‘Tezuka’s Barbara’ Review: Erotic Manga Adaptation Is Visually Striking but Emotionally Undercooked

Style triumphs over substance in an entertaining adaptation of the erotic tale by legendary manga creator Osamu Tezuka

Tezuka's Barbara
Courtesy of Fantasia Film Festival

Based on a ’70s manga by Japanese master Osamu Tezuka, a bored writer’s affair with his beguiling young muse gets the live-action treatment in “Tezuka’s Barbara.” Primarily concerned with the story’s excursions into erotic surrealism and the occult while playing down its social and political themes, this handsomely packaged item isn’t deep or meaningful but does present a visually arresting account of middle-aged male ennui colliding with uninhibited and irresistible female energy. Sure to be welcomed by Tezuka’s large fan base in Japan, “Barbara” has enjoyed a lengthy festival run since bowing in competition at the Tokyo Film Festival.

One of several adults-only tales by the legendary creator of children’s classics “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion,” “Barbara” first appeared in Big Comic magazine in 1973 and was long considered unfilmable. It has finally been adapted by Tezuka’s eldest son, Macoto Tezka, a highly regarded visual artist and university educator whose screen work includes “Black Jack: Two Doctors in Black,” a feature animation based on his father’s Black Jack comic.

Partly inspired by Offenbach’s fantasy opera “The Tales of Hoffmann,” “Barbara” also heavily references French symbolist poet Paul-Marie Verlaine. It’s in a grimy Shinjuku pedestrian subway that writer Yosuke Mikura (Goro Inagaki) hears Verlaine’s “Autumn Song” recited by Barbara (Fumi Nikaido, “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?”), a drunken, disheveled and astoundingly beautiful street girl who recognizes Yosuke and has read all his work.

A celebrated author who’s losing his edge and now churns out trashy popular fiction, Yosuke invites Barbara to his ultra-cool apartment where he listens to avant-garde jazz records and drinks 50-year-old whiskey. The visit doesn’t last long: Barbara slugs down his expensive booze, jumps all over the designer furniture and is thrown back onto the street after plucking a half-written sex scene from Yosuke’s typewriter and laughing at its “lame” content. “It’ll go straight to the used book store” are her parting words.

With observations such as “there is no demon as pathetic as a good woman,” Yosuke’s occasional voiceover narration shows him to be at best a selfish chauvinist and at worst an outright misogynist. True to his word, Yosuke has no real love for fiancée Shigako (Minami), a rich girl who wants him to compromise his principles by publicly endorsing her father Satomi (Ryosuke Otani), a stodgy old conservative politician. The other woman in Yosuke’s life is long-suffering agent Kanako (Shizuka Ishibashi), who encourages and mothers him and gets nothing in return.

Naturally, Yosuke can’t stop thinking about Barbara, and it’s only a matter of time before she reappears. That moment arrives while he’s in the throes of sado-masochistic sex with what he thinks is a sales assistant in a fancy fashion boutique. When the temptress turns out to be a showroom mannequin, Barbara suddenly materializes and furiously dismembers and decapitates the dummy. Barbara again intervenes spectacularly in Yosuke’s strange sexual life when he mistakes Shigako’s dog for a seductive young woman who then transforms into a vampire.

As bizarre events continue and Barbara becomes Yosuke’s lover and muse, it’s possible to believe she’s a figment of his imagination and has been conjured up to remedy his creative decline, sexual problems and boredom with everything else. The sense that Barbara may be from another dimension intensifies when she starts talking about marriage and introduces Yosuke to her mother, Mnemosyne (Eri Watanabe), an occult practitioner named after the Greek goddess of memory and mother of nine muses. Voodoo dolls, tarot cards and an “Eyes Wide Shut”-like nude sex-cult ceremony are some of the sights in store before “Barbara” reaches a finale that easily out-transgresses all that’s come before.

Though too cool and distant to pack any great emotional punch, “Barbara” is never dull thanks to Nikaido’s knockout central performance and top-class technical presentation. Notionally set in the 1970s, the film is given a timeless, dreamy feel by production designer Toshihiro Isomi and art director Emiko Tsuyuki. Outstanding cinematography credited to Kubbie Tsoi and Aussie ace Christopher Doyle (“In the Mood for Love,” “Endless Poetry”) glides from striking film noir stylings to luscious imagery of naked bodies in motion that invokes memories of Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno and Toei’s Pinky Violence films of the 1970s. Ichiko Hashimoto’s modern jazz-based score fits the film’s many moods perfectly.

‘Tezuka’s Barbara’ Review: Erotic Manga Adaptation Is Visually Striking but Emotionally Undercooked

Reviewed online, Sydney, Aug. 29, 2020. (In Fantasia, Tokyo, Goteborg, Tallinn Black Nights film festivals.) Running time: 100 MIN. (Original title: “Barubora”)

  • Production: (Japan-Germany-U.K.) A TheFool, Third Window Films, Rapid Eye Movies, Tezuka Prods., Diversity Media production. (Int'l sales: Nikkatsu, Tokyo.) Producers: Shunsuke Koga, Adam Torel, Shinya Himeda. Co-producers: Yasushi Minatoya, Stephan Holl, Antoinette Koester.
  • Crew: Director: Macoto Tezka. Screenplay: Hisako Kurosawa, based on the manga by Osamu Tezuka. Camera: Christopher Doyle, Tsoi Kubbie. Editor: Tezka.
  • With: Goro Inagaki, Fumi Nikaido Shizuka Ishibashi, Minami, Ryosuke Otani, Eri Watanabe, Kiyohiko Shibukawa. (Japanese dialogue)
  • Music By: Ichiko Hashimoto