We’re not always in control. Even when it looks like we have the powers of the gods at our command, it’s provisional. Nature, fate, and mankind too, all have their ways of getting their due.
I don’t want to make it sound like the main lesson to be learned in the second volume of Black Jack is “Give up” — it’s not, and Osamu Tezuka makes that clear time and again. But he also makes it clear that it’s not wise to equate absolute power with absolute control. You can’t stop nature from running its course in its own way — sometimes all you can do is stand back and let things happen, and it takes a wise man to know when to stand back. And sometimes it hurts like hell to do so.
If you haven’t read the series yet, Black Jack’s central premise — an unlicensed surgeon, an apparently amoral figure who can perform miracles for six- and seven-digit sums — probably sounds like a setup for stories where the biggest tests are the limits of the protagonist’s skills. That’s just the setup — the springboard that Tezuka uses to propel us into his universe of difficult moral and ethical choices. There’s one moment in this volume where Black Jack performs a delicate bit of surgery in complete darkness, and it’s not because he’s showing off: he’s trying to engineer a solution to a dilemma that has no easy solution.
The best stories in volume 2, like all the best stories in the Black Jack series, all have this kind of complexity driving them. The opening story, “Needle”, has Black Jack trying to second-guess a bit of post-op disaster — a surgical needle that broke loose within a patient and may be drifting around and preparing to cause havoc. All turns out well, but in spite of Black Jack’s best efforts, and not because of them: the one thing he didn’t anticipate was that nature itself would be able to deal with this, and that his ego would have to take a backseat.
Some episodes offer critiques of the medical profession itself, and it’s a little scary how they have barely dated since they were published. “Assembly Line Care” presents a caricature of the kind of treatment we’d readily associate with that term, the brainchild of a doctor who values efficiency and quantifiable results over just about everything else … including the possibility that he might end up being in the care of the very system he helped build. Another story deals with “alternative medicine” — in this case, acupuncture — but the story’s actually more concerned with the idea of one-size-fits-all and knowing the patient as a person instead of simply a case study.
Sometimes the problem is not the illness, but the patient. In “The Ballad of the Killer Whale”, Black Jack provides his services to the titular creature — and even here he doesn’t work for free, as the whale offers up pearls from the depths of the ocean as “payment” for healing his wounds. The two become unexpectedly close, too: unexpected for Black Jack, since his general misanthropy keeps him at arm’s length from most everyone. An animal, however, is another story: it’s not a substitute for real human companionship, but for Black Jack it might well be better since there are no hidden agendas, no strings attached. Then there is a revelation that shows even this perception is mistaken, and that Black Jack’s new friend is nowhere nearly as simple or straightforward as he might seem. The whole episode’s framed by Black Jack relating the story to Pinoco — the one “person” to whom he has any real attachment or commitments at all — and it’s designed to make us wonder whether the good doctor has accepted Pinoco’s love as unconditionally as it might seem. It’s easily the best story in the volume, deeply insightful and unsparing in the same breath.
Another segment involving Pinoco starts funny but turns deeply and unexpectedly sad. After Pinoco is bilked by a diploma mill, Black Jack pulls as many strings as he can to get Pinoco a real diploma — which means she’ll need to pass a graduate equivalency exam. That in turn means a kind of stress that she’s never dealt with before — the stress of cramming, test-taking, a fear of failure and rejection that drives her to near-collapse. Even kindergarten proves to be too much for her, and the final panels of the story show both her and Black Jack collapsing into despair. It’s bad enough that she wasn’t able to meet goals she set for herself, but it’s even worse that he feels guilty for having aided and abetted her suffering.
In the same deeply personal vein is an origin story that explains how Black Jack ended up with his trademark piebald patchwork of skin and scars, one moving enough that I’m loathe to spoil it here. I also liked “To Each His Own”, where a young student ponders opting out of the higher-education rat race for keeps but has his mind changed thanks to a few well-placed words from a construction worker. The two of them meet again under gruesome circumstances — the construction worker’s limbs are blown off when a gas main explodes, and Black Jack is called upon to help him — and the student realizes what any one of us could call a life-or-death situation is totally subjective.
