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This Week in Anime
Black Jack and the Gang Punch the President

by Nicholas Dupree & Steve Jones,

Manga creator Osamu Tezuka has many iconic characters to his credit: Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, Princess Sapphire, Hyakkimaru, the Phoenix, and Unico, to name a few. Of his many recurring characters, none are perhaps as dark as Black Jack. The surgeon with the scarred face lurks in underground channels, ready to dish out his own version of justice. Nick and Steve turned to famed director Osamu Dezaki's version of the story which pits Black Jack against horrific foes...including the (not) United States.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @Liuwdere @A_Tasty_Sub @vestenet

Nick, understandably, health concerns are at the forefront of people's minds these days. As such, I thought something we could do to help over here at This Week In Anime is get in touch with an expert in delicately slicing his way out of deadly medical problems. Ah, here he is now.
Well I have some concerns about his credentials, but at this point we're not really in a position to reject anyone.
Look if there's one person we need at this exact moment in history, I'm pretty sure it's a super doctor who isn't afraid of cops.
So yes, with the current anime season on life support, we're returning to plumb the depths on RetroCrush, this time with Osamu Dezaki's 1990's adaptation of BLACK JACK. And if I might be so bold, I'd say this may be the Most Dezaki thing the man ever created.

Honestly, knowing Dezaki mostly from his expert adaptations of classic shoujo manga, I couldn't imagine this would be a good fit going in. And I couldn't have been more wrong. Turns out, Dezaki's overwrought, Sophoclean gift for portraying the tragic finds a perfect home in the medical soap opera stylings of Black Jack's super surgery adventures. I mean, look at how much mood this man infuses into an image of a telephone.
Personally I'm very glad I finally checked this out. Before now my main point of reference for Black Jack was that Young Black Jack anime they threw out a few years back, and all I recall from that was the hilarious OP. (I'd link it here, but doesn't look like there's an official upload. Just know there's a shot of military helicopters opening fire into a field of flowers while the Jpop chorus blasts "I AM JUST FEELING ALIVE") And boy is this adaptation a way better point of entry to Black Jack as a character and IP.
Oof yeah, now that you mention it, I kinda remember checking Young Black Jack out, but obviously it didn't leave much of an impression. Which is absurd to me now, because THIS is the level that Dezaki's Black Jack operates on.

I don't want to belittle Dezaki's clearly important contributions towards making these OVAs what they are, but how the hell do you make THIS boring? I'm retroactively disappointed in Young Black Jack now.
Mr. Crossword's malady was sadly genetic. We should have known it would happen to the son of a water fountain. This version really just operates at 11 the entire time. I don't think there's more than two scenes in the entire first OVA that doesn't have an ominous organ playing in the background or haunting gothic-horror imagery of some kind. They manage to make an old dude drinking water feel foreboding for god's sake!
We only covered the first three episodes of this series for now, but honestly, like the people suffering from Kimaira, we might just have to keep coming back to this well. There's so much good stuff to talk about in just one episode, let alone three at once.
Black Jack is nothing if not an ambitious work. Other shows would settle on just covering the central medical mystery for 40 minutes, but not Dr. BJ. There's like five separate, equally tragic subplots going on around Crossword's seemingly incurable thirst-seizures. Lemme tell ya, House would have been way more interesting if the first episode ended with Hugh Laurie burning down a castle.
Later seasons of House do get a little bit closer to this ideal, but not with nearly this much flair. Also, despite the double-length 50 minute runtime, these Black Jack episodes were the breeziest watch I've had in recent memory. Which isn't surprising when you're jumping between love affairs, miscarriage scares, peasant revolts, viral-induced St. Elmo's Fire, and, uh, Pinoko.
I'd like to thank the fine folks managing the Black Jack fan wiki for having a quick, totally understandable summary of who Pinoko is. Made research for this column way easy.

Reminder: despite the sanitized Disney-esque reputation Tezuka holds in popular consciousness, dude got WEIRD more often than not.
It's definitely humbling to think that, despite how extra this adaptation goes, it can't hold a candle to Tezuka's most bonkers ideas. I wanna see a licensed physician react to that paragraph.
Imagine if Black Jack had an open practice.
"Oh that's cute, you let your daughter play receptionist?"
"No, that's a sentient tumor I cut off a woman. She believes she's my wife. She is mistaken."
I suppose when you're responsible for the creation of a tiny teratoma wife, operating on a still-convulsing body seems like child's play.

Don't worry, Mr. Crossword asked him to do it.
Granted Black Jack seemed uh...eager to try it out all on his own.

Black Jack likes to collect his thoughts against the most dramatic emotional symbolism possible.

And this is exactly what makes Dezaki such a perfect fit. Black Jack as a character is every bit the pulpy, brooding, melodramatic protagonist you'd expect a rogue doctor wearing a cape to be, and Dezaki similarly commits his signature melodramatic style as hard as he would to any other series.
Every shot, every moment, every cut or scene transition is trying to be The Most at all times, and it is pitch perfect. Especially as the mystery of Crossword's illness spirals out into a generation spanning investigation into a plague, complete with class strife and burning decapitations.
Oh yeah, it's important to note that this is too-hot-for-TV Dezaki, so we are blessed with surgery gore, gratuitous ultraviolence, and nudity. Well, if you consider watching a nude wife use her own body to sop off the sweat from her dying wrinkly husband "blessed."
Black Jack's only interested in the first two, for the record.
Black Jack...certainly has a way with women.
His pillow talk could certainly use work.
Black Jack has no time to fuck. He looks at his watch and says "I could not possibly fuck at this juncture." as he powerwalks to the operating room.
Black Jack the character is largely an enigma. He works partially as the classic Holmes detective - stoic, all business, but with a stone-faced philosophical bent to him that allows for a lot of soliloquizing. And this series makes taht work really well as he tackles this strange, even larger-than-life conflicts.

