The Mike Toole Show
Two-Fisted Tales of Surgery

by Michael Toole, Dec 18th 2011

In 1999, I went on a whirlwind tour of China, South Korea, and Japan. The Japan part of the trip was memorable, but predictable enough - my pals and I headed straight for Mandarake (Osaka), followed closely by stops at Mandarake (Shibuya) and Mandarake (Nakano Broadway). Okay, we did other stuff - the war memorial at Hiroshima, the temples in Kyoto - but our travels always seemed to bend towards otaku goods stores, or the Tezuka Museum. I had to hit that place, because my favorite anime and manga character is Black Jack, Tezuka's scarred, chilly, but principled rogue doctor.


Black Jack was the first character I cosplayed as. I discovered the character courtesy of Osamu Dezaki's exceptional OVA series, which was one of the first VHS fansubs I acquired for myself, after a couple of years of mooching off of fellow UMass club members. I subscribed to Viz's short-lived Manga Viz-ion solely because the manga series ran there. When U.S. Manga Corps started releasing Black Jack on video in the US, I studiously bought each tape as it was released. I spent hundreds of dollars on Black Jack merchandise, including those awesome Medicom REAL ACTION HEROES dolls, books, stationery, film comics, keychains, figurines... if it had Black Jack on it, I got it. I even have a set of Black Jack playing cards. I got the two collected editions Viz released, and was crestfallen when the series was dropped. Figuring that it was too unorthodox to see release in English, I came back from Japan laden with hardcover reprints of the original series. When I visited Montreal the following year, I loaded up on the series in French, and started puzzling out the stories in that more-comprehensible-to-my-gaijin-eyes language. It took a lot of time manually typing text into a dodgy French translation program, not to mention a few notes to French-speaking pals, but I got five or six chapters translated for my own satisfaction. But it was just too much work!

By now, you've probably figured out that this story has a happy ending. Vertical licensed Black Jack in the wake of their rousing success with Tezuka works like Buddha and Ode to Kirihito, and starting in fall of 2008, churned out one handsome volume every two or three months. They backed their release with promotional posters (one still hangs in the window my favorite comic shop, Somerville MA's Hub Comics) and nifty hypodermic-esque pens that were given away at conventions all over the continent. And to their immense credit, Vertical kept up the pace until the whole series, all seventeen volumes, was released. It took them just over three years to get through it all; the last book came out just a month ago. As I write this, I just finished reading it. There's something really satisfying about finishing a series, isn't there? Black Jack isn't particularly continuity-heavy and Tezuka didn't see fit to give his hero a pronounced finale, but I'm happy to have read all of the stories. The thing is, Black Jack has a lot more staying power than most anime and manga heroes.

Looking at Dr Tezuka's background, it's no surprise that he'd come up with a character like Black Jack. The artist trained as a doctor before turning to manga and animation, and Japan in the 70s was a fertile time to start introducing some serious social criticism into his manga, which was just as popular with adults as it was with kids. In Black Jack, Tezuka invented a gifted surgeon and pathologist who, after a brutal youth marked by tragic family death and a disfiguring accident, rejects the medical establishment and practices his barely plausible feats of medicine without a medical license. This makes him a pariah, but so great are his skills that all patients great and small seek him out-- and he'll cure what ails you, for a heavy price. Still Black Jack always finds a way to help people who need it the most, and an even better way to stick it to whoever's causing trouble in the first place, be it aggressive gangsters, crooked politicians, or myopic hospital administrators. Tezuka drew some inspiration to popular TV and radio doctors like Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare; in the first Dr. Kildare story, his mentor Leonard Gillespie tells the earnest young doc, "Our job is to keep people alive, not to tell them how to live." Kildare's best stories are about him challenging this notion, and so too are Black Jack's. The series contains some remarkably unsubtle criticisms of the Japanese medical institution, unabashedly attacking assembly-line-style medical care and insisting that doctors were not unimpeachable; they make mistakes like the rest of us. Challenging the establishment in Japan has long been risky business, and Tezuka's openness makes his tales that much more compelling.

