Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: June 2014 Blog List

Greetings to all!  I hope you'll join us for the next installment of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, an online gathering of bloggers who love books.  The next meeting is set for Friday, June 27th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

The idea is simple: on the last Friday of each month, post about the best book you've finished over the past month while visiting other bloggers doing the same.  In this way, we'll all have the opportunity to share our thoughts with other enthusiastic readers.  Please join us:

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: May 2014

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the tomes they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance
Author: David Epstein
via Barnes & Noble
Have you ever wondered how Jamaica, a nation of under 3 million people, has come to dominate world sprint competition?  Or how particular tribes in both Kenya and Ethiopia have done the same in distance running?  Or whether or not you should pick a sport for your child based on DNA analysis? If so, The Sports Gene is the book for you.  As advertised, Epstein's book is an exploration of various studies on the biological and environmental factors which contribute to athletic performance.  Genome mapping has allowed deeper examination but mysteries still abound.

In my exploration of sports books, I'm always on the lookout for those that would be enjoyable for non-fans.  I think it's a reasonable measure for books in any genre but more importantly for me personally, such a book is one I can safely recommend to my wife.  My dear bride is a voracious reader with a life list to put all of us to shame.  However, to say she is not a sports fan is comparable to saying a duck is not a water balloon.  But I still make modest efforts to convert her from time to time.  Giving her the right book to read is as strong a tactic as any.  The Sports Gene is a good candidate.

For starters, the book is very well-written.  David Epstein follows in the grand tradition of gifted Sports Illustrated staff writers.  Also, I think the anecdotal style and the attention to broader topics beyond sports are selling points for the general-interest reader.

Make no mistake, there's plenty to love for sports fans, too.  The book opens with a story about Hall of Fame-caliber baseball players being completely flummoxed by Jennie Finch, the world's best softball pitcher.  Turns out, despite all their physical gifts (average eyesight for Major League hitters is 20/11 in the right eye, 20/12 in the left), batters rely heavily on a highly refined mental database for recognizing pitches even before the ball leaves the hurler's hand.  The same goes for tennis players reading an opponent's serve and chess grandmasters processing positions on the board.  Take away that database, as in the case of facing an ace softball pitcher, and all of the expert hitter's advantages fly out the window.  The book is filled with peak-behind-the-curtain revelations such as this.

I spoil nothing by sharing the book's conclusion as Epstein lays it out plainly in the book's introduction.  Athletic success is dependent upon the combination of both nature and nurture.  All the talent in the world will only take you so far if you don't put in the work.  Similarly, a stellar work ethic, while admirable, is rarely enough to reach the top of the medal podium without the help of a genetic advantage or two. 

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post June's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is June 27th.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Guy Delisle

Title: Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China
Writer and Artist: Guy Delisle
via Drawn & Quarterly
Not all international travel is glamorous.  That's not to say it's not interesting anyway.  One can learn plenty from the painfully mundane.

Guy Delisle is a Quebecois graphic novelist best known for his travel narratives.  I have featured his work for the Cephalopod Coffeehouse twice before: here and here.   In late 1997, he was sent to Shenzhen, China to serve as liaison between a Belgian animation company and their layout artists in China.  His tales lack the exoticism of Burma Chronicles.  The city, essentially a mainland satellite of Hong Kong, seems to offer very little charm.  Few he meet are English/Chinese bilingual.  No one speaks his native French.  His experience consists of work and his valiant attempts at building a routine life.  Sounds pretty dull, right?

And yet, there's much to glean from Delisle's adventure.  The Chinese he meets and works with lead the same sort of humdrum lives and unlike him, they're stuck.  They are curious about the outside world but have little access to it.  His tales of struggling to communicate and derive what joy he can from life are highly amusing.  We share in his relief when his three-month stint is over.  I don't think this is the book that would have drawn me into his work but I'm glad to have read it.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Star Trek: The Deadly Years

Episode: "The Deadly Years"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 12
Original Air Date: December 8, 1967

A stop at Gamma Hydra IV proves disastrous for the Enterprise crew.  Intending to resupply a research station on the planet, our heroes find all of the scientists to be rapidly aging and dying.  Upon returning to the ship, most of the landing party begin aging faster as well, apparently due to radiation exposure while on the planet.  The balance of the episode is devoted to reversing the effects and also questioning whether Kirk, Bones and Spock are still fit for duty when compromised mentally by the aging process.

