Tezuka's Barbara

Tezuka’s Barbara (2019)

Tezuka’s Barbara first published by Little White Lies, as the 130th entry in my Cinema Psychotronicum column

Following the publication of his groundbreaking New Treasure Island in 1947 which ushered in the Golden Age of manga, Osamu Tezuka would, with his popular series like AstroBoy, Princess Knight and Kimba the White Lion, become known variously as the ‘father’, the ‘godfather’ and even the ‘god’ of the form over the next two decades, while also producing pioneering work in anime for television. Yet the œuvre of Tezuka was, much like that of his closest American counterpart Walt Disney, closely associated with children. As his readership grew up, they yearned for more mature material, and from the late Sixties, Tezuka would start engaging with the now decade-old alternative gekiga movement which produced manga with more adult themes. This would yield long series from Tezuka like Phoenix, Black Jack and Buddha, as well as many shorter runs, including Barbara (1973-4).

In Japan, this live-action film adaptation shared its title with the original graphic novel (ばるぼら), but it has been renamed for the English-speaking world as Tezuka’s Barbara – a title which explicitly raises issues of authorship. For much as Wes Craven was not just the director, but also a character of the same name (and a director) in/of the carefully titled self-reflexive sequel Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), Tezuka’s Barbara is drawn from a work by Osamu Tezuka (d. 1989), but directed by his son Macoto Tezuka (henceforth Tezka) – and it is also concerned with another author’s struggles to find a new voice.

Yosuke Mikura (Goro Inagaki) is a young writer whose work has made him a celebrity, but he is not – unlike his contemporary Hiroyuki Yotsuya (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) – winning any literary awards, and he worries that his recent reliance on sexual themes is reducing his writing to trashy sensationalism, devoured by readers but just as quickly forgotten. Still, sporting his shades at night and even in his apartment, Yosuke has all the hipster swagger and arrogant aloofness of youth. When he runs into drunk, down-and-out Barbara (Fumi Nikaido) in an underpass, Yosuke is surprised to hear her slur a quotation from the French poet Paul Verlaine, and even more surprised to discover, after inviting this filthy, malodorous woman back to his immaculate apartment for more drinks, that she is both a reader and a critic of his books. “They’re too neat,” she complains – and soon Barbara will be messing up Yosuke’s home, life and work, all as part of a mystic journey to become a better, or at least a different, writer. 

Reflected in all this, one can see Tezuka’s own anxious attempts to change literary direction and embrace gekiga. Barbara declares a sex scene that Yosuke has just written ‘lame’, ‘boring as hell’ and ‘total garbage’, warning that “It’ll go straight to the used book store!”. In two surreal sequences, Barbara also interrupts Yosuke’s attempts at actual sex, revealing one of his lovers to be merely a store mannequin, and another (Minami) to be a pet dog. In this metamorphic world, eros is exposed as both illusory and elusive, and no sooner has Yosuke begun a sexual relationship with Barbara than he is told by her mother (Eri Watanabe), an occult-obsessed dealer in antique goods, that until the two lovers are married, they must stay apart from one another. In fact, from behind the scenes, Barbara steers Yosuke’s career in other ways too, apparently using voodoo not only to bring to an end his flirtation with political entanglements as a route to success, but also to remove the influence of his interfering agent Kanako Kai (Shizuka Ishibashi).

Barbara is not just Yosuke’s inspiration, but evidently a Muse in the more literal sense. Her mother is actually named Mnemosyne, and they both engage in cultish rituals and display peculiar magical powers. The only other character in the film who seems even to notice Barbara’s presence is another artist, a club singer (Issay) who was her previous lover (and claims to be ‘nothing’ without her) – otherwise she remains hidden from everyone besides Yosuke and her own mother, and in the end the viewer is uncertain whether this mysterious figure is anything more than a character whom Yosuke has been inventing as a radical departure from his usual fictive preoccupations. For Tezuka’s Barbara is a film about the creative process – about the transformation of feelings of love and loss, angst and otherness (Barbara’s name means ‘foreign woman’), into art – and the final destination of Yosuke’s strange, transgressive excursion is his next book, with ‘Barbara’ as both subject and title. Yet Barbara, evasive and enigmatic, no more belongs to Yosuke than to either Tezuka. Rather she is an obscure object of desire, and a spur to ‘new things’.

Focusing heavily on the contribution, both positive and negative, made to art by drinking, Tekuza’s Barbara is shot woozily by cinematographic maestro Christopher Doyle, with reeling angles, lurid colours, and parts of the screen often out of focus. There is also a heavy noir inflection to the proceedings, with Yosuke as the melancholic chump and Barbara the femme fatale, playing out their doomed, self-consuming love affair beneath neon lights to the strains of a jazz soundtrack. Made by Tezka to coincide with the 90th anniversary of his late father’s birth, this is a mannered, meandering trip through a writer’s mind, and a difficult reimagining of an already difficult work. Yet if the original manga, with all its violence and misogyny and abuse, was very much a product of the Seventies, Tezka updates typewriters to computers and payphones to mobiles, only reverting to older times in Mnemosyne’s antiques store, her cultic church and in the final forest sequence, stripped of all working technology. For Yosuke, like Tezka, is drawing on the past, and on ancient, primal urges and taboos (even madness, necrophilia and cannibalism), to inspire his present work. The result is an echoing hall of masks and mirrors, and a postmodern parable of art in the making – and remaking. 

strap: Macoto Tezuka’s adaptation of his father’s manga is a surreally erotic tale of a Muse & the mystery of the creative process

Anton Bitel