British historian Phillip Guedalla famously described biography as “a very definite region bounded on the north by history, on the south by fiction, on the east by obituary, and on the west by tedium.” Were I to locate Gandhi: A Manga Biography on Guedalla’s map, its longest borders would be to the south and west: it’s both contrived and dull, a series of historical tableaux that do little to reveal Gandhi’s true humanity.
Most of the book’s problems stem from its scope, as author Kazuki Ebine attempts to cover Gandhi’s entire life in a mere 192 pages. Ebine treats us to brief glimpses of Gandhi’s childhood, when Gandhi was first exposed to the injustices of India’s caste system; his time in England, where he studied law; his time in South Africa, where he challenged the government’s classification of Indians as second-class citizens; and his time in India, where he used strikes, boycotts, and other forms of non-violent resistance to protest English rule.
Though Ebine carefully inserts major historical figures into the narrative, none of them are treated as individuals. Some are straw men, representing unenlightened points of view, while others are apostles, converted to the cause through the power of Gandhi’s words. Even Gandhi’s wife is relegated to a minor supporting role; her primary function within the narrative is to patiently reflect on her husband’s inherent courage and goodness, rather than interact with him as a partner, friend, confidante, or lover. (“Your duty is to lead people in a right direction,” she solemnly informs Gandhi.) Ebine attempts to portray her as the one person who truly knew Gandhi, but the relentless pace of the story prevents him from showing the natural evolution of their relationship….