There are moments when volume 5 of Black Jack is unbelievablydisappointing. There are also as many moments, if not more so, when itis 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—evenif it was only two volumes—opted for the greatest-hits-anthologyapproach. Not everything from a person’s lifetime output is going to beequally good, and that applied to Tezuka as well. But Vertical, Inc.has pledged to stick with the warts-and-all approach to publishing Black Jackin English, all seventeen-something volumes of it. Still, one of thebenefits of that level of completism is seeing how even Tezuka’s worstmaterial was still at least interesting
I wonder if at this point in Black Jack’s run, Tezuka wasstarting to get a bit stuck for inspiration, and so turned back toalready-established characters from the rest of the Black Jackuniverse as a shot in the arm. The best of these extended return cameosinvolves the Dr. Kevorkian-esque Kiriko, he who brings the mercy ofdeath to patients he deems terminal (or who ask to be released fromtheir suffering). What’s interesting, and potentially troubling, is howTezuka has stacked the deck whenever Kiriko appears. It’s not yet clearif 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 thisas being an actual flaw in Black Jack’s character, and Tezuka wassaving up just such a story for when it mattered most. Such a storyhasn’t surfaced yet. I did like another cameo reappearance, though—thatof Konomi Kuwata, the icy queen of the operating room, whom Black Jacktricks (well, sort of) into reuniting with her beloved.
Then there are the standalone stories that embody Black Jackat its best. There may not be as many of them in this volume, but theones we do get are more than worth it. “Asking for Water” is one of themany stories where Tezuka only figures in peripherally but plays apivotal role. Here, he’s the voice of conscience for a man who evictshis own mother and endangers her life, having banked a little tooheavily on her good nature and her willingness to compromise.
Andthen we get to the weaker material, and I began to feel like I was nolonger reading Tezuka. Imagine an imitator who’d copied Tezuka’s artand basic storytelling tropes, but could not for the life of himrecapture the sheer spark of his genius, and you have some idea of whatthe bottom of the barrel is like. It’s frustrating to read stories like“Pinoko’s Mystery”, where Pinoko discovers a manuscript that detailswhat she believes to be the true story of her origins, but it turns outto be a fraud. (The audience feels cheated, too.)
Another mixedbag, “Yet False The Days”, is a partial redux of the story “TheScream”. There, Black Jack used psychological warfare (of a sort) tojolt a patient past a mental block that prevented her from beingcompletely healed. This time around, Tezuka adds a wraparound storyabout a cat hiding under the house which provides irony and poignantcontrast, but it doesn’t completely hide the self-borrowing. And thefinal story in the volume, “On a Snowy Night”, is easily the weakest Black Jackstory of the whole series so far—an aimless and ultimately pointlessghost 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—anymore listenable. And even if Tezuka was still able to run rings abouthis contemporaries on days when he wasn’t even trying, that doesn’tmean 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.
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