Osamu Tezuka’s macabre medical man gets a well-deserved OVA series thanks to the greatness of his former protege Osamu Dezaki (God rest his soul), a masterful director with a knack for grit, noir and dramatic freeze frames. Space Cobra, Rose of Versailles and Ashita no Joe are only but a sampling of what Dezaki has helmed, so it’s no surprise that he would be the right man to bring to life the dark and strange world that would surround our titular hero, the unlicensed surgical genius known as Black Jack.
My first glimpse of Black Jack however was through Manga Video’s release of the 1996 movie (also helmed by Dezaki) on VHS, a tape that I treasured in the late 90’s. Filled with awesome visuals and an epic sense of dread, the film would’ve been a great primer for me had I tuned in to those OVAs. Despite my awareness of those episodes, I was unable to sit down and view them until 2014, and by then, a new TV series and film had already emerged. However, judging by the way the new stuff looks, I’d pass it up happily to see anything related to Dezaki because these OVAs are hard to top.
From the start, Black Jack is rife with gorgeous animation that blends the vintage wonder of Tezuka’s designs with the modern edginess that is typical of all things Dezaki. Pinoko’s happy interactions with everyone, from lovable gangsters to choir boys with folliage in their eye sockets, is evidence of this as she skips behind our brooding doctor with joyful abandon. This is also emphasized with Dezaki’s careful use of light, where characters are shaded immaculately under a variety of backdrops that include sunstroked forests, surgical exam lamps and neon skylines. Another plus here is how well movement is depicted. From the first incision to the rush of guerilla soldiers firefighting in the jungle, the motions of all the characters in Black Jack are smooth and dramatic. Rounding it all off are Dezaki’s awesome freeze frames, which add an explosive exclamation point to any situation depicted, especially when it comes to action. Much of this art, from the freeze frames to the character designs, is all thanks to Dezaki’s longtime collaborator Akio Sugino, a man who kicks moe to the can with a heavy dose of “adult” and “mature.” To put it bluntly, Black Jack is eye candy for grown-ups, and that’s how I like it.
However, let’s not forget that at the core of all of this lush imagery is a tale about an underworld miracle worker. Black Jack pulls no punches when it comes to his fee, since he can apparently do colon resections under gunfire while sipping Kood-Aid (I jest), but that makes it all the more worthwhile to watch when he encounters situations that have him baffled beyond belief (the OVA’s first episode being a great example of this). Furthermore, Black Jack’s many cases veer into the realm of the supernatural that fixes you to the screen, where we find his sound medical science being challenged constantly by phenomena that he simply cannot explain. Talking abdominal tumors, geyser vomit and dreamy trips to the Sengoku era are only but a sampling of what he encounters throughout the OVA series, but don’t jump in expecting that he’ll do battle with the Overfiend. Black Jack is written well without pretending to be anything more than what it is (an OVA), and overall, that’s good enough for me.
Dezaki’s Black Jack OVA series is a dark and suspenseful look at a man who walks between the crossroads of medical science, morality and the supernatural. Told in grand fashion thanks to some great animation, Black Jack is a reminder that great viewing doesn’t necessarily have to be a Studio Ghibli epic or a poorly drawn schlock-fest. Although it can be dismissed as a medical thriller on the surface, Black Jack’s chilling cases rise to the occasion once we witness their eventual descent into the macabre. Black Jack might be the very best in his profession, but even he must submit to the realization that no matter what he does, there always seems to be something much larger happening beyong his comprehension.
Images courtesy of stellarsisters.com