October 14, 2011
I went to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia about a month ago, where I got to see a real-life Pinoko.
Not really. But they did have… something along the lines of Pinoko, without the cute robot body, among the collection. They also had many other things that one finds in Black Jack and/or nightmares on display. So this has put me in the mood for medically-themed manga lately. And since I’ve got this blog and all, I thought I would make a list and share it.
There’s Black Jack, of course, by Osamu Tezuka. Vertical, the English-language publisher, says it’s a peerless medical drama, and they are rarely wrong about such things. Volume 16 of the 17-volume series came out this week. It’s a fairly popular story of an incredibly skilled rogue surgeon who can cure any ailment or do any operation as long as you have enough money. If you are unfamiliar, the Pinoko I mentioned in the opening is a walking, talking tumor-twin he took out of a young girl and built a robot body for. She’s his daughter now. Or the wife.
Black Jack is great, because each chapter is a one-shot story about a different ailment, affliction, or injury. Tezuka completed medical school, and his background and the research he puts into each story makes it an extremely fascinating read. Because this is a shounen manga that ran in Shounen Champion, the ultimate bad-taste publication for boys, many of the chapters focus on extremely unusual ailments. Patients whose bodies are turning to stone. Patients who swell up to several times their own size. A boy whose arm develops gangrene. Many are of the “medical curiousity” ilk, but there are also plenty of life-threatening injuries for Black Jack to treat at just the right moment. There’s even an occasional chapter that plays out like “The Most Dangerous Game,” where Black Jack releases his enemies onto a private island and tortures them. There’s something for everyone here, and it’s worth a look for most anybody interested in comics.
Next is The Embalmer, by Mitsukazu Mihara. Four volumes were published in English by Tokyopop some time ago, but Mihara restarted the series recently, so there’s a couple more available in Japan now. It ran in Shodensha’s Feel Young magazine, which makes this an unusual josei entry on this list.
Shinjyurou is a Japanese embalmer. This is unusual, because the Japanese don’t bury bodies, and thus have no need of his services. Like Mihara’s Doll collections, early volumes of the series focus a lot on tragic one-shot stories and angst-ridden characters. Many of the stories are about people who will eventually be embalmed by Shinjyurou, a man who gives loved ones good memories of the deceased. Shinjyurou becomes more and more of a focus as the series goes on, and eventually we learn how he became interested in mortuary science and about his time at school in America. Shinjyurou also has a disturbing habit of requiring life-affirming sex after every job, which is acceptable in the context of the series but was a little too creepy for me to handle. But the books are worth reading, and this is still the only manga I’ve ever read that features Pittsburgh as a setting.
And I can’t mention mortuary science manga without talking about Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. Because it’s the only other one I’ve read. It’s also very good. Written by Eiji Otsuka and illustrated by Housui Yamazaki, Dark Horse has published 11 volumes in English. It’s up to volume 15 in Japan, and runs in Young Ace magazine, which may put it somewhere between shounen and seinen.
The plot of the series is that five terrible students at a Buddhist university band together and use their unusual talents to question corpses and solve murders. One of them literally has the power to let the souls of the dead speak through him, and the gang solves murder mysteries, Scooby-Doo-like, with corpse dowsing, alien channeling, embalming, and research techniques. Usually the stories end with the main character, Karatsu, bringing the dead body to life again briefly so that it can get revenge on the murderer. Makino is the embalmer (again, this series mentions that her skills aren’t really in demand in Japan), and she brings an interesting forensic perspective to the bodies. As supernatural and crazy as the stories sound, they are actually fairly well-grounded mysteries, and tend to be about incredibly interesting topics. Of all the series on this list, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is probably my favorite.
On a much different, and more serious note, we have Real, by Takehiko Inoue. It runs in the seinen magazine Weekly Young Jump, and volume 10 is just about to make an appearance in English from Viz Media.
