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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Doctor Is In: Tezuka's Black Jack and Horror

Spoiler warning: Post contains spoilers for Osamu Tezuka's original Black Jack manga up to volume 3, as published in English by Vertical Inc./Vertical Comics.
Black Jack is a mysterious and charismatic young genius surgeon who travels the world performing amazing and impossible medical feats. Though a trained physician, he refuses to accept a medical license due to his hatred and mistrust of the medical community's hypocrisy and corruption. This leads Black Jack to occasional run-ins with the authorities, as well as from gangsters and criminals who approach him for illegal operations.
Content warning: The Black Jack manga contains explicitly drawn scenes of surgery and medical procedures. If you are sensitive to these things, you should probably avoid this series.
Black Jack is a medical drama. It is a weird freaking pick to review during October, which is supposed to be all about spooky horror titles. Of all the Doctor Tezuka titles to choose - Don Dracula would have done it, even though it's a comedic take on horror, or the stories of The Crater, or even MW and Ode To Kirihito and Book of Human Insects, which are psychological horror.
But damn it, I just wanted to talk about Black Jack again, outside of my post for the Osamu Tezuka MMF from two years ago (geez, has it been that long?). Because in several ways, Black Jack is very much a Tezuka-style horror story. Black Jack himself even looks like a horror character, with his large flapping overcoat, scarred two-tone faced and shocked black-and-white hair.

Three volumes into the series and Black Jack is a Tezukian (sp?) combination of gag humor, fast-paced drama, and medical knowledge. The stories of Black Jack and his various patients never last longer than 20 to 30 pages, and we as the reader are confident in the fact that the doctor will never cross paths with these people again. For the most part, the ending we see is the same Black Jack sees before walking away into the sunset, still the unlicensed surgeon who charges a ransom but makes miracles with his scalpel.
It's through Black Jack's diagnoses and treatments of his patients that we see one of the reasons why this series is a horror title: the horrors of the human body when it's broken. We also see the desperate, ugly side of humans when the possibility of death is on the line. People throw their life savings at Doctor BJ and bargain with other people's lives to save their own.
And then there are the diseases themselves, that turn the human body into a blood and guts filled house of horrors. Tezuka doesn't hold back in illustrating what diseased organs look like; it's not a surprise, since Tezuka is a trained medical doctor who has probably handled his fair share of bodies while in med school. From engorged stomachs ready to burst to cut arteries spurting blood, restraint is not in Tezuka's rulebook.
Sometimes the horror aspect comes from the men who are meant to heal. This volume introduces Doctor Kiriko (who should be familiar to those who watched Black Jack 21 and the OVA series). Also known as the Doctor of Death, he acts as the angel of mercy to patients looking to end their lives, although there is nothing merciful about his bedside manner or his overall predatory nature. He sees death as a preferred reality to the pain of life and is happy to dish it out to the vulnerable.
Naturally, Kiriko and Black Jack end up racing against each other for the life of a patient, whose paralysis has led her to choose voluntary euthanasia. Being the master surgeon, Black Jack saves her life and her mobility but in a twist of cruel irony that is very Tezuka, the ambulance taking her and his family back to the hospital is hit by a truck, killing them instantly. It's just one of the dark twists that occasionally turn a Black Jack victory into a bitter defeat. Death, be not proud.
Then there is Black Jack's young assistant, Pinoko, who is a literal creation of the surgeon. She spent eighteen years in someone else's body before being removed and turned into a woman with a little girl's body, permanently a five year old in the eyes of the world. From her insistence at being an adult despite not spending her life actually in the real world to her declaring Black Jack her husband, she is constantly defining herself as a grown woman in a child's body.
Pinoko is the cutest science experiment in the Tezuka verse (unless the female robot from Metropolis counts?). It's hard not to draw any parallels between her and Frankenstein's monster, one of the perennial horror figures, except that Pinoko is much more agreeable and less violent. Well, she's never killed anyone.
In terms of horror manga, Black Jack is more Tales From The Darkside than the Twilight Zone. There's an emphasis on the guts and gore and the surgery and a lot of the characters are morally bankrupt individuals who call on Black Jack because they can't stomach legit means of medicine. The few wholesomely good people are often busy being screwed over by the world, and the only leverage they find is through Black Jack's dry sense of justice.
Black Jack is lacking in vampires, werewolves, ghosts, the usual hallmarks of horror. But it has the visceral elements - the organs, the exposed sinew and veins, the blood on the floor - and it is populated by humans - messed-up, twisted, troublesome humans. And in Tezuka's hands, they become just as frightening and just as dangerous as the creatures of fictional nightmares.