Anime Reviews: Ragtime Black Jack Tactics

For this month's trio of anime reviews, Chris Feldman gives us his thoughts on Black Jack Vol. 1-3, Tactics Vol. 4 and Coyote Ragtime Show.

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Black Jack has some of the best-looking animation that is out there, bar none. All Black Jack images © 1993 Tezuka Prods. All rights reserved. 

Black Jack V.1 Infection, V.2 Seizure, V.3 Incubation

(2007) OVA series (six episodes). Director: Osamu Dezaki. V.1, 2 & 3. Each has two episodes/100 minutes. DVD bilingual $24.95. Distributor: US Manga Corps

US Manga Corps has brought a real classic back to life in this re-release of the classic Black Jack OVA series. Back in 1993 Osamu Dezaki of Golgo 13 and Lupin the III fame directed, what was at the time, a groundbreaking medical drama anime called, Black Jack. It was an excellent adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's Manga series. Despite the fact that Tezuka is probably better known for his earlier works Kimba the White Lion and Astro Boy, Black Jack has still received a great deal of critical acclaim in Japan and to this day continues to build a fan base. And the best part about this entire series is that it is all traditional hand-drawn animation. I know that doesn't sound like a big whoop, but after the first operation scene it becomes very evident that Black Jack has some of the best looking animation that is out there, bar none.

This OVA series is a wonderful collection of 50-minute medical drama stories. Each episode is essentially a 50-minute movie that could stand alone and makes perfect sense without having to see the other episodes. In some places there is some back story given about Black Jack, but that information really exists more to satisfy fan curiosity rather than deepen the story. Our main character is an unlicensed physician for hire named Black Jack. He is a medical genius who often works alone, but is sometimes aided by his patient-turned-companion Pinoko. Pinoko has the body and voice of a five-year-old girl, but regularly tells people that she is 18. Black Jack treats her as his daughter despite the fact that Pinoko often acts more like a petulant wife to him. She provides a nice amount of comic relief for the show, and, despite the awkwardness of the nature of Black Jack and Pinoko's relationship, it somehow seems believable.

Black Jack has a scarred appearance from an incident in his childhood, and, as a result of this incident, it inspired him to practice medicine himself. But he chooses to remain unlicensed so that he doesn't have to conform to any set regulations. Often the procedures that he performs on his patients are outside of the medical mainstream, and are sometime so radical that it would have resulted in him losing his license anyway. Despite the lack of credentials, there is no shortage of work for this maverick doctor whose charges are based on what the patient can afford rather than insurance coverage. He is known for finding the answers when no other doctor is able to find a cure. As a result his fees can be astronomical, but he will do the occasional pro-bono case.

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The most impressive aspect of Black Jack's animation is the level of detail that is shown without the help of computer animation. Operation scenes are exquisitely animated with pumping veins and twitching tissues. 

The most impressive aspect of this animation is the level of detail that is shown without the help of computer animation. In most current anime cities, vehicles and even background elements are computer-generated, because it is faster and cheaper to build a detailed 3D model and cel shade it instead of tweening a comparable 2D drawing. Not in this case. This title is all hand-drawn 2D, but with awesome amounts of detail. Operation scenes are exquisitely animated with pumping veins and twitching tissues. Layers of body material unfold and reveal a crazy amount of depth to tissue. Connective tissue can be easily seen as well as musculature, bone matter and nerve tissues.

I took several semesters of biology in college and, in that time, I learned enough anatomy to be totally impressed with what was done here. There is some cheating that happens where vehicles or highly detailed objects don't change in perspective as they should, but that is small potatoes compared to the scene in the first episode where Black Jack performs open chest surgery on a man while he is having a seizure. After seeing that surgery no one can rightly complain about a car that doesn't turn in perfect 3D space. Character design is solid and has a very distinctive western style look to it. However, there is some lack of variety, as most faces look very similar from episode to episode with only hair color and length being the only differentiating features.

The Black Jack anime has a darker and more macabre type of style to it compared to the original manga art. This is undoubtedly because of Osamu Dezaki's artistic influence and really has a similar feel of the grittiness from his earlier works. In this case the darker tonal change of the visual element of the story really works to enrich the environment behind each plot. Oftentimes when an individual is sick because of their past inequities, their surroundings will reflect their evil and decay along side of patient. Then, after Black Jack works his miracles of medicine, the environment will be healed along with that patient.

