring theme throughout the viewing.
To Buddha‘s credit, this meant that the film was continuously successful in pulling me in, but to its discredit the film would also drag me right back out almost without fail. In a way, the movie is its own worst enemy, and it is very clear that this film is meant to appeal to a wider, more mainstream audience, a summer popcorn flick that can’t seem to get its act together entirely. Siddhartha himself makes for a somewhat lackluster main character, not necessarily because he’s a religious figure and portrayed in the film almost without flaw, but because his “development” just feels like events plucked out of his life, all of which tell the same story. As a young boy, Siddhartha was naturally predisposed to disliking the death and suffering of others. A traumatic event causes him to dislike them even more. As a teenager, Siddhartha still is against death and suffering. Another traumatic event occurs to reinforce those feelings. As an adult, once again, death and suffering bad, here’s another thing to show that Siddhartha continues to be really against those facets of the human condition. His character never really develops, it just becomes much more of the same. This isn’t entirely bad, as I doubt any film like this would show Siddhartha’s “rebellious middle finger to the MAN stage” (and disliking war and violence and the Hindu caste system is technically sticking it to the man in this instance), but if this is just how it happens, then the film could have just been structured around that better.
There are other characters in the film as well, but their strengths and weaknesses are almost the same as Siddhartha’s, except for perhaps one twist in the character of a young peasant named Chapra, who tries to go against the caste system as well, in his own way.
Overall, I think Buddha was just okay, and that’s only because the good narrowly outweighs the bad, of which there is a lot. Again, the film is successful in becoming engrossing, but it continually undermines itself. What would have been much more powerful or poignant are cut off at the knees for the sake of removing ambiguity. Should the next sequel ever get made, I sincerely hope they realize that they have something, albeit mired in so much mud.