External Book Reviews: Black Jack Vol. #6

Note: This article was originally written for Advanced Media Network. Its editorial style differs from reviews for this site.

In a fight between you and the world, bet on the world.
— Attributed to Franz Kafka

Except that some people like that sort of thing. They get a charge out of bucking the odds — the worse the odds, the bigger the thrill. They’re the embodiment of that Adidas ad tagline Impossible Is Nothing, and it doesn’t matter if the endeavor in question is soccer, mountain-climbing, chess, kickboxing or the unlicensed practice of medicine. You see where this is going.

Truth be told, it’s not just the fact that Black Jack is a risk-taker. It’s that he’s beaten these odds before, can do it again, and doesn’t like people telling him otherwise. Through volume six of Black Jack he faces one medical Iron Man triathlon after another, from brain transplants to brain tumors — but the real reason he flings himself so heedlessly at such outrageous jobs is to stand in stark contrast to everyone who settles for having no hope. His biggest resentments are reserved not for those who want to stick him in prison and make sure he never practices again, but for quitters and cop-outs of all stripes … whether they’re rival doctors or his own patients.

He also reserves the greatest depths of emotion — even if he never shows it — for those who also buck the odds. The opening story,“Downpour” (the longest story the book at 40-something pages),
places Black Jack in a remote island village where he’s gone to pay respects to a fellow doctor, now deceased. That man had a sister, Kiyomi, also a doctor although of much lesser rank: she’s the school nurse and a practicing internist, and doesn’t consider herself anywhere near her brother’s level, let alone Black Jack’s. At first she finds Black Jack rather insufferable, especially when an epidemic of food poisoning hits the island and she has to pedal hither and thither while he chooses instead to sit things out. But over time she grows to admire him, especially after he dives in to save the school principal. This is the first man she’s felt close to since her brother died, and that welter of emotion inspires her to rock the boat in a number of ways … including offering her skin as a replacement for his two-tone facial graft as she lies dying. Black Jack, being Black Jack, has to refuse — but not because he’s ungrateful.

It’s also high time Black Jack had some kind of comeuppance from the powers that be. Actually, it’s happened from time to time throughout the series, but in this volume that conflict comes to the fore far more aggressively than it ever has. Nowhere is it more explicit than in the story “Revenge” (the title serves plenty of notice), where Black Jack is offered amnesty by the medical board of Japan. He refuses, of course, and they throw him in prison. Then a powerful Italian politician comes calling to beg that Black Jack be released to treat his son. The powers-that-be refuse him — and soon they find out there are certain people you just don’t say no to. And in “Lion-Face Disease”, Black Jack is called upon by one of the very police detectives that’s hounded him in the past to cure a man with a horrific disfigurement (shades of “Monmow Disease”, from Tezuka’s epic Ode to Kirihito). Black Jack’s lived his whole life being a demon to some and an angel to others, but now it’s the detective’s turn to learn firsthand what this means. Boy, does he ever.

© Tezuka Productions
A “mere” internist on a remote island finds herself
drawn to Black Jack’s maverick passion.

Sometimes the morality in question doesn’t relate to Black Jack directly, but a situation he enters as an outsider. In “The Old Man and the Tree”, Black Jack intervenes — rather abruptly — on behalf of the self-appointed guardian of a dying zelkova, who sees no reason to continue living if his beloved tree isn’t going to make it either. (The good doctor’s always been on the side of choosing life, not manners.) “Three in a Box” features Black Jack, a father and a son all trapped in an elevator with oxygen running out; the doctor has to choose who lives and dies — but as is the case with many such dilemmas, he finds a truly Solomonic solution. And in “Con Man, Aspiring”, he finds a clever way to do an end run around both his own fees (he does that a lot) and a father’s short-sighted stinginess.

We’ve seen before how sometimes Black Jack’s brand of medicine veers closer to flat-out fantasy than factual science or even Crichtonesque extrapolation. It happens here, many times. At one point he performs a brain transplant on a child to place him into a body not ravaged by disease; in another story, a scientific rival performs similar upgrades on a deer. (And it’s not cute or funny, either; in fact, it’s downright creepy.) But what matters most here isn’t whether or not someone could actually pull off such a move; it’s the moral implications. With the former, a body donor is only available because the child’s father tried to “procure” a corpse … with disastrous results. The latter comes as part of a fairly typical Tezuka-style meditation on the way mankind exploits nature, but the way it’s presented — and especially the way it’s concluded, which is on a more ambiguous note than you might expect — makes all the difference.

Of my favorite stories in the book, one is pure entertainment and the other is pure character. “Brachydactyly” presents the doctor with what looks like an incurable condition, but which turns out to be a combination of jealousy, blackmail and — most tragically — sheer pigheaded stubbornness. And in “Twice Dead”, Black Jack’s drafted in to save the life of a man who will most likely die in the electric chair anyway. He sees it coming, he knows it’s inevitable, but that doesn’t mean he takes it lying down. The same could be said for how he faces everything, really.

Art: Before I go into my usual dithyramb about Tezuka’s style, which is likely to put most of you to sleep, kick everyone that nodded off and tell them to keep reading because I’m writing this part specifically for them. E.g., you. What is it about Tezuka’s style — or the art style of most every manga-ka who came on the scene before, oh, 1996 or so — that so turns people off?

Chalk it up to lack of exposure, if nothing else. It’s the same with any art form: when it comes in a package you don’t quite know how to unwrap, your fingers get a little twitchy. Parallel example: I’ve had friends who refused to watch black-and-white movies, or any movies not in English, and were indifferent to the possibility that they were missing out on some of the very best filmmaking out there. After I showed them Casablanca and The Seven Samurai, that barrier fell over with a thud.

Same goes for Tezuka, and his self-admittedly early-Disney derived artwork. Some people take one look and it’s like someone rubbed a lemon on the bridge of their noses. It’s too simple, too cartoony for them. But then they start to read, and they realize the style is designed to deceive. It’s one of the ways Tezuka gets you to drop your guard, which is something any good artist attempts to do no matter what the medium.

Now. That out of the way, 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.)

Most of Vertical’s issues have been without bonus material, and that’s been a bit disappointing. I liked, for instance, the editorial commentary in the back of the Tezuka / Urasawa crossover-cum-collaboration Pluto. Nothing like that here; the presentation has been as consistently minimal and spare as printings of The Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps, now that I think about it, that was the idea?

The Bottom Line: After the sometimes-dodgy quality of the stories in the last book, it’s great to see Tezuka and Black Jack both back in high form. The fact that there’s still around ten more volumes after this is an even bigger appetite-whetter.

Tags: Japan manga Osamu Tezuka review Vertical Inc.

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar in the category Books | External Book Reviews, published on July 9, 2009 10:13 PM.

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