Saturday, November 13, 2010

Black Jack - OVA Series

It is my belief that Osamu Dezaki is one of anime's most incredible directors. He is the master, a legend in his own time. All his works have his unique and intense style stamped right on it that you can't possibly miss. His works stand out, like the works of Satoshi Kon, Hideaki Anno, or Mamoru Oshii. And yet sadly he is much less known in the west then those men. You take notice when Dezaki is in the director's chair. He makes sure that you do! He has directed such anime as The Rose of Versailles, Tomorrow's Joe, Space Adventure Cobra, and Golgo 13: The Professional. And the Black Jack OVA's are yet another example of Dezaki showing off his stuff. Black Jack is based off of a long-running medical drama manga by none-other-then Osamu Tezuka. And since Dezaki is Tezuka's protegee, who better then him too adapt the series for a whole new generation, while keeping intact what made the manga so great in the first place? In the early 1990's, work on this OVA series began by TezukaProductions, with a very large budget, and ambitions. Of course in 2004, Macoto Tezka, Osamu Tezuka's son, (possibly the only other person truly capable of updating this series) directed the 62 episode TV series, with mixed results. For today I'll be reviewing the OVA series (released on VHS and DVD by CPM). But if you want to check out the TV series (which is entirely different in tone, style, and feeling as these) it's streaming on crunchyroll.

This series about Dr. Black Jack, one of the best doctors on the planet, who has an all around amazing knowledge of general medicine, surgery, and treatments of diseases and alignments . If there's something wrong with you, odds are Black Jack can fix it. However Black Jack, for his own reasons, is an unlicensed doctor. He practices medicine outside the legal realms. And due to that fact, he charges large amounts of money to help people. There are those out there who think this is immoral, to charge all that money for medical help. And they have a problem with him being uncertified, and running from the law. Since what he's doing is not exactly legal, there are those out there who would like to see him arrested, and many try over the years. He is a very misunderstood man, and for good reason since he's sort of an outlaw he's not the most social person alive. But there are many out there who do think he's doing the world a favor, by practicing outside the legal realms he can do many great things legit doctors cannot. They respect his immense amount of knowledge and incredible amount of skill as a surgeon. There's one more thing worth noting about Black Jack, and that is he has a scar on his face ever since he was a little boy. This scar is not explained in the OVA, but he got it from a life-saving medical operation he received as a child. That surgery made him wish to pursue a career in medicine in the first place. The doctor who saved his life made a real impression on him. Black Jack can at times seem cold and uncaring, and doesn't speak too much. But when does it's often inspiring. Black Jack, unlike say Golgo 13, does have a real personality. Black Jack has his own set of moral codes that he follows. He's not just a greedy bastard, oh no far from it. And although he seems cold on the outside, he does care for his patients. He's a very likable and admirable guy, who prefers actions over words. He is mysterious, powerful, extremely cool, and incredibly skilled, and yet somehow very human. He's not perfect, but he's better then any doctor I know. I think we can all relate to Black Jack, an outsider with a heart of gold, and a unique outlook on life. What he does with all the money is not revealed in the OVA series, but in manga we learn he gives it to charity. I think this is an important fact to know. He seems to like to take a lot of money away from the wealthy and give it to charities. So he's far from the greedy capitalistic pig you might expect, when you first hear how much money he wants to help people. But Black Jack isn't the only interesting character of the series.

Black Jack is often assisted in his many medical operations by Pinoko, a (seemingly) young girl who is infatuated with the good doctor. I don't feel the need to explain her backstory (because it will only confuse you more if your unfamiliar with the franchise). The series does a decent job at hinting what the deal is with her, so I'll leave it at that. Just know she's not really 5 years old, she's more like an older teenager. And while she truly, romantically, loves the doc, he seems to care about her more like a daughter then anything else. Anyway she's an interesting character, who brings some much needed liveliness to the show. I just know that she will annoy some people, but she's not a useless side character. She truly helps the doctor, in a way very few people can. And he trusts her more then anyone else in the entire world. Her relationship to Black Jack is always interesting. It's great to watch her crush on the doctor, and get jealous when another lady comes into the picture. She's not in every episode, but when she does show up I find she is a great contrast and foil to the cold (on the surface) and subdued Black Jack. As she wears her emotions on her sleeve and is hyperactive.

