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The Fine Print
All text is © copyright VIZ, LLC. No reproduction without written permission. All images are © copyright their respective copyright holders as noted. No reproduction without written permission.

Image Copyrights
Black Jack (anime) © Tezuka Production Co., Ltd./Shochiku Co., Ltd. 1996.

Online Features


Black Jack
An examination of the anime and manga's influential medical man in black. By Patrick Macias

On a dark and stormy night, a brooding clad-in-black figure sits alone in a chair staring at the churning seas, contemplating impenetrable thoughts. Suddenly, the ringing of a telephone reverberates throughout the unlit room. The recorded message on the answering machine begins to play back, as it has countless times before.

"I'm not in at the moment. If you are in need of medical attention, please leave your name, telephone number, nature of your complaint, seriousness of your condition, and how much you can afford to pay me. I'll get back to you later."

So begins yet another adventure of the mysterious, unlicensed outlaw surgeon known as Black Jack.

Created by Osamu "God of Manga" Tezuka, Black Jack goes forth with stainless-steel scalpel in hand, cutting into the darkness, treachery, and greed of the human heart, performing miracles of medicine and dishing out rough justice whenever it is called for. His personal motives are suspicious. There is some evidence that he's only in it for the money, especially when his fees run into the millions. But there is also a warm side to this imposing character. His adopted daughter Pinoko (cobbled together from a partially formed human being and put into a plastic body) is Black Jack's good nature externalized and incarnate.

Black Jack made his manga debut in the weekly Shônen Champion magazine in 1973, eventually concluding five years and 4000 pages later. Written and drawn by Tezuka, the brilliant Black Jack stories read like a mix of slapstick comedy, modern cautionary fable making, and pure good old fashioned storytelling. For ideas, Tezuka drew from his own knowledge and experience as a licensed physician and avidly devoured medical texts.

The Black Jack manga (translated in English, and currently collected together in two graphic novels by Viz Comics) was a success for Tezuka just when he needed it. It was a creative come-back in macho era of konjô (guts 'n' glory manga). Black Jack struggled with both bizarre and banal illnesses and with the final emphasis placed on the human consequences. But rather than offering merely moral dilemmas, the "guts" of the story came in the operating scenes, which, not for the squeamish, opened up the body and revealed it for what it really is: machine, a fragile mass of muscle and tissue.

Black Jack's distinctive look and character may have helped to influence a new breed of darker manga and anime heroes. Leiji Matsumoto's Space Pirate Captain Harlock, has not only a similar bushy haircut, but also a scar running across the right side of his brooding face (or the left side depending on if the manga artwork has been "flipped" or not). There's also Mai Kenna and Tadashi Kato's The Chef, a mysterious figure whose culinary skills are just as miraculous and controversial as Black Jack's unorthodox operations.

In 1977, Toho studios, the home of Godzilla, released a live-action Black Jack movie with cult actor Jo Shishido in the leading role. Jack finally made his anime debut as a supporting player in Tezuka's 1980 theatrical film Phoenix 2772 (available in the U.S.A. from Best Film & Video).

Despite Osamu Tezuka's death in 1989, the character of Black Jack continues to live long and prosper. Since 1996, there have been six original videos (all available in English from U.S. Manga Corps) with another currently in production, and a theatrical movie (released by Manga Video). These tales of Black Jack are taken from original screenplays, and are not based on previously published manga. Directed with trademark visual flair by Osamu Dezaki (Space Adventure Cobra, The Professional: Golgo 13, Golgo 13: Queen Bee), the anime tones down the visual humor of the comic and dives deep into the operating room drama. This is, after all, one the few anime which lists a medical supervisors (Akira Nagai) among its credits.

Longtime Dezaki collaborator Akio Sugino (character designer and key animator) indulges his fondness for depicting the human form in extremes. The first OAV, "Clinical Chart I: Iceberg, Man with Kimaira," depicts a disease that causes its victim to painfully purge itself of all moisture. The Black Jack movie features a race of superhumans with exceptional talents who are doomed to suffer horrible, and very graphic, deaths and physical burnout. Close-ups of bulging eyeballs and twitching skeletal torsos are common, mirroring the psychological states of the afflicted.

The lighter side comes from many Tezuka in-jokes. The "God of Manga" himself makes a cameo as a cab driver. Cute 'lil Pinoko puts together jigsaw puzzles adorned with the Wonder 3 and Astro Boy.

The connections between the Black Jack manga and the Black Jack anime become even stronger when one discovers that Dezaki worked under Tezuka on the original Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy) TV series. As revealed in a landmark three-part Dezaki interview, published recently in Animerica, the director said that Tezuka was the person that Dezaki "wanted to be when he grew up." And now, with the Black Jack OAV and movie, maybe Dezaki is a little closer to fulfilling the dream.