Books: Gross Anatomy: Black Jack Butchered In The Remaking

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2009-08-18 19:02:42 No comments

Truth in advertising.

Ever get the feeling you’d been cheated?

There’s a clutch of words that when uttered in the presence of fans can elicit near-homicidal reactions. One of them is censorship: if there’s even the suggestion that a title of theirs has been “cleaned up” (shilling for dumbed down) for its domestic release, they’ll blow out the windows. Case in point: the manga version of Tenjho Tenge, which tanked in sales once word got out it had been bowdlerized to keep it from going into “mature audiences” shrinkwrap. To be honest, the Comstockery in question wasn’t all that bad, but it was the principle of the thing that ticked people off, and rightly so. Why pay for what you know to be damaged goods?

But there’s another word also capable of unleashing whole hectares of fan-wrath, depending on the context and the circumstances. That word is remake, and in a way it’s even more problematic a word than censorship because it cuts both ways. It isn’t inherently evil. Sometimes a remake can revitalize a dated or flawed piece of material, and give it a whole new gloss. The current remake of Evangelion might fit into this category, depending on your level of attachment to the original (and that deserves to be an essay unto itself).

And sometimes a remake is just a really bad idea. Such as, for instance, taking the best of Osamu Tezuka’s original Black Jack manga and having a new artist redraw them.

I could not have made this up if I wanted to.

I found a copy of the remake at Book-Off in New York City—and to be honest, I wasn’t even looking for anything remotely like it. Pure accident, and I wanted to leave it that way after paging through it and staring in disbelief. But it was used, and it was only $1, so I neither felt like I was gouging myself nor giving the original publishers support for such an undeserving project. I still have the terrible feeling I would have paid full price for it at Kinokuniya if that had been where I’d encountered it first, just to take it home and boggle at it and then rip its skin off in this essay.

And once I was finished, I wanted to collar the publishers (Shōnen Champion) and say: Good sirs, what off-color species of crack are you smoking? What in the name of anything they could hold holy possessed them to release this exercise in utter cynicism and contempt for the audience? (The cover of volume 2 of this abomination sports a smirking Black Jack clutching a pile of yen bills, which is about as shameless a declaration of motive as you’re going to get.)

Finally, how did Tezuka’s estate feel about this? What was it like for them to see some of the best comic work of the last century, in any language, bastardized in the name of “audience relevance”?

I’m not against the idea of remakes in principle. They can be good, bad, indifferent, entertaining, outlandish, whatever. Casshern Sins has gotten great word, and I look forward to seeing that. And believe it or not I’m wildly curious about the U.S. remake of Gatchaman. What I am against is two things: 1) fixing what isn’t broken, and 2) obscuring what was great about the original to begin with by offering nothing in exchange.

I’ve come to understand why people do not always connect immediately with Tezuka. His artwork, they say, is too “cartoony” for them. It’s goofy-looking. It’s silly. It’s old. This from people who think of anything from before, say, 1990 as being hopelessly primordial. But “old” is a description, not an epithet, and anyone who takes the time to sit down and actually read something like Black Jack (or any of Tezuka’s other top-rank works) can assemble their own personal Mythbusters episode to that effect. Tezuka’s original work is not defective and does not need to be “improved upon”. It may well be flawed—some of his works, like the manga Metropolis, are little better than curiosities—but with the best of his work, the flaws are also part of what makes the original its own creature. The work is not “missing” anything for the same reason a black-and-white movie is not “missing” its colors. You have to go to the material on its own terms, or you miss the point.

