What They Say:
The year is 1968, the war in Vietnam is approaching its zenith, and the counterculture movement that’s been sweeping the world is engulfing Japan. While others are in the streets protesting, one young medical student becomes embroiled in a different kind of battle.
As new medical technologies to save and extend lives come into play, the temptation for a surgeon to play God has never been so powerful. Even as he strives to prove his own skills to his colleagues, Hazama Kuroo begins to suspect that the potentials for abuse inherent in the medical system are already being exploited.
To attempt to change the system means risking his own promising career as a surgeon, and to move against the perpetrators will put his own life in danger. However, as a doctor, how can he not act when lives are on the line?
The audio presentation for this release brings us the original Japanese language track only in stereo and encoded using the DTS-HD MA lossless codec. The series is one that is mostly dialogue oriented most of the time but has some bigger moments that play well for the period while also serving up things right when it comes to the music, both in the opening/closing aspects but in-show as well for the swell of instrumental sequences. The dialogue itself is well placed as needed but it largely pretty straightforward and easy to work with. Everything is clean and clear throughout and we didn’t have any problems with dropouts or distortions during regular playback.
Originally airing in 2015, the transfer for this TV series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 in 1080p using the AVC codec. The twelve episodes are spread across two discs in a nine/three format. Animated by Tezuka Productions, the show holds true to the designs and styles of what’s come before for Tezuka works and it looks great with clean lines, solid and bold colors, and a good sense of time and place with the backgrounds and costume designs. The encoding is a very smooth one with solid colors throughout and no signs of noise or blocking that’s distracting or problematic. The series has a distinctive look owing to the source material but with the modern animation styling it definitely comes across in a really great way.
The packaging for this release brings us a standard sized Blu-ray case that holds the two discs against the interior sides. The cover artwork is one that works the Japanese artwork in a good way with the two sides of the lead character with the draw being the younger side in the foreground. Bringing that together with the details material from the background of the medical imagery works well and gives it a pretty good look with some weight to it. The back cover works a lot of shots from the show and some character artwork from the Japanese side to give it some flair and detail while the right has a slimmer than usual breakdown of the premise. The extras are clearly listed and the bottom breaks down the production information in an easy to read way as well as a clean technical grid that conveys all the basics without a problem. No show related inserts are included nor is there a reversible cover.
The menus for this release work off of the same idea as the cover with the red and black background to tie things together as the bulk of the screen is given over to that with some solid character artwork laid over it from the Japanese covers, which means they’re brighter and more distinctive. The navigation along the left doubles as the pop-up menu and it has a good look as it’s bound in spiral and works a rough and raw look with the black background along with red and white blocks where the episodes are listed by number and title. Everything is easy to navigate and it looks good while being in theme and tied to the packaging design itself.
The only extras included with this release are the clean versions of the opening and closing sequences.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on the original character created by Osamu Tezuka, a new manga series kicked off in 2011 from Yoshita Tabata and Yugo Okuma in Young Champion magazine that focused on the character’s early years. The manga itself has gotten up to nine volumes at this point and provides for an expansion on a very familiar character that first appeared in 1973 in Weekly Shonen Champion. Black Jack has had a long life with seventeen volumes back then over a decade and an array of OVAs, TV material, and films since. I’ve long liked the character and much of Tezuka’s works but the medical side always gives me the creeps. So I was definitely very curious about this adaptation but also ready to be squeamish.
What’s welcome about this series is that while it does focus on a young Black Jack as he’s going through a third rate medical university is that it doesn’t try to update it. It places him squarely in the late 1960’s in Japan with all the turmoil that comes from it. Politics and social issues have been a staple of the character and its examination of the human condition through medicine and this period certainly offers a lot of that. Focusing on the character as Kuroo Hazama at the time, we see how he struggles with aspects of the university and the way it teaches combined with his desire to really explore and try things in a place where such expression is largely forbidden. Hazama doesn’t earn himself much in the way of friends either as student activism is very big during this time and he’s more intent on focusing on his studies and practice of surgical skills.
The series presents us with several multi-episode arcs and some standalone pieces that delve into the medical side well enough but more so on the cultural and political side, including that of how things work within the hospital system. We see the way that doctors that he has to deal with, particularly at the university, feel that once something is established there’s nothing to be done. The opening episode focuses on a boy that had two limbs severed in a train accident and the admitting doctor is ready to amputate rather than try anything else. So much so that when Hazama says there’s another way he simply writes it all off and leaves. The ethics of the doctor at that time are frightening and you hope there’s not much truth to it, or that it’d just be left to a surgical student to do what he can. But it’s a solid exploration of the stagnation coming from some older doctors and middle-aged men that view what they do as being the best and that if they can’t do it then nobody can.
What works with this series is its exploration of the world. Coming before Hazama takes on the name Black Jack and begins demanding millions in fees to do work as an unlicensed surgeon, we see how he already ends up in hot spots dealing with problems. A three episode arc places him in Vietnam in 1968 as protests are underway in Japan and he gets caught up in some dicey situations, with American soldiers that see everyone as the enemy as shell shock is in full effect to working with a military doctor that is just as truly skilled as he is. Working under pressure is always the fascinating part of the show – and people don’t always survive – so working under the conditions of a bombing that’s coming and not being able to trust those that you’re with certainly hits some certain sweet spots in ramping up the tension of the moment. This arc may go on a bit long but it explores a number of different things from the complicated morass that is the Vietnam war from different perspectives that it’s worthwhile.
Another arc takes him to America where he’s dealing with a civil rights leader that seemingly had this thrust on him because of his apparent immortal aspects and lack of fear. Being a discharged soldier there’s a trick to it all but it comes at a time that plays into the Martin Luther King, Jr. side of history and the kinds of things that people are facing. It also comes into how the military was using various soldiers for experiments and the impact it had on them and how the coverups operated. One of the things that definitely clicks for me with this property, similar to the main one over the years, is that it doesn’t stick to a purely Japanese perspective nor with just Japanese characters, or foreigners in Japan. Tezuka, and the creators of this manga property and adaptation, bring out title character around the world and into different cultures to provide windows into it. It may not be the most accurate thing in the world sometimes but it’s far more than most other series even think of doing and it warrants some positives just for doing as much as it does in comparison.
While I struggle with medical shows in general and Young Black Jack is no exception, the series is more focused on other events in a way and less on the surgical side – though it’s certainly there. There’s a lot of appeal in the show as it plays firmly to its roots in the time period and isn’t afraid to talk about social and political events of the day and how they impacted and in their own way shaped what Kuroo was going through. The property continues to be an unfortunate niche title so it’s no surprise there isn’t a dub but it’s one that does a great job in being a “prequel” of sorts that explores the characters origins and gives us some time with what shaped him. Fans of the character will likely really enjoy this and it’s a title that should be sampled as something outside of the norm to engage with and discover.
Japanese DTS-HD MA 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Clean Opening, Clean Closing
Content Grade: B
Audio Grade: B+
Video Grade: B+
Packaging Grade: B
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B-
Released By: Sentai Filmworks
Release Date: February 7th, 2017
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.