Prepare yourself, America, for a new wave of Japanese manga focused, more or less, on the medical profession. In this country, we have a peculiar relationship to the field of medicine. We are held captive by all the information we can handle on Ted Kennedy’s brain cancer, and if you watch a baseball game, you’ll get a WebMD-sponsored sidebar of a human diagram with notes on how a star pitcher’s carpal tunnel syndrome is affecting his erectile dysfunction. Shows like ER and House populate the airwaves with disease names, and the most popular nighttime drama program, CSI, is all about medical examiners. It has three friggin’ versions, too!
But this kind of medical stuff is a whole other beast there. A senior statesman’s cancer would never be deconstructed on Japanese news by a guest oncologist, but a Japanese publisher would be the first to ink a sexy yaoi manga starring brain surgeons called Malignant Glioma! I believe it’s precisely because news shows with medical experts, surgery TV, pink ribbons, yellow bracelets and the popular culture of mood drugs doesn’t exist in Japan that fictional medical actions are depicted with such hyperbolic exaggeration. Knife fights end with blood coming out like a suburban sprinkler, and internal organs spill out for three minutes at a time. And most of this nonsense is so gross for Americans it won’t ever see the light of day here (legally, at least). Judging from a popular manga series like Sailor Moon—the primary character has a pneumatic head, marshy eyeballs and a pinhole mouth—some would argue that the Japanese don’t know from humans. If you encounter an actual human looking like her, you probably should call a doctor.
Autopsies are also rare in Japan. Few police departments have medical examiners, and autopsies are performed on only 9% of “unnatural death,” according to one statistic, compared to 100% in many other developed countries. So of course a fictional medical examiner may find flowers potted in a murder victim’s brain, or a rope flossed through someone’s entire digestive system. The insides of murder victims are practically science fiction in Japan. In fact, if you throw up, we have the next installment of a sci-fi shonen serial called Blech!
One of the best examples of experimental Japanese medical drama manga is MPD Psycho. I use the term “medical” loosely here, to indicate all the detailed anatomical and psychiatric descriptions in this series. The MPD stands for Multiple Personality Disorder, and the Psycho part is the serial killer inside. It’s been popular enough in Japan to have spawned a parody starring midgets (I’m not making this up). It’s also been adapted to live-action film by acclaimed horror-meister Takashi Miike, and forums on the series abound on the Internet. However, the American edition, published in identical format by Dark Horse, has apparently underwhelmed expectations, as has author Eiji Otsuka’s other anatomically incorrect series Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, a combination comedy, murder mystery and supernatural forensics manga. Japanese medical drama, it seems, is untranslatable.
While much of Japanese medical manga is not as popular as the manga industry’s more blatantly supernatural efforts (like Naruto or Inuyasha), not all medical manga is grotesque. Legendary manga creator Osamu Tezuka pioneered the conceit using his background in medicine, creating heroes out of androids (Astro-Boy), Frankenstein monsters (the forthcoming Black Jack) and gimps (the just published Dororo). For manga-ka Naoki Urasawa, doctors are mostly nice guys, and their work frequently thankless. Yet even for Tezuka, medicine was an experimental art, not used for diagnostics or prognosticating, as in American fiction. And what’s more, all the enduring medical manga—Otsuka’s MPD Psycho, Urasawa’s Monster, Tezuka’s canon—have one thing in common: one messed-up childhood. In other words, there’s always a reasonable Freudian cause for the anatomical perversions at the center of these manga:
“I was burned out of my German orphanage”(Monster).
“I was teased as a child so now I’m going to mutilate women and become a detective” (MPD Psycho).
“I have no gall bladder” (Dororo).
As an American reader, I am excited about the translated releases of all these titles, but I was also raised by wolves.