I know that on the surface this sounds kind of cheesy, but it is done very subtlety and not readily noticed by the casual viewer. I think that the subtlety in which the entire animation is handled is one of the keys to the strong visual impact that it has. For example, during surgeries there could be tons of gore with veins and arteries spurting blood everywhere. Instead there is a tight focus shot of the scalpel entering the flesh and making an entry incision with a small amount of blood seeping from the incision. Each time that happened, I got a small chill sent up my spine. A very subtle amount of gore, but there still was an emotional connection made. As an added bonus the anime regularly harkens back to the manga with an interesting take on bumper treatments. The action freezes on screen during a point of action and the art style changes from the anime to something that looks like a colored Manga page. Not exactly groundbreaking, but I thought it was a nice touch.

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Special features are sparse, but on the whole, the Black Jack OVA series is a very solid title. The artwork and animation are outstanding, and there is little to date the series to make it feel old or out of date. 

Special features on the disk are a tad sparse. There is an image gallery of screen shots. I always think of those as a half effort filler, but it is better than nothing I suppose. There are also trailers for the Black Jack DVDs. US Manga did a nice job with the cover art as they did treatments to the front and the backsides of the cover. The reverse cover art has the chapter list as well as production credits. Since this is a bilingual disk there is an English language track in stereo with translated signs and a Japanese language track, which is also in stereo with full subtitles. As usual the Japanese language track is outstanding that is well acted and the subtitles are nicely timed with the on screen dialogue. The English translation is ok for the most part. Not the best I have ever heard and not the worst.

As a whole, the Black Jack OVA series is a very solid title. The artwork and animation are outstanding, and there is little to date the series to make it feel old or out of date. It is a classic that any anime fan should see at least once in their life, if not own their own copy.

Tactics V.4

(2007) TV series. Director: Hiroshi Watanabe. V.1 Four episodes/129 minutes. DVD bilingual $24.98. Distributor: Manga Video

Tactics is a fairly solid fare with a decent plot and a fair amount of action balanced with suspense. While this isn't exactly a bad thing, nothing exactly stands out and therefore hurts Tactics in the end. There is so much depth within the Tactics plotline that it could have really benefited from taking an edgier direction. Kantarou and his incantations vanquish different types of spirits. These spirits have died in various sorts of ways, and some of them are pretty heinous. To balance this out a lot of humor is injected into Tactics plotline that comes from character silliness as well as quick-witted dialogue.

I felt, that at times, that the humor was too much and made what seemed like a good ghost story seem a tad silly. Almost as if the creators were not quite sure which direction to take the series. Or they attempted to balance the all ghoulish suspense with too much humor and, as a result, the episodes have a rather flat feeling to them. It seems that mixing humor and suspense is better done when done in sparing amounts. Plot structure that has lots of suspense with bits of humor to allow the viewer to relax, or lots of humor with bits of intense suspense to keep interest high really seem to work the best.

A good example of a series that is in the same vein as Tactics, but has better execution of what I am talking about here, is Haunted Junction. They use a lot of zaniness and humor throughout each episode, but lightly sprinkled amongst each episode are moments of high tension. This type of outline gives a much more cohesive feeling to the story.

Overall production quality is fairly well polished. Not quite up to theatrical release levels, but it is very well done. Title sequences are simple but slick. Character designs are beautiful, and I mean beautiful. Everyone is beautiful from the ladies, to the men and even the spirits that are doing the haunting throughout the series. If a character isn't beautiful, they are at the very least sticky sweet cute. I can see many a plushy of Muu-chan at anime conventions in my future. One nice detail that isn't readily noticeable is the treatment of the eyes. Instead of the standard colored iris with a black pupil center, the character design has taken a slightly different direction in some instances.

What is cool for the treatment of the eyes is that for the pupil area it is the same color, but they darken it to differentiate the pupil from the rest of the iris. It gives the characters that have this eye treatment a very soft look to their eyes and helps to make that character seem more friendly and welcoming. In the area of cheesy, when there are spirit possessions characters get a goofy little red dot in the center of the eye. I only nitpick this because everything else is done so well.

Audio production is very well done with a nicely executed opening and closing themes. Plenty of mood setting background music is used throughout each episode, which really helps to aide in foreshadowing and add to the tension of certain scenes. Foley work it pretty in depth with footstep sounds changing with the floor material that is being walked upon. Little creaks and cracks reinforce the environment settings such as an old wooden home, or the slide and strike of a sliding rice paper door. I am particularly fond of the thunderclaps of Haruka's staff. It really made me appreciate my system's subwoofer. Language tracks are offered in the standard Japanese and English, but what is nice is that both are mixed at either 2.0 stereos or 5.1 surround sound. With how inexpensive home theater systems are nowadays I find it hard to believe that audio options like this cannot be available on every modern anime DVD release.

