Reviewby Carlo Santos,
DVD 7: Biohazard
Mikazuki Bay was once a charming seaside town, but industrial development has made the water polluted, which in turn has poisoned the town's inhabitants. When the residents win a class-action lawsuit against the company responsible, doctors are called in to treat them for their unique form of metal poisoning. Among them is Black Jack, the notorious unlicensed doctor and a master surgeon. While staying at a local inn, Black Jack meets Tsukiko, a destitute yet cheerful girl who falls in love with him. A sufferer of "Mikazuki Syndrome," Tsukiko collapses one evening and Black Jack must treat her immediately. As he rehabilitates her, he learns more of her history from the town's inhabitants—a history that sounds very similar to an old mermaid legend.
Working on an anime inspired by master storytellers like Osamu Tezuka, Rumiko Takahashi and Hayao Miyazaki must be every animator's dream. Instead of being stuck on a get-rich-quick, sell-more-merchandise project, they get to make real art because the source material is already brilliant. Such is the case with the final episode of the Black Jack OAV, where one of Tezuka's most moving tales goes even beyond the original with its multi-layered drama. Some may accuse the animation staff of being too ambitious with embellishments, but no one will disagree that this is storytelling at its best.
Adapting the work of a manga legend might also be an animator's nightmare, though, as messing with Tezuka's stories, is, basically messing with God. This episode takes several liberties from the original, making it more of a personal story than a parable, and weaves in Tsukiko's fate with a folk legend made up by the director. Even without the mythical element, the setting and approach of this story is unique; a hopelessly polluted city in most other anime means that someone's going to come tromping along in a mecha suit. Despite such originality, however, the story falters in its execution: right after Black Jack's climactic surgery on Tsukiko, it would be natural to expect that things will wrap up in several minutes, but instead it goes through multiple-endings syndrome. Perhaps the animators stretched themselves too far in creating new story threads; were it not for the folk tale and investigating Tsukiko's history and tying up all the loose ends, the pacing would be more streamlined.
Besides the unwieldy ending, Black Jack purists might also frown on the protagonist's occasional out-of-character behavior. The most glaring incident is when he blackmails the corporation to help pay for Tsukiko's care (this just happens to be one of those non-ending endings that could have been cut out, too). And even if he is a renegade doctor with a compassionate side, his kind demeanor doesn't really explain why Tsukiko falls in love with him instantly. Despite such lapses, their development throughout the episode is still a marvel of well-planned storytelling. As Black Jack's character and Tsukiko's past are slowly revealed, we find ourselves becoming more and more sympathetic towards them, until the inevitable ending breaks everyone's heart.
Director Osamu Dezaki (not to be confused) goes all out with his animation skills, overcoming the hindrances of the mid-90's with sheer ingenuity. The fact that an anime from back then can look so polished is remarkable in itself, with sharpness and color to match any of today's titles. This episode's visual strengths come not from a super-smooth frame rate or flashy tricks, but from a veteran's knowledge of just when and where to use the right images. Dezaki wields a full of arsenal of techniques: traditional art for the folk tale scenes, special effects based on medical gadgetry, rapid close-ups, and his favorite, the split-screen. Even something as simple as a strong camera angle can turn a scene from generic to dramatic. Meanwhile, the character designs have been heavily updated from Tezuka's originals, with added detail and sharper lines that will make them more accessible to modern viewers.
The understated music score is perfectly suited to conveying mystery and drama, even though some of it sounds like it came right out of American prime time TV. Fans of CSI or ER can attest to that musical style—only a few instruments at any one time, open-ended melodies, and a melancholy mood. With its light-handed approach, the soundtrack is a fitting accompaniment to the gentle story, and treats the ears much better than the generic theme songs that should stay right in the 90's where they belong.
Playing an iconic character like Black Jack might be intimidating for a voice actor, but Kirk Thornton meets the challenge on the English dub. His calm voice brings out the essence of Black Jack's personality: subdued confidence and a kind heart beneath a mysterious appearance. The side characters aren't quite as consistent; Black Jack's young charge Pinoko and the innkeeper definitely suit their roles, but Tsukiko pushes it too far with the young cheerful girl voice, and the cab driver lays on too much of a stereotypical accent. The translation strays from the original phrasing several times, but never changes the meaning.
Most anime DVDs would qualify as complete with an art gallery, some previews, and a textless opening and closing, but this disc goes the extra mile with a director's commentary from Osamu Dezaki. Unlike most commentaries, this one is so enlightening that it ought to be required viewing. Think of it as getting 100 minutes of running time even though the case only says 50 minutes. Dezaki goes into detail about his animation style, the ideas he wanted to bring in, and how he adapted the story to fit his vision. Often he refers to this single episode as a "film," which just goes to show how much dedication went into the Black Jack series.
Many anime titles claim to be dramatic, many claim to be mysterious, but few do it as well as Black Jack, thanks to having the greatest manga storyteller of all time behind it. Although it was produced after Osamu Tezuka's death, the series certainly bears his trademarks: unforgettable characters and meaningful narrative that touches the heart. Maybe there's a bit too much narrative at the end, due to a particularly ambitious animation staff, but it's still an emotional trip, weaving ancient folk tales, the latest medical technology, and everything in between to tell a remarkable story.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B
+ Genuine drama and mystery, with a variety of visual techniques.
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