Review- Gandhi: A Manga Biography

Gandhi: A Manga Biography by Kazuki Ebine is exactly what its title claims it to be: a biography about the life, struggles and death of the famous nonviolent leader, Mahatma Gandhi. This particular manga is published by Penguin Books and will be available on 9-27-11.

Gandhi started his life out as a shy boy who had trouble speaking in public. He eventually studied law in England and returned to India, only to travel to South Africa for work. While there, he experienced a great deal of discrimination against Indians who had immigrated to the region. This inspired him to fight back in order to give Indians equal rights as citizens, but surprised everyone by doing so with nonviolence and attempting to prove his point by appealing to the inherent compassion of all human beings. This began a string of successful battles between Gandhi and the colonial governments in South Africa and India, eventually leading to India’s autonomy and the creation of Pakistan.  Sometimes Gandhi had to take to extremes, such as being willingly imprisoned or going on long hunger strikes, to achieve his goals, but he somehow always managed to achieve them. Unfortunately, Gandhi was assassinated in 1948.

I have to commend Penguin Books for putting out educational manga, especially since manga gets a bad rap sometimes, but there are a number of problems with this biography of Gandhi that makes me wonder why it was chose for publication. First and foremost, it reads a lot like a “Disney version” of Gandhi’s life, devoted mostly to his biggest struggles that ended in success. The Disney version of things just doesn’t make for a very well-written biography.  It’s not that the biographer must present every moment of Gandhi’s life, but just that it’s important to string together a compelling story from both significant and insignificant parts.

I, for one, would have loved to see Gandhi and his wife Katsurba fall in love. Instead she’s very much a side character and is only made out to be important to Gandhi when she dies, after which we see a powerful image of Gandhi sobbing. The problem is the reader has no emotional connections to Katsurba, which makes Gandhi’s grief much less poignant. It’s the equivalent of going to the funeral of some relative you’ve only met once as a child; you feel sorry that they died, but your life will continue on normally after the funeral is done. Likewise, we never see the motivations of the British Raj or the Dutch Boers. (By the way, the manga doesn’t mention the Boers at all. There’s no way of telling them apart from the British. Isn’t this supposed to be an educational manga? We don’t even find out the reasons why Gandhi was assassinated or who attacked him.) In the end, it just goes to prove to me that a highlight reel is the most boring way to present history. I strongly believe that history is at its best when you get to see all the craziness that went on between all those big defining moments.

I also had a huge problem with the transitions, which were awkward at best. It is not unusual for a biography to cut out large swathes of time in order to fit in the entire life of a person, but the best transitions either allow the passage of time to be given reason (“I’m taking my movement to India to stop discrimination!”) or just connect the dots of a long struggle (“Our rights have been trampled on again, we must resume our fight!”) First we’re treated to a scene of victory as Gandhi wins a battle of the wills in South Africa, then suddenly Gandhi’s returned to India to continue to peaceful resistance. Just as suddenly, he’s a major player in the fight for Indian autonomy. But why? The only conclusion the reader can draw is that Gandhi is Indian, therefore he returned home to India. Unfortunately this undermines Gandhi as a character with motivation and a world leader. You can’t really make the main character of a story do something so pivotal just because, the audience needs to know why he’s doing these things. For these reasons, the second half of the book feels extremely rushed.

The quality of the art also grated me quite a bit. Technically speaking, the style and anatomy are just fine. It’s clearly digital art, which explains a lot about the relatively un-impressive paneling and compositions, as well as the poor reproduction in print. I feel like Ebine tried too hard to draw people who looked Indian and compromised personal style in the process. Everyone has huge noses that usually don’t fit their faces, especially the drawings of young Gandhi. It just seems like a bad way of depicting ethnic facial features, as is the tone used to imply the darker color of Indian skin. It feels roughly like the equivalent of drawing every East Asian person with slanty eyes, not every Indian has a big nose or the exact same color skin, I’m sure. No, not everyone looks the same in the manga, but no difference is made between Gandhi and some random Indian dude in terms of nose shape and skin tone.

And finally, I would like to point out that the editing job on this manga was poor and full of obvious mistakes. I’m not certain if the manga I was given was a galley or not, but since the publicist who sent me the manga has not indicated anywhere that this was not the final version of the manga, I’m going to assume that it is the final version. In which case, who is Penguin Books hiring as editors for this stuff? Whomever they are, they either need to take another look at their manga before it goes to print or they need to brush up on their skills.

Gandhi: A Manga Biography is not really worth picking up if you’re just a regular fan. It will probably teach you more about the great pacifist leader, but it won’t do it without boring you.  If you’re a teacher or a library, it *might* be good for elementary school kids, but I suggest you expand upon the content so that students get a better picture than what’s given here. I would encourage teachers to include more lessons on Gandhi and the effect European colonization had on Africa and Asia, since it is an area of history that is largely ignored in American’s Western Civ-focused history lessons, but this isn’t the best way to do it.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

About Daniella Orihuela-Gruber

Daniella is a freelance manga editor and blogger. She likes collecting out of print manga and playing with her puppy. Yes, someone got her a puppy already.
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