As is my custom, for every 50th article I cover in this column, I talk about the work by the “Godfather of Manga” Osamu Tezuka, the man who probably did more than anyone else to make anime and manga the artistic icons they are today. Having started this column with his most iconic series Astro Boy (No. 1), then moving onto Princess Knight (No. 51) and Kimba the White Lion (No. 101), we now turn to another of his most famous creations.
Black Jack was originally a manga which Tezuka wrote between 1973 and 1983. However, despite the popularity of the series and its title character, the series was not animated during his lifetime. It was first adapted as a straight-to-video Original Video Animation (OVA) in 1993 (Tezuka having died in 1989), and since then has gone on to have several other adaptations, including a TV series in 2004, films, spin-offs, and most recently a prequel entitled Young Black Jack that was broadcast on TV in 2015. Before he became a manga artist Tezuka was a medical student, so perhaps not surprisingly the central figure in Black Jack is also a medical man, albeit one unlike any other.
The title character of the series, Black Jack, formerly Kuro Hazama, works as an unlicensed surgeon. When he was eight he was badly injured in an explosion which also killed his mother. Fortunately his life was saved by the brilliant Dr. Jotaro Honma. Because of him, Black Jack was able to regain the use of his arms and legs, thus virtually living a normal life. However, he is still to this day horribly disfigured. His body is covered in scars, the shock of his injuries turned part of his hair completely white, and his face is two different colours after his half-African friend helped him with a skin graft. He kept his friend’s original skin colour as a mark of respect to him.
Over the years Black Jack trained himself to be a skilled surgeon, but never became licensed as he did not want to be part of the corrupt establishment. Instead, he lives in a remote area and works privately, but hardly gets any work. This is partly due to his appearance and partly because of what he admits as his extremely extortionate fees. A cheap operation costs ¥10,000,000 (over £60,000), although sometimes he does lower the cost in special cases.
The series follows Black Jack, case-by-case, as he takes care of any sick patient who is capable of paying his extraordinary costs, and also righting various wrongs that he sees around. He is also normally assisted by his surrogate daughter Pinoko, who was a rare form of parasitic twin living in one of his patients for 18 years. Black Jack extracted her and gave Pinoko a body with a plastic exoskeleton. This body though does have its limits: Pinoko cannot grow so she looks like a young girl although she is actually an adult, she has a lisp, and she cannot swim. Despite this, Pinoko loves Black Jack and constantly tells people that she is actually his wife.
To this day Black Jack is one of anime’s most famous characters: the mysterious doctor who gets little recognition for his good deeds, which is seemingly the way that he likes it. With his scarred body and unusual clothes (he is often seen walking around in a black cape), and the fact he charges rich and poor so much, he seems to want to put people off him. However, he is still a good, moral man, treating the injured come what may and stopping what he sees as wrong.
Another entertaining aspect of the series is the use of what is known as Osamu Tezuka’s “star system”. Tezuka, a great lover of films, treated his own characters like actors and thus they would constantly appear in lots of different series. Thus characters from Astro Boy, Princess Knight, Kimba the White Lion and other works by him all appear in Black Jack as well. Even the medically-educated Tezuka appears as himself, playing a doctor (although for obvious reasons he never voiced his part). It is a bonus treat for fans of his work, but don’t worry if you have not seen everything he has done, as the characters rarely relate to their original titles.
Black Jack features gripping stories, one of anime’s most famous leading roles, and an entertaining cast of characters. It is a fun, exciting and engrossing series.
A 1996 anime film reworking of the 1993 OVA was released by Manga Entertainment on DVD, but only second-hand copies are now available. Two collections of the 2004 TV series of Black Jack are released by Anime Sols on Region 1 DVD. Young Black Jack is streamed on Crunchyroll.