With so many new kinds of anime and manga out there, it’s hard to imagine that there would be any remakes or reboots. But whether fortunately or unfortunately, the industry has its fair share of those, too. And while fans often mistakenly believe that one show is inspired by (or for some critics, completely ripped off) another, here is an example where that is actually true.
Based on the works of the legendary manga/anime creator Osamu Tezuka, Young Black Jack serves as the prequel to the story about the famous anime doctor gone rogue. The original series is so popular, my Japanese language professor collected the manga volumes when she was growing up! (Okay, I admit that that’s no indication of how popular it is.) But before you start complaining how this anime is a rip-off of one of the most recognized anime of all time, may I remind you that it is still produced by Tezuka Productions and is therefore considered an official work under the same name. But I’m not here to discuss the comparisons between this Black Jack and its original. Here, I will be talking about how Young Black Jack pays homage to its history, both as part of the Black Jack series, and its real-time history in the setting.
Disclaimer: the events in Young Black Jack are still considered fiction. That includes all of the characters that are found in its narrative.
Young Black Jack is a medical and historic drama about the genius medical student Kurō Hazama. And before you ask, yes, he becomes Black Jack. Having been saved by the surgical genius — Dr. Honma — when he was a child, Hazama wishes to become a medical doctor of his own to help others too. Hazama often practices unauthorized surgeries, including some on himself, whenever he’s not attending lectures. This is why he seems so damned good at surgery, even though he has no experience in an actual medical situation!
But the road to becoming a licensed doctor is tough. And as Hazama learns rather quickly, the medical field is filled with controversies too. In roughly seven arcs, Hazama develops his own understanding of the medical field and its ethics, while also meeting people who will eventually become his arch enemies in the original series. But most of all, his ties to these experiences and the time period where these events take place mold him into becoming the rogue doctor that many an anime fan recognize to this day.
Now I don’t want to make this the bulk of my review, but I do have to mention the influence that Osamu Tezuka’s work has on this series, since it is the official prequel.
This may be a collection of origin stories, but the character designs in this series also pay homage to the Tezuka narrative style. Having written many of the series that we know of today as “classic anime,” Tezuka was known for putting a lot of the same characters from his works into multiple series. Not only do characters from Black Jack like Dr. Kiriko make an appearance, you may also recognize cameos from Tezuka’s other works as well (granted they are not the same person)! Some people believe that all of Tezuka’s works then belong to the same universe because of these character crossovers, while slightly more practical critics believe this shows how lazy Tezuka was as an artist, duplicating characters and all.
But either way, Young Black Jack‘s character designs look very similar to that Tezuka style, and puts plenty of familiar faces into the mix. You don’t have to look more further than the anime’s closing theme to compare the old and new styles.
But even if the designs are similar, the rest of the details show that this series is still very contemporary. Some Tezuka fans that I’ve talked to have mixed feelings about this prequel (as is expected), frankly because the art style reflects more of the grit of anime today. The original Black Jack is just as dramatic as this one, but Tezuka’s characters felt more cartooney and therefore much more relatable. Tezuka’s Black Jack fits more with the shōnen demographic, but this work appeals to more mature audiences. Not that I think that’s a bad thing.
However, what I thought was most interesting in Young Black Jack was its homage to a different kind of history: one that goes beyond the scope of a simple Black Jack timeline.
While it still holds true that this is still fiction, Hazama finds himself involved in events that happened in the late ’60s, early ’70s, about the time before Black Jack was being published. This not only fits in the series’ timeline, it also allows us, the audience, to look back at critical events in hindsight.
Of the major events that occur in Young Black Jack, Hazama becomes a first-hand witness to the war in Vietnam, the youth rebellions in Japan, and the civil rights movement in the United States. But aside from these events’ accuracy or lack thereof, I think it’s important to also note how relevant these events are in comparison to today.
I should offer a disclaimer: what I am about to say is my opinion, but even I admit that I cannot do this subject justice by discussing it.
Young Black Jack may pay homage to history, but does offer its share of critique on it in somewhat subtle ways. Perhaps the most controversial was the Civil Rights arc that also turned out to be an origin story for Black Jack’s nemesis, Rainbow Parakeet.
In this particular arc, Hazama meets the young civil rights activist Johnny who suffers from a peculiar condition where he cannot feel pain. Since Johnny was also a Vietnam veteran, Hazama considers the possibility that he ignores the pain as a side effect of PTSD. But as it turns out, Johnny was actually part of a special task force that never went to Vietnam, and instead became a victim of nerve gas experiments, which caused physical numbness. To further complicate matters, the doctor overseeing Johnny during that time was a NAZI expatriate contracted by the CIA.
Although these events still lie in the realm of fiction, I suppose this suggests that all events in history are connected, but I feel like that is pretty obvious. What I felt hit home the hardest in this arc is the racism that lies deep in the consciousness of that time period, and today. In the wake of movements like Black Lives Matter today, the political and social unrest continues to persist, and the problems from that history still haven’t gone away yet.
But as controversial as Young Black Jack can get with events of the time, Hazama experiences his own ethical understanding of it all in terms of medical practice.
In this very short span of time, Hazama discovers that there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” people. No matter how noble a goal he thinks saving other people’s lives is, the fact is that there are so many complications in the world that make even the seemingly most innocent of doctors and patients corrupt. He can treat a patient through surgery, but he cannot restore their livelihood in the aftermath. Other factors quickly weigh in, such as the community at large and the history at play.
But regardless of the ethical dilemmas that surround such complicated cases, Hazama is determined to mete justice his own way by doing what he does best. It’s no wonder that he willfully treats just about anyone, from US soldiers to Viet Cong spies, from civil rights activists to anti-war rebels, from a personal mentor to a hostage he would have never known otherwise.
Hazama may seem a little too ambitious, but he will continue to do what he believes is the right thing to do, no matter what. And with that mindset, he will soon become the man we know today as Black Jack.
So if you are curious about the origins of Black Jack, but more specifically how his narrative plays in its history, watch Young Black Jack.