Real is the story of three young men. One, Hisanobu, was a former playboy and basketball star who was in a terrible traffic accident and can no longer use his legs. Nomiya was on the same basketball team as Hisanobu in high school, but he was in a motorcycle accident one day that paralyzed the girl riding with him, while leaving him unscathed. Nomiya was a delinquent, and the event leaves him with a lot of guilt. He drops out of school and tries to figure out what to do with his life, and along the way he meets Kiyoharu, a young man who is extremely skilled at wheelchair basketball. The manga focuses on all three characters. Hisanobu has a long road to recovery, and the seemingly insurmountable challenges presented by his physical therapy are one of the main themes of the manga. Most of Nomiya’s battles are psychological, but he has a terrible time keeping his life together, and finds it hard to hold a job for very long. Kiyoharu does have an extensive flashback about how he lost one of his legs to cancer, but he’s a relatively successful athlete on his way up, and one of the more positive parts of the series. There are also a number of other characters fighting their own fights who enter and leave the series along the way.
While the medical side of things isn’t the main theme of the series, it definitely plays a part for all the characters, especially Hisanobu. And the topics of paralysis, physical therapy, and wheelchair basketball are quite fascinating, though in the end it’s definitely a character-driven series. And nobody can write characters quite as well as Takehiko Inoue.
Monster, by Naoki Urasawa, is a seinen manga published in English by Viz and in Japanese by Shogakukan, originally running in Big Comics Original. It’s 18 volumes long.
Monster is really more of a mystery, as it follows the path of Japanese Dr. Kenzo Tenma and his journey through Germany and Europe going after a man named Johan. The good Dr. Tenma saved Johan’s life by performing a difficult brain surgery. Johan had been critically wounded in an altercation that resulted in the murder of Johan’s parents. Later, the series raises the question of whether Johan would have been better off dead as he begins to perform a series of murders as an adult. Johan frames Tenma and forces him to flee justice. The series follows Tenma as he tracks Johan down to end the cycle of murder.
Dr. Tenma’s skills do come in handy on several occasions, but aside from the brain surgery that starts the series, it’s not very medically-oriented. Well, unless your tastes run to the conspiratorial side, because there are some brainwashing and cult-like things afoot, experiments and whatnot. The series is long, and the plot sometimes trips and falls all over itself and the tangled webs it weaves, but there are few things that match Monster when it comes to dark, psychological crime and action. It’s also worth noting that Dr. Tenma was likely inspired by the good Dr. Black Jack. His amazing brain surgery is similar, but the name “Tenma” is lifted directly from Tezuka’s cast of characters, making the link to Tezuka more concrete. Tezuka’s Professor Tenma is an eccentric roboticist who, mad with grief over the death of his son, builds Astro Boy as an exact replica in appearance.
For a more tenuous link to medicine, there’s Case Closed, by Gosho Aoyama. I suspect it’s not very popular in English, but there are few series that can match its fame in Japan. At 73 volumes and going, it’s the flagship title of the popular weekly Shounen Sunday magazine.
Case Closed is a straight-up mystery series, with episodic stories where main character Conan Edogawa finds the killer in a variety of murders. Sometimes the mysteries are puzzles, too, but there’s murder afoot in almost all of the nearly 40 volumes I’ve read. The main plot of the series involves a Black Organization, who used a drug on high school prodigy Shinichi Kudo that was meant to kill him, but instead reversed-aged him to 6 years old. He now he lives with his girlfriend and her deadbeat dad, who don’t know that Shinichi and Conan are the same person. Conan is trying to find the organization and get his body back, but this rarely comes up.
The medical side of things enters in a mostly forensic capacity. Conan is an expert on finding the cause of death on a corpse, and we learn all about rigor mortis, lividity, and the physical characteristics of suffocation, poisoning, blunt force trauma, and sometimes a combination, like chemically-induced suffocation. The science is about as sound, though less detailed, than you’d find on an episode of CSI. But it’s still good stuff, and I’m a big fan of the series.
