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October 17, 2011

Bento Bako Weekly: Black Jack volume 16

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Written by: Kristin
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Title: Black Jack
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Publisher: Vertical Inc.
Volume: Volume 16 (of 17), $16.95
Vintage: Originally ran sometime in the early 1980s, published in its current form by Akita Shoten in 2001 in Japan, October 11, 2011 by Vertical
Genre: Drama, medical

Black Jack is Osamu Tezuka’s story of a seemingly unscrupulous genius surgeon, who performs miraculous feats on the operating table but charges outrageous fees for his service. Dr. Black Jack isn’t exactly inconspicuous, and is easily recognized by the long scar on his face, his black and white split hair, and his intimidating black suit and coat. Since he practices unlicensed medicine, he is often barred from legitimate hospitals, and is looked down on by many professional doctors who disagree with his methods. As far as the general public is concerned, Black Jack is a cold, merciless, greedy surgeon, who won’t even perform life saving surgery if he’s not paid an exorbitant amount of cash. In reality, Black Jack is a cold, merciless, charitable surgeon, often donating his excessive fees to charity or those in need. He can be a bit of a softy now and then, but in general he’s demanding of his patients, and occasionally takes advantage of them, though he’s usually teaching those particular patients a much needed lesson. He also has a bit of an ego; he’s a good surgeon, and he damn well knows it, and when he’s faced with skill that exceeds his (like in this volume), he pursues the origin of that skill obsessively. Black Jack is complex, has a tragic past, nurses a broken heart or two…and has an adorable little assistant constantly at his side. Pinoko, a pint-sized child, is in reality an adult woman removed from the body of her twin sister by Black Jack, whose surgery saved her life. Black Jack built a body for her in the form of a child. She is unable to grow, but mentally she is an adult, and she speaks with a lisp (which in the translation makes her sound like a little kid).

As in other volumes, this volume of Black Jack is divided into separate stories by chapter, with each chapter taking Black Jack to a new patient and a new problem. In “Anaphylaxis,” an army colonel commissions Black Jack to operate on his son who was shot in the line of duty. The son was shot in the left chest, and the bullet is wedged in his heart near the coronary artery, meaning it’s going to be a delicate operation. There is a complication, however, which is the main reason Black Jack was called in – he has anaphylaxis, a condition where his body rejects all forms of anesthetic. For a cool 10 million yen, Black Jack agrees and gets down to business. When the son ends up dying anyway, the colonel goes after Black Jack to exact revenge. However, Black Jack is not the kind of man who goes down easy, especially at the hands of a war crazed, killing obsessed man like the colonel. “Miyuki and Ben” features a strange love story about a bully who falls for a sickly young woman. The girl’s body is filled with cancerous tumors, so Ben tracks down Dr. Black Jack and asks him to perform a miracle. Unfortunately, a tragedy befalls Ben when he tries to get the money Black Jack demands for the surgery. “Lost Youth” is the tale of a rich oil baron who asks Black Jack to give him a new identity and make him younger for a year so he can take a vacation without being bothered by the media or his company. For a truly excessive amount of money, Black Jack performs the surgery, and the oil man sets off to enjoy his year of…working for his rival? Black Jack turned back time for him, but his true intentions may turn out to be a huge mistake. “I Want My Brother Back!” is a story about a little boy who is picked on at school because his older brother plays the villain in a popular costumed TV show. Due to the tight costume and the rigorous shooting schedule, the older brother develops a serious case of elephantiasis which causes his lower body to swell up and inflame. The family can’t pay Black Jack’s fees, so he works out a special deal with him for little Pinoko. Black Jack even helps heal the relationship between the two brothers. Who knew he was such a softy for kids? Black Jack has a look alike running around town in “Another J.” Black Jack runs into a man named Hans, who thinks he is a man named Jonathan set on getting revenge for a past betrayal. Hans once cut up Jonathan’s face, giving him facial scars nearly identical to Black Jack’s, and now Jonathan wants revenge for the deformity that has ruined his life. However, Black Jack isn’t about to let some guy run around and sully his reputation. This, of course, has the unintended (well, not really, since it’s part of Black Jack’s plan all along) effect of destroying Jonathan’s reason for revenge. In “Gleamy Eyes” we have another bully school boy, this time because he is extremely interested in science fiction and likes to read books about aliens and UFOs. When an eye condition causes his eyes to look strange and scare off his bullies, the boy claims the aliens granted his wish and refuses to be operated on. Black Jack works a little extra magic this time by paying a special visit to the main bully before operating on his patient. “Lynching” places Black Jack in a precarious situation when he visits a small town that is excessively weary of strangers. A doctor living in the village has called on Black Jack to perform a surgery that he is not able to perform himself due to complications caused by his alcoholism. Unfortunately, the town doesn’t like strangers laying hands on their women, even if they’re on the brink of death. Yet even a violent reception won’t stop Black Jack from saving a life. “The Nekogami Clan” is a bit of a murder mystery. When Black Jack travels to the Nekogami house to collect his fee, he’s met with the tale of a strange creature that is said to roam the town at night. Curious about the odd description of the creature, Black Jack’s medical knowledge easily allows him to form some theories, and he decides to investigate. “Bath of the Floating World” is a cute story (with an unfortunate ending) about a man who falls in love with the voice of a woman while visiting a public bath. “Cancer Hunter” is heavily constructed in science fiction. A doctor believes he has developed a machine that uses lasers to target cancerous cells and kill them, eradicating all trace of the cancer and saving lives without the need for chemotherapy or surgery. When things go horribly wrong as an unexpected side effect occurs, the young doctor calls upon Black Jack to help him save face. Black Jack’s terms will be hard to bear this time. “Bad Stunt” is an unfortunate story about a movie studio who purposefully harms a young boy in an attempt to catch Black Jack performing surgery on film, so they can use the footage in a movie they want to make about him. Fortunately, Black Jack catches on quick, and develops his own plan to counter the movie studio’s. “A Passed Moment” wraps up the volume. Black Jack runs into a strange young man whose body displays the injuries of others he comes into contact with. The man, whose symptoms were starting to disappear, is infuriated when Black Jack’s appearance causes his symptoms to return in full force, even giving him horrible nightmares. When he confronts the doctor, Black Jack agrees to observe him, and eventually performs surgery on him when he starts to bleed mysteriously. Inside the man’s body, Black Jack discovers evidence of a past surgery performed by a doctor of incredible skill, someone who might be even better than himself. Obsessed with locating the doctor whose skill may exceed his own, Black Jack drags the man along on a trip into his forgotten past.