Tezuka is also unafraid to explore the fantastic and impossible, and that's one of my favorite aspects of Black Jack. After all, we live in a world of face transplants and artificial hearts and pacemakers and skin and bone grafts, where surgical miracles have become almost routine. Tezuka's doctor can perform all of these, along with being able to excise virtually any cancer, no matter how metastasized. He can perform brain transplants (chancy, but he's done it!) and limb transplants and miraculous feats of plastic surgery that alter the voice and build of his patients, as well as their faces. He can stave off hypoxia and brain death for seemingly endless amounts of time. He's been pressed into service fixing up whales, bears, and wolves. He's not so clever that he can synthesize new medicines and treatments, but if there's an ailment, he knows how to fix it. He routinely performs operations that last for days, performs complex surgery on dozens of patients at once, and can even slice and suture up himself if the situation is bad enough. Right from the opening story, which features a rich buffoon's ill-mannered son burning himself nearly to death and dad framing an innocent kid to get the replacement skin and organ transplants, Tezuka tantalizes us with outrageous situations.

What are the craziest Black Jack stories? Really, there's a couple of dozen, but I can think of three off the top of my head. One of the most famously nutty Black Jack stories has to be "Dingoes," which was first published in Shōnen Champion in May 17, 1976 and subsequently adapted for TV as episode 28 of the anime series, "Wilderness Epidemic." The doctor investigates a mysterious illness in the Aussie outback, but is stranded days from help when he contracts the disease, an exotic form of echinococcosis. With no other option, he sets up a sterile tent and cuts himself open so he can excise the parasites and infected tissue. As he does this, a pack of dingoes smells his blood and moves in for the kill! This story would prove eerily prescient, as dingoes, long regarded as a nuisance rather than a serious threat down under, would shoot to international infamy after a pack of the wild dogs stole and ate a baby in a well-publicized 1980 attack. You can read this story in volume 3 of the Vertical release.




Something about canines really seems to bring out the crazy in Dr. Tezuka's stories. "Whisper of a Dog," from November 1975, is almost pure crazy. A young man is stricken when his lover dies unexpectedly, but he still has two things: recordings of her saying "I love you", and their beloved pet poodle, Noopie. Obviously, the only sensible course of action is for him to approach Black Jack and demand that the doctor imprint his dead girlfriend's voice on his dog's vocal cords! That way, whenever the dog tries to bark, it will instead utter "I love you!" in his dead girl's voice, allowing him to remember her more poignantly. The result is some remarkably demented imagery and a story that is as readable as it is nutty. If you're rooting around at the library for something kooky to read, you'll find this tale in volume 11 of the manga.

A more "classic" tale of medical screwiness would be "Two Loves," which is one of the earliest and most famous Black Jack vignettes. In it, a gifted sushi maker is struck and badly injured by an errant truck. There's no malice or carelessness, it's just a pure accident. The sushi chef, Taku, forgives the trucker, Akira, but has one request - that the big, ungainly blue-collar man turn over the use of his hands long enough to learn to make great sushi for Taku's ailing mother. Akira is convinced he can't do it, but after long, hard work, the pair overcome their shared misfortune and accomplish their goal. But at their moment of triumph, Akira is in an accident and left at death's door. Black Jack, who visits the restaurant regularly, isn't able to save his life-- but he is able to save his arms, and transplants them to Taku. This odd, harsh twist is typical of Black Jack tales, which often involve brave men and women enduring terrible hardships. You'll find this one at the tail end of book 1.

Black Jack's manga incarnation was quite popular right from his introduction in 1973, so it was inevitable that the character would make the leap to animation. But the market for adult-oriented anime was much smaller than that for manga, so while Tezuka had re-established himself as an animator with the founding of Tezuka Productions in 1977, a TV series or film featuring the character wasn't on the horizon. What Tezuka did instead was to shuffle Black Jack right in with his "star system," which allowed him to use the character in other productions. The first of these was 1977's Bandar Book-- Tezuka Productions' first major project, it was an early made-for-TV anime film that was produced for Nippon TV's 24-hour LOVE CAN SAVE THE EARTH telethon. It's a fine little feature that compares favorably with theatrical anime of the day, and Tezuka's rather infamous workaholic tendencies manifest in the character designs, storyboards, and animation direction, all of which he had a hand in. Black Jack appears in this science fiction tale as a mysterious, tough-talking space pirate, voiced by Masatô Ibu; despite that characterization, he appears exactly as he does in the manga, dressed in a fine suit with ribbon tie. One year later Tezuka did it all again, making his popular antihero one of the central characters in Marine Express, an all-star sci-fi murder mystery featuring Tezuka's Mr. Mustachio, Astro Boy, Princess Knight, and many others. Marine Express was directed by Satoshi Dezaki, but is famous for being the one TV movie where Dr. Tezuka insisted on single-handedly drawing every animated frame of Black Jack, who is voiced in this version by Nachi Nozawa. Black Jack would appear twice in animated form in 1980, first in Taku Sugiyama's Phoenix 2772 as a tough but fair prison warden, and then in the 1980 revival of Astro Boy as... well, Dr. Black Jack. For whatever reason, the dub (which can be had on DVD from Manga Entertainment) refers to him as Dr. Roget.




