Nobody, certainly not the reader, gets off easy in the end with Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack. This is a fantasy medical drama used as the disguise for one troubling meditation after another about life and death and our place in the universe and all the other things Tezuka was determined to use to keep his readers awake at night along with his wild visual imagination. What’s worse: to be powerless, or to have the power of a god but not be able to use it when it most matters? Should the two even be compared like that? Or is it best to just put your head down and do what you can with what you have, and not fret about the larger implications even when they make a mockery of you? Is your head hurting yet?
This third collection of Black Jack stories delivers everything we’ve come to expect from manga’s most infamous unlicensed practitioner: maladies that would make Dr. House’s head spin (House vs. Black Jack — who’d win that showdown?!); human nature in all of its grand and grotesque extremes; and Pinoco’s elastic face and physical pratfalls. You laugh, you wince, you watch in wonder, and when it’s all over, you find yourself reflecting on what you’ve seen for a lot longer than you might originally suspect.
Now that I have three volumes under my belt, my favorite stories from the series consistently tend to be the ones about Black Jack himself. Come to think of it, the comparisons to House aren’t wholly off-base: he has few, if any friends; his work garners the ire of colleagues and superiors; and his curmudgeonly skin conceals a more fragile and loving soul than he lets on. (Heck, he was House before House was House, but don’t tell Hugh Laurie.) And like all the best anti-heroes — like, say, TV’s Dexter, to draw another parallel — he’s compulsively watchable. We keep turning the pages just to see what the heck he’s going to do next.
Of the episodes in this book that revolve around Black-Jack-the-man, “A Woman’s Case” is probably my favorite because it shows Black Jack softening up over a woman — something he rarely does at all, but when he does it’s always memorable. Here, he encounters a woman dying of liver disease in a train station, and saves her for nothing more than the price of a bowl of noodles. Why? Possibly because he rarely gets such opportunities; he gets off on the thrill of being able to save someone so close to the edge. It turns out the woman in question could have afforded his exorbitant fees, once upon a time, but she’s now dead broke no thanks to making a number of stupid decisions with her life. They part, and then meet again — not only once, but twice, with her life having been overturned yet again each time. But she pays him back in the end, and not just by treating him to a meal but by taking his advice to not let her worst instincts ruin her. If humanity as a whole seems like a generally corrupt and dingy lot, there are still individuals who can stand out from the crowd by doing the right thing.
Even when the medicine isn’t remotely plausible, it’s only because it’s being used as a hook for a larger statement. Consider “Shrinking”, the second story in the volume — sure, the disease in question (which turns its victims into pygmy-like miniatures of themselves before it kills them) is about as realistic as the “Monmow Disease” from Tezuka’s outstanding Ode to Kirihito, which disfigured its victims into doglike beasts. Doesn’t matter. There, as here, the disease symptoms were used as a metaphor for something far larger than anything that could be encapsulated in a simple problem-solving plot. The conclusion of this story is as over-the-top as it gets: Black Jack faces skyward and screams out “You so-called God! You are cruel!”, and by the time we’ve gotten there it isn’t the least bit silly.
I could fill any number of pages with musings about the other stories in this volume, but I’ll narrow it down to two more in particular that grabbed me. “Recollections of a Spinster” starts with the hoary old cliché about the value of an individual life and turns it into something special. Black Jack rides shotgun in the delivery room of an American hospital when a woman gives birth, and then offers a few words to the nurse who was also there with him — and who interceded on his behalf when the hospital authorities came crashing in with the police in tow. Maybe she should be more objective, she muses, but Black Jack counters: Saving lives is like moving around the stars; you never know what’s going to come of it, and that’s all the more reason to do it. There’s more after that, but I won’t ruin the surprise — especially in the light of recent political events. (Yes, maybe I’m a sucker for a sappy feel-good ending, but this one came at exactly the right time for me.)
The other grabber comes at the very end of the volume and deals with the rash of infant abandonments that made headline news in Japan at one point. Black Jack has to rescue Pinoco from a gang of girl delinquents, or sukeban. The ringleader, Maggie, knows about the good (ha!) doctor’s reputation — which is why they don’t try to extort anything from him for their trouble. Not long after that the girls score a key to a bus station locker … inside which they find an abandoned baby, which they promptly re-abandon. Spooked, Maggie tries to drink herself into forgetting about it, but can’t, and before long is not only sneaking the baby food but bringing her to Black Jack for more advanced treatment. She can’t go to the authorities, lest she risk having her whole criminal history exposed, and Black Jack himself isn’t inclined to help her. But out of their mutual animosity they somehow manage to find a solution.
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 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. Sound effects are also annotated directly on the page without being fully retouched. (My two favorite models for how this sort of thing is done are Del Rey and Dark Horse, but the way Vertical does things here is quite laudable.)
The Bottom Line: I keep coming back to how the best artists in any field are like stage magicians, or jugglers. They keep us distracted with a song-and-dance routine of fun and fantasy, while slipping in the God and Death and Eternity stuff when we’re not looking. Tezuka did that sleight-of-hand routine as naturally as other people breathed, so by the time you get to a scene where his protagonists face heaven and scream out their cosmic disgust it’s deeply affecting, not corny.