Indeed, a good time to wax philosophic is when you're unwittingly entangled in the breadcrumb trail of an underground illegal cactus ring.

Let me reiterate: the second episode ends up being about cacti that get you high. By pricking yourself.
It says something about what level this show operates on that "Black Jack must revive a comatose girl who's legally dead" is the SETUP portion of OVA 2.
And his response is "not even the first time I've done it, yo."
But that's just how this show roles. Every medical story is an interesting premise, but it's ultimately a jumping-off point for the series to go on extended thematic tangents. Like OVA 2 is, emotionally, about Black Jack trying to save a girl from destroying her life through addiction and wanting to protect the bright possibilities of her future.
It's also about extremely swag '90s fashion.
Not sure if "background dancer for NKOTB" counts as swag but ok.
Look I know what swag is, and thankfully Black Jack has precisely none of it.

TBF that's the proper reaction a 30-year-old dude should have to a high schooler trying to hit on him.
It truly puts him in the upper echelon of anime protagonists! Everyone wants to jump this poor man's bones, and all he wants to do is solve medical mysteries and try not to get blown up by gangsters.
Hey at least he doesn't have to worry about the medical board going after him, thanks to his friendly neighborhood corrupt Interpol agent.
Unfortunately he does end up having to worry about the gangster part.
Doing the Phoenix Wright confront-the-villain-with-your-evidence-with-no-backup think probably wasn't the best move, but that's how Black Jack roles.
Also chalk up "trippy drug overdose" as another scene that Dezaki storyboards surprisingly evocatively. Although I actually shouldn't be surprised.
The entire show so far is pretty trippy, honestly. Even during non-drug-induced sequences there's often a plethora of evocative symbolic imagery intercut with more standard dialogue editing. I'm especially a fan of the constant shots of overflowing fountain sculptures during Crossword's episode.
Oh yeah, my man LOVES his water fountains.
It's a beautiful and striking way to communicate the emotion of the story in a way that makes it feel as ancient and unearthly as it's meant to, and it makes the entire OVA captivating.
Yeah, it's a technique he's used since Rose of Versailles (and probably even earlier), but like a lot of his distinctive flourishes, it maximizes the tone of the scene without relying on anything too flashy or difficult to animate. It punches you right where it needs to, and that's why he's one of the most influential directors in the medium. Like, next time you watch Utena, look at how many scenes are punctuated by running water.
There are a few times it feels indulgent. Like far be it for me to criticize a master but did we need the postcart memories of racecars?
To which I say, absolutely.

Though, along that tangent, I have to admit it felt strange to see Dezaki helm an episode in part about guerilla warfare.
Ah yes, the very dated and not at all relevant political commentary episode. Nothing to see here folks everything's fine this has all be solved.

Oh yeah, the U.S. has certainly not provided political aid to a coup d'état of a South American country within, oh, the past year or so. That would be ridiculous.

Oh well, I guess this 1993 anime is just doomed to be outdated and very much not totally and depressingly accurate to our modern day greed-fueled international meddling!
Yep yep yep. All that's left is a story about Black Jack performing surgery in the middle of a jungle while on the run from Spec Ops.
Which, admittedly, is rad as hell.
Oh it's wild as all get out. You think regular surgery's stressful, try doing it with a firefight going on a hundred feet away.

Even Black Jack cann't cure her of "Dezaki tragic heroine syndrome," but Maria gets to both rock the revolutionary look AND blow up two helicopters, so she's a pretty good secondary protagonist by all metrics.
My impression is "cruel but resonant tragedy" is the name of Black Jack's game, so I'm not surprised basically nobody gets out of this story alive. But at least they all get to be absolute badasses when they go out.
Yeah, jokes aside, this episode is absolutely withering in its critique of US foreign policy. The climax has the president's aide order his men to shoot the dying prime minister in the back before he can cross over into his own country, blowing up his explosives and leaving only the defiant image of his smouldering severed arm still grasping the border fence. It's overwrought as all hell, but it leaves exactly as huge an impression as it should.

You watch enough anime, you get used to some overwrought and brutal imagery, but damn if that shot didn't hit me like a freight truck.
I kept worrying they were going to walk things back with some lame last-minute twist, but nope, the narrative just goes full-speed ahead with how much of a bastard it thinks the United States is. Even Black Jack indulges in some highly-warranted punch catharsis. I was pleased.
Best part is they don't even arrest him? Like Black Jack straight up holds a politician at gunpoint before knocking his block off and they just let him walk away. He's just that cool I guess.
Damn straight.
So yeah I am thoroughly pleased with this dip into the past. For a character and property I knew next to nothing about it won me over in mere minutes and has yet to let go. I very much hope we can visit it again some time.
The Black Jack OAVs are everything that's addicting about soapy medical dramas enhanced and compressed into these delicious Dezaki-flavored chunks. Please watch these, and then please make us watch more of these. I wanna see Black Jack operate on the moon. I don't even know if that happens, but it could, and that's what makes this show good. Now if only RetroCrush could hurry up and drop that other series featuring a collaboration between director Osamu Dezaki and character designer Akio Sugino.
Oh don't worry Steve, I'm sure that'll show up eventually. in the meantime we just need to
Buddy, I'm trying.

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