June 19, 2009
by: Serdar Yegulalp
Volume five shows Tezuka at both his best and not-so-best.
Manga Description: Black Jack is a mysterious and charismatic young genius surgeon who travels the world performing amazing and impossible medical feats. Though a trained physician, he refuses to accept a medical license due to his hatred and mistrust of the medical community's hypocrisy and corruption. This leads Black Jack to occasional run-ins with the authorities, as well as from gangsters and criminals who approach him for illegal operations.
Black Jack charges exorbitant fees for his services, the proceeds from which he uses to fund environmental projects and to aid victims of crime and corrupt capitalists. But because Black Jack keeps his true motives secret, his ethics are perceived as questionable and he is considered a selfish, uncaring devil.
Story and art by Osamu Tezuka.
Content: (This section may contain spoilers.)
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.
© Tezuka Productions
Black Jack bends a few rules of hospital protocol to deliver his brand of health care.
Art: 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. The only bonus this time around is a few pages excerpted from another Tezuka work also published by Vertical, the excellent Dororo (with a kind of medical-anomaly tie-in theme).
The Bottom Line: 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.