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 diagnosis is murder as the origin of Osamu Tezuka’s legendary rogue surgeon Black Jack is finally revealed in YOUNG BLACK JACK!
Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 audio tracks are encoded at 48 kHz at 224 Kbps. This is one of the more active stereo presentations I’ve heard in a long while. Separation and moments of directionality really lift this action-oriented series–in a few select scenes–creating surprisingly realistic spaces. Because the series takes place in a wide variety of settings ranging from cavernous hospital hallways to a jungle being bombed, the sound is somewhat uneven. This is not a criticism as much as noting the purposeful and well executed use of sound.
Encoded in variable bitrate MPEG 2, most of the series looks fine from a normal viewing distance. There do seem to be places where the digital noise stands out when looking closely for artifacts, but there were no distractions during the original viewing. Colors well represented the highly varied scene settings.
The packaging relies on a color scheme of black and white as well as red. The front has a large bust of the young Black Jack with the older Black Jack in the background. Surgical thread crisscrosses the background that has muted monochrome medical drawings on a red field. The spine has the title between “heartbeat” lines with a ¾ body of Black Jack holding his scalpel. The back has a very busy design. Forceps, a hypodermic needle, and a scalpel sit on top of a tagline with nine small scenes from the series lined up on a diagonal heartbeat line. Young Black Jack and two other characters from the Chicago arc are on a red field with medical drawing in the background. The summary is in a white field with a gray drawing that is very hard to discern but appears to me to be medical tools. The summary is clear and easy to read. The technical information is on the bottom, but where the low contrast design from the white field continues. The technical grid is clear and easy to read. Three disc are printed with original art of Black Jack, and each features one heroic or antihero doctor. The design offers a nice aesthetic that enriches the personality of the character. Few sets draw my attention as much as this one.
Menus offer the titles on a horizontal slant moving top right to center, and Black Jack, along with other characters, lean in, giving the static image a sense of momentum.
The set includes a clean opening and closing.
After watching the first two episodes, I would never have imagined that I would compare Young Black Jack to one of my favorite John Woo films. The soap opera situations of the first episodes made me regret choosing the series, but then episode 4 began a Vietnam three-parter that reminds me of Bullet in the Head (1990). I had high hopes for a technically interesting series where history and anime go places I was not used to seeing. I had decided it was only going to be a melodrama with a surgical super hero. The series turns into something more closely akin to the action films of the 1980s where loyalty and purpose require one to become more than a mere man.
Young Black Jack’s real name is Hazama Kuroo. As a boy, Hazama suffered devastating injuries but was stitched together by a super doctor. After an excruciating rehab, he regained the complete use of his body. Now a medical student, Hazama finds himself being put in situations where he must undertake surgeries without a license. He spends his free time visualizing surgeries, and when called upon, his movements are deft and his surgical thread shimmers in mid air.
He has two frequent companions. First is Yabu, a doctor and an addict who faints at the sight of blood. Second is Maiko Okamoto, an intern who does not have the talent or ability of Hazama. Neither companion offers more than a catalyst for Hazama to demonstrate his medical and masculine superiority. While the series is not sexist, many of the surgical scenes offer a muscular Hazama in a display of machismo. For some reason, in one surgical scene with another great doctor, their clothes disappear as they operate on their patient. In more than one scene, the imagery seems homoerotic, but so was much of 1980s action films where a shirtless action hero masturbated an AK-47.
The series offers four arcs. The first and last arc relate to political radicals in Japan in 1968. These protesters and borderline militias attract young people who look for a purpose, but they do not have more than a worldview they want to promote. The second is a group in Vietnam that includes a Japanese photographer, a U.S. military convoy, Hazama’s friend, and a female translator. The third brings Hazama to Chicago where he treats a civil rights protester. The fourth arc moves into sci-fi when one of the doctors who treated Hazama as a child finds out that the research hospital where he works has a vein of corruption that was responsible for the wreck that led to his quadruple amputation.
What sets Young Black Jack apart from action series like Black Lagoon is the social and moral exploration that Hazama must experience in his quest to become a doctor. At the beginning of the series, the character seems arrogant and nothing more than his actions, and while I readily criticized that, as the series wrapped, Hazama understood more about himself and had lost much of his idealism as well as gained a level of humility.
Ideals become a major focus of each of the main arcs. In Vietnam, people die without purpose–without honor. One dies because someone buried a mine in a field. One of the “heroes” of the arc loses his mind and orders a village to be carpet-bombed even though the villagers had helped save their lives. When the young med student comes to Chicago to observe a super surgeon at work, the audience sees Hazama’s moral judgment swing dangerously into the territory of a Nazi concentration camp “researcher.” Even in the final arc, he learns that the university hospital has a level of corruption inherent in the institution. As someone who has observed institutional corruption for a long time, this knowledge strips Hazama of any last shred of idealism and sets him on the path of a rogue doctor.
At the heart, Young Black Jack shows the origins of the Osamu Tezuka characters and offers homages to much of his classic works. Some are hit or miss. Character designs from Tezuka’s style appear in a contemporary series where the other character designs seem more realist, at least in anime terms. Hyakki Maruo, the character who had a quadruple amputation, seems designed to mimic Dororo, and that story’s world of demons has been applied to the characters from the research hospital. Not only similar in design, the story turns into a revenge motif where the object is to take back his body. With so many levels of reference, Tezuka fans will find affection for the master embedded in the series.
While Young Black Jack’s story remains focused on Hazama’s medical skills, masculine chest puffing, and genre tendencies ranging from war to sci-fi, the real story is a young man’s coming of age in an idealistic time but finding corruption has spread through institutions old and new. Medical aspects of the series offer no realism, but by using cinematic tropes, they can be embraced without a suspension of disbelief.
Viewers can expect an uneven series with each arc different in genre and character development, but Young Black Jack succeeds where it matters most, it gives the character a soul.
Japanese language with English subtitles, Clean Opening and Closing, and Sentai Trailers
Content Grade: B+
Audio Grade: A-
Video Grade: B+
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: C
Released By: Sentai Filmworks
Release Date: February 7th, 2017
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Video Encoding: MPEG2 480i/p
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Samsung KU6300 50” 4K UHD TV, Sony BDP-S3500 Blu-ray player connected via HDMI, Onkyo TX-SR444 Receiver with NHT SuperOne front channels and NHT SuperZero 2.1 rear channel speakers.