For any avid manga historians, the name Osamu Tezuka is already essentially a household name. The famed artist is best known for his work on Astro Boy, a series that has long been adapted into the Western hemisphere, and has since populated the international market. Considered the godfather of manga, his work ranges from different demographics and subjects; all attuned to the same creative sensibilities of its creative mastermind. For example, take Barbara, one of Tezuka’s lesser-known works, but one that is still just as widely discussed and analyzed in Manga community fan circles. The material is engrossing, a beguiling take on masculine tropes that relentlessly challenges the reader into a romantic nightmarish slumber. The same can be said about the recent film adaptation directed by Macoto Tezuka, the son of Osamu Tezuka who is best known for his cult hit The Legend of the Stardust Brothers.

Shot vividly by Christopher Doyle, a DP best known for his acclaimed work on numerous Wong Kar-wai productions, the latest adaptation of Barbara is an electric mystery that meshes sound, color, and shapes into an incredibly surreal crock-pot. The environments look dirty with soot infested alley-ways and streets, as the nightlife of Tokyo overshadows our egotistical protagonist Yosuke Mikura; a writer turned infamous celebrity. We witness our hero’s journey as he encounters a homeless woman named Barbara, a free-living and bodacious drunk who later becomes Mikura’s muse. 

Though looks can be deceiving. As the film gradually becomes more surreal with the occasional glimpse at the supernatural and hyper-sexual, Macota Tezka makes it clear that the primary end goal of both his father’s original text and his adaptation is to poke fun at toxic masculine tropes. The film in itself subverts the manic pixie dream girl cliche, as we witness the film’s descent into pure toxic chaos. A story about a socially frustrated sexist loner, the film paints a surprisingly poignant commentary on human insecurity and greasy societal expectations against the romantic madness. Accompanied by a jazzy tango score, and an opening vine animation sequence that lulls the viewer into a world of disturbing erotic fantasy, Tezka’s vision is a controlled work of pure cinematic anarchy. 

A story about manifestations and incoherent relationships, Barbara tests the limits of cinema to its outer sphere. Does the daring and oftentimes overly ambitious subject matter sour some of the film’s more twisty elements? It all depends on the viewer’s interpretation. The film is a puzzle of multiple different reads. Just like the original manga, Barbara is an enigma. A polarizing work of art that positions the audience into a world of the pretentious male gaze; a world of seduction, sex, desperation, and the terrifying reality of one’s own mortality at stake. 

Dir: Macoto Tezka

Scr: Hisako Kurosawa

Cast: Goro Inagaki, Shizuka Ishibashi, Fumi Nikaido, Kiyohiko Shibukawa

Country: Japan, Germany, UK

Year: 2020

Run time: 100 minutes

Tezuka’s Barbara screened digitally at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, as part of the festival’s official selection. Third Window Films is set to release the film in the UK.

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