I have collected two examples of how the remake misses the point. Take a look at the reworking of the story “The Blind Acupuncturist” (available in volume 2 of Vertical’s Black Jack reissues, ISBN 978-1-934287-28-6, and also in volume 2 of the Shōnen Champion remake series, ISBN 978-4-253-20932-8). There’s a sequence where two talking heads on TV debate the efficacy of acupuncture vs. conventional medicine while Pinoco looks on in mounting disgust. In the original, Tezuka has fun with the whole thing by covering the two TV personalities with acupuncture needles until they become not just human pincushions but porcupines. It’s his own sly way of commenting on what they’re saying, and it adds a subtext all its own to the scene. The remake has nothing of the kind: it’s just Pinoco, the TV, and her growing disgust. The visual subtext, the author’s touch, the whole reason for the original being what it is, has been ripped out. It hasn’t been replaced with a parallel jibe. It’s just been ignored.

Tezuka's original storytelling, rich with visual wit...

Another story, “From Afar” (vol. 4 in the Vertical editions, again vol. 2 in the remake), gets similarly trashed. At one point in the story there’s a page of panels where a man goes from one hospital to another, fruitlessly seeking help for his sick son. The original version sports Tezuka’s brilliant use of layouts: with each successive panel, the “camera” (or, rather, the reader’s POV) turns and turns until the last panel is rendered at such a frightening angle that the poor man looks like he’s about to fall clean off the page. It’s a great way to suggest the vertigo-inducing dread and hopelessness he’s feeling. The remake has nothing of the kind. The closest we get to this is a bit of narrowing of the final panel. Rank amateur stuff.

...and the brain-dead remake.

Am I nitpicking? I don’t think so. These are not minor details. They’re the very substance of the story itself; they’re as much a part of the telling of it as the dialogue (which is from what I can tell recapitulated word-for-word from the original). There’s an irony in that if the stories had been redrawn with the exact same panel layouts and internal details, it might not have been as bad; at least then I could accuse the creators of this wreck of mere unoriginality, instead of both unoriginality and aesthetic homicide.

To be completely fair, there is a good deal of skill at work here, just in the wrong realms. The artist, Kenji Yamamoto, is perfectly talented in his own way, and he doesn’t do a bad job of bringing Tezuka’s character designs up to date while still keeping them recognizable. But all the things that made the original an original are dropped on the floor or ignored outright. It’s the kind of butchery I’d normally expect from a sleazy American publisher, and not from within Japan itself. (I’m becoming a fast learner, though.)

One might argue: How’s all this different from, say, the animated adaptations of Black Jack? Aren’t those remakes, too? How come those get a pass and this doesn’t? For one, those remakes were for entirely different media. It isn’t as problematic to see things not be adapted in a one-for-one fashion when making the jump from tankōbon to TV, because such direct correspondence typically isn’t possible in the first place. Two, and most crucially, those adaptations didn’t suck. The OAVs from the Nineties and the current TV series (which I’d love to see distributed domestically) respect the originals and do justice to them. They also encourage people to seek out the originals on their own terms.

Earlier I mentioned Tezuka’s manga Metropolis, which was itself the subject of a remake. Rin Taro directed an animated adaptation -- or, rather, a drastic re-working of the original (and, by all accounts, drastically different) story. The remake stands on its own; if anything, it outstrips the original not just through its visual pyrotechnics but by dint of being better in every respect. But such things are, by and large, the exception. Most remakes simply attempt to take material best approached on its own terms and as a product of its own era and make it newly relevant … and completely miss the point of the original in the process.

I have to wonder: Does this attitude of “it’s old, ergo it’s lame” persist in Japan as well? From my own admittedly limited experience, and from what few things I’ve gleaned from Japanese authors and character designers and publishers and producers, yes it does. Tezuka is less a national hero of manga than a nostalgia item; his work, encyclopedic and far-reaching as it may well be, has something of the same stature there as the Disney stuff put out by Key Comics. So rather than try to force the audience to savor the material on its own terms, why not bring the material up to speed to the current audience? Sure, except that by doing so you destroy all the reasons to read his work in any form in the first place. No greater form of contempt for someone’s achievements comes to mind. Except maybe for burning them outright.

Tags: Black Jack Japan Osamu Tezuka manga remakes review

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This page contains a single post by Serdar Yegulalp, in the category Books, published on 2009-08-18 19:02:42.

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