'Tezuka's Barbara' : Film Review | Tokyo 2019

Courtesy of Tokyo Film Festival
A kinky-weird love story set in Tokyo in the 1970s.

Based on a classic 1974 adult manga by the godfather of Japanese comics Osamu Tezuka and directed by his son Macoto, this live-action adaptation is an erotic satire about a washed-up celebrity writer and his muse.

A jaded writer who never takes off his dark glasses one day invites a drunken street girl home to shower. So begins Tezuka’s Barbara, an exceedingly bizarre love story that is too distanced to be moving, but still has its visual and other pleasures. Former boy-band member Goro Inagaki as Yosuke Mikuro, the writer, and Fumi Nikaido as his implacable muse Barbara make an ultra-cool dangerous couple who, with her supernatural relatives and his sexual perversions, could have stepped out of Jim Jarmusch-land. The pic was a long shot in competition at the Tokyo Interntional Film Festival, but should have an automatic audience among the many fans of manga master Osamu Tezuka, on whose comic it is based.

Adapted for the screen by Osamu’s son, Macoto Tezka (aka Makoto Tezuka), Tezuka’s Barbara captures the all-over-the-place spirit of the original manga seen through the dirty glass of time. Osamu, who started the manga revolution in 1947 with works like Astro Boy and Black Jack: Two Doctors in Black (later adapted as an anime film by Macoto), was well into his career when Barbara was serialized in 1973-74. It is aimed squarely at adults, and not just because of some wild and woolly sex scenes, but for a jumble of themes ranging from social concerns to its mockery of Japan’s literary and political establishments. These don’t emerge so clearly in the pic, however, because the tragicomic love story hogs center stage.  

Novelist Yosuke Mikuro has achieved early literary success, but at the height of his fame he’s sliding downhill into insignificant, even trashy writing. He also has some loony impulses toward inappropriate objects of desire, which he acts out in some of the film’s more transgressive scenes. Never are we allowed to forget the actors are embodiments of cartoon characters, for whom there are literally no limits, but the corollary is that there's nothing really serious at stake to get concerned about.

Yosuke first meets Barbara, the free spirit who is destined to become his muse, when he stops to observe a beautiful hippie girl passed out beside an empty bottle in an underpass. Acting on impulse, he takes her home to his immaculate 1970s flash pad, where she jumps on the bed, swills his 50-year-old whiskey and generally acts obnoxious. He realizes he has rescued a monster. But Barbara is much more than that. Her clothes may be filthy, but not a hair of her strawberry blonde hairdo is ever out of place. Spookily, she’s read all his novels and casually quotes from French poetry. It could have been a role for a young Anna Karina or Jeanne Moreau, but Nikaido (Fly Me to the Saitama) pulls it off with charming aplomb.

In contrast, it’s hard to warm to the leaden presence of Inagaki’s Yosuke, a depressed but arrogant intellectual sell-out who alternates ego and id. He’s engaged to a congressman’s daughter, a sophisticated rich girl who cajoles him into chairing her father’s re-election campaign. It’s surprising how easily Yosuke makes the evil crossover from literature to politics. But a moment later he’s restlessly walking away from wealth and power and looking for the unconventional Barbara.

It takes some time for them to exuberantly consummate their teasing acquaintance. Meanwhile, Tezka has fun staging the manga’s sex scenes, which are outrageous in concept but elegant shadow plays onscreen. In a high-end clothing store, a shopgirl recognizes the writer and propositions him in the dressing room. Their S&M foreplay ends when Barbara unexpectedly appears and tears the girl limb from limb — she was just a mannequin that Yosuke, in his madness, mistook for a living woman. Later, at his girlfriend’s house, he imagines her silky, long-haired dog is a girl in a flowing dress. The phantom invites him for a walk in the woods and just as things are getting hot, Yosuke is once more saved from his illusions in the nick of time.

The occult is another key feature in the manga that is highlighted in a witches’ coven scene featuring Barbara’s eccentric mom, Mnemosyne (Eri Watanabe), fittingly named after the Greek goddess who invented language and who gave birth to the muses. Though nudity abounds, a naked marriage ceremony is shot sans vulgarity, as are the final tragic scenes of loss, madness and necrophilia.

Ichiko Hashimoto’s mixed hip-hop, rap and jazz score update the retro setting. Going even farther in transforming the source material, DP Christopher Doyle (credited along with Tsoi Kubbie) lends his trademark touch of sensuality and elegance to these offbeat anime characters who long to escape from the trap of their closed worlds.

Production companies: Thefool, Third Window Films, Rapid Eye Movies
Cast: Goro Inagaki, Fumi Nikaido, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Shizuka Ishibashi, Eri Watanabe

Director-editor: Macoto Tezka
Screenwriter: Hisako Kurosawa, based on Osamu Tezuka’s manga
Producers: Shunsuke Koga, Adam Torel, Shinya Himeda
Directors of photography: Christopher Doyle, Tsoi Kubbie
Production designer: Toshihiro Isomi
Costume designer: Isao Tsuge
Music: Ichiko Hashimoto
Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: Nikkatsu

100 minutes