The Japanese language track is definitely the way to go on this title. Top notch voice acting as usual, especially when dealing with the spirits. While the English version isn't exactly bad, it does have the tendency to be a little too over the top and really takes the viewer out of the experience.

Extra features are OK. There is an image gallery that is a collection of screen shots of the anime that was just purchased. I am sorry, but I think these are kind of silly because most computers with a DVD player can do screen grabs, which is all this gallery is. If there is going to be a gallery on the disk it should have something of interest other than what is presented in the episodes. Such as concept art or model sheets. Also included in the extras are an original Japanese TV ad and a merchandise spot. These are interesting to see, but they consist mostly of text that is not translated. So without knowing how to read Japanese or having a friend translate it, there is no way to understand them.

One nice addition to the extras is a minute and a half anime music video cut from the series. The video is nicely edited, but rather mellow for my own personal tastes. And finally there are previews for other manga titles on DVD. One of which is for Stan Lee's Mosaic. The preview is 45 seconds long, 15 of which are credits to who worked on production, the next 20 seconds is text saying that it is from the creator of Spider-Man, and the last 15 seconds is the word "Mosaic" glowing in green. Even for a teaser trailer that was pretty poor.

As I said early on Tactics is a fairly standard title. It has high production quality with its lush environments, beautiful character designs and top notch audio. But the story seems a little lost as to which direction the series should go. Many scene layouts and camera angles used borrow heavily from movies like the Exorcist and Ringu. This hurts this title because it makes Tactics feel a bit stale in the creativity department. But there is lots of fresh energy throughout each episode and it is one title that can help the mind unwind after a tough day. Nothing too heady or bizarre for plot help with that, and with a good amount of fun and eye candy there is plenty to keep interest. And maybe inspire some cosplayers out there.

Coyote Ragtime Show is definitely one of those things that is immediately recognized as cool. All the best things in anime are here and executed to a degree of awesomeness.

Coyote Ragtime Show V.1: Fox Trot

(2007) TV series (four episodes). Director: Matsuri Ouse. V.1 Four episodes/100 minutes. DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: ADV Films

What is cool? Cool is one of those things that cannot be easily explained, but everyone knows cool when they see it. For instance, taking one single look at a Ferrari and it is obvious that it is cool even to those who don't know the first thing about cars. At the same time, I think it is pretty universal that men's polyester plaid bell-bottom pants are not very cool at all. Coyote Ragtime Show, like the Ferrari, is definitely one of those things that is immediately recognized as cool. All the best things in anime are here and executed to a degree of awesomeness.

The spaghetti western that has been revived, mostly due to Tarantino and Kill Bill, has found a new place to call home. Coyote Ragtime Show is another space western in the same vein as Cowboy Bebop, but it is a completely original and really carves its own niche into this genre. My hat is off to those at UFOTABLE in pulling this one off, because Coyote Ragtime Show could have easily become an anime that would have wound up at an anime conventions really bad anime panel. There are parallels about Coyote Ragtime Show's story that can be drawn to Ocean's 11 and Mission: Impossible, but the uniqueness in which these elements are handled within the plot help to really differentiate this anime from those movies. But thankfully any similarities are dealt with quickly as they are not major plot points.

The vault break in is a perfect example of this. The actual break in is only a minute or two long in a solid 25-minute episode. What this means is that this is not just another heist story, and that my friends is a good thing.

The main character is a space pirate who is called Mister. He is a member of group of space pirates called the Coyotes. His good friend and the leader of the Coyotes, Bruce, is murdered by a woman named Marciano. Mister is left to care for Bruce's daughter Franca and the small matter of 10 billion space bucks that Bruce left behind. But before Mister can recover the money off of the planet Graceland before it is atomized in seven days, he has to break out of prison and convince Franca, an old rival named Swamp, and his partners to help him. Coyote Ragtime Show, like most good anime, really spends its time building emotional attachments to each of the main characters. The plot is structured in such a way that the motivations as to what each person's purpose is are laid out, but their entire story isn't explained.

This way of introducing characters helps the viewer to feel as if they know each character fairly well because valuable screen time isn't wasted on needless exposition the bond to each character is formed fairly quickly. Plus there is still some degree of mystery left to these characters since there wasn't a full bio given out. I find plots to be so much more compelling when every single detail isn't spelled out on the screen. By the end of the first episode I was hooked, and I was really rooting for Mister and his crew to get Franca to the treasure before the planet was blown up.

