Title: Young Black Jack
Company: Tezuka Productions
Format: 12 episodes
Dates: 2 Oct 2015 – 18 Dec 2015
Synopsis: Before he was the famed outlaw surgeon Black Jack, he was Kurō Hazama, medical student. Having had his life saved from the brink as a child, he sets out as an adult on his journey to be the most skilled surgeon in the world. Certainly he has the talent. But his worth as a doctor will be forged by his devotion to be a healer as well as his idealism. And while his principles are indeed strong, they must be like steel to withstand wickedness and corruption from without, whether from nefarious individuals who will exploit his talents or the medical establishment which acts to stifle them.
Visual Style: Stylization compensates up for lack of graphic content.
Medical realism: Hazama’s skill borders on supernatural. Only rarely do his patients cross that line.
Cast: Larger than life, though lacking in depth. Hazama’s own arc has bouts of inconsistency.
Portrayal of the ‘60s: Overly simplistic and awkwardly reactionary.
It’s not such a strange concept that sometimes a character is more compelling the less that is known about their past. For Jake in Chinatown to say that he did, “as little as possible,” says more of him than any detailed backstory would have. I’ve had a similar feeling about the eponymous Black Jack, whose superhuman surgical skills and his revolt against the medical establishment are understood well enough by behavior alone. That said Young Black Jack’s haunting atmosphere and narrative histrionics keep with the spirit of the character. But I’m not convinced that this was a necessary, let alone worthy, entry in the tale of this Tezuka legend.
Compared to the classic Dezaki OVA, there are understandable limits to graphic content, be it a child’s severed arms or carnage amidst the jungles of Vietnam. While nothing is ever explicit, Young Black Jack works around its limitations through its visual direction. Clever censorship and visual reminders of how a patient’s body should be prove an effective substitute to portraying gruesome amputations. And where Hazama’s skills cannot be presented in any graphic detail, imagery of surgical stitches flowing through the air and incisions being made into the aether create an visceral experience even without scalpels and forceps explicitly at work. Additionally, the consistent use of rose vines serves as a reminder of the ethical dilemmas Hazama is caught in, which is of course lies at the crux of Black Jack.
The origin of Hazama’s skills are explored to some extent. And while it’s doubtful that he could transform a tumor into his nurse, he is by no means a rookie. Saying that much may be an understatement, as he performs operations involving transplants and prosthetics, which are still limited in the 21st century. But medical procedures are generally the least interesting part of doctor centric shows anyway. It’s the exploration of the title character’s descent to the medical underworld that matters. The rebel surgeon every Black Jack fan wants to see is very much on the screen, perhaps too much. His willingness to work outside the medical establishment is already, for lack of a better word, established, which raises the question of what arc of his is being told. His path to the lifestyle of an unlicensed surgeon seems so predestined that his occasional reservations about his choices come off as anomalies rather than opportunities for character growth.
Next to World War II, the 1960s may be considered the watershed era of the 20th century. Young Black Jack shows its awareness of this by referencing the turbulence of the decade. Points for trying to utilize the setting. But effort is hardly worth it when, for example, the friction between the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements being painted with the broadest of strokes. With a binary understanding of the world, the show comes off as pedantic. My familiarity with Japan’s student protests is limited to their representation in Norwegian Wood, but even in my ignorance, these protesters are such caricatures that the show ends up (intentionally or inadvertently) playing apologist for the Vietnam War. In theory this isn’t problematic as good storytelling transcends personal politics. Unfortunately the show allows politics to interfere with Hazama’s values, most outrageously when he arbitrarily refuses to treat an AWOL US soldier despite previous and future behavior.
Regardless of whether Young Black Jack is the prequel anybody wanted, it fails to be the prequel the character deserves. The series informs nothing of his character that needed to be said. Neither the setting nor Hazama’s youth are a boon for the show’s most compelling of chapters. With tales of being forced to kill a friend for the sake of a cult leader or coming to terms with turning a crippled man into a monster, the series shines when freed from a permanent setting. Where it works, this series ceases to be Young Black Jack and simply becomes the far superior Black Jack.
The Rating: 5
Reviewed by: Kavik Ryx