Just for fun, let's compare the artificial aging in the episode to William Shatner's own natural course since.

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia
Overall, I'd say the years have been kinder to ol' Bill than the makeup staff was.

via Memory Alpha
Judging Kirk unfit for duty, Commodore Stocker - hitching a ride with the Enterprise to his new post - assumes command of the ship.  Stocker is played by Charles Drake, born Charles Ruppert on October 2, 1917 in New York City.  After graduating from Nicholls College he became a salesman.  But Hollywood beckoned and Drake signed a contract in 1939 with Warner Brothers.
via Aveleyman
Among 144 screen credits, Drake played Dr. Sanderson, the young psychiatrist in one of our family's favorite movies: 1950's Harvey.  Drake died September 10, 1994 at the age of 76.  His ashes were scattered in the Atlantic Ocean.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Twin Spica

Title: Twin Spica, Volume 1
Writer and Artist: Kou Yaginuma
via Wikipedia
Asumi is a high school student with dreams of space exploration.  She is accepted to space school in Tokyo - a Hogwarts for astronauts? - but first must convince her father to let her go.  So begins the scifi/supernatural adventure Twin Spica, a Japanese manga first published in 2002, now available in translation. The story is set in a not-too-distant future in which Japan has already attempted to launch its own manned rocket - an attempt that ended disastrously.

For her first test upon arriving at the school, Asumi is locked into a barren dorm room with two other girls for several days, tasked with building an enormous domino run.  If they give up, they're out of the program.  It is also apparent that they are being observed via video camera, presumably to assess their interactions.  Of course, one of the girls is easy to get along with, the other not so much.

With the female protagonist and the fantasy elements, this is an obvious choice to pass on to my ten-year-old daughter at some point but I think I'll wait a little while.  The language is occasionally on the mature side.   It's classified by the publishers as seinen, meaning it's aimed at younger men, approximately 17-40.  I think Our Girl will be okay with it long before she's 17, though.

Volume 1 includes the first four issues of the manga series plus two prequel stories.  In Japan, the story has spawned two television series: one animated, one live-action.  There are 12 English-language volumes in all.  With strong characters and compelling storytelling, this one's looking like a long-term winner for me.

Monday, May 26, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Barefoot Gen

Title: Barefoot Gen, Volume 1: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima
Writer and Artist: Keiji Nakazawa
via Atomic Books
If ever there were a single day that changed the world, it was most certainly August 6, 1945.  On that horrific Monday morning, an atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima, Japan, killing thousands, leveling the city and raising the stakes of warfare forever.  Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen series, first published in Japanese in the early '70s, is the semi-autobiographical account of the author's childhood experiences before, during and after the bombing.  It is a powerful work of high stature among the world's serious subject comic books.

Volume 1 begins in April 1945 and ends on the day of the bomb.  The hardships of the average Japanese family during the late stages of the war are laid plain.  Gen, a young boy and fictional stand-in for the author, and his family live under constant air raid threat while struggling to even feed themselves.  One older brother is evacuated to the countryside.  Another enlists in pilot training and learns the horrors of kamikaze pilots.  To complicate matters further, Gen's father is openly critical of Japan's involvement in the war, a position that inspires vicious hostility from the neighbors. 

Rambunctious little boys in manga often seem to bounce and Gen and his brother Shinji come off as a bit clownish at times.  The father's occasional violent outbursts are off-putting.  But overall, the reader develops great affection for Gen's family in plenty of time for the crushing blow we all know is coming.  We are not spared the graphic details when the bomb hits - skin melting off the victims, bodies covered with shards of shattered glass, etc.

