Blackjack: Incubation

In the past few days, I've wondered what's kept bringing me back to BlackJack. I've been intrigued by the concept of the renegade, unlicensed surgeon with a mysterious past and a million dollar price tag. Actually, the concept worked for me better than the show itself. The movie was OK, but not great, and though the first OVA release was good, the second was mediocre. So now I come to US Manga Corps' third DVD of the OVA series, entitled BlackJack: Incubation, and I didn't know what to expect. I'm glad to report that this volume of the show finally made my patience with the show pay off. No, it doesn't give us great insights into the physician's background that I've always wanted to know, and the standalone nature of the episodes doesn't lead to excessive character growth. However, it fixes virtually all of the other problems I've had with the earlier episodes. It's easy for me to say, in fact, that BlackJack: Incubation is easily the best of the series so far.

In the first episode, a young man is haunted by dreams of violent murder at the hands of a helicopter's machine gun. But is it the murder of a young woman and her daughter, or is it his own murder he sees? Driven nearly to insanity by the nightmares, he also has a bizarre disorder that causes him to have seizures...seizures where bullet holes appear, gush blood, and then disappear from his back. Blackjack and his faithful companion Pinoko meet him on a train in Europe, and a song Pinoko learns from the chap leads them to the tiny Republic of San Marina. The country, fictionally set somewhere in the former Soviet bloc, wound up in a violent civil war years back, and it seems everyone has a secret. Those secrets will lead Blackjack to the reasons for the man's ailment and to the doorstep of perhaps the only doctor with skills surpassing his own.

Meanwhile, the second episode takes us into a snowbound village where Blackjack tries to find a patient who requested his services two years prior, only to have the request delayed in the mail! But when Blackjack and Pinoko get stuck in a near-blizzard in the mountains, they find the weather is the least of their worries. In a mystery the scientifically minded Blackjack simply cannot explain, the two fall back in time four centuries! The good doctor winds up treating a princess who has refused to marry the wicked lord over the land, but her ailment has a supernatural element that modern science cannot heal. Blackjack may have met the limits of his craft...that is, if the world he's wandered into is real at all.

As previous volumes, the artwork in BlackJack: Incubation is excellent. Though there's little fast motion, the character movement is surprisingly fluid, and the backgrounding is often amazingly detailed and impressive. If anything, the show must have done reasonably well in Japan, as the artistry has been going up as the series has continued. It's not quite to movie standards, but it's a pleasure to watch.

The artwork isn't the only improvement, either. BlackJack: Incubation is a good deal above both of the previous entries in the series. There are a variety of factors working to make this the case, but the first one is that the stories actually have characters I found interesting. BlackJack has up to this point wound up being a rather dry series, technically excellent but devoid of real emotion. Incubation's episodes make up for that. Both episodes have strong plots wrapped around characters for whom we have sympathy. Blackjack and Pinoco have sympathy for them too, and it warms the show from its typical coldness. Unlike previous episodes, we find ourselves really caring how the storylines wind up, rather than being merely intrigued by the twists they take.

Both also take us into new territory. In these shows, Blackjack himself shows emotion, which seems to be stirred up as events fall outside the realm of his control. Previously, Blackjack appeared to be all wise and all knowing; his scientific background would get him out of any predicament and explain any situation. But these episodes start delving into the spiritual and supernatural, spheres that Blackjack doesn't believe in but cannot deny within the framework these episodes set. It makes for a much more entertaining show, since Blackjack actually becomes a character here rather than a cipher.

There are still a few minor problems, of course. The episodic nature of the show still leads to no true character arcs, which also means that future episodes may be great or awful dependent just on their storylines. Second, both of these episodes feature Pinoco to a much greater extent than previous outings. She's a strange child-woman character with very little explanation, and frankly, she can be annoying. Although I grew to like her character more in the episodes, she could stand a bit more explanation (and a bit less screen time). Finally, though this didn't bother me, those who liked the "everything is explained by science" nature of the first few episodes will be disappointed by the science fiction nature of these stories.

All told, though, my complaints are very minor this time around. I thoroughly enjoyed BlackJack: Incubation, and it's as good a place as any to hop into the world of the mysterious healer.

Blackjack: Incubation -- brief nudity, graphic and bloody depictions of surgery and anatomy -- A-