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Manga and Medicine September 15, 2010

Posted by ayasawada in Books, Culture, Japan, Manga, Science.
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Tezuka's Black Jack casts a shadow on many medical manga

In June one of my dreams came true: I went to a comic book conference for work.

The first ever Comics and Medicine conference taught me much about how comics are being used to improve healthcare and patient (and doctor) understanding. And, much to my delight, manga came up a lot.

In the opening session, Paul Gravett, author of ‘Manga: Sixty years of Japanese Comics’ gave a fascinating talk on evolving graphic narratives. This included mentions of popular doctor protagonists: Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack got a mention, of course, as did Naoki Urasawa’s insanely good Monster. But Gravett also gave mention to those imaginative titles using medical themes to create ‘speculative futures’. He picked out the popular Moyasimon, where a young agriculture student finds he can talk to germs, and Ikigami, a manga which imagines a future where people are medically altered to die at any time, bringing a new zest to the way people live.

The afternoon featured a whole session on Medical Manga, which was good and not so good. Fatimah Mohamied’s talk was full of new-age otaku enthusiasm, but, I felt, lacking real insight. More than anything it was an overview of manga featuring medical themes. However, it did introduce me to some shonen and sci-fi series I hadn’t previously heard of, including the intriguing Team Medical Dragon and Real, a sports manga that deals with themes of amputation and disability.

The second talk in the session blew me away though. Ada Palmer is a strikingly young Assistant Professor of European History at Texas A&M university. She’s also a manga scholar and founder of Tezuka In English. She opened with a mention for ‘Say Hello to Black Jack‘, a manga that examined how the realities of medicine shatters the Tezuka-influenced ideals held by young doctors.

But it’s Palmer’s academic work on Tezuka’s ‘star system’ that I found mind-blowing. Brilliant and thorough, she reads in Tezuka’s use of stock characters a more thoughtful strategy of characters reincarnation and enlightenment through multiple narrative worlds. Thus, her presentation on ‘Sacred Biomedicine and Doctors of the Soul in the Works of Osamu Tezuka” found Dr Black Jack, to take one example, appearing in everything from Buddha to Phoenix, Ode to Kirihito and Metropolis, as well as his own series.

The journey of the characters through each story, woven together, seems to hint at the Buddhist philosophy of ‘interconnectedness’ that Tezuka believed in. And it fits in with the themes of reincarnation and suffering to achieve enlightenment that take characters on a non-linear spiritual journey through time. In the case of Yamanobe Masato, a weedy character from Phoenix is granted immortality. But this seemingly odd decision is a tad more understandable if you take into consideration his role in Black Jack where (in Palmer’s words) ” Yamanobei is a young doctor from a family with a history of terminal cancer. Yamanobei is determined to become a doctor and save at least one life before he dies, and spends the entire issue discussing the fact that there is no immortality, no reincarnation and no second chances and that if we want to create or save life we have to do it now in the brief lifetime we are given.”

Taken in this context, each Tezuka work blends into each other to form a richer narrative and a complexity of character that rewards any who reads Tezuka’s whole back catalogue. I wish I could list more details of this, but I could never express it as eloquently as Palmer herself and can only hope she one day shares her presentation online sometime. In the meantime, you can read many of her ideas in more depth at Tezuka in English.

The final talk of the session touched on manga’s popularity in continental Europe, describing ‘Epilepsie?! – Bleib Cool!‘, a patient information comic. The work was a deliberate attempt appeal to the Japanophile western youth of Germany, bridging real world and fictional world in the hope that the reader would find themselves in the process. What was most interesting about this was that it drew on both shonen and shojo manga to appeal to both male and female demographics. The comic features sports themes of overcoming adversity, blended in with SD/chibi characters to destigmatise certain scenes. Epilepsie tries to portray what a child diagnosed with epilepsy might expect and how to deal with such issues. The session ended with the interesting question of why there aren’t more instructional comics: after all airplane safety manuals feature illustrations, so why not others?

Outside of manga, there was plenty more to learn about and marvel at, some of which I’ve mined for features in my other guises (will add a link when it’s up). There’s good coverage of several aspects, including Tezuka, on the Guardian Science blog. The whole thing gave me plenty to think about, and a frightening wishlist…

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