Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A petty rant involving Black Jack

As the English market for seinen series continues to grow, so do the expected names move out of their scanlation-favored beginnings into the lexicon for would-be manga critics. Naoki Urasawa is one such manga-ka, a passionate following amassing itself even further now that he has two more of his famous series being released side-by-side. This is important to note in this coverage of Black Jack because while Urasawa utterly adores and worships Osamu Tezuka, the former's approach is so radically different that it comes as little surprise for why the criticisms come more quickly for the late god of manga by specific reviewers.

As I read Pluto alongside Black Jack, what is the most obvious aesthetic difference is the handling of melodrama. Tezuka can be targeted for his ham-fisted ways, where Serious Messages are delivered in a tone not far removed from the late Will Eisner: distanced, alienated male characters crying out, defiant at the people, ideology, system and even divinity that steal away fairness and justice in this world. But, like Eisner, there's little doubt that Tezuka completely means every single speech bubble, constantly seeking answers for the betterment of humankind. Self-awareness isn't out of the question, either, considering the amount of fourth-wall-breaking scenes and general absurdities Tezuka throws at the reader.

Urasawa also never shies away from prodding sentimentality into the picture, but his motivations are arguably suspect -- particularly considering these almost always involve elongated sub-plots consisting of characters offering feel-good platitudes, while repetitive panels emphasize just how miserable they all really are. When the story of North No. 2 reaches its "emotional climax," finally succeeding at aiding the blind, bitter old man to open his heart upon the songs and revelations of his homeland, it stumbles past a line of acceptability into self-parody for cheap manipulation of the audience. When, in volume five of Black Jack, Tezuka focuses on Black Jack desperately fighting with Dr. Kiriko attempting to kill his apparently tragically-fated father, or his indifference upon a former "wolf girl" dancing into dangerous territory, it reveals more questions about the characters and Tezuka's own moral questions.

Undoubtedly there are those who won't find themselves attached to the admittedly inconsistent storytelling found in Black Jack. Instead they are more comfortable with Urasawa's thriller, questions always dancing around the answers until the narrative compulsion nearly grinds to a halt. Personally, I'm coming back and away with higher and more fulfilled expectations with Tezuka's insanity-filled honesty.


  1. While the particular sequence you highlighted in Pluto is one of the most tedious and tawdry things Urasawa's ever done, and represents a real low for him as a writer, I can't really back you up on Tezuka's abilities to handle schmaltz.
    It's a tone thing, with me; Urasawa usually manages to maintain some dignity, and his tone is consistently sombre enough that I buy into the emotional tenor and follow him.
    Black Jack I just laugh at because it is fucking insane. I can't for the life of me work out why Tezuka has some sort of mainstream critical resonance; his books are shallow, bizarre, uneven, highly personal bits of improvisation -- you know, the sort of thing I usually eat up. Not the sort of thing anyone else takes seriously.

  2. If more of the sub-plots directly pushed forward the narrative, I'd definitely agree. But the somber tone you reference is why I can stand Tezuka's attempts more (where he'll fit in a normally inappropriate, throwaway joke that allows me to buy the pathos). Mind you, I like all of his three thriller manga, and also think he corrected the problem I refer to in the first fifteen volumes of 20th Century Boys (and, to be fair, later volumes suffer from a separate issue). But then I think of the unnecessary extensions of these sub-plots in Monster to grant Tenma further sainthood, or these asides in Pluto that come across as very clinical, and wonder how much more convincing I'd find his works if he'd slim the stories down.

    I can understand the adoration for Tezuka in Japan, given his influence. This is probably just me talking out of my ass, but I wonder if the appeal of his stories isn't too different than that of One Piece. Not that I'd classify his works as a whole as that kind of adventure, but reading cartoonish characters pulling off utterly fantastical achievements with plenty of winks-and-nods, supplanted by enough genuine sentimentality (OP taking the importance of dreams to the level of a dogma), is probably more than accessible for the Japan aesthetic.