I never made it to Hiroshima during my time in Japan, though I did go to Nagasaki, target of the second A-bomb on August 9th.  Visiting the bomb museum was a haunting experience I'll carry with me always.  Fortunately, both cities thrive in modern Japan and have been at the forefront of world peace and nuclear antiproliferation movements for decades - always aware of the horrifying past, but also determined to help make sure it never happens again.  First person accounts such as Nakazawa's have long been an important aspect of these efforts.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Family Movie Night: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

Title: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec
Director: Luc Besson
Original Release: 2010
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Okay, imagine combining Tintin with Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park.  Throw in a beautiful, take-no-prisoners female lead.  Set it all in a steampunky pre-Great War Paris and you've pretty much got The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec.  Based on the comic book series of the same name by Jacque Tardi, Besson's film introduces Adèle, a fearless reporter/adventurer.  Adèle travels to Egypt in order to exhume and resurrect Pharoah Ramesses II's personal physician so that he, in turn, can cure her comatose sister, out of commission for five years since a gruesome hatpin accident during a tennis match.  Meanwhile, a live pterodactyl hatches out of a 136 million-year-old egg at a paleontology museum in Paris.  Yes, the two stories are related.  Crazy, crazy movie...

I'd explain more of the plot but that would ruin the fun for anyone who decides to watch.  Suffice to say, the narrative is absurd without apology.  The film is well cast with quirky character-actor types.  The visuals - mostly live action but with CGI for the movie's supernatural and prehistoric elements - are dazzling.  Louise Bourgoin is infinitely charming in the lead.  This is really a very solid picture, but only a 3 for me.  I don't feel a strong need to watch it again, though I have a feeling it will come up again in our rotation.

Roland Garros 2014: My Picks to Win

via Live Tennis Guide
For nearly a decade, the great Spaniard Rafael Nadal has dominated Roland Garros.  In fact, dominance seems an inadequate word.  Nadal has played in the tournament nine times and has only lost one match, a quarterfinal tumble with Robin Soderling (Sweden) in 2009.  It's an absurd accomplishment.  No other man has won any Major eight times.  However the overall Greatest of All Time discussion shakes out, pretending anyone other than Nadal is the best ever on clay courts gets increasingly ridiculous with each passing year.  Picking someone else to win this year's tournament would seem crazy.

And yet, the Clay King and current World #1 suddenly seems vulnerable.  Nadal usually steamrolls his way through the appetizer tournaments on the clay court swing but ONLY managed two titles this year: Rio de Janeiro and Madrid.  He failed to take home the big prizes in Monte Carlo, Barcelona or Rome - tournaments he has won at least seven times each.  He hadn't lost in Barcelona since 2003.  A recent interview with Time magazine hints at flagging confidence.  Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic (Serbia) is breathing down his neck for the top ranking and is surely motivated to win in Paris to complete his own Career Slam.  Moveover, the Djoker has won their past four head-to-head meetings, including the recent Rome final on clay.  If ever there were a year to pick against Nadal at the French, this would seem to be it.

But I can't do it.  One day, the King's reign will end - just not quite yet.

The story is different on the women's side.  American Serena Williams arrives in top form - very bad news for the rest of the field.  Few players in the world can even give Serena a decent match when she's at her best and her recent title in Rome indicates she's more than ready to defend her title.  Her biggest threat may well loom in the quarterfinals: Maria Sharapova (Russia).  With wins in Stuttgart and Madrid, Sharapova is the second hottest player coming into the tournament.  Whichever woman survives to the semis should run the table thereafter.  I'm going to go out on a limb and say Sharapova scores the upset and wins the big trophy.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Star Trek: Friday's Child

Episode: "Friday's Child"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 11
Original Air Date: December 1, 1967
via Memory Alpha
In "Friday's Child," the Enterprise and her crew travel to Capella IV to negotiate mining rights with the natives.  Two complications: the sneaky Klingons got their man there first and the Capellans are edgy over the murderous intrigue within their tribal society.  The chief is slain and our friends find themselves on the losing side of the struggle.  So far, pretty standard fare for Trek.

Enter Eleen, wife of the fallen leader and bearing his child and heir.  The society's traditions condemn her to death, to which she willingly submits.  Naturally, Kirk, Spock and Bones aren't going to stand for that so they convince her to escape.  She bonds with Doc in time for him to deliver the baby.

