Black Jack Special: The Four Miracles of Life
(taken from the YTV media kit for Black Jack)
A young boy is born into happy family has his bright future ripped away in a horrible accident. Facing certain death, he survives countless hours of critical surgery and endures a long, torturous rehabilitation. Orphaned and disfigured, the boy vows to become a surgeon and follow in the footsteps of the kindly old doctor who was not willing to give up on him.
Many years later, the miracle worker Black Jack is born. A doctor of unearthly skill who can do the impossible on the operating table. A doctor who charges his patients unbelievable fees. And a doctor who plies his trade without a license.
It's not clear why he works underground. Perhaps his license was revoked, or perhaps he has too much contempt for formality to be licensed in the first place. But licensed or not, there's no denying that this man is a surgeon the likes of which the world has never seen.
Many come to seek his aid, from dubious characters to children and even animals. Patients on death's door, patients whom other doctors gave no chance, all turn to Black Jack as their last shred of hope.
When they arrive at the doctor's house overlooking the sea, they are greeted by his only companions, Pinoco, a childlike girl who claims to be an adult and a strange dog named Largo. And then the mysterious figure in black appears.
"I will perform the surgery. But it will cost you..."
When talking to Japanese people about what they consider the best anime of all time, it might be surprising to some that their list is drastically different from what even the most learned anime critics consider to be the finest works. Sure, there will be mention of Miyazaki--most likely Nausicaa. But topping the list will be long-time favorites Chibi Maruko-chan, Sazae-san, and of course Doraemon.
But Tezuka Osamu, the "father of Japanese animation and manga" is always included in the list, and it is a crying shame that he doesn't get more attention in the West. Sure, most people will recognize Astro Boy and maybe even Jungle Emperor Leo on sight. If you are like me, you might have somewhere in the far-away foggiest memories visions of the baby unicorn Unico, which was my first brush with Sanrio as well.
I think one of the main reasons Tezuka is so overlooked today is because most people who got into anime because of how "different" it is will be turned off by his more cartoony style, influenced by classic Disney works such as Mickey Mouse.
Those wishing to dabble in classic anime without "sacrificing" modern-day animation values will find a gem in Black Jack, arguably Tezuka's darkest, most adult work. Tezuka himself was a licensed doctor, and once said that the character Black Jack (dubbed "the Harlock of medicine") was the doctor that Tezuka himself dreamt of being. Tezuka's medical background plays a large part in the series, but don't get me wrong, Tezuka intended Black Jack's skills to be inhuman. A great majority of the medical procedures the main character performs are impossible, and must be taken at face value.
Tezuka has created one of anime's most intriguing, enigmatic protagonists in the character of Black Jack. His motivation is unclear at times, though normally at the end of each episode, his reasoning is revealed to us, leaving us stunned, amazed, or sometimes furious at the "doctor" for being so reckless. But his character is the type that doesn't care. Black Jack's aim, he says, is to help people live by whatever means necessary--be it through a miraculous procedure, offering a means of hope to live for, or even if it means giving his patients a sense of vengance to lead them through the rest of their lives. But a review alone cannot unveil the depth that is behind Black Jack, a character who has been developed over several decades.
This four episode special was actually used to test the modern-day audience to see if there was still a market for "vintage" anime titles. The recent successes of the new Astro Boy title, as well as a Glass Mask remake and Ginga Densetsu WEED (sequel to the 1980s series Ginga Nagareboshi Gin) are also proof that true anime classics are timeless, and Black Jack is definitely that.
The stories of the special (and the television series that followed) are all self-containing, most of them paying no consequence to any kind of continuity. The specials are as such, they can be watched before, after, or between watching the television series, though sometimes these specials are referenced during the run of the actual series.
The four stories (each episode being designated as a "karte": a clinical chart) gives an example of the different types of stories that Black Jack deals with, and I would say it is a rich and varied sort. The first episode deals with the delinquent son of a rich public figure getting nearly killed while driving recklessly throughout town. The father hires Black Jack to save his son--an act impossible without a large number of donor body parts. After some serious string-pulling and bribery, the father manages to "legally" convict a young man named Davey who was a bystander at the accident to "attempted murder." Davey's sentence? To donate his body to save the life of the affluent family's son. The predictability of this episode is probably its weakest point, but it is still extremely gratifying to see Black Jack's own sense of justice at work.
