blackjack_1Black Jack [ブラックジャック] (1996)
AKA Black Jack: A Surgeon With the Hands of God

Starring Akio Ohtsuka, Mayo Suzukaze, Yuko Mizutani, Ai Orikasa, Shin Aomori

Directed by Osamu Dezaki

Black Jack is one of my favorite Osamu Tezuka characters. Upon first reading the manga, I was struck by the parallels he had to American superheros. Just like a superhero, he has a code name while the general public has no idea what his real identity is. Just like a superhero, he operates outside the law, saving lives through a kind of vigilanteism. He has superhuman skills that allow him to perform amazing feats no one else can. He doesn’t quite have a cape, but he’s got a cool trenchcoat that looks like one. He’s even got a kid sidekick that he rescued from certain death. (One character in the film refers to Pinoko as his daughter, but that’s not actually true. However, her origin story is too complicated and irrelevant to the film to bother getting into here.) The only real difference is that Black Jack doesn’t fight crime; he fights disease.

He’s an unlicensed surgeon that can perform any surgery on pretty much any living creature, and his villains are the illnesses that threaten their lives. I wondered even after my first encounter with the character whether Tezuka was making a deliberate critique of the comic book superhero, or if it was all just a coincidence. There’s definitely something to be said about Black Jack’s inherently peaceful means of saving people. With the kinds of superpowers showcased in the comic book industry, why do they almost never seem to be used in constructive ways? A superhero claims to be saving the world, but even though that is true, saving the world usually turns out to be a massive fist fight that levels half of Manhattan. Was Tezuka subtly wagging a finger at the superhero genre for proclaiming violence as the sole means of solving the worlds problems by creating his own superhero that did the exact opposite? I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure, but watching this movie made me contemplate these questions more than ever.

blackjack_2This film brought up those superhero questions so much because the plot literally revolves around superhumans. It all starts at the Olympics (hosted by Atlantis, no less), where suddenly a spate of athletes break multiple world records by enormous degrees. The media declares it the birth of the superhumans, and soon more start popping up, not just in athletics, but in intellectual and artistic fields as well. The world is changing, and everyone is mesmerized by it. Several years later, though, things take a turn for the worse as those superhumans start dying of horrible diseases every bit as inexplicable as their powers. So now it’s time for Black Jack to save the day.

But hold up. There’s something majorly different going on with this film, and it’s that Osamu Tezuka died well before this film was made. Obviously he had no creative input on it, unlike the 24 Hour TV Specials. This story clearly belongs more to Dezaki than Tezuka. The villain of the film is nothing like a Tezuka character. The fact that there is a villain is rather odd for a Black Jack story. She could have walked right out of Golgo 13, and thanks to character designer Akio Sugino, who did character designs for both Golgo 13 films as well as Space Adventure Cobra, she looks like she did. The character designs are the most immediate change, and the characters look almost nothing like Tezuka’s designs. It’s especially odd since Pinoko still retains a somewhat super-deformed style next to the more realistic designs of the other characters.

blackjack_3But it’s the story as well that is very different from the typical Black Jack tale. Dezaki turned it into a thriller with secret organizations and paramilitary gunfights. It’s also got a wacky group of armed medical doctors that kick down doors, guns in hand, to arrest anyone foolish enough to commit malpractice. Black Jack doesn’t walk into this situation on his own either; he’s coerced into it after the villain kidnaps Pinoko. It’s a much darker and harder story than Black Jack usually features in, filled with tension and dread as Black Jack tries to set everything straight.

The film is a very odd take on the character, but we’re in the hands of a fantastic director, so despite how much this doesn’t feel like a Black Jack story, it is nonetheless a great film. Despite the gunplay, it’s not an action-packed adventure, but it is a tightly wound thriller that keeps the plot rolling and the tension rising. I had wondered how well the sedate nature of Black Jack would work in a feature-length film. I’ve loved the shorter stories he’s been featured in, but it didn’t seem like the kind of tale that would hold up well in a longer format. I still don’t know whether Tezuka himself would have made a film about Black Jack work, but at least I can say that in Dezaki’s hands it turned out quite well.

It feels weird to me, but frankly Tezuka’s stories have a unique feel to them anyway. What’s weird about this film is that despite being a Tezuka film it doesn’t actually feel that weird at all. Well, I guess there’s the usual signature flourishes that Dezaki loves so much, but in terms of the plot and pacing, it’s a much more normal film than the stuff Tezuka usually made. This might put off Tezuka fans a bit, but Black Jack is a film well worth watching regardless.