There are troubling aspects of the Eleen story.  For instance, she only comes to respect McCoy after he slaps her - to be fair, she slapped him first, twice, and he was trying to help her, big picture.   It is one of many elements of Trek that don't quite live up to our 2014 sensibilities.  But here's an interesting wrinkle: the screenwriter, D.C. Fontana, is a woman.  Dorothy Catherine Fontana wrote 10 Original Series episodes in total, as well as episodes later for The Animated Series, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.  Beyond Trek, her writing credits extend over several decades, frequently under male pseudonyms.

via Wikipedia
Julie Newmar (Eleen) was born Julia Chalene Newmeyer on August 16, 1933 in Los Angeles.  Her father had been a professional football player in the early NFL and her mother was a fashion designer.  She got into show biz initially as a dancer, appearing on stage in the Ziegfield Follies.  She won a Tony in 1959 for her perfomance in The Marriage-Go-Round.  Her biggest film role was as Dorcas in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
via Wikipedia
In geekdom, Newmar's guest appearance on Trek is trumped by her recurring role as Catwoman on the late '60s Batman series, 13 episodes in total.  Her costume from the show, which she modified herself to better exhibit her own figure, now belongs to the Smithsonian.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Family Movie Night: Laura

Title: Laura
Director: Otto Preminger
Original Release: 1944
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
This was my first time watching Laura, a classic film noir from the golden age of the genre.  It's got all the requirements: long shadows, silhouettes, a beautiful woman (Gene Tierney), a deadpan detective (Dana Andrews) and murder.  There's generally a plot twist, too, and Laura's is an unusual one, even by noir standards.  The story was adapted from Vera Caspary's novel of the same title.  Somewhat surprisingly for a movie of its reputation, Laura lacks a big name cast.  The most well-known actor is Vincent Price, though he would ultimately be better known for his career in B-movie horrors and, of course, his contribution to Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

Laura's strongest legacy may well be its title theme music - composed by David Raskin - which took on a life of its own as a jazz standard.  Lyrics were added later by Johnny Mercer.  A few renditions from the giants:

Charlie Parker -

Ella Fitzgerald -

Dave Brubeck -

Frank Sinatra -

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Star Trek: Journey to Babel

Episode: "Journey to Babel"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 10
Original Air Date: November 17, 1967
via Memory Alpha
On the one hand, "Journey to Babel" is a tale of diplomatic intrigue and murder.  On the other, it is the story of the conflicted relationship between Spock and his parents.  Vulcan Ambassador Sarek and his human wife Amanda - Spock's mom and dad - are brought aboard the Enterprise for transportation to a galactic peace conference.  Representatives of the Andorians and Tellarites are also along for the ride.  The Tellarite Ambassador is found murdered and Sarek is the prime suspect.  Meanwhile, Sarek has a heart attack and only surgery and a blood transfusion from Spock will save him.  Quite a lot going on here!

The murder mystery would be fun enough but the real strength of this episode and its long-term importance to the Trek franchise is the revelation of Spock's family dynamics.  We've known from the beginning that our pointy-eared hero struggles with the conflict between his human and Vulcan natures.  In the presence of his parents, the self-identity battlefield is laid plain.  Sarek does nothing to hide his disapproval of his son's abandoning Vulcan for a career in Starfleet.  Meanwhile, Amanda strives to mend the rift between the two.  In the episode's most poignant scene, she slaps Spock after failing to convince him to place the importance of his father's life over that of his duty to the ship.  We don't see Spock's face after the slap.  She leaves the room and he places his hand on the closed door behind her.  End of scene.

Mark Lenard, who played the Romulan Commander in "Balance of Terror", returns as Sarek.  Television veteran Jane Wyatt is Amanda.  The two have wonderful chemistry together and created the Vulcan sign of affection - the touching of two fingers - on their own.  It's a tough call, but I might say this is my favorite episode of the season so far and maybe even the entire series.

via Memory Alpha
Jane Wyatt was born August 12, 1910 in Mahwah, New Jersey.  After two years at Barnard College, she left to pursue acting.  She spent several years on Broadway before signing a contract with Universal Pictures.  She made her big-screen debut in 1934's One More River.  Her biggest screen role was opposite Ronald Colman in Lost Horizon.  Wyatt had a stellar TV resume long before her appearance on Star Trek.  She was the first three-time winner of the Emmy for Best Lead Actress in a Comedy for her role in Father Knows Best.  She reprised her role as Amanda for the film, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Wyatt was married to her husband Edgar Bethune Ward for 65 years.  She lived to the ripe old age of 96, dying of natural causes in 2006.  She was survived by two sons, three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Monday, May 12, 2014

