Black Jack 21 is, as best as I can describe, what would happen if you took the esteemed Ace Attorney series of video games and turned them into an anime about an unlicensed surgeon. While the Ace Attorney games focus on Phoenix Wright and his various law-related hoops that require jumping-through, Black Jack 21 similarly features a character-- Black Jack, if you would believe it-- and his rather chaotic life.
I can't say I had high expectations going in but at 17 episodes, I figured I could spare the time. While I wouldn't say I was sucked into a world of extreme conflicts and drama like the emphatic announcer wanted me to believe, I can't say I was less than pleasantly surprised. It carries itself with some seriously cheesy bravado, and has a relentlessly predictable plot more often than not. However, it manages to hold some level of intrigue and, if nothing else, it's entertaining.
Thus the question: is it nothing else?
Black Jack lives on the edge of his town as an unlicensed surgeon. Reputed for charging exorbitant amounts of money but getting the job done quickly, concisely and flawlessly, he is a man with more than a few layers of questions about him. Thus he lives a simple life as such a mystery doctor. However, when his father-- guilty of walking out on his family 21 years past-- calls him again to make an appointment, he finds his life quickly taken up by a chaotic storm of events. A mysterious organization goes after his life, sending an assassin to get the job done. While attempting to unearth the reasoning for this organization's presence, he stumbles upon two key points: 'the organization,' of which his mentor's fellow doctors are a part, and 'The Noir Project'-- at the heart of which lay the reason for the attempts on his life. In a journey that quickly comes to span much of the globe, Black Jack, along with self-proclaimed (and plum adorable) 'wife' Pinoco, must step quickly yet carefully to remain a step ahead of his predators while slowly shedding light on the truth of 'The Noir Project.'
Ultimately, if anyone had been told that devoid of characters, they'd tell you 'James Bond' and to be perfectly honest, that's what this felt like. Black Jack seemed to bounce between being some airy, unsung-hero-saves-all ER soap opera, and then at times felt more like James Bond if James Bond had none of the cool gadgets (but a really, really slick outfit). At times, it feels like it's pushing it a bit-- but it's not ostensibly awful. Around episode 8 or 9, the anime begins to pick up pace quite a bit and manages to snag a good level of intrigue, keeping things interesting, well-paced, while maintaining an air of mystery to sweep away at every turn.
However, there's still this dragging-along for about eight episodes, and in all reality, like I said, some of the scenes just feel outright campy-- like they really were pulled from a Bond movie. It just doesn't fit with the whole 'doctor' thing.
It's enjoyable, in that sort of lopsided-grin style of cheesy. With all things considered-- predictability, leaning off the rails at times, and its slow start-- it manages to be pretty effective. The final stretch really is a good show of the characters, their personalities and the story itself, making it really interesting if you can just stick with it. With its wavering quality and weak start, the strong finish pulls it to a 6/10 where it might otherwise be lower.
The most noticeable and prominent fact is that there's a noticeable change between the main characters and the side characters. Animation, style-- it's all just different. The main characters are definitely well-animated, slick and smooth, with their unique and recognizeable designs. The side characters all look very much stock-bred and unimpressive, fading from memory fast.
In a way, perhaps this is how it was meant to be; I move on with that in mind and the effect is pretty noticeable, to say the least. Black Jack himself sticks out the most with a stark and unique character design, as does Benitokage, the assassin out for his life and another character later on, Doctor Kiriko. Pinoco, looking all of about two feet tall and having distinctly silly facial expressions is definitely a stark contrast to the (faux?) seriousness the rest of the show carries itself with.
There were some points where the animation felt off or cheapened-- perhaps lacking polish, or just being blocky and slow, using frame-by-frame for no real reason. Either way, it doesn't come off as entirely revolting, though it does interrupt the flow of things a bit.
There's some pretty dated-looking CG for some things-- mostly vehicles-- but it's not really a major enough part to be considered too much of a factor. It is there, though.
The end result isn't terribly remarkable one way or the other, but manages to be serious and dramatic when it needs to be, rising to the call of duty in the more critical moments. Giving this 7/10 is about as easily as I can describe it.