Coyote Ragtime Show is another space western in the same vein as Cowboy Bebop, but it is a completely original and carves its own niche into this genre. All Coyote Ragtime Show images © 2006 UFOTABLE ™ Coyote Project.

This is one pretty exciting title, and the very first episode really sets the tone for what can be expected for the rest of the series. The camera angles chosen for most shots are more akin to comic book frames than the run of the mill anime. Lots of very dynamic views and playing with lens distortion really pull the viewer into the action. At times there is a almost voyeuristic kind of feel, with fly on the wall type of viewing angles used in scenes that have a lot of exposition in them. Kind of like the some sort of spy camera that was hidden away that can peep in on what is happening. Sweeping shots where the camera follows the action give an amazing sense of scale and distance within a scene.

One thing that really stands out with the look of this show is choice in how shots are blocked. Action will often happen off-screen, the onscreen characters will then react to that action and then what they are reacting to is revealed. This is a much more mature way in which to set up blocking in a scene, and personally I feel that this type of blocking adds so much more visual interest, because it stimulates the curiosity of the audience. Action is frantic with no holds barred and awesomely detailed. Bullet hits damage walls, shatter glass, splinter wood, and sparks fly. The only way I could describe the battle during the breakout in the first episode is, holy crap! And it is just the first of many action scenes.

Artwork in Coyote Ragtime Show offers plenty of eye candy. Special features are few, but what lacks in quantity is more than made up for in quality.

Artwork in Coyote Ragtime Show is rocking. There is a ton of variation in character designs and plenty of eye candy, complete with fan service. The Marciano character commands a group of 12 gothic Lolita android girls called the 12 sisters. These sisters serve as Marciano's assassins, and for some strange reason they seem to have body types between the ages of five to18 years old. It is a very unsettling, but humorous sight to see five year olds throwing incendiary grenades at the people. Each sister seems to have their own take on each particular niche of the gothic Lolita style, and they all seem to have cool cat like vertical irises. Our heroes are stylized in a mix of rugged style and bishunen. Plus the pursuing officers are not so hard on the eyes with Angelicas, not so appropriate for the office, business suit and her ganguro girl partner Chelsea.

The environments are impressive, hands down. There is a lived in feeling everywhere the cameras eye looks. Even the country church where Swap lives looks as if it has been there a while and could use a new coat of paint. There is extensive use of 3D animation when dealing with vehicles and aircraft. All are cell shaded and blend in fairly well with the 2D elements. None of these 3D treatments detract from the quality of animation at all. In fact the modeling is done so well that it really adds to the action and leaves an almost epic feel to scenes where there are multiple craft appearing together.

Special features are few, but what lacks in quantity is more than made up for in quality. First of all there is an awesome production art montage that has pencil drawn story boards, lighting tests, facial animation keys, and the layouts for a space battle. Very cool stuff indeed. Plus there are clean versions of the opening and ending animations. The opening is a very slick motion graphics animation and the ending is a cute stop-motion animation, and these are nice to have because both are done so well. There also is a preview section that has six ADV previews and a DVD credits section.

Voice acting on the Japanese language track is great. Everyone's voice makes sense with their body type and what is happening with the on screen action. English language version is fairly watchable. For the most part voices are clear, emotive and thankfully not grating on the ears. The subtitle translation is in eye friendly black outlined yellow and timed well without crowding. It is a little strange that the spoken English dialogue is significantly different than the subtitled English translation. Not that the changes affect the story in a negative way, I just usually prefer that the two translations should be as close to the Japanese dialogue and therefore each other as possible. Music and Foley are top-notch stuff. And with 5.1 digital surround sound encoding on both the English and Japanese language tracks those with home theater set-ups will appreciate all of the nuances in the sound design.

Coyote Ragtime Show is a pretty fun title that has a lot to offer. There is plenty of story depth and character development. Production quality is some of the best out there and with all the detail going on in the art work makes this one worth watching multiple times. Plus as far as series go it won't break the bank seeing as how the whole series is only 12 episodes and there are four episodes to a disk. So Coyote Ragtime Show is definitely worth picking up and checking out.

Chris Feldman is a freelance 3D modeler and animator whose work has been featured in television, games, and manufacturing. He is an active member in the pop art community as well as a long time staff member/promoter of anime and comic conventions. In his very finite spare time he volunteers teaching animation to kids.

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