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Number 1 Shimbun

Obsession, Lust and Corruption in Literary Tokyo




Father to son, page to screen


Writer meets muse on his way downhill
© 2019 Barbara Film Commitee




Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of Japanese comics, began serializing his second adult manga, Barbara, in 1973. His most celebrated work, from Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion onward, had been aimed at adolescents. His mature, more literary content might well raise eyebrows outside Japan, but dark deviations from routine creations were virtually a moral imperative for Japanese artists in the 60s and 70s, as they responded to society’s upheavals.

Loosely inspired by Offenbach’s fantastical The Tales of Hoff- man, in which the muse of poetry demands absolute fealty from a philandering poet, Barbara was a satire on Japan’s literary and political establishments as well as an exploration of the limits of the authorial voice.

It was also sexually charged, supernaturally tinged and more than passing strange. Autobiographical in the Cocteauian sense (“all artists paint their own portraits”), its depiction of a famous author’s gradual descent into debauchery (some of it taboo) and eventual madness could be understood allegorically.



Director Macoto Tezka
© 2019 Barbara Film Commitee


Long considered unfilmable, the controversial erotic manga has now reemerged in a live-action adaptation directed by the author’s own son, Macoto Tezka, with backing from an international team of producers and acclaimed collaborators, including legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love, They Say Nothing Stays the Same).

Tezuka’s Barbara follows bestselling erotic fiction writer Yosuke Mikura, played by former SMAP superstar Goro Inagaki with world-weary panache. He prowls the backstreets of late-night Shinjuku in sunglasses, going downhill fast in a failed effort to carouse away his own creative bankruptcy. Despite standing at the pinnacle of literary success, with groupies and fawning politicians to prove it, Mikura has become a slave to crippling sexual perversions, leading to peculiar encounters with animals and inanimate objects whom he hallucinates into women.



Barbara, bemused in Mnemosyne's lair
© 2019 Barbara Film Commitee


Rescue seems to arrive in the form of a belligerent, unkempt young woman named Barbara (Fumi Nikaido), whose ministrations — alternately tender and insulting — promise to jolt Mikura out of writer’s block. But when Mikura’s suspicion that Barbara is an actual muse is confirmed (her mother is named Mnemosyne, after all), he drifts further into even darker territory, and is soon testing the extremes of depravity.

Making his mark

Macoto Tezka started mounting this sensual, phantasmagorical reimagining of his father’s story in 2018 to celebrate what would have been the legendary figure’s 90th anniversary. A visual artist in his own right, Tezka made an early mark with his debut feature, The Legend of the Stardust Brothers. He has continued to create films in every genre while also serving as the caretaker of his father’s legacy (a staggering 700 manga volumes and 60 animated works).

He has said that he first read “Barbara” as a young lad, and that it made a deep impression on him. But while he had adapted other Tezuka work in anime form (most notably Black Jack), the decision to bring “Barbara” to life came only after he felt confident that he could imbue it with his own vision of his father’s primary concerns.

As Tezka told an audience after the film’s world premiere at the 2019 Tokyo International Film Festival, “I think there are many similarities between [the setting of the manga in 1973] and now, such as the increasing wealth gap and the public’s frustration toward the government. The manga is a good fit for our modern times.”

Join the Film Committee on Tuesday, November 17 at 7:00 pm for a sneak preview of Tezuka’s Barbara (ばるぼら). The director will be on hand for the Q&A session. (Japan, 2019, 100 minutes. In Japanese with English subtitles).

Karen Severns is a writer, educator and film programmer. She has chaired the FCCJ Film Committee since 2009.

Published in: November 2020

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