The Fall 2015 Anime Preview Guide
Young Black Jack
How would you rate episode 1 of
Young Black Jack ?
Review: The Frankensteinish-looking doctor Black Jack is one of the most famous creations of esteemed manga-ka Osamu Tezuka and is without question the most iconic doctor character in all of manga and anime. Hence that something like this – namely, an “Early Adventures of” kind of thing – has not been done before is rather surprising. That it is being made in an era when anime medical dramas are few and far between, and that the setting has not been updated in some way, is also rather surprising. But this is also clearly not a series intended primarily for the hard-core otaku crowd. It is a nostalgia piece whose target audience probably skews much older than the traditional anime fan, and the way it retains the look, character designs, and feel of an anime from multiple decades past only reinforces that impression. That may create a major barrier to the series being appreciated by younger anime fans.
Of course, the over-the-top, sensationalistic nature of the surgery done may not suit everyone, either. In this particular case, a 22-year-old medical student named Hazuma (who is not known as Black Jack at this point) takes on an effort to reattach a young boy's arm and leg in the wake of a train accident, despite the triage doctor's assessment that they could not be reattached. He enlists the help of Mariko, a female intern who had sought him out when accident victims started pouring in, and a drug-abusing doctor who is afraid of blood. Despite a race against time and complications along the way, and despite this being his first surgery, Hazuma pulls it off. Afterwards, though, the father of the boy stiffs him on the agreed-upon fee, paying only a fraction of the amount because he has discovered that Hazuma does not formally have a license yet.
A lot of the original Black Jack stories involved some type of “hard knocks” lesson or circumstances (though usually for others than Black Jack himself), so it looks like this will be an ongoing theme here, too. Keeping the influence of the time period, such has how many of the other medical students get involved in the protest movements of the late 1960s, is also an interesting choice, and the opener suggests that the Vietnam War will be involved at some point, too. But probably the neatest thing that the first episode does is in the closer, where it offers side-by-side comparisons between various characters the way they appear/will appear in the anime and the way they appeared in Tezuka's original manga.
I lost interest in medical dramas in the late ‘90s and the anime way of doing it badly pales in comparison to a classic like the American TV series ER, so for me this series has multiple big strikes against it from the get-go. Even the historical context of the episode and decent production values are far from enough to offset that. Hence it gets a low score from me, but this is more a matter of personal taste than it necessarily being bad.
Young Black Jack is available streaming at Crunchyroll.
Black Jack is far and away my favorite Osamu Tezuka work. I also enjoy blatantly shameless manservice, the sillier the better. However, I am extremely sure that I never wanted to combine these two things. Oh well, here we are!
If I had to sum up Young Black Jack in two adjectives, they would be words in conflict: it's both "competent" and "uncomfortable." This is perfectly competent as a procedural drama. Even with a personality palette swap, Black Jack's appearance is bizarre enough to make him a perfect "eccentric doctor" for performing weird surgeries. As an inexperienced medical student, he sits on park benches miming perfect ghost surgeries, while passing staff stare at his weird frankenstein-face and ask him if he's participating in the student protest.
Ah, this is where the uncomfortable part first comes in. So, this show seems to be addressing a series of famous medical student protests from the 1960s in a not remotely flattering light, which is pretty irresponsible considering that their demands were completely reasonable. This is especially baffling when you consider that these interns are rallying for fair pay. Baby Beej looks down on them. Yes, Black Jack, the doctor who will one day become famous for demanding exorbitant amounts of money for his miracle surgeries, looks down on workers seeking fair pay for surgeries. And by "one day," I mean in this very episode for his first surgery ever. I guess the logic here is that Black Jack is a miracle doctor, and only miracle doctors get to charge an arm and a leg for re-attaching a small boy's arm and leg. Every other normal doctor should get used to pennies on his Benjamins.
Then again, this isn't the Black Jack that Tezuka fans remember and love, not by a long shot. Obviously, he's gotten a major facelift to make him into an object of lust for the ladies. Young Black Jack angsts in dark corners, speaks of a soul torn by pathos, and takes off his shirt at every opportunity to reveal his not remotely unattractive "disfiguring scars." After he finishes his first surgery, Black Jack can't stop his hands from shaking, bent over with dark emotion atop the hospital roof. Bishounen Black Jack is too ridiculously "hot" to handle, complete with a sexy crown of thorns he wears in dream sequences.
