Production Company: Shochiku, Tezuka Productions
Release: 30 November 1996
Length: 93 minutes
Director: Dezaki Osamu
Screenplay: Okamoto Kihachi, Mori Eto
Original Story: Tezuka Osamu
Animation Director: Sugino Akio
Music: Kawamura Eiji
Art Director: Kono Jiro
Editor: Morita Seiji
‘Black Jack’ Lacks Color
The year 1973 was difficult for Tezuka Osamu, the father of modern Japanese manga. Mushi Productions, the company he founded to pursue animation, his second love, and bring to life such hits as Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, went bankrupt that year.
The comic book he started writing that fall, “Black Jack,” seemed to reflect his dejected mental state. The eponymous hero was a disfigured recluse cloaked in black, an asocial medical genius who operated without a license and demanded phenomenal sums of money for his feats with the scalpel.
As the comic gained popularity, the title character’s cold and cynical side certainly mellowed, but Tezuka’s basic intent never changed. Trained as a doctor himself, Tezuka used “Black Jack” to explore the existential dilemmas of not only medicine, but also of humans confronted with impossible situations.
Twenty-three years have passed since the manga first appeared and seven years after Tezuka’s death, and a feature-length animated Black Jack is finally hitting the screens.
The year is 1996, when a group of individuals from no particular nation suddenly appear performing unheard of feats in athletics and the arts, achievements that soon earn them the name “superhumans.” These ubermensch soon, however, come down with a mysterious and debilitating illness that robs them of their power.
Black Jack initially refuses to involve himself in the crisis until his assistant, Pinoko, is kidnapped. An icy Dr. Jo Carroll helds Pinoko, forcing him to join her team of expert medical investigators backed by the pharmaceutical giant Brane Corp.
As Black Jack realizes that the superhuman symptoms are themselves a disease related to an excess of endorphins, it becomes apparent that Jo and the Brane conglomerate are somehow behind a shocking conspiracy involving human experimentation gone wrong.
The story of people, like the superhumans, forced to live an intense, all-consuming life, is a theme common to other films directed by Dezaki Osamu, who started off with Mushi Productions before moving on to pen such animated hits as Ashita no Jo 2 and Ganba no boken.
One could even say that Black Jack is more product of Dezaki’s imagination than Tezuka’s. Apart from a couple of figures true to Tezuka’s round and exaggerated comic book anatomy, the character design in Black Jack conforms more to Desaki’s realistic style that fits with today’s fashion.
The question of authorship extends to the level of narration. Black Jack the movie spins its mystery yarn by weaving back and forth between past and present, between one narrative stream and another, avoiding simple, linear and objective narrative for a style that convincingly emphasizes the subjective dramas of each character.
Thus more narratively complex than Tezuka’s original, Black Jack still differs little from other medical conspiracy tales visible in The X-Files or even Outbreak.
In the end, it does not pack the philosophical punch of Tezuka’s humanistic moral universe. Although his gloomy mood in the early 1970s collided with his fundamental optimism, Tezuka still used the scalpel of Black Jack to deftly cut to the heart of the often contradictory human condition as part of his quest to make manga speak to basic, universal issues.
The fact that the movie Black Jack does not rise to this level is unfortunate, but it may not just reflect the problems of the film. Maybe the humanistic world of Tezuka Osamu is no longer possible today.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 28 November 1996, p. 9.
Copyright 1996: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow