When The Chips Are Down: What Black Jack Teaches Us About the Sanctity of Life

“The first rule of Blackjack is, the house always wins.”

I learned how to play blackjack at a summer camp in junior high, when a tropical storm kept us all hostage in our cabins. “The dealer passes out two cards, face up, to each participant, and keeps one face down and one face up for him or herself,” explained the counselor. “A player from the ring will then cut the deck, and gameplay begins.” She explained the rules, and I learned quickly that cards can be riveting. Numeric cards (2-10) are given at face value, face cards are always 10, and aces can be, by default, eleven. They can also be valued at 1 if it helps the player not exceed 21 points. The goal of each hand is to get as close to 21 as possible, hence the alternative title, 21’s. A starting hand of 10 and an ace is called a Blackjack and beats all hands except that of another Blackjack.

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The rules always favor the dealer—players always act before the dealer, so they can bust and lose their bet before he or she even plays. In fact, when I was first learning how to play, my friend told me “the first rule of Blackjack is, the house always wins.” You play the game and maybe you make a few bucks, but in the end, the casino still has the power.

The profoundness of this statement stuck with me for years, long after I had forgotten that I had ever learned the rules of the card game. I’d neglected my skills for years, only remembering the rules of Blackjack after reading a manga by the same name. Black Jack is a medical drama by the “father of manga,” Osamu Tezuka, author of countless iconic early manga, including Astro Boy and Princess Knight. The manga’s main character, as well as namesake, is a shadow-cloaked, unlicensed surgeon who goes by the name Dr. Black Jack. Rumored to have the “hands of God,” Black Jack is the last resort of the desperate.

Though he operates without a license, he is one of an elite status to be able to say he has a perfect record, never having made a single mistake or lost a single patient. The only caveat to his impeccable work is the hefty financial compensation he asks for each job, justifying that if his patients truly valued life and its sanctity, they would find a way to come up with his asking price.

Throughout the series, Tezuka paints Black Jack as a regular vigilante. His exemplary skills are used countless times to save lives that lesser doctors would have ruled too far-gone. He also accepts cases that people would be too embarrassed to take to a mainstream doctor—his exorbitant fees being the price they pay for anonymity. No matter what situation the medical world deals him, Black Jack and his trusty scalpel are sure to make it to 21 in the end.

In the first-ever surgery detailed in the series (a chapter titled “Is There a Doctor?”), Black Jack is called on by a wealthy crime boss whose scummy son, Acudo, had been in a nasty car crash. He demands a large sum, which the boss pays willingly. The “spare parts” that Black Jack asks for to be able to save Acudo are to come from Tailor Davy, an innocent young man on whom the boss pins the legal blame for his son’s accident. Davy is sentenced to death and his body is to be used to save Acudo’s life. However, Black Jack instead operates on Davy to make him look like the son, and then gifts him the entirety of his operating fee to escape the country.

Black Jack is also profoundly pro-life. Early in his life, he faced the threshold of death. It was only through the donation of his friend’s skin he was able to survive, and as a result he cherishes innocent life dearly, going to the ends of the earth to save even the most undervalued of people.

For example, in the segment titled “Teratoid Cystoma,” Black Jack agrees to take on the case of a young woman who has a large and invasive sentient tumor on her stomach. It is explained to him that the growth is a cystoma, or an underdeveloped twin. A teratoma is a cyst that contains tissue which developed like a twin in the uterus, but instead of growing into a separate fetus, fuses to the original fetus. These sometimes contain hairs, even body parts. The tumor communicates telepathically with Black Jack, demanding he cease his work and leave it be. It is only by promising he won’t kill her that he is able to convince it to let him operate. Black Jack removes the tumor, then uses the body parts as well as some pieces of a doll to fashion a new body for it, and thus Pinoko is born. When Pinoko’s twin sister reviles her as a monster of science and rejects her as family, Black Jack adopts the heartbroken girl as his own child.

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One of the few glimpses we get into Black Jack’s shadowy past is the chapter “The Legs of an Ant” where Black Jack stops and talks to a child who is recovering from polio. The boy is determined to make a long, cross-country trek. Black Jack stops to talk to the exhausted child, encouraging him to keep pushing on, even when the chips are down and the future seems impossible. He knows this, we discover, because he did the exact same thing after the accident that almost killed him and took his mobility away. His experience made the boy realize if this mysterious doctor could to it, so could he, and thus encourages him to continue on his journey to overcome his weakness.

Beyond his adroitness in the medical field, Black Jack displays an almost Christ-like sense of character. He is selfless. He is wise. I have a feeling if Black Jack were to reach the pearly gates, he would be greeted by the Lord saying, “Well done, child. What you did for the least of my kingdom, you did for Me.” As Christ instructs in Matthew 25:45, Christians are to care for the “least” in society—which Black Jack does, when he saves the life of the poor tailor, builds a new body for the forgotten daughter, and shares his own testimony to encourage another. Black Jack recognizes, among many truths, that life is a corrupt and greedy casino, but he doesn’t abide by house rules. He breaks the system not for personal gain, but as an advocate to those exploited by the greedy dealers—all while maintaining the sanctity of human life.

Kate Gilleo

An award-winning student poet, aspiring author, and self-proclaimed nerd, Kate spends her time voraciously consuming any and all books she can get her hands on. She is currently studying Spanish and American Sign Language in college and hopes to finally achieve the coveted black belt status. Her catchphrase is, "Keep clam and proofread!"

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