The end. And it’s a fitting end to a manga series that’s always stood poised on the knife-edge between sweet fairy-tale simplicity and the tougher sensibilities of stories for mature audiences. Black Jack might well have been Osamu Tezuka’s finest work by dint of how it combines the accessibility of works for younger readers (Astro Boy, Unico) and the sophistication and ambition of his experimental productions (Phoenix). Now’s the time to go back to the beginning, if you haven’t already, and experience the whole of this saga of a black-market medical man from start to finish.
The last six volumes of Black Jack in English were a picking-up-of-the-pieces production, a compilation and assortment of episodes that appeared outside of the comic’s main run. This final volume is no different in that respect, but it collects several episodes that provide that much more of a sense of closure to Black Jack’s story.
Most striking is “Phoenix”, a name which for Tezuka fans should be charged with significance. It’s almost exactly what you might think: Black Jack, on an errand of mercy in Iran, is tricked into helping a woman hunt what she thinks is the phoenix of legend. The beauty of this particular episode is its meta-texuality: if you’ve read any of Tezuka’s Phoenix you’ll be holding your breath at what might actually be happening, and even if you have no experience with that epic you’ll still find this chapter poignant and affecting. “My job is to cure people, not keep them from death forever,” Black Jack proclaims at one point, and by that point — not just in this story but in this series — we have come to see so very clearly what he means.
There were a few previous episodes where Black Jack’s quasi-synthetic sidekick Pinoco had her origins delved into. “A Visiting Memory” brings that particular subplot full circle. A woman with a gruesome head injury shows up at Black Jack’s place, a wound grevious enough that it’s left her an amnesiac. On seeing the scars on her stomach, Black Jack knows immediately who this is: it’s Pinoco’s “sister”, the woman from whom Pinoco was harvested as a teratoid cystoma (an unborn twin). He never knew her identity, which was concealed lest it cause a scandal, but he knows his handiwork — and he’s doubly disturbed when she forms a bond with her “sister” during her recuperation. This was one of the episodes reworked for Kenji Yamamoto’s misguided retellings of various Black Jack stories (see “Gross Anatomy: Black Jack Butchered In The Remaking”), and the differences between the two versions are telling to say the least. In Tezuka’s original, the ending was as blunt as a slammed door. The remake tries to soften the blow with maudlin humor but it doesn’t work (and is out of character for the good doctor to boot). Some things just don’t need remaking.
In a more minor vein, “A Girl Who Became A Bird” (also victim of a remake a above) is another continuation of a prior episode: Black Jack re-encounters a patient of his whom he gave the gift of flight as compensation for losing her ability to walk, only to discover she’s become ostracized by humanity. What she wants is to complete the process: to become a bird altogether, so that she might leave the human race behind with as few qualms as possible. Black Jack, misanthrope that he is, complies: in her plight he sees a mirror of his own.
The best standalone episodes this final time out are also top-tier. “Captain Park” features Black Jack trying to save the life of a ship’s captain — a smugger whose cargo is human beings. No, it’s not human trafficking — it’s people escaping from what appears to be North Korea (although there are hints it might well be the highly constrained South Korea of the 1970s as well). The bleakness of this episode is severe, but entirely correct: there are no good choices awaiting anyone in this particular struggle — and that in turn is what makes the captain’s own sacrifices meaningful, since they actually cost something and involve risk that cannot be ameliorated any other way. The final lines are devastating: someone wisecracks “Is Japan worth dying to reach?” and the only answer we get is Black Jack’s haunted eyes, which tell us everything we need to know.
Tezuka gets criticism (lord knows I’ve dished out plenty of it myself) for how some of his plots in Black Jack border on the ludicrous when they’re not just plain flaunting medical or scientific plausibility. That said, he makes up for it with a good yarn, and he does that twice in a row here. In “Two Shujis”, he gives us a story of brother and sister forced to switch roles in life for the sake of continuing a family’s legacy. The exact details of the switch are goofy beyond words (there’s hypnotism involved), but again what matters is the larger points made about what matters more in a family: abstractions or particulars. What good is it to talk about “family” and never think twice about how the actual members of that family are being given short shrift? And in “Avatar” — the name alone should suggest some connections — we have the brain of a horse transplanted into the body of a man, but not as a cheap stunt. Brain- and body-switching plots are nothing new to Black Jack, but to Tezuka’s credit he avoids total silliness by making them about something more than just the gimmick.
I have been informed that one of Vertical, Inc.’s missions since its inception was to bring as much of Tezuka’s work into English as possible, barring material that already lies in the hands of other licensors. We can now add all of Black Jack to the mission-accomplished side of that ledger. I’m constantly astonished at how much of Tezuka’s other work, both serial and standalone, was released by Vertical while Black Jack was making its way into English, but now that the whole run is finished I’ll say it again: this series remains Tezuka’s most worthwhile series, if only in the sense that through it most anyone can experience, in a highly accessible way, a little taste of all of what Tezuka was about. It has been more than worth the wait.