Young Black Jack
It's 1968: the world is in the middle of the Vietnam War, the conflict has dragged on for years, and anti-war student protests are spreading throughout Japan. Seemingly uninterested in this, Kuroo Hazama is an aloof, mysterious young man with a prominent scar on his face enrolled in medical school; his skills with a scalpel are, it turns out, as legendary as his penchant for disregarding rules, conventions, and etiquette, and he's quickly making a name for himself as an exceptionally talented but eccentric surgeon. Such is the man who will one day come to be known only as "Black Jack."
If you're going to talk to somebody about Osamu Tezuka, the "godfather of manga," then Black Jack will almost always be one of the first Tezuka manga they'll think of: in the States, it's probably his most popular series among average anime fans, as opposed to comic book junkies or fans of retro manga specifically. In my opinion that might have something to do with the character design, which is a bit less obviously Disney-ish than that in his other works, meaning that it seems a bit less out of place among the spectrum of modern anime designs. But another aspect is that the basic plot is the grizzled lone-wolf character undertaking a grim, lonely quest to work around (and potentially dismantle) a corrupt system, and that's a very popular narrative that we've been seeing for years on this side of the Pacific (not to mention that the popularity of medical dramas can't hurt).
Because of this, I think Black Jack has generally had a better track record with anime adaptations, at least over here, than most of Tezuka's other stories. Now, the Young Black Jack manga is a rarity in that that it's authored by two people using Tezuka's characters rather than Tezuka himself, which happens all the time in the States but is rare and usually pretty controversial in Japan. I'm not familiar enough with the Japanese fandom to talk about what the reactions have been like over there, but I'll say that on this side of the Pacific, it's a popular enough story that this spinoff has come up against the opinions of fans who argue that it's ill-suited to the tone of the original. Looking at this from my perspective, as somebody who's *liked* what she's read of Black Jack but hasn't read much at all, I don't want to dwell on comparisons, although I'll talk about them in this review; basically, it's an entertaining, if pretty predictable, medical drama, but it's on the right-wing and simplistic side as far as its politics go, and the show does tend to make anybody who isn't named Kuroo Hazama into an incompetent ass, which makes the drama way less effective in my view.
Young Black Jack is nice-looking, if a bit on the bland side. The animation can be choppy, especially during the more action-heavy scenes, and Tezuka's talent for framing is lacking here; honestly, I sometimes wonder if the reason that his manga don't get many adaptations is that his style is *very* hard to get right, while there's simultaneously a ton of pressure to *get* it right given the pedigree. But the character designers do a good job of keeping Tezuka's characaters
Now, Young Black Jack is generally a nice-looking series. Sure, the animation can be choppy, especially during some of the more confrontation-ridden and action-heavy sequences, and the cinematography lacks Tezuka's framing and perspective skill; sometimes I wonder, honestly, if his works get adapted so rarely simply because that aspect of his style can be very hard to capture, and because there's so much pressure to get it right. But the character design does a nice job of keeping Tezuka's original characters recognizable while smoothing out some of the most cartoonish, Disney-ish character shapes that would look especially out of place here. The purists might cry "foul!", but I think it's a smart move, and the ED sequence, niftily, consists of two playing cards side by side, rotating around to reveal a sketch of a character from Tezuka's original manga on one side and their updated design on the other. In wonderfully quintessential Tezuka fashion, Tabata and Okuma use a large number of characters from his other series in their script, and those side-by-side comparisons end up being a big help when we meet some of them; look for Hyakkimaru from Dororo to make a prominent appearance, for example. Speaking of the music, the opening and ending themes are both catchy rock numbers, although I cringed a bit at some of the questionable English in the former, and I don't have much to say about the in-show music. I'd call it a pretty competent production, overall: director Mitsuko Kase does a fine job of balancing the tastes of modern anime audiences with old-school elements, and she's also well aware that there are probably a lot of straight women watching this who will appreciate the manservice potential in shots of Black Jack's bare and exceptionally muscular torso, of which there are quite a few.