Each if the ten episodes of the OVA series can standalone. There is no real overarching story to this series, and that's perfectly fine here. As each of the ten episodes are unique and interesting enough on their own. I do think that the first episode was a rather poor choose to open the series to, and the last episode a bad episode to end it on, but that's just me. These episodes are good episodes, just bad ways to begin and end a show. I liked almost all the episodes, but I have a few favorites. One of them is episode 3. This episode details the story of Maria and her father, the leader of a fictional South American country. A country resembling the United States invaded his country and arrested him on false charges, for political reasons. He escapes capture, and ends up in the hands of his loyal followers in a bordering country. But we learn out he is dieing of terminal cancer. His followers want him to die in his homeland, as a hero, but the President of "We're so totally not the United States....totally" wants him dead. Black Jack is brought in to help make sure the man's life is extended long enough to die in his homeland. Black Jack must perform an operation out in the middle of the wilderness, aided only by the moonlight I may add. In this episode we learn just how amazing of a doctor Black Jack is, as if we already didn't know. It tosses around some great ideas about war, although it doesn’t deal with them too heavily. No this episode would much rather occupy it’s self with the character drama, and that’s quite all right. This is a very powerful and moving episode, especially the great ending which I won't ruin. And Dezaki's dramatic flair only makes it better. An episode that does deal with war more in detail is the 7th Episode. In this episode Black Jack is hired to perform heart surgery on a little girl in a middle eastern country. Her grandfather, a mob boss now living in New York City, pays him a great deal of money to go to the country and save her life. No sooner does Black Jack get off the plane does a Civl War brake out. Caught up in the violence he tries to find the little girl, but she and her mother have left the city for the countryside, in hopes to avoid the conflict. They end up in a refugee camp, and this is where their story, Black Jack's story and a female volunteer doctor's story all collide. The doctor assists Black Jack, who performs the delicate operation on the little girl's heart, in the worst conditions imaginable. Not only are they understaffed, undersupplied, and without funds, but a sandstorm is brewing right outside the tent. Once he is done with the surgery, and a helicopter arrives to evacuate the young girl and her mother, the rest of the refugee camp comes pleading to Black Jack for help. He's the only real surgeon around, and possibly the only one there who can save them and their children. I won't spoil what happens of course but it's very inspiring. The ending of this episode is incredibly powerful, and moving. Not only does this episode show us what war really is like, but it has a lot of interesting medical morality tossed in there. Not to mention the great twist at the end when they are all back in New York City. If you see only of of these episodes, let it be this one. For it is the most powerful, profound, and interesting of them all. It's emotional, but not in a depressing way. This is my favorite episode, perfect in every way. There are tons of other amazing, gripping, and intense episodes that I won't get into. Episodes like the one that deals heavily with euthanasia, that stars the Black Jack universe's equivalent of Dr. Kevorkian (episode #4). This doctor, Dr. Kiriko, a full supporter of euthanasia butts heads with Dr. Black Jack who is a strong believer of trying to save the patient no matter what, and never giving up hope. And then you have episodes like the 8th one, that have a great mystery and supernatural underpinnings. This episode involves a supernatural tree. And then of course you have the unforgettable episode where they guy has a very strange tumor on his stomach. There's only one weak episode of these ten, and it's not really worth getting into. Most of the episodes are top notch stuff, and have really high replay value.

This series is a gripping medical drama that in my opinion, fans of American medical dramas (House, ER, M*A*S*H ) would just eat up. But it also has qualities that will make your average anime fan enjoy it as well. Also the series is very character driven, so even if your not very interesting in finding the cure of a disease, or Black Jack perform a surgery, the characters will engage you. I find that each episode is more about the characters and the situations they find themselves in, then the actual operations themselves (although they are all shown in the gory glory). What I find interesting about this series is many of the medical problems really exist, while others are realistic but fictional, and others still are straight out of the fantasy and supernatural realms. You’re never quite sure what your going to get until the episode slowly reveals this to you. It’s a refreshing, mature and sophisticated series. Dezaki’s directional style makes each episode very dramatic, and some do become a little over the top, but it never becomes silly. Then again the original manga was known to be a little over the top at times as well, with stories involving Black Jack actually operating on himself (as if we didn’t think he was epic enough already), but this almost-over-the-top tone, gives the series a charm all of it’s own. For the most part however this is a very grounded series, despite the supernatural elements. And the art style reflects this.