Honestly, these are the changes I don't mind so much. If 2015 needs to make Black Jack into a hunky dreamboat to sell him, that's perfectly fine, and the solid standalone approach along with appealing production values make this a fine show worth checking out. My gripes with Young Black Jack actually go deeper than his new washboard abs. My problem with the show is that it's so thematically different from everything I liked about the original. Black Jack as a story isn't about Black Jack as a character at all. Occasionally, Tezuka would provide flashbacks to his past to flesh out his philosophy, but Black Jack stories were great because they were bizarre and impossible dark miracle stories, where people would trade everything they had for a second chance at life, only to find out that the tradeoff wasn't everything they thought it would be. Sometimes Black Jack's miracles end well, and sometimes they end poorly, but all of them were fascinating morality plays. This version of Black Jack seems to be more about the title character's own psychology, in a not-particularly-complex kind of way. The original appeal is gone, replaced by a hormone-fueled character drama. It's not really Black Jack anymore.
Anyway, it's not Black Jack, but it is a neat little show on its own merits. If you've ever harbored a secret lust for Black Jack, you should definitely check it out, and if you're thirsting for more anime medical procedurals, this could be a unique entry in that relatively unmined genre. Also, the playing cards in the ED credits that show the difference between the original character designs from the manga and these new anime versions are cool. Not that I needed the side-by-side comparison to tell that this is worlds apart from the original manga.
Young Black Jack is available streaming at Crunchyroll.
Kuroo Hazama is a medical student in the 1960s, honing his craft in an era marked by student demonstrations. As student protests leave the hospitals dangerously understaffed, Hazama finds himself dragged by intern Maito Okamato into a riotous medical wing, where a deadly train crash has left dozens wounded. As the doctors tend to the various injuries, a boy comes in who has had both an arm and leg severed, and the resident doctor decides they will be forced to amputate. But Hazama thinks he can reattach the limbs, and so he makes a deal with the boy's parents, taking his first step into becoming the legendary underground doctor Black Jack.
Young Black Jack is definitely a weird one. A modernized prequel to the classic Tezuka comic, it feels like it's being pulled in multiple directions both tonally and aesthetically, and the end result is a very singular thing. The first, most inescapable element defining this new series is Hazama's design. As opposed to the gruff and often menacing doctor of earlier adaptations, this Black Jack possesses lush eyelashes, piercing eyes, and rippling muscles that manage to find themselves in the camera's eye a good handful of times this episode. Basically, this Black Jack is clearly designed as man-meat for a presumed female audience, making for a kind of inherently entertaining contrast with his classic appearance.
Hazama's design isn't the only interesting one. The rest of the cast possess a strange diversity of designs as well; though most of the characters, including Maito, are rendered in a slightly retro but more or less conventional style, a few characters (like the resident doctor and the boy's father) embrace the more stylized look of classic Tezuka side characters, making them seem as if they're from a totally different species from the shining-eyed Hazama. It's not necessarily a problem, but it's definitely a striking contrast.
Designs aside, this first episode plays out like a fairly conventional medical procedural. The show has a bit of trouble creating a sense of consistent drama within the central operation, but there are enough visual flourishes and twists to keep it relatively entertaining. The period setting also adds an element of interest, though I'm not sure what to make of how fiercely this episode comes down on the student protesters (they're essentially framed as selfish monsters who are directly responsible for letting patients suffer). There were also some weird tonal shifts throughout, with the show seemingly unable to decide whether it wants to be a modern drama or a Tezuka-styled melodrama. “Weird” is probably the best word to describe Young Black Jack - it's moderately successful as both a medical procedural and vehicle for shirtless men, but the ways it feels trapped between priorities and styles is more interesting to me than anything the show is actually trying to do.
Young Black Jack is available streaming at Crunchyroll.
Prequels to well-known or beloved series often have their work cut out for them. It's no easy task to take an established character and create a fully realized reason for him to become the man we all know without accidental contradictions or impossible coincidences. Luckily when that character is Osamu Tezuka's iconic back alley doctor Black Jack, it gets a little easier, because he's such an interesting, off-the-books kind of guy in the first place that all that really needs to happen is to give him a reason to be the rogue that he is. This first episode feels like it does a good job of getting that process underway as we meet a young Hazuma Kuroo as a medical student in the 1960s. He's already a bit of an odd duck, performing imaginary surgeries like some people play air guitar, but he's more than willing to step up to the plate when a child's life and limbs are in danger.
