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movie review: osamu tezuka's "blackjack"

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de-VICE #1

blackjack_face.jpg

The doctor is in



Black Jack: The Two Doctors of Darkness *** (out of five)
Japanese title: Black Jack: Futari no Kuroi Isha

Dir: Makoto Tezuka
Voices: Akio Ohtsuka, Yuko Mizutani, Ryoko Ono, Yuuko Satou

text by andrez bergen

blackjack2.jpg

Not the eponymous card game; the movie. Not last year's Israeli coming-of-age tale of the same name, nor 1998's Dolph Lundgren action flick helmed by John Woo; forget the 1968 spaghetti western revenge caper and the 1952 French Riviera smuggling escapade starring George Sanders as Captain Black Jack.

No, we're talking about Black Jack, the scalpel-packing-surgeon-for-hire - a character first dreamed up by the late Japanese manga (comic) and animation tensai Osamu Tezuka, in publication form, 32 years ago.

And now, without further ado, the obligatory origin story all comic books call for: Disfigured as a child after the detonation of an unexploded WWII bomb, Black Jack becomes a dapper-dressed, oft-brooding, mysterious, poker-faced doctor-about-town whose skills are undoubtedly a cut above his peers. He also happens to be a medically-unregistered quack who will labor to save any patient's life for excessively exorbitant rates.

Best known for his two super-cute '60s animation classics Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy), and Jungaru Taitei (Kimba The White Lion) - which Disney unashamedly plundered for The Lion King - Osamu Tezuka's subsequent outing Black Jack was a more curious mix of pathos, psychological drama, and morality play - with a somewhat voyeuristic penchance for operating theater gore.

All the above weighted a fairly heavy anchor, then, on the shoulders of Makoto Tezuka, Osamu's son and heir to the Tezuka family franchise. Over the past year he's been directing the Black Jack series on Yomiuri TV, and now we have his cinematic follow-up: Black Jack: The Two Doctors Of Darkness.

The animated movie kick-starts with a terrorist attack on a shopping mall; cue quick-fire intro of our hero, with appropriate jazzy theme muzak, after which he's trotted off to the scene of the accident to risk life and possible limb to save a young child's life - and establish the renegade physician's underlying moral cred.

But it's also quickly apparent here that Tezuka, the son, is pining to pay too much visual homage to Tezuka, the father, and in doing so the character designs and much of the story-boarding pursue a similarly frustrating course to Metropolis (2001) - another Osamu Tezuka creation reinterpreted by Akira man Katsuhiro Otomo with Hayashi Shigeyuki, a.k.a. Rintaro. It may be heretical to say this, but Osamu's time has now passed. Characters with tree-trunk legs, no apparent feet beneath, and bulbous light-globe fixture noses above, are just plain out-of-place four decades on. And with animation, like in music, old-school is not always necessarily cool.

The fact is that Makoto is no slouch himself; he has a 20-year background in more esoteric film work including forays into 8mm. Yet one wouldn't suspect with Black Jack. This is animation that plays it pretty much by the book. There's none of the intuitive visual splendor here of Hayao Miyazaki, nor the more innovative combination of traditional 2D art with 3D computer graphics that Mamoru Oshii has excelled with in recent years.

There are moments of visual dexterity, especially in some of the more fluid background designs, but it's the story here that's the glue keeping the viewer snagged; while certainly not cutting edge, it's at times an incisive, mighty fine romp.

Initially focused on the tug-of-war between the two doctors of the title, Black Jack and his arch-nemesis Kiriko (who, in the best plot development, practices euthanasia-for-hire), the story detours into a showdown with the sinister Mr. Goodman, with the previously dueling practitioners forced to collaborate to prevent a global epidemic. The source? ...a suitably mysterious, shut-down military medical installation. The location? ...a conveniently menacing island tropical populated by a bevy of bizarre critters.

Meanwhile the doc - who opens up more people than Homer Simpson does beer cans - changes his civvies into surgical whites pretty much the same way as Cutey Honey switches between her zany costumes. But Black Jack also does the same thing with his wildly swinging moods. And he's wielding a set of scalpels blessed by a shinto priest who just so happened to die in the process of blessing 'em. It's all rather over the top, but who cares?

While the character designs for Black Jack are somewhat lackadaisical, owing to the strict focus on their original still-life manga owners - there are times when our hero's eyes have about as much life as a black bass's - the personality of Black Jack is really brought to life in suitably strong and fractionally embittered dulcet intonations by his voice actor Akio Ohtsuka - who previously lent his vocal talents to the Section 9 strongman Bateau in the Ghost In The Shell movies and spin-off TV series, as well as voicing the antagonistic American pilot Curtis in Miyazaki's 1992 classic Kurenai no Buta (Crimson Pig).

But where the doc's "light relief" child assistant fits into this human drama is anyone's guess. Pinoko also is a legacy of the original Osamu Tezuka story, though in the manga there was something a little disturbing and dark about her role. In this movie, quite aside from the fact that she's not the sharpest scalpel in the medical kit, her cloying, annoying character is cursed with a shrill, penetrating vocal work-out by voice actor Yuko Mizutani that I can't quite forgive.

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