Tezuka’s Barbara (Japan, 2020)

Few figures cast as long a shadow over Japanese comic art and animation as Osamu Tezuka. From 1947 to his death in 1989, Tezuka was the most influential writer/artist and animation director of his age. He was personally inspired by the animation of Walt Disney, and in turn dictated the dominant aesthetic of Japanese manga and anime that continues to be the primary influence today. Tezuka’s most famous and enduring works were for children – notably Mighty Atom/Astroboy and Jungle Emperor Leo/Kimba the White Lion – but as his work developed he focused increasingly on work for adults. His drawing style became more realistic, and his subject matter matured and shifted into issues of religion, history, and sexuality. Infidelity and betrayal became dominant themes, dominating his 1973 manga serial Barbara in particular. Almost half a century later, Tezuka’s son Makoto – under the pseudonym Macoto Tezka – has adapted Barbara into a live-action feature film. It is a valuable insight into a creator still widely known solely for Astroboy.

Yosuke Mikura (Goro Inagaki) is a hugely successful Japanese novelist suffering from a growing case of writer’s block. His girlfriend is the daughter of a local politician with aspirations for higher office, and who thinks marrying Yosuke to her will boost his electoral chances. Yosuke has, however, become obsessed with a drunk homeless woman he encountered in a railway underpass: the mysterious Barbara (Fumi Nikado).

Tezka undertakes a relatively faithful adaptation of the original work, which comes packed with troublesome depictions of mental illness and growing sexual perversion. Yosuke has started to hallucinate beautifully, sexual aggressive women, a delusion that is leading him to attempt sex with both a department store mannequin and his girlfriend’s pet dog. Barbara appears to be saving him from such encounters, and indeed from himself, but it gradually becomes apparent that she may not actually be human herself. A growing element of the occult sinks into the film’s second half, shifting the narrative from a sexualised thriller into something bordering on fantasy and horror.

This all combines to make Barbara a relatively uncomfortable and difficult work. Former pop star Inagaki commits well to the role of Yosuke, but he is playing a fairly odious and unlikeable character. Yosuke is moody and prone to sulking, he is unfaithful and dismissive to his girlfriend, and unhealthily obsessed with a woman he hardly knows. His appearance in the film, constantly listening to abrasive jazz music from behind a pair of sunglasses, has been compared to something out of a Fellini film. It could just as easily reflect a character out of a Koreyoshi Kurahara or similar ‘sub-tribe’ movie such as The Warped Ones (1960). He is the archetypal anti-social and transgressive protagonist of Japanese youth rebellion; a little older, perhaps, and reaching a personal dead end.

Nikado is a radiant presence as Barbara, although her character ascribes to some Japanese variant of the USA’s ‘manic pixie dream girl’: all whimsical fun and infantilised sexuality, and not really given much agency or genuine character depth. Yosuke’s fetishistic obsession with her actively objectifies the character, and Tezka’s direction often feels positively soaked in a seedy male gaze. There is a boldness in how her character is treated towards the end of the film, but there is an undeniable unpleasantness as well.

Barbara is an effectively made film, and does show a relatively obscure and challenging side to the elder Tezuka’s work. A lack of easily identifiable characters, however, and a frustrating lack of sympathy both make it a much easier film to admire than enjoy. It particularly seems a difficult film to love. It invites intrigue, but delivers repulsion.

Tezuka’s Barbara will be available on June 28 from Third Window Films.