While the first episode shows Black Jack administering his own sense of "humanitarian justice," the second episode is more of a heart-warming family values episode of sort, is about an old woman living out in the country, a proud mother of four sons--though she only owns up to three of them. As her sixtieth birthday rolls around, she has prepared a marvelous dinner for her three accomplished sons, but as she waits for them in the company of Black Jack and Pinoco, messages arrive that they are all too busy to visit her. Disappointed in her model children, she drinks alone with her two visitors when the fourth son, who she earlier deemed worthless, shows up to wish her a happy birthday. Resentment and unsettled feelings arise, but are cut short as the elderly woman collapses, clutching her side in pain. Will the disowned son and Black Jack be able to cooperate to save the woman while stranded out in the country?
The third episode highlights a more science-fiction element of Black Jack which is usually quite subdued. In classic Tezuka style, episode three features a computerized hospital system, where robot appendanges and holograms administer all the treatment and conduct all the procedures. After "U-18," the computer caring for all the in-patients, keeps hearing the name "Black Jack" repeatedly amongst her patients, her curiousity spurs it to contract an "illness," causing her inner circuits to malfunction. The computer declares itself "ill," and holds the hospital under seiqe, demanding that Black Jack be the only doctor to "cure" it. At what price will Black Jack agree to "treat" this machine, after all, he only treats living creatures...but will that all matter when there are hundreds of patients at the mercy of a computer gone bad?
The final, fourth episode is what makes Black Jack, at least in my opinion, a step above the other Tezuka works. Without giving too much away, we get one of the many glimpses into Black Jack's past, meeting the doctor that saved his life as a child, and gave him all the motivation and resources needed to follow the path of medicine on his own. But in the final episode of this television special, Black Jack visits the aged doctor, who has a shameful confession to make on his death bed. The final episode does an amazing job of showing that, even with his god-like medical skill, Black Jack is still human, still errs, and still falls into the very same vice that most doctors do when they try to take full responsibility of someone's life in their hands. The final episode portrays a vulnerable protagonist struggling to reconcile with the reality of life he so often tries to manipulate to his own ends.
Strong storylines are this series' selling point, but fans of animation need not worry. While it is nothing outright breathtaking, the animation is clean and doesn't suffer from any sort of short-changed budget. (I imagine that Tezuka productions is hardly suffering for spare change...) The greatest accomplishment to me, however, is how the artwork is extremely loyal to the original manga style of Tezuka--even moreso than the previous animated attempts at Black Jack in earlier movies and OVA titles. Our title character still remains dark and brooding, but doesn't stick out with the brighter, slightly more cartoonish supporting cast. Fans will be pleased to see several cameo appearances of "Dr. Tezuka," undoubtedly self-insertion of the late manga master.
As several of my colleagues here at THEM have stated in the licensed Black Jack animations that are available in North America, this series is really difficult to describe accurately in words...that is the sure sign of an anime great. The Four Miracles of Life is a great sample of what the longer-running television series that follows has to offer. Different stories speak to different people, but what you get is a socially redeeming, intellectually stimulating series, without the pretention of trying to be "intellectual" (a la Evangelion or several other titles).
More manga writers should take a few cues from Tezuka. This fandom needs less CLAMP stock angst puppies, less loli-complex Chii clones, and more Black Jacks and Pinocos. Then the world would be a much happier, much safer place.
In order to have the Tezuka name branded on it, you shouldn't expect anything less. A perfect set of stories to whet the appetite of the TV series which is to follow. — Melissa Sternenberg
Recommended Audience: Recommended for anyone who wants thought-provoking, but not angst-inducing, drama. Content-wise, nothing above your usual ER fare.
Version(s) Viewed: Prerelease fansub
Review Status: Full (4/4)
Black Jack Special: The Four Miracles of Life © 2003 Tezuka Productions / YTV
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