Black Jack would finally star in his own series starting in 1993, with the great Osamu Dezaki taking the reins of a ten-episode OVA series and feature film. The first installment was a remarkably effective adaptation of "Hurricane", originally a simple chapter about a strong-willed but seriously ill businessman and his scheming wife, and how Black Jack is forced to operate on the guy during a hurricane. Dezaki and his team added a fantastic disease and a mob of suspicious villagers and turned the suspense and drama up to 11. The formula was a success, and the second OVA, an original story not based on Tezuka's manga, followed quickly. This project would keep Dezaki's team reliably busy through the year 2000, when the tenth and final chapter was released. The franchise would reach its peak in 1996, with Shochiku helping to release an ambitious feature film with a story taking place at the contemperaneous Atlanta Olympic Games. Dezaki and Sugino's melodramatic, hyper-realistic style doesn't mesh perfectly with Tezuka's puffy character art and occasional weird humor and 4th-wall breaking, but to me, they're a nearly perfect adaptation of a great series. These OVAs were my gateway drug to Black Jack, and I consider them some of the finest anime of the 1990s. You can still find them on DVD pretty easily, but they're out of print, so don't wait to get them!




There would be plenty more where those OVAs came from. In addition to the movie, 1996 saw the release of what is probably the rarest of Black Jack animation, a 10-minute 35mm featurette called "Capital Transfer to Heian," an adaptation of the manga story "Granny," which can be read in volume 2 of Vertical's release. This short was animated by Dezaki's pit crew (art director Kazuo Okada directed, while Phoenix character designer Masayoshi Nishida drew the characters) specifically to be shown first at an exhibit of Tezuka's works at Kyoto Station, then later at the Tezuka Manga Museum out in Takarazuka. This film is kind of like the Studio Ghibli shorts that can only be viewed at the Ghibli Museum; some internet rapscallion has posted several minutes of it on a few different online video sites, but the only way to see the whole thing is to go to the Museum. I went there, but had the misfortune of going on a day when the films (there are also museum-only Kimba and Princess Knight shorts) weren't running. After an ensemble-leading role in the pleasant but maudlin 2000 animated TV special, Osamu Tezuka's Last Mystery of the 20th Century, Black Jack would return again in 2001, in one of the first-ever ONA (original net animation) projects - twelve ten-minute episodes were created in Adobe Flash. They're kind of primitive, but the stories hold up. You know what doesn't hold up? The voice of Pinoko, that's what! Starting with the 90s OVAs, Akio Ohtsuka would own the role of Black Jack in Japanese, but for these ONAs, his cranky little assistant Pinoko was played by red-hot pop star Hikaru Utada, who's cited Black Jack as one of her favorite manga. Oh man, she's terrible! The stunt-casting would earn the series plenty of attention, but after its conclusion, Pinoko's reins were rightly handed back to Yuko Mizutani.

I say "handed back" because Black Jack would return yet again in a set of four 2003 Christmas specials.  Entitled "The Four Miracles of Life," these tales were painstakingly adapted from Tezuka's manga and overseen by his son, Makoto Tezuka. The specials were reliably popular and used as a lead-in for a TV series that debuted in 2004. Like the specials, the TV series hewed close to the manga, and also featured the younger Tezuka in a special directorial role (the real animation director was Satoshi Kuwabara, who'd handled various production duties at Tezuka Pro for years). This series sticks closely to the playbook, adapting Tezuka's manga stories without too much embellishment. It was popular all over Asia, and was even dubbed into English for Animax broadcasts. I wanna see that dub! The TV series was popular enough to lead to another animated movie, The Two Doctors of Darkness.

