Thursday, December 16, 2010

House is the New Black: A Black Jack Review

The works of legendary mangaka Osamu Tezuka rarely go without praise, and his thrilling foray into the medical world with Black Jack is no exception. Tezuka is most known for inventing the modern ‘manga’ style, with his iconic serial Astro Boy. With his important contributions to Japenese animation and cartoon culture, he is commonly called the “Walt Disney of the East.” Tezuka draws from multiple sources for his manga titles, and heavily leans on his college degree in medicine to create the stories in Black Jack. The tales are written in the format of a series of short escapades. Each tale follows the protagonist, known to the world as the infamous unlicensed surgeon Black Jack, as he saves his patients from the unforgiving ailments that no other doctor could possibly tackle. Sporting a full black outfit and an ice cold countenance, his reputation could only be described as notorious; few people are appreciative of his extraordinary fees and condescending personality. Yet below the surface lies a warmer side of good morals, a savior whose work could only be diminished by the work of god.

The first volume begins with offering a perspective on the way Black Jack is regarded as a person, describing the events of the son of a wealthy business man whose reckless driving results in a catastrophic accident and admittance to a hospital. The son, being in critical condition, is in such a hopeless state that his wealthy father brings in Black Jack to save his beloved son. The story continues to explain how an innocent bystander who happened to witness the event was sentenced to death under the influence of the wealthy business man in order for Black Jack to be able to use the bystander’s body to save the real culprit behind the crash. This seemingly follows the general disregard for morals and values that people associate Black Jack with. Nonetheless, as the first story ends, we realize that Black Jack in fact switched the skin of the patient with the body of the innocent person, therefore allowing the innocent person to live and dealing the deserved justice to the guilty, wealthy man. More or less, the story of Black Jack develops as a series of these short, approximately 20 page stories with each one depicting a new medical miracle that Black Jack is called upon to perform. In the end, we learn many intriguing aspects of Black Jack as a person as well as his brilliant surgical techniques. In the end, each story serves as a moral lesson and the reader is left with the inspiring feeling that ensues after learning the way a seemingly dark character is able to shed light on the world.

Although Black Jack contains somewhat unrealistic feats of medical science, this does not deter the story from conveying a certain moral message. In the typical manga, readers enjoy the fighting and action such as in Naruto. In other words, people enjoy the climax of every chapter the most as expected in any reading. However, we believe that the most entertaining parts of each chapter were not from how Black Jack is able to save all of those patients. The beauty of each chapter is derived from the message that can be taken away at the end of every tale, while the action and suspense are still included in the mix.

It seems like the only flaw to this storyline itself is the incorporation of an irritating young side-kick. Ever since being transformed into a real human, Pinoko has only annoyed Black Jack in every subsequent adventure. We question her actual worth as an assistant as well as her intellect as a supposed eighteen year old. Although she looks like a three year old, her desire to be Black Jack’s wife and her absurd comments that convey this only detour the storyline from the medical mysteries and miracles that the reader is looking for. Simply put, we feel her creation was a mistake on Tezuka’s part.

Perhaps time is the only nemesis of Tezuka’s work. While his masterful storytelling and composition is arguably timeless, his art can only fall to the wayside as manga evolves through the years. While modern mangakas have slowly developed a unique art style in Japanese manga, Tezuka was known to have been highly influenced by early American cartoons, specifically those of Disney. Tezuka’s character design, such as the use of large eyes, is said to have led to the development of modern manga art styles, but a current manga enthusiast may be put off by Tezuka’s decades old art. Many may find it un-Japanese due to its similarity to early American cartoons rather than the modern manga style they are used to seeing, while others may find it simply overly childish and disorganized.
Furthermore, readers should be advised of the lengths to which Tezuka takes the premise of Black Jack’s profession. Tezuka enthusiastically portrays most of Jack’s cases in all their blood and gore filled glory: he is not afraid to depict the severed limbs and internal organs his gruesome operation scenes. These graphic sequences parallel those of gory horror comics, and may be nauseating for the light hearted.

After reading through the first volumes of Black Jack, we noticed multiple trends that we enjoyed and few unfavorable aspects of the manga. What really drew us in was how the individual stories grew to depict Black Jack as a very moral and thoughtful character, while still being thrilling enough to warrant further reading. While the art style and the persistent Pinoko may be distasteful to some, these are but nitpicks for another masterpiece deserving of Tezuka’s name. We definitely consider Black Jack a “must read” for anyone truly interested in manga, due to the impact that it and its creator had on the Japanese visual culture.

1 comment:

Michael Hancock said...

Your review speaks well to the defining elements of Tezuka's Black Jack, from the brooding but amazingly (perhaps impossibly!) talented protagonist to the series' visual style. Your readers might appreciate more specifics about individual stories, though your extended summary of the first one gives us a taste of the collection as a whole. I agree with your critique of Pinoko, who comes off as creepy because she's a kind of surrogate daughter to Jack, yet she's sexually attracted to him and becomes a rival in love to any women that happen to cross Jack's path. You're fairly enthusiastic in your recommendation, though I wonder whether you find the books to be of intrinsic interest, apart from their lasting influence on manga and the larger world of Japanese visual culture.