Some episodes aren’t quite as successful, if only because the lessons are obvious or the story construction is clearly labored. “Emergency Shelter” (also featured in the original Viz issue of the Black Jack stories) has Black Jack using his expertise to save a cadre of rich-and-spoiled types who become trapped in a building with high-tech security. “Dirtjacked” has some of the same problems: the underlying morality of the story is solid, but the plotting is twitchy. Even the flawed stories have something, though: “Stradivarius” has a great premise — a violinist who considers his instrument to be more valuable than the hands that play it — and even though there are parts of the story that strain credulity, the ending is poetic and wholly fitting.
And sometimes, Tezuka just cuts loose and gives us something really clever and thrilling. At one point he’s called on to save a nation’s despotic leader, but criminals kidnap Pinoco and blackmail the doctor into aborting the operation. It’s up to him to find a third way out, as only he can. In “Helping Each Other”, Black Jack goes out of his way — far out of his way — to help a bystander who bailed him out of a potentially thorny situation. How far? How about buying the very hospital where he’s staying to ensure that he pulls through? Now I understand where all those suitcases full of cash go.
Art: I love how across all of his works, Tezuka’s art is always identifiably his. The wide-eyed Walt Disney look that he used as his basic model didn’t limit him, though: over time he added many of his own flourishes, such as using contrasts between a simplified style and a more detailed, meticulous look to achieve emotional resonances. All of that is on display here in Black Jack. It doesn’t use the same epic visual scope as, say, Buddha or Phoenix, but it doesn’t need to. That said, there are many individual things that are epic in their own microcosmic way, like a sequence where a scalpel mistakenly left inside a human body slowly accrues a protective glazing of calcium. And existing Tezuka fans (e.g., me) will smile when they see all of Tezuka’s trademarked visual in-jokes — his corner-of-the-frame cameos, his curious visual inventions like his “patch-gourd” character, and, well, Black Jack himself, who is about as totemic a character as you can get.
Translation: Last year when I chatted with Vertical, Inc. publisher Ioannis Mentzas about the company’s approach to Tezuka’s books, I learned something rather surprising: The Tezuka estate actually prefers to have his manga published in the reformatted left-to-right printing order, since this makes it more accessible to Western readers. Many previous Vertical treatments of Tezuka titles have been presented this way: MW, Apollo’s Song and Buddha had all been reworked in this manner. The reworking was also undistracting enough that even someone like me didn’t mind. (For a similarly-elegant left-to-right job, check out Blade of the Immortal.) Black Jack, on the other hand, appears in the original right-to-left format–presumably as a concession to the fans, although the rest of the presentation is a mixture. Some signs are annotated, others relettered; ditto the sound effects. My guess is that the most difficult-to-edit material has been left intact while the simpler stuff has been reworked, but I would have preferred a more consistent approach.
The translation itself has been capably executed by Camellia Nieh, and out of curiosity I compared her approach to the original Viz version (produced by Yuji Oniki). The Viz translation was actually quite good, but the Vertical one is slightly better in a couple of respects. Certain things that didn’t translate well the first time out have been completely reworked. In the first volume, when Black Jack originally confronted the cyst that contained Pinoco, he declared “Is it you, ‘Bumpie’?” Here, it’s simply “You lump!”, which is more direct and less contrived-sounding (and less potentially confusing). Also, cultural references which had been completely rewritten or omitted in the original translation have been restored, along with footnotes to explain them. Here, some character’s names turn out to be in-jokes of a sort, and are explained appropriately.
The Bottom Line: I have always admired how Tezuka makes any one of his works span so many different moods all at once. He can be goofy and cosmic, carefree and ruminative all on the same page, sometimes even in the same panels. Withh Black Jack, Tezuka leavens his heavy-duty karmic truths by giving them to us the form of a stylized medical thriller — kind of in the same way a doctor might use dark humor to deal with the worst of his job.