Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Video Backlog: “Black Jack”

Publisher: Anime Sols (USA)
Format: Region 1 DVD, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Subtitles.
Length: 26 episodes x 24 minutes
Production Date: 2004 - 2005
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes (but for not much longer)

Black Jack is a mysterious unregistered doctor who charges exorbitant fees in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to cure the incurable. But his fees are often warranted as he can almost cure anyone and is rightly considered by his clientele and other doctors to be a genius. He is almost always accompanied by a young girl called Pinoko who acts as his assistant. Though she claims to be Black Jack’s wife and 18 years old, she’s clearly neither of these. Like the OVA directed by Osamu Dezaki mostly in the 1990’s, this adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s work is mostly in self contained episodes. There isn’t an ongoing storyline as such, hence the reason why I’m not going to do a synopsis and therefore this will be one of my shorter reviews in a while. Most stories involve Black Jack getting involved in person’s life, that person either gets sick or needs a cure to a pre-existing condition that other doctors can’t provide, then Black Jack cures them, usually waving, deferring or passing on to a third party his usual fee. Often the patient will learn some valuable life lesson as well. There are some reoccurring characters. Sharaku, who also appeared in the previously reviewed “Buddha 2: The Endless Journey” as Asaji. Of course as I mentioned in that review he is  based upon Hosuke Sharaku from “The Three-Eyed One”. The other major recurring character is Largo, a stray female dog seemingly with precognitive abilities that Black Jack saves and keeps due to Pinoko’s insistence.

And of course Tezuka’s “Star System” is in full swing here with plenty of characters you know and love making cameo and regular appearances. However the problem is that none of these characters appeared in the same way as they did in the manga. For instance Largo and Tetsu (seen irregularly as a coffee shop owner in the show) have only very minor parts in the manga and Sharaku doesn’t even appear anywhere in the manga at all. The DVD copy proclaims that this is the definitive version of “Black Jack”. Seeing as whole sections of the manga are ripped out, rejigged to include characters that never appeared in the stories and in a completely different sequence when compared to the manga, that claim seems a bit of a stretch.

Really, I wouldn’t mind the changes and additions to the original source material if it wasn’t done so bloody badly. They certainly haven’t pitched this show to an older audience as the OVA or even to the original shonen demographic. Instead it seem to be aimed at a family audience and really feels childish and silly. The animation bears the brunt of this. I know that this show is from 2004, but even so it’s colours look oversaturated, the animation lacks details, is overly simple and rather cheap looking. Adding to the overall feel of the show (i.e. the cheapness) is the horrible CG, in particular the aerial shots of Black Jack’s residence sitting atop a sea cliff. They really do look like something out of a cheap late 1990’s OVA.

If I had any standing in the anime community (luckily I don’t), I’d probably be branded a heretic as I really am not much of a Tezuka fan. However as I have pretty much abandoned reading manga, I can’t really tell if the problem with (posthumous) anime adaptations of his material is due to the actual adaption or source material. A lot of the stories are just so damn hokey. Putting aside the slow and daft opening episode (finishing with a court case of all things), you’ve got some really bizarre and stupid plot lines which stretch suspension of disbelief to breaking point. One plot line involves a sushi chef having his arms being amputated due to a negligent truck driver. The negligent truck driver than agrees to become the chef’s “hands”, but then ends up dying with dying wish to have his hands transplanted onto the chef’s stumps. Another episode follows a conceited teenage genius gymnast who loses one arm due to a disease. Black Jack replaces his arm with a crude claw which ends up talking to him and convincing him to take up shogi instead. Eventually the boy becomes a master in shogi and then he accidentally discovers that there is a speaker inside the claw. The girl who always loved him, but he ignored, had been the voice comforting him and telling him to take up shogi. Then we have the episode where a young scientist asks Black Jack to transplant his childhood pet deer’s brain inside its abdomen in order to make it super intelligent. Of course it goes on a rampage killing humans.

It’s really hard to take any of this seriously at all. A lot of it is just straight up laughable. That’s the problem with the “Black Jack” franchise as whole. Medicine is a science. It’s not fiction. Everybody has at least some knowledge of medical science and what is plausible in that field. If you asked a person on the street if transferring your brain to your abdomen would increase intelligence or would full arm transplants actually work (remember, the manga was published in the mid 1970’s), they’d say "No, what are you, an idiot?”. Tezuka famously got his medical degree in the 1950’s, so he certainly knew about what was possible and what wasn’t. Veering off into silly fantasy when the subject is deeply rooted in reality (and understood to a degree by the audience) and is set in the modern day world (not some future or fantasy world), is disappointing to say the least. What’s worse is that a lot of the stories are really predictable. The endings are practically telegraphed to the audience long before you reach the eyecatch.

Putting aside the problems with the stories, what also shits me is the staff’s instance to cram as many Tezuka characters into frame as humanly possible. I mean, why do it? It’s distracting and not clever at all. It reeks of desperation.

Now having trashed this show to hell and back, I thought it might be interesting to talk about how this show came to DVD in the US. In recent years quite a number of anime releases have been funded by crowd funding sites such as Pozible and Kickstarter. A couple of years back translator Sam Pinansky started Anime Sols, a crowd funding where people watched shows for free, then ponied up the cash to get the shows onto DVD. There were a number of problems with this set up. First was the fact almost all of the shows were “classics” (I believe the young people refer to these anime as “old” and “shit”). This didn’t bother me one iota as I love a lot of this material. However the big hurdle was that the streaming service and the ability to fund titles for DVD release was limited to people living in the US. Now I can understand that licensing issues would complicate matters, but seriously now, would companies like Madman, Hanabee, Siren Visual, Anime Limited/All the Anime, MVM et al want to distribute sub only DVDs of 20 to 40 year old anime? Luckily the DVDs were later sold at the Right Stuf, but I had no opportunity to fund these titles. Others outside the US like me also had the same problem.

Apart from some non-English speaking countries in Europe (namely Italy, Spain and France) and some Latin American countries, no one is really interested in distributing these titles. It’s baffling why Japanese licensors restrict this material so much, especially since it’s decades old. In the last few weeks Anime Sols shut down permanently. The problem was they were struggling to meet target funding goals. “Black Jack” for instance only managed to get funding for two 13 episode sets (only 26 episodes out of the 62 episodes were released on DVD). In addition two other series were fully funded, making a grand total of nine DVD sets released over the two years of Anime Sols’ operation. One can only wonder if they would have continued operations and funded more sets if fans outside of the US were able to pledge money towards the site.

Back the show, to be blunt, it’s not all that good. I don’t really understand why this one got funding when there were much better shows on Anime Sols you could put your money towards. I can only give it 5 out of 10. Yeah, I’m not having  much luck with the Tezuka stuff recently…

Remaining Backlog: Nine series, one movie, also waiting for second parts for two shows to be released before viewing them.

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