While this Black Jack TV series was frequently cartoonish and weird and often ended on a fairly happy note, the sequel would be a little different. Black Jack 21 debuted in April 2006, just a month after the 61-episode original series wrapped, but introduced two new elements. The first was ongoing story arcs; while Tezuka's manga and its subsequent animated versions featured some recurring characters, stories seldom stretched beyond a single 20 or 30-page chapter, or a single TV episode. The second element Black Jack 21 introduced is a sprawling backstory for Black Jack's father. Fans will know that Black Jack's mother died in the same incident that left him scarred, but the antihero's father only appeared fleetingly. And so, once again under the watchful eye of Makoto Tezuka, the animation team constructed a dark, twisty story that features repeated callbacks to older Black Jack stories, as the doctor and Pinoko race to learn the secrets of his mysterious father and find a cure for the deadly Phoenix disease. It's a bit hokey but a bit compelling; I'm really glad they made Black Jack 21.

If you think it's all about animation, think again. Black Jack's tales of medical derring-do are often wildly speculative, but still grounded in the real world, making the story and character a perfect vehicle for live-action. The first stab at this was a 1977 feature film starring Joe Shishido as the character, taking a break from his usual 70s m.o. of starring in ridiculously entertaining Kinji Fukusaku and Seijun Suzuki gangster movies. The thing is... man, the makeup. It's all about the makeup with this guy.




As you can see, Black Jack's adorable little homunculus sidekick, Pinoko, looks spot-on. But the good doctor looks a little too close to the color manga drawings that Tezuka was kicking out back then, if you ask me. Yikes. You can't get this movie on video - I picked up some chatter about it on Japanese message boards, where it's remembered as hokey but still fun viewing, complete with a cameo by pan-pacific rock act GODIEGO. I've been trying to find a good copy of it for years - no dice. Black Jack would next jump to the small screen in 1981, as a vehicle for musician and actor Yuzo Kayama. Here, the format would be tweaked - gone would be the crazy makeup and two-tone hair, replaced with a simple scar and a slightly sillier costume for our heroic doctor, who only busts out his medical chops when absolutely necessary. In addition to Pinoko, this Black Jack also got to have a butler and a rugged assistant. Despite these odd little changes, the show's thirteen episodes adapt a fistful of Tezuka manga storylines more or less faithfully. This TV series is also notable for giving a kid named Takashi Miike one of his first jobs in the director's chair. If you're deathly curious about it, it was released on DVD in Japan under its broadcast title, YUZO KAYAMA'S BLACK JACK. Check it out!

Wonder if there's more live-action Black Jack? There's a LOT more! In 1996, Bandai Visual enlisted the services of ace tokusatsu director Kazuya Konaka to create a trio of direct-to-video features starring Daisuke Ryu as the dark doctor. From the footage I've seen, Ryu actually acquits himself the best out of the several actors who've played the role - he's serious but restrained, while his predecessors were kind of hilariously flamboyant. Of course, he actually looks the least like the character, with slicked-back black hair and only subtle scarring. Fans in Japan tip this version as the most intelligent and well-crafted, in particular citing the third film, which guest-stars Masao Kusakari as Dr. Kiriko, Black Jack's fatalistic suicide-doctor nemesis. Despite the good reputation, these movies haven't yet been released on DVD; they were designed for the rental VHS market that dominated Japan in the 80s and 90s, and so that's the only way to see them.




Tezuka Productions would go back to the live-action Black Jack well just four years later for another trio of shot-on-video TV movies for TBS. This time the character is portrayed by Masahiro Motoki, easily the handsomest of the Black Jack actors, but sadly, also the crappiest thespian of the bunch. He hams it up in a two-tone wig and scar makeup in three stories that rather faithfully adapt Tezuka stories, with certain... alterations. The biggest one is that Pinoko isn't a weird little Frankenstein girl, she's a pair of creepy twins (Shiori and Saori Nakayama) who talk in unison and hack away at a laptop to assist the good doctor. Shades of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen! I've seen these movies - they're decent viewing for dedicated Black Jack fans, but pretty silly. Don't miss the third film, featuring the great stage and TV actor Leo Morimoto (voice of Shiro in Royal Space Force) as Dr. Kiriko and a special appearance by the infamous Kano Sisters! These ones got released on DVD, so they're not that hard to find.




