February 18, 2010
by: Serdar Yegulalp
Even middling Black Jack is better than most other things at their 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.)
I’ll put this part behind me right away. As Black Jacks go, volume 9 is only fair. That makes it an okay part of a great whole—but that doesn’t dilute the quality of the whole. It simply makes the good parts of this series all the more worthy.
It also doesn’t mean volume 9 should be ignored. In fact, reading it compelled more thought about the series and the way I’ve approached manga in translation than most anything I’ve laid eyes on in months. The reason? This is the first volume of BJ I’ve read in Japanese long before the English version ever landed on my doorstep.
I hadn’t planned to do it that way. Insights are never planned. Late last year, in New York City’s Book-Off, I ran across a used copy of the untranslated volume 9 for the whopping price of $1. I needed no persuasion. At that price, any book would have been worth it; this one, doubly so. I slapped down my credit card, ran home, and that night read it cover-to-cover with my electronic kanji dictionary close at hand. But somehow I’d grown so used to Black Jack as a translated work that I couldn’t help but feel I’d only read half the book—that the other half was Vertical’s own yet-to-be-released edition, which now sits to my left as I type this.
So a curious thing has happened. In my mind, the two halves of the book stood completely apart, like the rooks on either side of a chessboard. There was the untranslated (and for that reason, still-alluring) original; and the translated (and far less enticing) follow-up. The grass really was greener on the other side of the language barrier. And the odds of this translation somehow not being the same book I’d puzzled through on my own were somewhere down there with the Large Hadron Collider popping out Twinkies. It just wasn’t as good as I had hoped—or, better to say, as good as I had let myself believe. The sheer glee I felt while making sense of the originals had single-handedly displaced any criticisms.
The last time I ran across a middling volume of Black Jack was #5, which I imagined might have been argument enough by itself for its previous licensors (VIZ) to stick with the anthology approach they adopted with Golgo 13. But I kept faith in Tezuka bounding back, and he did. It’s just that anyone producing that amount of genuinely great work (on deadlines, to boot) was bound to come a cropper every so often. The same problems are in evidence here: the worst stories are either aimless or feel like Tezuka Lite, with half the calories and none of—as the New Yorker put it when talking about Simone de Beauvoir—“the salt of recklessness that makes art sting.”
The opening story is as good an example as any of how Black Jack can go flat. “Teacher and Pupil” gives us a kid who’d sooner throw himself into moving traffic than face another day dealing with his supercilious teacher. The kid ends up in the hospital, and said teacher—who bragged before about a tongue-lashing being as good as a beating—now has to eat his words when he calls Black Jack and gets a taste of real heartlessness. The words are there, but the music is missing, and the whole thing feels too easy and on-the-nose to really work.
Then there are the stories that smack of redundancy, like “The Promise”—little more than a redux of “Twice Dead” from volume 6, where Black Jack saves a man’s life only to have him executed—and to a lesser extent, “Three-Legged Race”, where a body part from the dead goes to sustain the living, only they don’t find out about it until it’s dramatically convenient. Or the stories that are just inexplicable—like the final story in the volume, “Guinea Pig”, a frippery which only hangs together at all because of Black Jack’s intriguing throwaway comments in the very last panel. It’s all so frustrating because we know Tezuka can do better; we’ve seen it with our own eyes.
We do see it with our own eyes in this volume, just not often. When it happens, though, it’s electric. A story which I was fond of when I read it in the untranslated original remains one of my favorites here, too: “Mistress Shihara”, where Black Jack risks ostracism by a community (not like he doesn’t know anything about that, come to think of it) while pitting his talents against a charlatan, the titular Mistress Shihara. Dressed in the robes of a shrine maiden, waving her paper wands, she dispenses false hope and superstition when a boy develops a rare and incurable skin condition. She has good reason for clinging to her way of doing things, against all reason: in the last panels, we learn she’s suffering from the same illness. I know objectively the story is not really the best one in the book, but it has a personal resonance. Seeing Black Jack put one over her was like getting psychic revenge on all the Mistress Shiharas of this world who’ve cheated people close to me.
The best of the bunch this time around is “A Question of Priorities”, the same story the makers of the current animated Black Jack TV series elected to go with as the opening episode for the show. Here, Black Jack has to perform triage and work simultaneously on three wildly different patients: an infant, a wealthy billionare, and an endangered Iriomote wildcat. This is the Black Jack we love to see: a guy who can do the impossible, face a moral dilemma, and use his wiles to conjure up a way out for himself and everyone else involved. It’s a reminder of how Tezuka could (and often did) toss a great story over his shoulder with one hand while sketching Black Jack’s white forelock with the other.
The Bottom Line: As problematic as volume 9 can get, I still give it a high rating—both because of the series it’s from and because even bad Tezuka is still better than many other people’s best efforts. But my rating is only that: a number. Consider this book for the completists; they can come back to it after they’ve already picked up many of the other, better volumes. Fear not, though; next time around I’ll drop back a bit and talk about another, better volume: #8.