There are moments when volume 5 of Black Jack is unbelievably disappointing. There are also as many moments, if not more so, when it is elating and exciting and challenging. In short, when it is the Black Jack — and the Osamu Tezuka — that we have come to expect and savor. It’s just that this time your mileage will vary. A lot.
It’s moments like this when I see why the original Viz edition of Black Jack — even if it was only two volumes — opted for the greatest-hits-anthology approach. Not everything from a person’s lifetime output is going to be equally good, and that applied to Tezuka as well. But Vertical, Inc. has pledged to stick with the warts-and-all approach to publishing Black Jack in English, all seventeen-something volumes of it. Still, one of the benefits of that level of completism is seeing how even Tezuka’s worst material was still at least interesting
I wonder if at this point in Black Jack’s run, Tezuka was starting to get a bit stuck for inspiration, and so turned back to already-established characters from the rest of the Black Jack universe as a shot in the arm. The best of these extended return cameos involves the Dr. Kevorkian-esque Kiriko, he who brings the mercy of death to patients he deems terminal (or who ask to be released from their suffering). What’s interesting, and potentially troubling, is how Tezuka has stacked the deck whenever Kiriko appears. It’s not yet clear if Black Jack would in fact approve of euthanasia when it’s mitigated — there’s always been the element of hope. Maybe Tezuka was aware of this as being an actual flaw in Black Jack’s character, and Tezuka was saving up just such a story for when it mattered most. Such a story hasn’t surfaced yet. I did like another cameo reappearance, though — that of Konomi Kuwata, the icy queen of the operating room, whom Black Jack tricks (well, sort of) into reuniting with her beloved.
Then there are the standalone stories that embody Black Jack at its best. There may not be as many of them in this volume, but the ones we do get are more than worth it. “Asking for Water” is one of the many stories where Tezuka only figures in peripherally but plays a pivotal role. Here, he’s the voice of conscience for a man who evicts his own mother and endangers her life, having banked a little too heavily on her good nature and her willingness to compromise.
And then we get to the weaker material, and I began to feel like I was no longer reading Tezuka. Imagine an imitator who’d copied Tezuka’s art and basic storytelling tropes, but could not for the life of him recapture the sheer spark of his genius, and you have some idea of what the bottom of the barrel is like. It’s frustrating to read stories like “Pinoko’s Mystery”, where Pinoko discovers a manuscript that details what she believes to be the true story of her origins, but it turns out to be a fraud. (The audience feels cheated, too.)
Another mixed bag, “Yet False The Days”, is a partial redux of the story “The Scream”. There, Black Jack used psychological warfare (of a sort) to jolt a patient past a mental block that prevented her from being completely healed. This time around, Tezuka adds a wraparound story about a cat hiding under the house which provides irony and poignant contrast, but it doesn’t completely hide the self-borrowing. And the final story in the volume, “On a Snowy Night”, is easily the weakest Black Jack story of the whole series so far — an aimless and ultimately pointless ghost tale that doesn’t even reach a sub-Stephen King level of creepy.
Lou Reed may once have bragged “My b.s. is better than anyone else’s diamonds,” but that didn’t make his throwaway albums — like Sally Can’t Dance and The Bells — any more listenable. And even if Tezuka was still able to run rings about his contemporaries on days when he wasn’t even trying, that doesn’t mean we need to give him a pass for that.
But let’s not end this on a down note. Black Jack is coming out in English. The whole thing. Good, bad, and ugly. You may now continue celebrating.