Anime Today: Young Black Jack’s Cognitive Dissonance

Many people today like to refer to the famed Studio Ghibli director, Hayao Miyazaki, as the proverbial “Disney of Japan,” but this analogy doesn’t seem to stand for very long upon analysis. While Miyazaki has surely gained enormous fame domestically, and even worldwide, his approach to animation and impact upon the industry both differs greatly and pales in comparison compared to that of Walt Disney. However, major differences like activism and approach to technology aside, should Miyazaki really be given the credit for influencing Japanese animation like the famed Disney? If anyone should be given that title for influence alone (ignoring modern merchandising), perhaps one should consider the so-called “father of manga,” Osamu Tezuka.

Osamu Tezuka is often credited for bringing about the popularity of Japanese animation and differentiating it from its Western influence, resulting in what we know today (perhaps even Miyazaki’s work!). With his most popular works beginning in the 1950s, notable Astro Boy, Tezuka had ample time to become the staple of Japanese animation at home and abroad, inspiring many others that would come after him. He did this not only through his unique art style, but through the use of unique and creative stories that sometimes tackled serious topics others were hesitant to approach. Enter: Black Jack.

Started in the late 1970s, Black Jack is a manga about a doctor named Black Jack, or Hazama, who exemplifies good virtues as displayed in poor situations. As an award-winning work, Black Jack attempted to show how someone with a strong conscience, dedicated to the Hippocratic oath of medicine, reacts to the fallen nature of man. Not devoid of loss and sometimes inexplicable consequences, Black Jack paved the way for manga and anime to approach topics that have been a source of debate and controversy since time immemorial. Now add on to that the fact that it was written in the 1970s, a great time of strife and political unrest.

Now take everything I’ve just said about how incredible Tezuka is, as well as the inspiration his works have become, and simply take a skin-deep look at the design for Black Jack, the main character for the manga I described above:

Yep, it’s downright silly-looking by today’s standards, isn’t it? That’s not to say everything I mentioned above isn’t true, but isn’t it interesting how much style has changed, despite many citing Tezuka as an enormous influence. Hold that thought for a moment, as we will get back to it.

That brings us to Young Black Jack, a currently airing anime (and manga from 2011) that attempts to cover many of the same difficult topics, particularly those related to medicine. Each episode is more or less self-contained, or at most each arc is spread across just a few episodes, downplaying the importance of an overarching plot. Taking enormous cues from the original Black Jack, Young Black Jack attempts to do more than introduce viewers to Black Jack’s previously nonexistent past as a prequel, but to tackle some of the activist ideas that drove Tezuka.

Now, getting back to the artwork we looked at a moment ago, take a look at the “new” Black Jack:

This brings us to the crux of what I’m writing about today. Namely, note two things about Black Jack’s new character design:

First, it’s obviously been modernized. People don’t draw manga (or anime) like they used to, nor should they feel they have to. Design has shifted, and the artists here decided that it would be best to alter Tezuka’s originals to better fit the generation to which they are being directed now.

Second, note how strange the design still is, regardless of the creative liberties taken in the new version. While these kinds of character designs are commonplace in many fantasy/action anime released in the last few decades, Young Black Jack is a medical drama, verging on historical fiction at times. Simply absurd by today’s standards.

Thus comes the concept of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance relates to inconsistencies of thought or action. In the case of Young Black Jack, for example, we are given an anime (or manga) that attempts to deliver solid storytelling with unique locales, such as Vietnam during the Vietnam War, or Chicago during the American Civil Rights Movement. However, the show simultaneously demands that we approach these real places and events with ridiculous fictional characters. If you don’t simply ignore the massive dichotomy between realism and surrealism here, cognitive dissonance is introduced.

Another perfect example of this concept in anime is with the World War II film, Barefoot Gen. The film is a true story about a boy who survived the Hiroshima nuclear bomb, and is, in fact, one of the saddest and most gruesome movies I have seen in the industry. See if you would have guessed that based on this screenshot from the movie:

But just acknowledging the concept of cognitive dissonance in media doesn’t bring about the end of the story. What does it mean? Why should you know what it is at all?

Good storytelling is always, I tell you, always intentionalSometimes this ranges from the choice of medium all the way to the framing of the shot. Animation has a unique element not present in live action film making, and that is the choice of art style. Why, for example, would a story like Barefoot Gen utilize a decidedly cartoonish and exaggerated style for such a serious and sobering topic (apart from perhaps taking cues from its other 1980s counterparts)? One theory might be that the studio felt the story simply too sad to present realistically. With people literally melting on screen from the dropping of the bomb, this is not hard to believe.

What about Young Black Jack? Just look at the comparison of Tezuka’s designs with the modern retakes found in the show’s ending sequence:

Why would a modern anime focused on serious themes that is clearly unafraid to “adulterate” the original works (and even document the changes in the very show itself) retain the giant noses or the ridiculous hairstyles? Is it simple homage? Is it to retain consistency? Have the characters all suffered from enormous amounts of radiation, thus mutating their skeletal structures and fashion senses?

My place is not to answer these questions for you, as that is what an informed anime viewer does. But it doesn’t stop with anime. You should seek to be an informed anime viewer, manga reader, video game player, and, if you’re a Christian, an informed Bible reader.

And so, my viewing of Young Black Jack has reminded me that, no matter what you’re reading, you should ask: Does this make sense? Does this fit in with everything else I saw/read? If it doesn’t, why is it different? Why was something presented differently than I expected? What was the writer thinking? What is the writer trying to say to me?

Incidentally, Young Black Jack isn’t actually all that good. The animation quality is quite poor and the unique locales are not used to their fullest potential. But it sure makes for interesting discussion! 😉


5 thoughts on “Anime Today: Young Black Jack’s Cognitive Dissonance

  1. Interesting ideas here! I don’t know why older series need to be modernized when they can’t match or surpass the original level of storytelling, writing, and personality of the original. I hope Barefoot Gen remains Barefoot Gen.

    1. When considering “purism,” as it were, you always ride the line of preventing fresh ideas from bringing something new and good to an older concept, and calling out compromises that detract from the original. It’s hard to say when things should be adapted or just left as is.

      I think that you’re right with some classics like Barefoot Gen, insomuch as Barefoot Gen masterfully tells the story exactly how the creators intended. A “modernization” could hurt that, though I can’t say that authoritatively.

      All in all, Young Black Jack has interesting ideas, but I would say that it neither succeeds at living up to the original, nor fitting in with its contemporaries.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Interesting blog. I have to say: I thought Young Black Jack was pretty good, that is until I went back to watch the original OVAs and 2004 series. When I returned to watch an episode of YBJ, it seemed significantly weaker and all of the sudden seemed to serve little to no purpose. Personally, the original OVAs are my favorite of the franchise thus far (I haven’t finished any of the parts yet). As a stand alone series, Young Black Jack doesn’t actually seem that bad, but compare it to the original and everything YBJ had working for it falls apart

    1. I’d agree that it definitely has its fair share of problems!

      I’ve continued to watch it because of its unique setting and set pieces, but it is by no means a masterpiece.

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