A New Blogfest: Then and Now

The greatest films stand the test of time, speaking to us in different ways at various life stages.  Is there a movie that was a part of your life when you were younger that you see differently now?  Like fine wine, has it improved with age or did it die in the bottle?  Has maturity brought you new insights you missed in your youth?  We want to know all about it!

Join us for "Then and Now," a bloghop hosted by The Armchair Squid, Suze, Nicki Elson and Nancy Mock.  Tell us about a movie you loved when you were younger and have come to see differently over time - for better or for worse.  Please sign on to the list below, then post on Friday, June 13th.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Family Movie Night: Happy Feet

Title: Happy Feet
Directors: Judy Morris, Warren Coleman and George Miller
Original Release: 2006
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Happy Feet was the first film we ever took our daughter to see in a movie theater.  She was terrified - the darkness and the booming surround sound were way too much for her three-year-old sensitivities.  Plus, there are scary moments when predators like skua and leopard seals come awfully close to eating the protagonist.  It was quite a long time before we were able to entice her back to the cinema.

And yet, she swore up and down for years that Happy Feet was her favorite movie.   A recent interest in penguins has inspired a quest for movies with penguins.  In fact, just about anything to do with penguins grabs her attention.  When she learned this week that Pittsburgh's hockey team claims her favorite bird as a mascot, she was all set to throw her lot in with them.  She was quite upset to learn they are the arch-rivals of my own team (Washington Capitals).  This was actually our first time watching Happy Feet since that day in the theater nearly eight years ago.  Our Girl was not disappointed.

Mumbles, an emperor penguin chick, can't sing.  This is a disaster as, at least for the lore established in the story, members of his species must match "heart songs" in order to mate.  But he sure can dance - soft-shoe tap!  Unfortunately, that's not enough to impress the rest of the flock and even his own father is ashamed of him.  His one true love, Gloria, has a beautiful voice and clearly loves him, too.  But Mumbles is blamed for a decline in fish and is banished.  He resolves to find out what really happened to the fish, which means seeking out the humans.

Happy Feet is a visually stunning movie.  All of the animals and their environment are beautifully presented.  One almost feels at times as if you could run your hand through their feathers.  The story is formulaic, though sweet and satisfying.  The music is great, mostly covers of previously released material - a jukebox musical, it's called apparently.  Highlights include a "Kiss"/"Heartbreak Hotel" mash-up sung by Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, "My Way" performed in Spanish by Robin Williams and "Somebody to Love" as sung by the late, great Brittany Murphy.  A nice story about "Kiss": Prince initially wasn't going to let them use the song but once the producers showed him footage from the film, he not only relented, but offered to write a new number for the closing credits.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Star Trek: Metamorphosis

Episode: "Metamorphosis"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 9
Original Air Date: November 10, 1967
via Memory Alpha
"Metamorphosis" is a love story.  While transporting a diplomat, Commissioner Nancy Hedford, aboard a shuttlecraft, Kirk, Spock and Bones is hijacked by a strange energy blob which pulls them down to its home planet.  There, they discover an Earthman, apparently long alone, though in perfect health.  Turns out, he is Zefram Cochrane, a scientific titan in the Star Trek universe as he discovered the warp drive. The force which captured the ship, referred to as "the Companion" has nurtured Cochrane for 150 years, also restoring him to youth.  "The Companion" has captured our heroes to keep him company (strong echoes of last week's episode).  To complicate matters further, Hedford is sick and will die if she is not brought to the Enterprise sick bay soon.

Through his usual hocus pocus, Spock is able to achieve communication with the Companion.  Lo and behold, it's female!  What's more, she is in love with Cochrane.  Unfortunately, he is not too keen on dating an energy field.  How convenient that there's a female human who, once cured of her deadly disease, can provide the physical embodiment needed to inspire reciprocal feelings in Cochrane.

