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Deus Ex Tezuka: The Inaugural Episode of “Black Jack”

By Yani Mentzas

In his third post for our Japan issue, Yani Mentzas dissects the the moral (and national) background in Tezuka's work and discusses the religious imagery of a miracle-working doctor. —Editors

Tezuka's ability to explore matters of divinity within manga, a form that was deemed inherently frivolous, and not without reason, is clear not only in works like Buddha and Phoenix that are presented as such inquiries, but also in Black Jack, a popular series about a medical doctor. Right from the historic first episode, "saving" a patient is imbued with Christian overtones, and the trickiness of thus "playing god," a recurring question in the 250-odd stories that follow, can be felt on every page.

Let us take a closer look at the first episode (I won't assume any familiarity, but you can read it for free here—click "Vol. 1"). The fact that it's set in a vague Euro-America—the location is given as "somewhere in Europe," but the flag in the courtroom on p. 19 bears a suspicious resemblance to the Stars and Stripes (in fact, all the English signs are in English in the original)—is significant beyond the need to establish the protagonist as internationally renowned.

I'd like to suggest that the required backdrop here is actually Christianity and its stark dichotomies. While lesser Japanese artists tend merely to parody it for laughs, fundamentally serious ones like Tezuka usually invoke the faith to signal an ethical dimension. The general idea is that, for better or for worse, Christianity strives for absolutes and thereby opens up a realm of morals beyond mere mores.

For a short story that ran in the unguarded, often crass pages of a Japanese shonen (boys') anthology, the worldview of the suffering mother-son pair—the good guys—is marked to an unusual degree as Christian, and not in a comical vein, either: "Lord…Have mercy upon him." "You serve Satan!" "He must be an angel." More importantly, this motif is not simply being fobbed off in quotes on the characters, as couleur locale, but comes to inform the narration itself. The last words of the story, referring to the protagonist, tell us that "some call his skills divine (kamiwaza)" and that today, too, he's "performing a miracle (kiseki) somewhere."

It must be noted that the Japanese words in italics have all but lost their original meaning in daily usage and that this flattening is on display nowhere more than in manga, where they serve as run-of-the-mill hyperbole. By using them in a framework that's been treating a foreign faith seriously, Tezuka jolts the reader into recalling their sense. It's not the last time that he'll do this in Black Jack, nor the last time the doctor will be spoken of movingly as being more than man.

That the backdrop of the establishing story is Christianity rather than, say, Buddhism, is probably not an accident. What the author needed for this sophisticated series was not a world where there are only shades of gray. More interestingly, I would say, or more accurately, there is good and evil, right and wrong, black and white; only, like pieces in Othello, it can all flip depending on situation and perspective. It's quite typical of the series that it's the same boy who spits "You serve Satan!" to Black Jack who later says of him, "He must be an angel." The series proceeds not through a haze but through reversals, an M.O. that's suited, incidentally, to the short-story format. Just as Black Jack's hair isn't a mop of gray but a clearly demarcated black and white, the guiding concept isn't ambiguity, but rather, ambivalence.

I'd love to do this for every episode—in my next and last post, however, I'll wrap up by sharing my more personal thoughts, and memories, about the series.

Yani Mentzas is the Editorial Director and Executive Vice President of Vertical, Inc., publisher of Osamu Tezuka's graphic novel masterpiece Black Jack


Other posts by Yani Mentzas in this series:

Is Tezuka God?

Divine Comics

Published May 22, 2009   Copyright 2009 Yani Mentzas

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