Fantasia Film Festival 2020 Screening – In the early 1970s, Osamu Tezuka created what is known as one of the most legendary erotic mangas, Barbara. In 2019, his son Makoto set out to adapt this masterwork into a film – TEKUKA’S BARBARA. Osamu Tezuka created such beloved media as Astro Boy and Kimba, and let the charge for manga beginning in the forties; but even without the name Tezuka attached to this title, it was a formidable feat, and extra-large shoes to fill for Anime director Makoto Tezuka.
Yosuke Mikura (Goro Inagaki) is the absolute picture of a brooding writer. Dark, fashionable, always wearing sunglasses. Engaged, rather unhappily, to a congressman’s daughter. Slowly slipping from the height of serial novelizations into trashy erotic fiction writing. Disturbed mentally, to the point of delusion and lack of control. Mikura is headed down a dangerous and dark path when he meets the mysterious Barbara (Fumi Nikaido) asleep in the street and invites her home to use his shower. His impulsiveness leads her to grab his heart and soul in a vice-like grip, as she jumps on his bed and recites French poetry. The spell is temporarily broken when she begins to poke fun at his work, and he kicks her out. Even so, the obsession has already taken hold, and Mikura begins to realize he’d do anything to see her again.
TEZUKA’S BARBARA is seen through the lens of Mikura’s delusion and fantasy, as made apparent when what seems to be a steamy sex scene between a shop girl and Mikura is broken up by Barbara pulling the shop girl limb from limb – as she was only a mannequin the whole time. Mikura sees women everywhere – in his fiance’s silky haired dog, for example. His fantasies are often broken just at the right moment, but when he misses his fiance’s father’s funeral, Mikura’s life dissolves into a bender of booze and Barbara. A turn towards the occult, and Barbara’s eccentric and frightening mother Mnemosyne (Eri Watanabe) accelerate Mikura’s journey into darkness, fueled by love and lust.
Gritty and gruesome, with room for the imagination to soar, TEZUKA’S BARBARA runs wild with the viewer’s mind, just as Barbara runs wild in Mikura’s. His stiff, almost leaden exterior perfectly masks a deeper madness, while her wild, manic pixie dream girl aesthetic hides her simple desires. Mikura could be an interesting character- at least he’s written that way on paper- but Inagaki’s performance leaves something to be desired. Tending to appear one-note and almost apathetic, Inagaki loses the inner madness that drives the heart of this plot. Nikaido gives a solid performance but seems underutilized- appearing more as an object than the subject, with her hair forever perfect and her body immaculately lit. Even the rampant sex scenes, while filmed impeccably – almost like dance or shadow play – come off as somewhat wooden and overly choreographed. For a film entirely predicated on a love story, TEZUKA’S BARBARA lacks the basic human chemistry to make it believable. While they make a perfectly lovely couple, Inagaki and Nikaido lack a believability together that is much less apparent when they’re apart.
TEZUKA’S BARBARA could easily be seen as tasteless- filthy, even – especially as the last act takes a turn into subjects most would find completely taboo. However, perhaps because it’s presented with the graceful style of the original manga, or because these characters are, ultimately, cartoons and not quite people, there’s a filter of fantasy over the entire plot. In spite of mass amounts of nudity and what should be considered disturbing imagery, there is no vulgarity to this film. A reverence for the original source material seems to drive the choices made here – opting for beautiful frames of film over shock value, and honesty over extravagance. Each frame of TEZUKA’S BARBARA is like a painting – beautiful and inaccessible all at once.
Timeless and timely, TEZUKA’S BARBARA reflects deeply on obsession – one man’s quest to keep his muse – and the depths to which the human spirit can drop. While Barbara herself is more of an idea than a woman, she’s presented as fully human – and not the succubus she could so easily become. The film walks a delicate tightrope of eroticism, fantasy, and psychological thrills.