Black Jack

Black Jack deserves a read simply because it was written by Tezuka Osamu, the legendary "father of manga"; but moreover, it stands as one of Tezuka Osamu's most powerful, moving works as well. The following is an overview, because like so many other good manga, Black Jack is a series of short stories.

Note: The absolutely terrible full-length Black Jack movie that made it to the US should NOT be considered representative of this series.

One might wonder how a manga about a surgeon could be interesting. Read this series, and you'll understand. The man called Black Jack is a surgeon --- but perhaps he might be better called a medical pirate (as the author once called him), and these stories are, when it comes down to it, about him, though each one tells a broader human story as well. Like a cross between Bradbury and a Medical Guide, these stories are possibly some of Tezuka Osamu's finest.

Black Jack himself looks like a cross between Captain Harlock and Cruella de Ville (from 101 Dalmations)--- his shock of hair is half white, half black, his face is marred by long scars, and his skin is a patchwork of dark and light (many other manga have parodied his face here and there). Dressed in black vest, black coat, and carrying a black bag, he almost looks like a late 19th century doctor. But his surgical techniques are far ahead of his time. A medical genius, he has done "miracles" such as operating on 17 people at once, doing complicated surgery by himself --- and even operating on himself via mirror once or twice. But the world, as a whole, hates him, for his prices are exorbitant, often in the tens of thousands of dollars (or higher). He is outwardly cold and downright condescending. Yet, beneath the hard exterior is a warmer side, sometimes all but forgotten by even himself, as well as the soul of a doctor.

The exterior is indeed cold and uncaring, but underneath, Black Jack is moved often by his patients, sometimes foregoing his fees when someone impresses him with selfless compassion, or a pure and remarkable will to live. He also channels much of his money into buying pristine islands for conservation purposes. And, recognizing his cold exterior is a powerful tool, he also has no qualms about making himself seem the villain in order to turn lives around -- being misunderstood is natural to him, and a few more misunderstandings in the name of healing people is nothing new to him.

In fact, that is what Black Jack does best -- heal people both physically and spiritually. Whether by rescuing would-be suicides, letting patients think him a villain to give them the goal of revenge to live for, giving back his exorbitant fees, or even healing a minor parade of wounded animals, Black Jack frequently acts more out of compassion than anything else. Sometimes, though, he metes out his own personal brand of justice. In one example, the justice is exacted against his estranged father. Black Jack's childhood with his mother plays a pivotal role in many stories, including this one: the two were abandoned by Black Jack's father, and soon afterward were both horribly injured in a land mine explosion. His mother, rendered immobile and unable to speak, suffered horribly -- and Black Jack himself endured years of operations and rehabilitation. One day, as an adult surgeon, Black Jack finds himself unexpectedly going to meet his father, whose new wife now has a facial disfigurement that needs surgical correction. The father's request is to remake her face into that of "the most beautiful woman in the world." Black Jack, as he operates, asks his father if there is any love of his former wife left. Hearing a negative answer, Black Jack finishes the operation. When the bandages come off, the father sees his new wife's face transformed into the face of his ex-wife. Confronted by this by his distraught father, Black Jack replies that, if his father had but professed a tiny bit of love for the ex-wife, the face would have come out differently. In any case, to Black Jack's mind, his mother was the most beautiful woman in the world....

The stories themselves, though often based on medical fact (Tezuka Osamu really did have extensive medical training), have a strong streak of fantasy. They also have a tendency to be a little out of date by modern medical standards (the ease with which Black Jack transfers body parts is not really possible right now, given immune system rejection problems). And there are one or two outright scientific flaws (whales have never been known to eat people, though this is written into a couple stories; and one could argue that, say, a cactus with a mind of its own is a "scientific flaw," no matter how intriguing a plot device it is). Still, the medical information is probably largely accurate (I wouldn't know), and the drawings of surgical situations are probably fairly accurate as well. To its credit, Black Jack also has a deep sense of environmental awareness and a strong conservationist bent.

Writing shortened versions hardly does Black Jack stories justice. (Another problem is I can't translate most of the diseases/disorders from Japanese to English :-P ) Still, the following is one of my favorites:

In one story, Black Jack is hired by the fat, bejewelled wife of a totalitarian leader of a small, war-torn country. It is now Black Jack's task to save the life of this leader should something happen --- but Black Jack, knowing his medical limits, inserts one clause: he will not be held responsible if the leader were to be "separated into little pieces (Jp: koppamijin) as a result of a bomb blast." Upon arriving in the country, Black Jack quickly realizes that the leader is medically paranoid; the man believes that everyone is out to get him. The leader will not even allow a local hospital to move its wounded children to the palace, for fear of assassination. Black Jack watches quietly from the side. That night, he meets the leader's son, a little boy who climbs in through the window and asks that Black Jack assassinate his father. "For the sake of the people," says the boy; he realizes that his father's paranoia is making the entire country miserable. Black Jack refuses: "After all, I'm being paid a great deal of money to keep him alive." The boy spits at him in disgust ("All you care about is money?"), and leaves. Shortly afterward, the little boy assassinates his father himself, with a hand grenade. The dying father murmurs, "You? You were the assassin?" in disbelief, and dies. The boy, in tears, turns himself in and is led away. Black Jack, meanwhile, springs into action. He orders that the local hospital bring in its wounded children. Setting up a mass surgical room, he uses the leader's body parts to help patch up the children, who are allowed to recover in the palace. The leader's weeping wife later calls him on the phone. "Why did you let my husband die?" she demands. "Why, madame," replies Black Jack, "our contract said I would save his life --- unless, of course, he was `separated into little pieces as a result of a bomb blast.' And right now he's in oh, about 40 pieces. He's probably doing more good now than he ever did while alive." The wife is so stunned she cannot reply. Meanwhile, the wounded children are sleeping quietly....

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