So what is the message here?  Hedford is the too typical professional woman character with no time for love.  Cochrane is repulsed by the Companion's genuine affection until it's presented in a package he can appreciate.  It's not entirely comfortable but there is something sweet about the devotion they find for one another in the end.
via Memory Alpha
Glenn Corbett (Cochrane) was born Glen Edwin Rothenburg on August 17, 1933 in El Monte, California.   After serving in the Navy SeaBees, he attended Occidental College.  There, he met his wife, Judy Daniels, and discovered acting.

While there were film roles, including his debut in 1959's The Crimson Kimono, Corbett is best known for his television work.  He replaced George Maharis on Route 66 during the show's third season.  He also had regular parts in It's a Man's World, The Doctors and Dallas.  Corbett died of lung cancer (there it is again) on January 16, 1993.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Family Movie Night: The Lady Eve

Title: The Lady Eve
Director: Preston Sturges
Original Release: 1941
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
The Lady Eve is one of My Wife's favorite movies.  Preston Sturges, who directed and also wrote the screenplay, provides the clever dialogue, Barbara Stanwyck supplies keen wit and a dazzling smile and Henry Fonda performs one of the best prat falls you'll ever see.  Jean Harrington (Stanwyck) and her accomplices are card sharps out to swindle the young, naive and fabulously wealthy Charles Pike (Fonda).  All goes awry, however, when Jean genuinely falls in love with Charles.  Charles discovers her true identity and spurns her.  That's just the beginning of this twisted tale.

The narration of the trailer is a bit, um, dated.  You'll see what I mean if you watch.  Fans of the sitcom My Three Sons will recognize William Demarest, aka Uncle Charley. 

The movie defies many of the conventions of Hollywood romantic comedies.  The two principals are rarely if ever on equal footing, with Jean nearly always in control.  The script pushes the limit of the Hays film code in place at the time and was, in fact, initially rejected by the censors before revisions.  It's a fun movie and certainly well worth your time if you're in the mood for a clever romp.

Friday, May 2, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Ananda and Beyond

Titles: Buddha
- Volume 6: Ananda
- Volume 7: Prince Ajatasattu
- Volume 8: Jetavana
Writer and Artist: Osamu Tezuka
via Amazon
I have reached the end of Tezuka's Buddha series.   My previous posts on this manga can be found here, here and here.  While I am not completely ignorant of Buddhist teachings, I don't know enough to say with any authority whether Tezuka portrays the faith or its central figure accurately.  However, I can say the presentation is highly engaging and provides enough of an introduction to the subject matter to inspire a novice to learn more.
via goodreads
From comments on some of my posts about sequential art (the fancy-schmancy way of saying comic books), I've gotten the sense that many are not entirely comfortable with the idea of serious subjects presented in this medium.  To a point, this is understandable.  In American society, at least, comics and cartoons are associated with children, humor and/or the fantasy realm of superheroes.  A graphic novel about the sociopolitical dynamics of pre-war Germany, for instance, might not even seem possible, let alone appealing.  But if one takes a step back, one might acknowledge that film and other visual arts deal adeptly with a broad range of material and there's really no reason comic books can't accomplish the same.
via goodreads
Of course, religion would be considered by many to require a higher level of serious treatment than most subjects.  A certain reverence is expected for any faith.  But the Japanese perspective on religion - particularly their own - is quite different from the typical Western view.  Most modern Japanese don't consider themselves to be religious at all.  However, religious rituals dominate the culture.  As the saying goes, the Japanese are born Shinto and they die Buddhist.  Most of the customs associated with birth come from Shintoism, the animistic faith native to Japan, while the customs surrounding death come from Buddhism.  People take those rituals very seriously, indeed, but more for the rituals themselves than any deeper belief system.  Religious satire isn't nearly as taboo as it is in Western society so even the occasional moments of levity within the Buddha series are not entirely out of place within the broader context.

Osamu Tezuka (1928-89) is considered by many to be the greatest and most influential of all manga creators.  This was not my introduction to his work.  I was less impressed by the Black Jack series.  I feel Buddha was a much stronger showcase of his talents, as both artist and storyteller.