A contemporary reboot for Tezuka’s much-loved rogue medic, Young Black Jack takes us back to the student days of Hazama Kuroo, the man who will one day be dubbed ‘Black Jack: The Surgeon with the Hands of God’.
Having survived a near fatal childhood accident that leaves him facially scarred, Hazama swears to dedicate his life to saving others, growing into a forward-thinking surgical prodigy studying towards his medical license in the late 1960s. Beginning in 1968, the series ties Hazama’s origin story into many of the big issues of that turbulent era; most notably placing him in the midst of militant student riots, the war in Vietnam and the struggle for equal civil rights in the USA.
Despite the Black Jack manga having been adapted several times before, I must confess that this is the first I’ve watched any of the franchise. Yet, despite having seen complaints from long term fans about the way in which the series has been updated (the source manga is inspired by Tezuka’s work, rather than written by him), I actually found myself drawn into it rather quickly. The depiction of real historical events is much compressed and occasionally of questionable accuracy, but for an anime series to even attempt this for events other than world war two is unusual, and gives the show an added dimension straight from the off. Apocalypse Now it’s not, but it also has the curious accolade of being quite possibly the only time the Vietnam War has been overtly portrayed in anime.
Being at least familiar with the general look of the earlier anime, however, the first thing that struck me is how much the art has changed to suit modern tastes. Tezuka’s trademark cartoonish proportions still influence the look of certain supporting characters, but most of the main cast now sport a more realistic, faintly shoujo manga-esque appearance, perhaps anticipating a strong female following for the series. This change in style is particularly evident in Hazama himself, who is now a dashing young man who seems to spend a lot of time with his shirt off. The contrast between the realistic main characters and more caricaturish designs can be a little jarring at times, but I found the overall effect quite pleasing, paying homage to Tezuka’s artwork without slavishly copying it.
While subtlety is hardly its strong point (we’re treated to the sight of our hero in a crown of thorns before the end of the first episode), the series weaves a good yarn. Given his Superman-esque skill levels, the outcome of Hazama’s operations is rarely in doubt, but the thriller-like frenzy the series whips itself into every time he draws his scalpel never fails to entertain, recalling the overblown intensity of super-robot mecha anime.
The series also draws effective drama from the ethical dilemmas Hazama frequently finds himself thrust into. Although determined to do whatever it takes to save his patient, Hazama’s fearless approach to medicine frequently puts him at odds with the medical establishment, his colleagues and even the people he is helping, clearly foreshadowing his eventual fate as an outcast shunned by his peers.
Unfortunately, after a strong middle section, Young Black Jack loses its way somewhat in its final arc. Hazama’s encounter with a tragedy-stricken former mentor feels far smaller in scope to what has come before it, relying largely on its inclusion of another, lesser-known Tezuka hero to give it impact. Worse still, the final episode seems out of place altogether, apparently squeezed in at the end to give Hazama a last minute love-interest, despite the fact that ending on the previous episode would have made far more sense thematically.
With just 12 episodes, no immediate prospect of a second season, and a limp finale, Young Black Jack can feel a little insubstantial, but while it lasts, it remains an entertaining medical thriller that puts its period setting to good use. Whether this would be a good starting point for anyone interested in the wider franchise, I couldn’t say, but it has certainly interested me in going back to the earlier material, and I may try to review part of that at a later date.
The series is available to stream for free via Crunchyroll.