The music is all very distinct and has a feel that lines up well with the somewhere-between-drama-and-spy-flick feel this anime has, if that could make any sense at all, and the drama is felt when needed. There are a few light-hearted tracks but most of Black Jack 21's soundtrack is comprised of various pieces to highly various tones of drama, from sadness to worry to desperation. It gets the job done quite well.
Sounds are plain and unremarkable for the most part, though Pinoco has an odd 'bounce' noise with every step she takes. It's sort of a weird thing, but I guess it's some sort of character quirk? It adds to the 'silly' factor of her character, for sure. More on that later.
Ultimately, there's nothing to complain about here. The opening and endings are all good and do reasonably well as fitting the theme of the anime, so no complaints there, either.
8/10; solid work. Not amazing, but solid and definitely more than fitting of the bill.
As Black Jack 21 focuses on its star, Black Jack, it makes sense to focus more on him. Mysterious, shady and quite a quick thinker, Black Jack often feels like he's somewhere between an unsung hero and a super-spy of Bond proportions; he's very much convicted in his thinking and has his methods that he sticks to, while having a mature and level-headed character who maintains his cool even with the throwdown is getting rough. As you learn more and more through bits and pieces of Black Jack's actions, it's almost a rewarding experience to decode what goes on in his mind-- but it all makes sense well enough, and actions are consistently relevant to the way his character is portrayed. He normally has an indifferent approach until a patient's life is involved, or the topic of his father comes up. His love for his mother is no big secret and comes out very early in the anime, and ends up being a hook for a good many of his actions and decisions later on.
Pinoco, on the other hand, is this off-the-walls silly character who has a love for Black Jack that rivals none, willing to trot the globe with him simply to be at his side. She's loveable in that adorable, cutesy way as a contrast to Black Jack but at times feels like she takes a touch off the dramatic scenes. All the same, she quickly becomes part and parcel with Black Jack; it seems impossible to fathom the two apart as some sort of really, really dynamic duo. As mentioned before, her facial expressions, noises and even her voice actor are all very silly. As she's obviously comic relief, she doesn't get much exploration in the anime, but she does have a few roots of her own in the plot despite that.
Benitokage, without spoiling much, is the typical femme fatale with a chip on her shoulder for killing and a bloodlust for Black Jack. She manages that mysterious edge. I won't go any deeper than that; even she has her own story in the proceedings.
All in all, the characters are actually really well-done, I felt; as I understand this isn't the first installation in this series, so running off no knowledge of any other parts, I understood and sympathized with the characters well. They were established quite well and all had distinct personalities that they didn't seem to randomly contradict. Their actions made sense and seemed appropriate to the characters' situations. Coming off something of similar length like Ga-Rei: Zero, I can only wonder how they managed to pull this off amidst a hectic plot that treads the lines of ER drama and James Bond. It's quite mystifying, actually.
And so, in the end, the characters get a nice, healthy 8/10 for once again being solid in their own rights and actually intriguing in some cases. Not the best and you won't feel yourself thinking, "WWBJD?" or anything, but they're easy enough to sympathize with or at least understand and they don't feel like they just float along with the plot.
As I said before, Black Jack 21 was, if nothing else, entertaining. At the end of it, I'd decided it was that and just a smattering more-- it had a touch of campy drama that I'd come to grow attached to, one that constantly wavers on the lines of silly and serious. It seems to know when to control itself in most cases, but there are a few times where one has to wonder if they were just writing things without any sort of revision. With decent animation, an at least likeable story, memorable characters and a fitting soundtrack, the recipe concocting Black Jack 21 is not one destined for failure, though neither for greatness; it settles comfortably in that 'would watch again' category, and at 17 episodes long, it's not exactly a chore to do so. The length feels just right, balancing carefully between an episodic feel while breeding a plot underneath it. I guess where it falls the most short is the ultimately unremarkable story; there's more interest in finding out more about the characters than about the story they're trying to progress, and the story's only really made interesting by Black Jack's presence as being at the center of it. A lot more of the interest goes into finding his past and how that will affect him than about the brooding plot underneath. Then again, one could argue that the past revelation is indeed the hook of the story... but that is a debate I won't air here in the review. As an enjoyable, easily watchable anime with likeable characters, only dragged down by a mediocre story, Black Jack 21 gets a 7/10; watching it isn't going to cause long-term disappointment as the likes of some other anime about schoolgirls, demons and otherwise promising things might invoke.