As far as art and animation go, this was a big budget OVA back in 1993, so they really gave it their all. Dezaki gives it a very cinematic style, and he uses tons of great camera angles throughout the episodes. The artwork is dark, gritty, and highly detailed. In fact the character designs and overall style of the show is very neo-noir and look pretty realistic, when compared to the very cartoony style of the original manga (and later anime adaptations). And I believe this was the right move, as it really helps adapt the manga for an entirely new generation without losing all the charms of the original. The color palette is dark, but not at all gloomy. Tezuka Productions manages to have a great use of lighting and shadow to make everything seem dark, but still very visible. Character designs are highly detailed, realistic, and impressive looking (The exception here is Pinoko who seems much more cartoony then the other characters. A throwback to the manga perhaps?). A lot of work went into designing each and every one of these characters, so you won’t find a generic looking person in this anime. The animation is fluid and very smooth. Character movements, action scenes, and the operations look amazing, and still hold up well today. If there is a weak point of the animation, it is that the cars seem to be animated a little poorly at times; they feel a little jumpy and don’t move very naturally. But this is just nitpicking at this point, because other then that for an anime from 1993, this is some really great animation (and how many series get car animation down pat anyway?). I challenge anyone to find something that still looks this good from that time period. Dezaki’s style of “dramatic triple takes” and “freeze frames” really add to the show, although after awhile they do become a tad annoying. Dezaki may have gone a little overboard with them in this series, but his directing style still shrines though. The music is good, although nothing really standouts too much. The opening and ending themes are great to listen to, and really fit with the tone of the show, they all feel very dramatic. The English Dub on the other hand really stands out. To put it simply Kirk Thornton is Black Jack. No one else should ever play that character. Every line is said with such sheer intelligence and brute force behind them that you just are left in awe of this man’s performance. Julie Kliewer plays Pinoko, and she may be a bit grating to some, but I personally think she's great. She really captures Pinoko's youth, energy, and odd quirks, along with being able to display her agelessness, as an 18 year old, in a young body (OK sort of...not really...kinda). Besides those two, most of the other people in this series are episodic characters. So there are tons and tons of voice actors in the show, and for such an old dub they do wonders. Since this series is very worldly (I'd compare it to Master Keaton), many of the characters have accents. And while a few sound a bit too stereotypical (some of the characters from South America for example), most are realistic and add a flavor to the show. These episodic characters are usually well cast, and very well acted. The series has a great set of actors for the background characters. Still there are a few actors who aren't amazing. It's not that they are horrible or anything, but they could be better. But since the dub is carried on the back of Kirk Thornton, this matters not. And again most smaller roles are of good to great quality. This is one of CPM's better dubs, and oddly enough was done in L.A., by Magnitude 8 Post/ ZRO Limit Productions, with the help of Tezuka Productions. It helps give it a flavor all to its own. And again comparable only to the dub on Master Keaton (The Ocean Group, Vancouver). Both have their respective amazingly powerful and perfect lead actor (Ted Cole - Keaton, Kirk Thornton- Black Jack) and have a great actress play the recurring little girl (Keaton's Daughter - Kelly Sheridan, Pinoko - Julie Kliewer) and sometimes good, sometimes not so good, actors for the many background and episodic characters.

Central Park Media's release (DVDs) have their general art gallery extras, but also some thing very special. Great commentaries by the master himself, Osamu Dezaki. Dezuki details in depth what he did on this series, certain techniques he uses, the meaning of certain things, and he even goes over specific scenes. These are very informative commentaries. Some of the more interesting things to learn here include: how Dezaki got involved in the project in the first place, some general information of Desuki’s past at Mushi Production, what Dezuki feels is the reason for Pinoko in the original manga and the OVAs, how he makes the action scenes more powerful, and how he picked what to adapt from the original manga. This is the type of commentary we rarely get anymore, but I just love!! If you want to own this great show you can still buy CPM's DVDs on (Buy volumes 1,2 and 3, and collection 2, and you will have the entire series. This is how I own it). You can also buy it through iTunes, if you'd rather do that. And at a $1.99 an episode that's a great way to test out this series. The movie which Manga Entertainment released and I have not seen (which goes along with this series) can be bought on amazon, and at Robert's Anime Corner Store . The manga is easy to find at most places as well, since it's being re-released by Vertical Inc at the moment. And I already said Cruncyroll has the new TV series streaming. Black Jack is a legendary series in Japan. It's up there with Astro Boy and it's easy to see why. It's a shame it's not as well known here in the West, but do check it out. Perhaps you too will love the series.

*some parts of this review are taken from an older review I wrote over a year ago

Prede's Rating

4.5/5 Stars


  1. Black Jack OVA has a good dub? Now I'm intrigued. this was always one of those old franchises that I was afraid to pick up because it encompasses so much material over such an extended period of time. Seeing the director of Rose of Versailles take on this legendary project peaks my interest, too.

  2. Oh yes I like the dub a lot. It's not perfect, but I cant imagine watching it any other way. Kirk and Julie have a great chemistry. And many of the background voices help give it a worldly feel to it all.

    If your ganna pick this up I highly suggest starting with these OVA's. They are the best series to begin with. You don't need much knowledge to really understand them. If you find you enjoy it you can move on to the other stuff. But the OVA's are the best IMO.

  3. I've heard so many good things about this series...may need to check it out. Thanks for the review! :P

  4. No problem beneaththetangles . And thank you both so much for the comments.