Manga Wednesday: Black Jack Review

(Image Courtesy of Vertical Press)

It may not be Monday anymore, but I’m not about to forgo my weekly duty of examining and recommending the best of the best manga that Japan has to offer!  It’s somewhat ironic that on a week where I suffered through illness, I also decided to review a manga about a doctor.  This week we’ll be looking at one of the more famous works by the “god of manga” himself, Osamu Tezuka, in the form of Black Jack. Black Jack is arguably one of the most influential and most used of Tezuka’s “star system” of characters, having appeared not only in multiple anime adaptions of the source material, but also being one of a small number of Tezuka’s characters to be adapted and reimagined by other authors in manga form.  Despite the slew of variations and spin-offs, I’m most fond of the original version of the character which is why we’ll be focusing on that version for this review.

Black Jack follows the exploits of the character of the same name, an unlicensed doctor who possesses incredible medical and surgical skills and is willing to help any patient, no matter their social or financial standing.  His services come at a price however, usually in the form of an egregiously large sum of money.  Now based on those first two sentences, you’re probably asking yourself how he helps the poor and destitute in their time of need if he’s going to demand that they pay him money that they could never possibly amass. Therein lies another aspect of Black Jack’s unusual style of practicing medicine.  Before agreeing to take a job, or sometimes during a procedure, Black Jack will attempt to learn more about his patient’s lot in life or what led them to their current condition be it medical, mental, or social.  If the patient’s story moves him, he often waves his ludicrous fee or offers some advice to help them along the way.

Yes, Black Jack is so amazing, he even performs life saving surgeries on himself.

The stories in Black Jack are often done in an episodic or vignette form, so each of them can stand on their own without prior connection to a previous story or chapter.  I really enjoy this particular aspect of the manga, because it means that if I want to introduce someone to the manga, I can show them a particular story or two that I like from any particular volume and it won’t affect their ability to understand the story.  The episodic nature gives the series a great pace and allows for a variety of incredibly interesting stories.  As fascinating as many of the procedures that Black Jack performs can be, it’s worth noting that not all of them are completely medically accurate (or in some cases humanly possible).  Despite this, even the most ludicrous of surgeries make for a wildly entertaining read, be they an attempt to fuse the circulatory systems of a mother and child together so the weak heart of one can be supported by the strong circulation of the other or even an attempt to give a Teratogenous Cystoma (It’s a rare type of parasitic twin/tumor. Google it and the first result you’ll see relates to this manga) a second chance at life.

This cover from one of the original Japanese manga releases shows much of the primary and supporting cast of Black Jack.

The characters in Black Jack are what make the manga for me.  The titular doctor is one of my favorite characters in any manga or anime.  I really like his strong sense of duty and his desire to always put his patients first.  His methods may not always be in the moral right, or even legal for that matter, but he’s always willing to go to the fullest lengths to ensure the success of an operation.  Despite this, Black Jack still fails on occasion or sometimes comes to an instance where his particular brand of bedside manner and inconceivable surgical skill doesn’t always pay off.  This combination of character traits make for a character that is very entertaining, but still very much human enough to make mistakes.  The story isn’t just about Black Jack though, as there are a surprising large number of characters that crop up in the series. His sidekick, who happens to be that aforementioned Teratogenous Cystoma given a second chance at life, goes by the name of Pinoko and often serves as more of a comic relief character.  Because of her unique condition and a mostly artificial body, she has the appearance of a young girl and speaks with a strong lisp.  While most of her antics are humorous, Pinoko does have her own share of serious moments and stories. Other recurring characters include Dr. Honma, Black Jack’s mentor, Biwamaru, a doctor who specializes in acupuncture, and Dr. Kiriko, Black Jack’s longtime rival.  Like many of Tezuka’s works, characters from his other manga make an appearance in this series in some shape or form, most often as supporting characters and even patients.

The art style in Black Jack is the one aspect that will be hit or miss with some readers.  As a manga that originated during the 70-s, many of the character and background designs are a bit on the simple side.  Combine this with Tesuka’s rather unique character design traits and you have a design style that is a very “love it or hate it” aesthetic.  Personally, I like the art style, and I never felt like it detracted from the series.  While the aforementioned elements will likely come down to a matter of taste, there’s no denying that the depictions of medical procedures, organs, and tissues is absolutely stellar.  For what is technically considered a shonen series, though some will argue it fits the seinin label better, Black Jack doesn’t shy away from some rather gruesome depictions of the things that comprise the human body.  I don’t feel these depictions ever get too gory or disturbing, and they’re certainly no worse than what you’d see on a modern medical drama.

I highly recommend this series to anyone who wants an introduction to manga, or the works of Osamu Tezuka. The episodic nature of the stories allows readers to pick and choose the stories they want to read (though you’ll want to read all of them, trust me) and also allows them to reread favorites without needing to reread a plethora of backstory or buildup.  While the medical scenarios it presents may not always be accurate, they always succeed in creating a thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish.