Monday, November 30, 2015

:anime: Free/Low-Cost Anime Pick of the Month:: Young Black Jack

Black Jack…looks kind of different…

[Post Date: Dec. 26, 2015. Intended Post Date: Nov. 30, 2015. Due to computer issues and a whole lot of Christmas decorating… ]

Young Black Jack

Official Site: Japanese
Additional Links: ANN Entry, MAL Entry
Video [Free {Streaming}]: Crunchyroll, Hulu

In May 2013, Black Jack OVA was highlighted in an installment of "Free/Low-Cost Anime Pick of the Month". Since the 1993 work, Osamu Tezuka's popular unlicensed doctor has seen a few TV series and a movie or two, but aside from a 2-eps. 2011 OVA, there has not been a substantial anime starring him in about ten years. So, enter "Young Black Jack", a 12-eps. TV adaptation of an officially-sanctioned prequel manga series by Yoshiaki Tabata (who also penned the scripts) and Yuu Gou Ookuma that is a most curious beast, to say the least.

The telltale staples are still there, from the title character's surgical wizardry and sometimes morally-questionable characters to nods to the OVA's seminal artistic flourishes and involving, sometimes bizarre, episodic tales. The series may follow the steps of then-medical student/wunderkind Kuroo Hazama, but as soon as the first episode rolls, it is clear that it won't quite be your usual Black Jack.

The characters here are a bizarre blend of classic Tezuka aesthetics and heart-swooning bishounen designs. It is a jarring sight at first—seeing a pretty-boy version of Black Jack alone is concurrently amusing, slightly disturbing, and intriguing—but it manages to work out rather well over time. A montage in the end credits shows the YBJ versions of Tezuka's characters alongside their original manga forms, with some characters looking the same as they always do and others either as inspirations or interesting takes of what they might look like with a more modern eye. (As a fan of his "Star System", it is a very neat little extra. It's only appropriate for it to be used here…)

Given the main series' age, classic stature, and time away from the scene, it is not difficult to see why Tezuka Productions would decide to animate Young Black Jack. Its handsome (and occasionally shirtless and chiseled) male denizens make it prime material for both female fans, particularly younger ones, to latch on to and to introduce them to the world of Black Jack, and Tezuka, overall. In that regard, it was likely not by coincidence that its director (Mitsuko Kase) and its chief animation directors/character designers (Miyuki Katayama and Nana Miura) are females. Females are very slowly, yet steadily, gaining more opportunities at occupying top positions in animation productions and becoming top, respected, and sought-after talent, with standouts such as screenwriter Mari Okada (Nagi no Asukara/A Lull in the Sea, MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS), directors Sayo Yamamoto (Michiko & Hatchin, Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine) and Rie Matsumoto (Kyousougiga, Blood Blockade Battlefront), In the case of veteran Kase, she has an accomplished resume that includes SaiKano/She, The Ultimate Weapon, Mobile Suit Gundam 0083 (eps. 1-5), and Ristorante Paradiso.

As one of the earliest female directors, she is something of a trailblazer, as well, making her natural choice to helm a Tezuka-related title such as Young Black Jack. Accompanying her is another interesting figure in the legendary Ryousuke Takahashi, whose work she has contributed on a number of times and provided the series composition and supervision, here. I say "interesting" not merely because of his resume and acumen, but because…he happened to pen two of the worst episodes of Gundam 0083 (eps. 9 & 11). His directorial and producing credits may outweigh his screenwriting ones, but thankfully here, the scripts and the series hold up pretty well.

That and Tabata's involvement are fortunate, as the most interesting aspect of the show may not be high-stake operations, but its historical subject matter. Against the backdrop of the late 1960s, Young Black Jack often goes where few Japanese series ever go, be it drug addiction (quite bold, considering Japan's great unease about anything approaching the subject, as illustrated most recently), the Vietnam War, PTSD, and even the civil rights movement in the United States. Given its isolation, both physically and culturally, such matters are rarely brought up in fictional media in Japan, but the staff appear to have done their research and do a respectable job presenting them, overall. (Granted, it still has that slight air of Japanese-style presentation concerning historical events, which colors such topics with a thin flavor of mythology, romance, and straightforward, concise detailing. By extension, some of the foreign characters act more like ones found in a typical Japan-based tale.)

The veteran experience is certainly felt in guiding the tricky Young Black Jack through its uncanny mix of clashing elements. Regardless, the series may not suit all tastes, be it the aforementioned use of history and characterizations, the mix of retro and modern designs, the obvious pandering to the female (and, at times, fujoshi…) audience (turnabout's fair play, guys…), the flashy surgery action, classic BJ crookedness, and Black Jack sometimes not acting very "Black Jack"-like (well, he's young, after all…).

In truth, Young Black Jack is just one of those shows that may not appeal to everyone. However, that doesn't mean it's not worth checking out. Knowledge of Black Jack or other Tezuka works is not necessary, and you can watch it all, for free, at either Crunchyroll or Hulu, in Japanese with English subtitles.

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