We mostly see Hazuma through the eyes of medical intern Okumoto Maiko, one of the few interns not on strike for better pay. This immediately sets her alongside Hazuma as someone in the medical profession to help people, something we see demonstrated when striking interns refuse her pleas for help when a train hits a bus at a railroad crossing. Hazuma, however, jumps right up...after he finishes his imaginary surgery. That was a bit of an irritant – there's clearly a medical emergency going on (he can't have missed the sirens, and he demonstrates that he is perfectly aware of what people are saying to him), but he has to finish his little game of let's pretend first? This strange blend of caring, avarice, and indifference permeates this episode, with the patient's parent refusing to pay full price for the surgery because the child is now fine, Hazuma's ludicrously high price to begin with, and the callousness of the interns. While it can be annoying, or at least frustrating, to the viewers, it does feel like it's trying to demonstrate what drives Hazuma's transformation to Black Jack later on, and presumably now that the first episode is over, it will slow these elements down a little.
The animation is really lovely, with graceful hand movements and nice details of medical practice in the 1960s, and as an added bonus, it assuages my pet peeve by actually looking like the 1960s. It's also the least gruesome medical drama I have ever watched, which may make this more of a possibility for some squeamish viewers, possibly the goal in leaving out the gore. The characters themselves are a bit harder to get used to, with a blend of very Tezuka-esque people alongside series artist Yugo Okuma's much prettier, more contemporary designs. This is where the ending theme proves itself a real bonus: it shows images of the original Tezuka characters alongside their Okuma counterparts, which is really fascinating, particularly in terms of who he updated and how.
So far Young Black Jack, with its narration by elder Black Jack and its fast-moving but not melodramatic plot, is looking like a prequel that works. While it probably helps to be familiar with Tezuka's works beforehand (we're promised cameos from characters from other series), it doesn't feel necessary to enjoying this, at least as of now. So don't let the fact that you aren't up on your Tezuka scare you off from checking this one out.
Osamu Tezuka's underworld doctor who performs medical procedures at his own leisure has existed in some capacity in manga or anime for the last 40 years. This latest incarnation is a prequel, set in the late 1960s when Kuroo Hazama, the man who would become Black Jack, was just an eccentric medical student in college. The episode opens amidst the backdrop of the Tokyo University protests against the “Doctor Registration law,” a move that would create longer internships (unpaid work) for medical students. Just then, a bus and a small child on a bicycle are hit by an oncoming train. The university hospital is understaffed and the boy needs multiple limb reattachments. Intern Maiko Okamoto recruits Hazama, who immediately goes to work.
I'm a newcomer to the Black Jack series, but no stranger to Tezuka's manga work. It has a distinct art style with plenty of cartoonish charm. Old men have bulbous noses and wild hair, women are voluptuous and round, and male leads are square-jawed. All characters are generally squat in appearance. Yu-Go Okuma's Black Jack design is decidedly focused on bringing in female viewers. Hazama is unabashedly gorgeous with dewy lips and an oxford shirt with button enclosures practically screaming from the strain of keeping his shirt on. The audience gets to see his abs not once, but twice, while the child patient is probably bleeding out on the table so the show can really work in his motivational angst and fanservice. It's mindlessly silly, but otherwise inoffensive.
The show hasn't completely abandoned its Tezuka roots though. Minor characters, like the boy's parents and the doctor who refused to perform the reattachment surgery, are right in line with Tezuka's usual designs. It feels, if the ending sequence is any indicator, that this is meant as a nod to the creator, but I can't help but feel like it's incongruous with rest of the show's presentation. Okuma's Black Jack and Tezuka's designs are so drastically different that they shouldn't exist in the same fictional space.
It's hard to say what Young Black Jack has to offer to audiences. The time, setting, and possibility of playing with a well-established character has its possibilities. On the other hand, fans of the franchise might find the changes to Tezuka's doctor a bit hard to swallow, and it fails as a medical procedural if the content is just talking heads in medical masks with a lot of shiny sutures swirling around them. The rating this time is predominantly for the eye candy and some hope that the show puts the time in to develop Kuroo Hazama into the man he'll become, but I'm not holding my breath.
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