This is what happens when you've got a hankering for anime but a) can't bear to start in on a series, and b) are too much of a lookist snob to watch anything that predates 1988. You end up cuing up a movie version of a series you've never seen. I did this once before with X and though I probably missed out on a lot of backstory, characterization, and subtext, I had no problem following along--the filmmakers knew what they were doing. So I didn't think I'd have too much trouble with Black Jack.
Black Jack is a renegade doctor. He's the best there is but he doesn't have a license and his fee is very high. The film begins in 1996, at the summer Olympics. Athletes from a number of different countries are breaking records all over the place. The close of the millennium is a very exciting time as these new "superhumans" are cropping up around the world, excelling in sports, academics, and the arts. Humanity seems poised on the brink of evolution.
Two years after operating on a young girl, Black Jack rushes to her home in an attempt to save her life. Until recently, the girl was happy and healthy, but sudden and catastrophic organ failure brought an abrupt end to her short life. The girl's parents gift to Black Jack the last picture she ever painted, but it isn't until two art collectors come calling that Black Jack realizes the girl was a superhuman artist. Black Jack's curiosity about the circumstances surrounding the girl's death deepens with this new information but he is without any clear notion of how to go about solving the mystery.
Aid comes in the form of Jo Brain who offers Black Jack a chance to join her research team. It seems that all the superhumans are dying horribly from a viral infection, and Jo needs Black Jack to help her find a cure. Black Jack refuses, but when Jo informs him that his young ward, Pinoko, is now in her custody, Black Jack has no choice but to sign on. As Black Jack gets closer to the true nature of the Moira virus, he becomes embroiled in medical establishment politics, and is unwillingly drawn into conspiracy.
Black Jack lacks that depth of story and character I was concerned I'd be missing, so I really needn't have worried. That's not to say the movie isn't interesting, but I was surprised at the amount of exposition. I did expect a certain amount of hand-holding (I can't really say why because a lot of the anime I've watched was quite well written) but Black Jack takes things to a whole new level. And it's not like the story is all that complicated.
Perhaps it's more to do with the author than the telling (if that makes any sense). Black Jack's creator, Osamu Tezuka, was a doctor, so his stories are infused with medical procedures. The movie's writer/director, Osamu Dezaki, stuck with this trend and a good deal of the exposition in the film covers the etiology of the Moira virus and other scientific matters. It's not a total waste of time, but the volume of information is a lot to take in and tends to break the flow of the story.
And the film ends with a heavy-handed environmentalist statement that comes right out of left field.
One more complaint I'll lodge is against the animation itself. The animation is actually quite good, but the characters always seem to be smiling just a little bit, which has the unfortunate effect of counteracting the seriousness of the situation. I'm not all that familiar with either Tezuka or Dezaki so it's entirely possible that's just their style--I should go back and watch Astro Boy again.
Dealing with themes of personal achievement, medical experimentation, and, oddly, environmentalism, Black Jack offers a dark look at one possible future for humanity. As our need to excel and over-achieve deepens in relation to population growth and competition, the medical establishment is well-positioned to take advantage of these desires, making us all the time better at the expense of our own lives.
I can't say I'm gonna go out of my way to take in more Black Jack; there's a collection of movies and series. But I'm glad I took a chance on this one, even if it did offer more talk than action.