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.

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5 Responses to The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography

  1. I just put my review up, too. For me, the one thing I wanted that wasn’t there was a more in depth look at his childhood; I really wanted to see more of how he felt being separated from his family and other children. But, I guess that really wasn’t the point ^^;

    I also liked reading it because I knew pretty much nothing about Tibet.

    • Oh the coincidence! I personally thought his childhood would have been a little boring, but from what I could tell he wasn’t separated from his family or other children that much. It seemed like his family could visit and he took lessons with other children studying to be monks. Plus it was clear Saiwai wanted to focus on the human rights issues involved.

      Plus I think it would have ruined the mood of the main focus to paint this tragic (and possibly untrue) picture of a kid totally shut off from the world because of his status.

  2. I was particularly thinking of the point where he’s sad because he misses his mom, or just before that when he’s sitting on the throne and asking where is mother and father are. But you’re right, there may not have been enough that happened then to lend to an interesting story.

    I think while reading I kept forgetting that this is a biography, and kept wanting more “characterization.”

    • Oops, hit the wrong reply button ^^;;;

    • No worries about hitting the wrong button. (I can still see it!)

      I remember that scene, but at the same time, it really does look like he got to see someone from his family on a regular basis. I imagine his childhood probably consisted of a lot of studying, which wouldn’t have made for the best manga, characterization or not. (Plus, I felt like the way he handled the problems with China later on was a better avenue for showing us what kind of man he is. I didn’t find myself wanting for more characterization.)

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