MPD-Psycho is written by Eiji Otsuka, who has already appeared on this list as the writer of Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. MPD-Psycho is also 15 volumes long and counting, and it also runs in Young Ace, and is also published in English by Dark Horse.
MPD-Psycho is the story of Kazuhiko Amamiya, who… is a psychotic killer with multiple personalities. One is a rather rational, helpful personality that helps solve crimes, though. I can’t summarize this series, I’m sorry. It’s a bit too convoluted, and involves barcoded eyes, a cult that worships Mark David Chapman, an organization that tries to clone the perfect killer from the body of a deceased American rock star named Lucy Monostone, and lots of murders.
The medical link in this is also of a forensic nature, and many of the murders committed are rather graphic and require much in the way of detailed examination to determine what exactly happened to them, and why they may or may not be missing a rib, et cetera. Really, though, I can’t leave it off this list purely because of its completely deranged and unforgettable opening scene. In a flashback, Yosuke Kobayashi, a young detective, is sent the body of his girlfriend in a cooler. She is hooked to life support equipment, and all her limbs have been removed. This is courtesy of the serial killer he’s been tracking down. The trauma drives Yosuke Kobayashi to turn into several people, among them the Kazuhiko Amamiya that I mentioned earlier.
Gay’s Anatomy. You Higashino. BL from Kitty Media. Great title.
You all know where this is going. And this one isn’t that good. Try Sense and Sexuality, or Deeply Loving a Maniac for the best of Higashino. Moving on…
Drifting Classroom is the classic insane horror manga by Kazuo Umezu. Released in the early 70s, it ran in Shounen Sunday and was released in English by Viz.
It’s really not about the medical profession at all. An elementary school is transported to an alternate dimension, and they are forced to ward off floods, raving mad teachers, Westworld-like robots, and each other while simultaneously communicating with the present, where the main character’s crazy mom does increasingly unlikely things in order to send them supplies. It’s a litany of things that haunt children’s nightmares, but no adult in their right mind would be afraid of. And it is beautiful.
It’s a great manga, and it’s worth reading for the way it switches gears so completely and without warning at least once per volume. But it’s here because my favorite scene in this series is one where the main character gets appendicitis and the elementary school students are forced to perform an operation. They open him up and dig around in his intestines, holding the surgical incision open with their hands. When the child operating on the main character starts to pass out, a “nurse” student spits in his face to keep him focused.
Don’t worry, Sho is okay!
To bring things full circle, the last on my list tonight is Ode to Kirihito, by Osamu Tezuka. It originally ran in Big Comic in 1970, and was released in English by Vertical a few years back.
Like most of Osamu Tezuka’s longer, adult-oriented works, it takes an indirect path to its conclusion, but the subplots along the way are all about something called Monmow Disease. Monmow Disease is contagious and ultimately fatal, but while it is killing you, it turns you into a sort of dog-man. The main character, Kirihito Osanai, is researching the disease, but is backstabbed by the hospital he works for and contracts it himself in the middle of nowhere. He cures himself before it kills him, but it leaves him as a deformed dog-man. He chooses to stay among the remote villages, and he has a variety of adventures as he goes from place to place. The story examines what it means to be an outsider, and how society ostracizes people. It’s also quite medically focused, as the storyline at the corrupt hospital continues after Kirihito leaves, and there’s quite a bit of story time dedicated to Monmow Disease, a few others with the disease that the hospital assists, and one or two other fringe epidemics. Again, Tezuka was a real-life doctor, so his perspective brings a lot of detail to the story.
It’s the precursor to Black Jack, and one of my absolute favorites by Osamu Tezuka. It’s a wonderful story, mad in all the right ways, over-the-top, intense, and with a humanistic message buried among all the craziness. It’s hard to write a story about dog-men that can be taken seriously, but this is it.
On a final note, because I live in Chicago, it doesn’t seem fair to mention the Mütter Museum and not The Museum of Surgical Science on the Gold Coast. It’s not quite as cool as the Mütter Museum, but they do have a lot of interesting exhibits, and an iron lung. It’s worth going once.