But yes: Black Jack is not yet technically "Black Jack" here but a normal medical student named Kuroo Hazama, or at least ....somewhat more normal than his original manga counterpart. He's still recognizable as Black Jack because of his trademark scars, and because his personality as an independent-minded and somewhat dour, curmudgeonly, and eccentric character isn't much changed from his portrayal in Tezuka's original manga, and he's still as impeccable a surgeon as ever. The rules of TV censorship, sadly, take the fun of seeing some of the details of his operations out of the picture, which is a shame for me (though maybe an incentive for people who are more squeamish than me), but the animation does noticeably pick up in quality during his surgeries. In fact, the only real difference between this show and Tezuka's original manga, in terms of characters or basic structure, is that Pinoko isn't here, which might be either an upside or downside depending on how you feel about her; her absence, actually, does help this show from feeling dated, since the squickiness of her calling herself "his wife" (even if Black Jack doesn't really encourage this) sticks out way more now than it probably did back in the 70s. Anyway, that point is that Young Black Jack doesn't exactly feel like an origin story because Kuroo Hazama the medical student really isn't all that different from Black Jack the rogue doctor, and for better or for worse, this is simply more Black Jack, in my opinion. You could argue that it was pointless to make or that it's a cash cow, because of this; my suspicion is that given how popular the character is, anybody besides the now long-deceased Osamu Tezuka who tried to talk about how Black Jack's personality formed as it did would be stepping into a minefield, since he's basically sacred as a character, by now, and any deviation from Tezuka's character mold might basically be sacrilege.
I say that this is still Black Jack "for better or for worse" because on the one hand, Young Black Jack works very well as a medical drama, but on the other hand, it ranges between being simplistic and not addressing the question at all, when it comes to us learning about Kuroo Hazama became the exceptionally gifted rogue doctor he eventually did, and the last episode is decidedly open-ended on where that exact transition occurs. Black Jack's encyclopedic knowledge of obscure diseases and conditions is really something to behold, as are his borderline-miracle maneuvers: the wonderful thing, of course, is that while they seem miraculous, there's plausible science behind all of them, and I can tell that the writers of the Young Black Jack manga did a good job of keeping Tezuka's penchant for medically accurate writing intact (since he was a doctor by trade). But Black Jack doesn't have much to learn, here, and can come across as a Jesus figure; maybe the original manga touched more on his training (to be honest, I've only read scattered chapters of it), but here, he's basically a hyper-competent surgeon, already.
I mentioned earlier in this review that I speculate that Black Jack is especially popular in the States because Black Jack himself is honestly something of a superhero. He has an unusual origin story, as a badly maimed orphan patched together by a master surgeon (however vaguely alluded to in this version), and he's both supremely skilled and intent on doing his work somewhat outside of "the system." I have to admit that while I liked this show, I'm really just not that interested in traditional superhero stories, perhaps because I tend to find that writing "moral outsider" stories tends to be a convenient way to avoid addressing what's actually wrong with the system. Black Jack has disdain for the system of corrupt, backstabbing doctors more obsessed with promotion than saving their patients, and for the decadent and equally corrupt Japanese government, but Young Black Jack also has several arcs in which it goes out of its way to depict various others opposing these institutions as being equally corrupt, cowardly, and pathetic. The anti-Vietnam war activists seen in several arcs, for example, are shown as being suffocatingly self-righteous and mercenary, morally bankrupt and more than willing to see innocent bystanders or eager recruits get hurt if it advances their goals. In another arc, basically "Black Jack goes to America," Johnny, a black civil rights activist who at the very least is shown as one of the only characters besides Black Jack to not have a mercantilist moral complex, ends up abandoning his crusade once Black Jack cures him of the pain insensitivity that had previously emboldened him to stand up to police brutality during his rallies. In that particular case, I was actually somewhat impressed that the show dealt with the American civil rights movement in a remotely accurate manner, but I was less impressed that it seemed to be implying that Johnny's efforts were ultimately futile.