If you go to Tezuka Productions' website right now, you'll notice a splash background featuring a scarred young man in a black cloak, smirking and holding a glittering scalpel. That's right, live-action Black Jack is actually a current affair - just this past April, Masaki Okada took on the role of Black Jack as a medical student for a Young Black Jack Adventures special. Well, okay, the 2-hour TV movie is just called Young Black Jack. The movie explores Black Jack's origins as Kuro Hazama, a young boy badly wounded by an explosion, his decision to go into medicine after being inspired by his attending surgeon Dr. Honma, and his rejection of Japan's medical culture that leads to his rogue practice. It's just recently been released on DVD, and with the support of the just-launched Young Black Jack manga, which runs in Young Champion magazine, we may just see Okada take up the cloak and scalpel again.




You know, there's just been so damn much Black Jack - so much animation and live-action media - that I sometimes feel like all of the best stories have been adapted. But that's okay, because Black Jack lives on in other media just as much as he does onscreen. He's been resurrected with new artists and storylines on more than one occasion, such as with 2006's Black Jack NEO and 2005's Black Jack: Doctor of Darkness. An earlier anthology, Black Jack ALIVE, compiled stories from a variety of amateur and professional artists. And if comics just aren't big enough for you, Black Jack is indeed the star of his own Takarazuka musical! In 1994, the famous troupe of all-female performers put on a double bill of Black Jack and Phoenix tales, featuring Anju Mira as both Black Jack and Tezuka's bird of flames. The Black Jack musical was popular enough to go to Tokyo; while some of these musicals are taped, I've never been able to find anything beyond a program book. I'd love to see the musical numbers from this thing - I'm thinking a kickline of dancing scalpels, how about you?

Culturally, Black Jack's reach goes even beyond the stories that feature him specifically. Say Hello to Black Jack, a popular manga and TV drama about the trials and tribulations of a group of young, poor, and unorthodox medical students, is named in honor of the character. The TV series RAY, available from Sentai Filmworks, was based on a manga created by Akihito Yoshitomi, but its principal character, a youthful female doctor with x-ray eyes, was rescued and mentored by Black Jack in its pages, a surprisingly explicit nod that raised no objections from Tezuka Productions. And when the Fox medical drama HOUSE came to Japan via home video, its TV commercials featured Hugh Laurie's grounchy, sardonic doctor trading barbs with none other than Black Jack himself. God, what a team-up that would make!

The reason I've got Black Jack on the brain isn't just because I just finished devouring the last of Dr. Tezuka's original stories; it's because we've just gotten two NEW stories, new installments of Dezaki and Sugino's OVAs from the 1990s! This news initially came out when Dezaki passed away, but it turns out that a significant amount of production materials (character sheets, screenplay, some storyboards) were produced for two additional episodes before the production wrapped in 2000. When the animation crew that worked together on the originals came together to celebrate Dezaki's life and see him off, they decided to finish the job. Consequently, a DVD featuring Karte 11 and Karte 12 of the 1990s Black Jack OVA has just been released in Japan this past week. I'm positively tingling with anticipation; to me, the realization of these two episodes is something like finding an unpublished Tintin story or one of those lost Dr Who episodes.

To me, it seems obvious: Black Jack is a Japanese cultural institution on par with the likes of Totoro, Lupin the 3rd, and that 800-pound gorilla of Japanese animation characters, Sazae-san. I had no inkling of this when I first enjoyed the character's adventures courtesy of Dezaki, Sugino, and Tezuka himself; I just thought it was cool that these artists had managed to stitch together a suspenseful, gripping action story about surgery. I admired Tezuka's ability to make a noble antihero out of a money-grubbing black market doctor. In the 2000 Last Mystery of the 20th Century special, Osamu Tezuka himself (appearing as a character, voiced by Kyoji Kobayashi) voices his dying wish that all of his characters might live on to inspire others around the world. His dark doctor seems to be getting the job done; defying all medical logic, it looks to me like Black Jack just might live forever.


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