It may surprise you to hear that Black Jack by Osamu Tezuka is one of the best-selling manga of all time. Running from 1973 to 1983 in Akita Shoten’s Weekly Shonen Champion, it sits just above KochiKame by Osamu Akimoto at around 175 million copies. It even manages to beat out Astro Boy, which is another ubiquitous and iconic series from the ‘God of Manga’ himself. Why, then, has Black Jack resonated and connected with so many people? And why should you read it today?
One of the first reasons that comes to mind is its titular main character. Black Jack is undoubtedly one of Tezuka’s most iconic protagonists, standing alongside the likes of Astro and Hyakkimaru in terms of memorability and complexity. In both manner and appearance, Black Jack – real name Kuroo Hazama – exudes cool, takes from the rich to give to the poor, and has been subject to parody and reinterpretation countless times over the years.
Yet, Hazama’s is far more than just ‘cool.’ His outward appearance masks Black Jack’s true philosophical core, which offers many meditations on life and how we should live it. A basic story in the series is as follows: Hazama meets some sort of desperate patient, who petitions him to perform his medical miracles. Invariably, these patients are on the upper crust of society, for whom he charges exorbitant amounts. But even when his patients are down on their luck, he tends to charge a lot. Hazama is often called heartless, but he doesn’t pay much mind.
Much has been said about the brilliance of Black Jack’s surgery scenes, which put Tezuka’s training as a professional doctor to good use. Yet, far more interesting to me is the series’ literary parallels. Much like the great Japanese masters (Akutagawa, Ranpo, Murakami) Tezuka makes genius use of the short story format in telling self-contained tales that never outstay their welcome. Each chapter is perfectly crafted, introducing us to new characters and new challenges before ratcheting up the tension and leaving on a sorrowful note.
To a certain extent, the format of Black Jack was conditioned by the publishing practices at the time. As Black Jack the Untold Story tells us, it was Kabemura Taizo’s policy as editor-in-chief of Weekly Shonen Champion at the time to have every series run as self-contained stories. That meant no overarching narratives and no grand adventures as we see today.
Yet, Tezuka was also influenced by his own personal life. When Black Jack began serialization in 1973, the seemingly untouchable God of Manga had already been through the failure of Tezuka Productions and had been dealing with the existential crisis of being ‘uncool.’ To address this, he shifted towards more adult-oriented gekiga storytelling, starting with Dororo in 1967 and culminating with the deeply disturbing MW in 1976. Black Jack can, then, be seen as an encapsulation of Tezuka’s changes as a creator.
But why did people connect with these darker, more adult-oriented stories? That answer lies in the larger societal changes that were occurring at the time. It is no accident that Black Jack caught on, and continued to resonate, in the 1970s and beyond: those were days of pessimism, when consumerism was at its peak and life seemed more regimented than ever. And Black Jack is deeply pessimistic; whenever Hazama does decide to help people out of the goodness of his heart, it usually backfires.
One particularly good example is ‘Wolf Girl’ from Vol. 5, where the doctor’s patient can’t help but show off her new good looks and ends up getting killed because of the area’s political tensions. That is the real reason why Black Jack charges so much for his services: he has no real reason other than the material to help people. The goodness of his heart melted away a long time ago.
The similarities between the 1970s and today need not be drawn. In an age of chaos, strife, social unrest and revolution, the ideas of Black Jack are more than relevant. But it also teaches us that pessimism is not the answer: Hazama may never be able to do the right thing, but he continues to try, anyway. His travels continue, just as the world keeps on spinning.
Black Jack is not an easy read. It is harrowing and intense, putting forward some very pessimistic ideas. The best way to read Tezuka’s masterpiece is to take it slowly; not 100 chapters at a time, like you would do when catching up on a long-running shonen. It is definitely worth collecting the collected volumes. Good news, then, that Vertical’s physical release of the series is gorgeous and would be more than a worthy addition to your bookshelf.