I've seen some descriptions of Young Black Jack as right-wing, but I think that I see it as more anti-political (or possibly libertarian), than left-wing, right-wing, or whatnot. In this vision, system is corrupt, the people trying to overthrow the system are either equally corrupt or shut out by those who would make the movement corrupt and violent (which is part of what happens to Johnny), and nobody can change this...except for Black Jack, who magically operates above and outside of all of this moral decrepitude. I think that one of the reasons I loved Monster, which Naoki Urasawa at least partially intended to be a modern "answer" to Black Jack, was that the main character, as idealistic as he was, was always forced to grapple with the limits and realities of his idealism and what it meant in the context of the real world. Black Jack is never once forced to do this, since his exceptional idealism and righteousness is a given.
It's a little bit of a frustrating dynamic for me, not to mention because the show also seems to go out of its way to make it clear that literally nobody besides Black Jack himself can do anything. One aspect of Young Black Jack that annoyed me was how it handled the character arc of Maiko Okamoto, a medical intern who appears alongside Black Jack in several episodes; if I'm correct, she first appeared in the Young Black Jack manga and was never present in Tezuka's version. Now I have nothing against her, and at the show's start I was frankly happy that the show had a female doctor at all, but while the show says several times that she's a capable and intelligent internist, she hardly gets to do much besides be Black Jack's assistant in a few operations. The one time that she actually starts operating on a character, Black Jack more-or-less pushes her aside in an infuriating "let me do this" moment; as righteous as he may be, he's not above being a chauvinist, apparently, and I really would've liked to see her get at least one moment to shine. In fact, the best arc of the series is the one set of episodes where Black Jack contends with doctors who are nearly as competent as he is, if not equally so, including one of his previous mentors.
This arc works because it isn't simplistic, and as much as the original dynamic of Black Jack-as-lone-wolf was present in Tezuka's original manga, it was decidedly one of the less simplistic of his works. Young Black Jack largely fails as political drama because so much of this aspect feels oversimplified: its view of the clashes between student war protestors and the government is decidedly lacking in nuance, as is its depiction of the Vietnam War itself during the episodes that Black Jack spends there, where the righteousness of the Americans and South Vietnamese government is driven in and contrasted with the apparent inhuman evilness of those fighting for the Viet Cong. The Civil Rights-centered arc is somewhat better, but overall, Young Black Jack works well as a medical drama and not at all as political drama; it's not completely possible to separate those two aspects, and so my opinion of the show did sink down because of this.
I probably sound like I dislike Young Black Jack, and that's not actually true: like I said, it's great as a medical drama and has plenty of entertainment value. But it falls in a weird place, in terms of what audience it's best suited for. Rose Bridges' episode guide at ANN argues that it's probably best enjoyed by those who don't have much knowledge of the original, since in her view, some political aspects of this version seem decidedly at odds with it. My view is that its streak of lone-warrior individualist ethics is pretty similar, since I felt that this was present in Tezuka's version as well; the main difference is that Young Black Jack tries harder to prove the point that everybody besides Black Jack himself is corrupt and useless. As I said, I haven't actually read that much of the manga, and while I certainly didn't find this hard to follow, I don't exactly have the perspective of a die-hard Black Jack fan, but, I'll give this a cautious recommendation because in my view it is very much Black Jack, for good and bad. Good, in that I've found what I've read or seen of other versions entertaining; bad, in that there's a limit to how invested I can get in straight-up superhero or superhero-esque character arcs, these days.
This was a tough call: during some of the better arcs, I liked this show enough to give it a fourth star, whereas a few of the arcs were just laughably simplistic. It's overall an enjoyable series to watch, but I have a lot of reservations about the "lone source of morality" aspect and the fact that it makes everybody besides Black Jack himself out to be cartoonishly useless....and I personally think that if you have no real interest in Black Jack or in Tezuka's manga, don't bother with this, since as modern "responses" to Tezuka's manga, Naoki Urasawa's output is more interesting. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: Sentai says TV-MA, I'd say older kids and teenagers should be okay...there's a lot of bloodshed, though it's less gory and graphic than the original Black Jack manga was, so that when we see characters die or get maimed, most of it happens off-screen. For a medical drama the "squick" factor is also pretty low, especially compared to the manga, where it's *really* obvious that Osamu Tezuka went to medical school.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream courtesy of crunchyroll.com (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Young Black Jack © 2015 Young Black Jack Production Committee
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