I’ve read Tezuka before, so I don’t know why it took this volume of Black Jack to make me realize the incredible artistry of Tezuka’s work. There are some incredible panels in this volume, illustrated metaphors, that really made me recognize what a great artist this guy was. When a man is informed about his son’s death, his body literally comes apart and the background swirls behind him. It’s quite striking and powerful. Other examples in this volume include a melting background behind a man who just found out the woman he loves is dying, and the warped perception of televised images. What you really don’t want to miss are the amazingly intricate images of organs, bared muscles, and surgical procedures, which, along with the medical terminology in the book, is drawn from his experience studying medicine (I think he might have had a medical degree, though he never officially practiced). Of course, Tezuka’s trademark humor is here, including several instances of fourth-wall breaking, and even insertions of himself (he makes a humorous comment regarding Black Jack’s possibly inaccurate appearance when he spots Jonathan walking down the sidewalk in “Another J”). What’s really great about Black Jack is Black Jack himself. The mysterious doctor is a complex character with a lot of depth, a tortured past, and a strong sense of justice. Of course by justice, I mean the type that our eccentric doctor doles out to rich fat heads who need to be knocked down a few pegs. In our current economic climate, he’s practically a hero of the people, taking money from the rich who don’t need it, performing outrageous requests for them, and then giving that money to those who really do need it. He even manages to teach a few warped lessons along the way. His cold front is a sort of test. Typically the people who give in and hand over tons of cash are those whose intentions aren’t exactly pure, so he takes them for all they’re worth. If he presses someone for money who can’t pay it, but is in true need of his aid, he’ll find another way to work out a deal (for example, in “I Want My Brother Back!” he agrees to perform the surgery in exchange for the guy’s costume, because Pinoko is a big fan of his television show). His apparent greedy nature is only part of what forces him to work unlicensed and outside the system, however. Black Jack’s methods in surgery aren’t exactly kosher; he uses methods that legally practicing doctors just aren’t allowed (or outright refuse in any case) to use. Even so, he’s respected in some circles, and he’s certainly well known for performing miracles where other doctors hit a dead end. He can be pretty cruel at times, though usually not without reason, and he can also be very kind. Certainly having Pinoko around has softened him up a bit. I’m not a fan of House, though I have frequently heard Dr. Black Jack and Dr. House compared, and they certainly do appear to share some traits. If you’re a fan of medical dramas, an in particular those closer in line with House than Grey’s Anatomy, I would really suggest checking out Black Jack. To be perfectly honest, you really can’t ever go wrong with Tezuka. And can I just say what a beautiful job Vertical does with these books? The cover work is beautiful, and the entire design of the volume is fantastic. It is not hard to see why Vertical has the privilege of posting so much of Tezuka’s catalog. They treat it with the respect and artistry it deserves.


Review copy provided by Vertical Inc.



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