Tag Archives: China

The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography

The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography is an educational manga by Tetsu Saiwai being published by Penguin Paperbacks, available in stores Sept. 28th. While it covers what you’d expect from a biography, it doesn’t give readers a montage of important events throughtout the long, eventful life the current Dalai Lama has lived so far using a distant third-party voice. Instead, it focuses what made Tenzin Gyatso a world-renown leader in the first place, China’s invasion of Tibet, using the Dalai Lama himself as a narrator. The manga starts with the death of the 13th Dalai Lama and proceeds quickly through finding Tenzin as a boy, his childhood and his quick rise to power in the face of adversity. Then it gets down to the nitty gritty of what went down with the Chinese  government, the Dalai Lama’s exile from the government and wraps up with a quick look on how he’s tried to run a nation from outside its borders.

First of all, I was really excited to read this manga. I love learning about history and I think Asian history is some of the most fascinating stuff out there that we rarely get to study in school. Clearly, I am the right audience for this manga, just to let you know because it affects my opinion a little.

But regardless of that, I feel like the approach that Saiwai took with this manga is interesting. A lot of biographies in illustrated form that I’ve seen tend to gloss over the details in favor of packing an entire life in a certain amount of pages. Reading history via a highlight reel is a bit boring to me and I can imagine it’s worse for people less interested in history. Instead, Saiwai uses the Dalai Lama’s voice and thoughts to narrate his biography. The focus is placed not on dozens of separate events, but what was probably the most dramatic period of the Dalai Lama’s life,  turning this into a story, not history. There’s war, drama, betrayal, torture and tears to prove it.

Things do go a little quickly at times, but Saiwai really only rushes through Gyatso’s childhood, pausing to show us how he was found to be the 14th Dalai Lama, and what he does after his exile in India.  But do we really need to see page after page of the young spiritual leader learning the intricacies of Buddhism? I really don’t think so. While I would have liked to see a bit more of what the Dalai Lama did after his exile, that might get a bit complicated and boring at times too and would up the page count significantly. So we are treated to a semi-happy ending, showing the prosperity and freedom from persecution of the Tibetan people in India instead. I should mention that the Tibetan people play a considerable role as a group character that affects the Dalai Lama’s decision making, which I found appropriate to include. It certainly makes the decisions made throughout the book a lot easier to understand and history is made just as much by the people as it is by the world’s leaders.

The reader hopefully comes away with a better idea of what happened (although admittedly, it is quite one-sided) and why it was wrong. I am still quite fond of the way Saiwai has written this educational manga and it is noted that Saiwai worked together with the Dalai Lama’s liason office for Japan/ East Asia in order to create the 1st person tone of this manga on top of using numerous films, speeches and source material about and from the Dalai Lama. The result is quite good. It doesn’t sound like PR schlock, which I’m sure the liason’s office might have wanted to force unto Saiwai, or any sort of Buddhist evangelism. Saiwai specializes in educational manga on human rights issues and reading The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography made me want to look at the other issues he has covered via manga. I imagine that is the best sort of reaction an educational/historical manga could hope for.

The art is pretty functional. It doesn’t really fit neatly into any one genre’s typical style, so it feels easy to read, which is a good fit for a biographical manga. My one big complaint is that everyone has bug eyes. While this may just be a style quirk, it hinders being able to see the characters emotions. More than once, a character would cry and it would take me a second to realize what they were doing exactly. It also made some characters a bit hard to distinguish because there were very few other features to set them apart from one another. In the end, the art’s nothing to get excited about, but it’s certainly not bad. I rather liked the way Saiwai drew the detailed embroidery on Tibetan clothing. It certainly isn’t super-intricate Kaoru Mori style, but it’s cute and gets the idea of embroidery across. The art does seem a little bit old-fashioned, which might turn off some readers, who prefer super-slick styles, but anyone who loves an old Tezuka manga won’t be turned off.

In conclusion, I’d say this manga is worth buying for anyone who loves history, Buddhism, Asian politics or is just plain interested in what happened, but doesn’t want to read a long string of Wikipedia pages. This manga will give you what happened to the Dalai Lama a nice linear fashion from his own perspective. By historical research standards, yes, it is one-sided, but this could be easily solved by a bit of  side research by the reader if they care to see it. By biography standards, the one-sidedness is fine.

While I was writing this review, Jason Thompson tweeted about a Buddhist commenter on another blog (he didn’t share the link, so sorry for not providing it), that said this biography was a Chinese government plot to discredit Buddhism. I want to let you readers know that this is false. The entire book is about the single most important Buddhist leader in the whole entire world, and while the focus isn’t on Buddhism itself, the manga clearly shows why this man is considered the reincarnation of Buddha himself. If discrediting Buddhism was the intent of the manga, it sure failed spectacularly at that! (And it doesn’t make the Chinese government look that great either.) Later tweets from Jason suggested that the commenter may just dislike comics or something. Oh well!

Review copy provided by the publisher.


Filed under manga, reviews

Manga as a worldwide phenomenon + Hiatus

Hi everyone, blogging from Bogota, Columbia right now. We just got here a few hours ago, but it´s fairly late at night and everything´s closed.

I know everyone´s first reaction is going to be: WHY ARE YOU IN COLUMBIA?! You´re going to get yourself killed! Actually, a lot of the nasty drug business moved up to Mexico recently so Columbia is relatively safe. Also, my mother is a tour operator and I´ve been traveling with her since I was 2 years-old. We´re here for business the first few days and then a group of clients will be meeting us.

Enough about Columbia and why I´m here. I want to talk about manga as a truly worldwide phenomenon. I haven´t been to every single country and I know for a fact that a lot of countries probably don´t have anything close to a comic book publishing industry, let alone a manga publishing industry. Some countries just leach off the industries in more prosperous neighboring countries. BUT I have been to a lot of places and found manga in some of the most random ones.

Unsurprisingly, China has manhua, but they also publish manga from Japan. I´ve got quite a number of magazines and tankoubon in Chinese. I´ve also got a few from Taiwan that my mother picked up for me. She actually had a comic book store employee help her pick out age appropriate manga for me, so I got a lot josei titles!!

Probably a lesser known fact is that Argentina has a thriving manga and anime culture. I found manga like Card Captor Sakura and Fushigi Yuugi sold at newsstands. I visited about 7 years ago, a few years after they´d had a very bad economic depression. The country as a whole was starting to recover and otaku culture was taking off, but neighboring Uruguay was utterly desolate. So desolate that horse-carts were being driven around in the capital city of Montevideo. But we stumbled into a mall and I found a comic book shop that had some copies of D.N. Angel as well as a few other manga! It was such a strange contrast.

When I lived in Cuba for a summer when I was 14, I went to an arts market and found some comic books on the subject of Cuban hero Jose Martin. A local noticed my interest in comic books and stopped me outside the market, even though it was probably slightly dangerous for him to interact with two Americans. It turned out he LOVED manga. He showed me some pages he´d drawn in a very 80´s cyberpunk style and I gave him a couple of copies of Angel Sanctuary in Japanese. I´m sure he still has those manga because I´m sure Cuba still has a bunch of restrictions on what gets published in Cuba. I was super happy to give them to him and he was positively estatic to get them.

When you think about it, it´s truly amazing. Manga really is worldwide.

Unfortunately, it´s time for me to put this blog back on another hiatus. I`ll make a report if I find any manga here, but we´ll be pretty busy once the group gets here.

I´m really sorry guys! I miss blogging, this is just a busy time for me! See you soon! Hopefully


Filed under manga