BlackJack: The Movie

Take a crack physician who's respected across the world as the finest surgeon on the planet. Now take away his medical license and turn him into a pariah. Add a dash of Captain Harlock, and you've got Dr. Black Jack, who only operates in secret for massive sums of money. He may be unorthodox and even icy on the outside, but if you need the impossible done, he's your only hope. BlackJack, another creation from the mind of Osamu Tezuka (the man responsible for Astroboy), was a continuing manga series about the doctor's exploits, and it was made into several OVAs, as well as the feature film. And what a feature it is, with great animation, strong character designs, and a solid plot. However, the film is stunted by its tone, which is as icy and clinical as a morgue. Though the film has nothing to do with the card game of the same name, it's a definite gamble as to whether or not you'll like it.

The movie begins with an Olympic games where record after record is shattered. Certain athletes are somehow miraculously able to perform incredible feats that were thought to tax the limits of the human body. This group quickly gets dubbed "superhumans", and the world is amazed to watch in front of their eyes what appears the next evolution of the species. Two years pass...and without warning, these same "superhumans" start to rapidly deteriorate. Black Jack is called in to investigate on behalf of a mysterious firm who has a curious interest in these deaths; when he refuses to participate willingly, his daughter Pinoco is kidnapped to help persuade him. Black Jack quickly finds out that a far more sinister power than evolution is behind the disease killing off the unfortunate souls in his care--the question is, can he stop it before he himself becomes the next victim?

Artistically, this film is often stunning, with a great deal of attention paid to the minutia. Just like the manga, the film revels in making sure that the medical detail is exacting, to the point that more sensitive members of the audience might grow a little queasy. This realism continues through all areas of the show--these people are sick, and the grotesque nature of it all is shown bluntly. If you can stomach it, though, the film is beautifully animated, with a great color palette and unique character designs. The looks of most of the characters remind me of the realism of those from the classic iceman classic, Golgo 13, but with a bit more beauty and warmth. Meanwhile, the plot is solidly crafted and creative, and it continues in the vein of top-quality anime where the antagonists are ambiguously evil, turned by circumstances as much as personality. Black Jack himself is a strong character, too, even as a mystery man.

Unfortunately, it's also within the plotting of BlackJack that my disappointment manifests itself. Any watcher of ER, Gideon's Crossing, Gray's Anatomy, or M.A.S.H. knows that the best medical shows have virtually nothing to do with the actual process of medicine and everything to do with the practice of medicine. Very few viewers come back to see Mark Greene or Hawkeye Pierce remove somebody's spleen or perform CPR; they come back to find out the stories behind the doctors and the patients in their care. BlackJack operates (no pun intended) on the other end of the spectrum, expecting that the onlooker wants to see the goriest moments from the Discovery Channel instead. As such, we don't get to know anyone very well. The "superhumans" themselves have very little character development, so most of their deaths are meaningless. We know so little of Black Jack and Pinoco that there's little tension created by her kidnapping--she's treated so well that we know she is in no danger--and we can't truly care when Black Jack is finally put in harm's way. The tension is a plot device, rather than a way to develop the characters into something meaningful.

There are a few other major problems that bludgeon the viewer. The first is the appearance of Pinoco and her treatment throughout the show. Pinoco looks very different in terms of character design from the rest of the players in the drama, and she looks so intentionally cute that she is annoying to the serious viewer. It also makes no sense that Black Jack would leave her to her own devices when he leaves town for days on end to perform his miracles of science--where's the nanny? Surely he can't trust that this girl would be OK on her own, and if he did, it would amount to neglect. (As it turns out, there is a reason for this--Pinoco is actually 18 years old in the manga and looks young because of her unique creation--but there is no explanation of this in the movie, which leaves the novice viewer completely baffled.) The next is pacing--though it is not dull, by any means, it moves slowly enough that those expecting a nail-biting thriller will be disenchanted. The nastiest blow, however, is the ending, a complete "deus ex machina" that destroys the sense of tension and cheats the audience. Even if it was based on a manga storyline, it doesn't matter--the dénouement is ridiculously weak.

Does this mean that it's a bad show? Not really--it's only disappointing because it does so many things very well that the flaws are painfully obvious. I was really looking forward to this movie, and perhaps that contributed to my melancholy towards it when the showing ended. I expected more of the human story and less of the chart hanging at the foot of the bed. Nevertheless, for those seeking to see a great looking movie with a decent overall story who aren't all that concerned about character development or learning the mysteries behind the man who is Black Jack, I'd give it a cautious recommendation. Just don't expect to feel much of anything afterwards--this movie is emotional Novocain.

BlackJack: The Movie -- very realistic, gory depictions of extreme illness and surgery -- B-