Tezuka’s Barbara (2019) review [CinemAsia Film Festival]

Introduction

More than thirty years after its publication, Osamu Tezuka’s reimaging of Les contes d’Hoffmann, Barbara (1973-74), finally finds its way to the silver screen. Adapted by Hisako Kurosawa, none other then Macoto Tezka takes the helm to bring his father’s most controversial and sexually-charged manga to life.

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Review

One night, famous novelist Yosuke Mikura (Goro Inagaki) finds a drunk and filthy woman surrounded by beer cans in a subway station. Her name is Barbara (Fumi Nikaido [Fly Me To The Saitama (2019]). Surprised by her recital of one of Verlaine’s poems, he decided to take her to his condominium.

Despite all the strange that start to befall Mikura, Barbara’s presence also causes Mikura to re-find his creativity. After becoming intimate with his muse, she surprisingly asks him to marry her. Mikura doesn’t think twice, accepts her proposal, and signs a contract with Barbara’s mother Mnemosyne (Eri Watanabe). Sadly, the wedding is interrupted by the police, due to the meddling of Mikura’s former lover (Minami), and his life, now without his addictive muse, is emptied of any meaning it had acquired.

Barbara - Sub1

Tezuka’s Barbara is a dark erotic psychological fantasy narrative about a writer whose life is suddenly put in disarray by a befuddled and brazen woman. Mikura, our writer, struggles – even though he doesn’t want to admit it – with a creative slump. It is not that Mikura is unable to write, but what he writes amounts to nothing more than cheap and uninspired crowd-pleasing pornographic stories.

It’s Barbara that confronts him with his creative slump and the unconscious fear he harbours about his own oeuvre. Barbara is, at first, nothing other than a disturbing element that sets his unconscious fear of being superficial loose. The sequence where he is seduced by a female fan who praises his oeuvre for being mindless reading and forgettable is nothing but a (fantastical or hallucinatory) visualizing of this fear. But this hallucinatory sequence and other fantastical sequences also underline another element: Mikura’s opportunistic nature. Whenever a woman seductively approaches him, he falls prey to their sexually charged invitations.

But Barbara is also the element that limits Mikura’s erotically charged hallucinations, hallucinations that ever threaten to consume him (Narra-note 1). She re-organizes the disarray she herself has caused. It is, for instance, Barbara that, with a violent intervention, reveals that the seducing female fan was merely a mannequin. Moreover, the presence of Barbara, as untamable as she is, causes Mikura’s creativity to blossom once more. She does not seduces with her sexuality, she seduces with the surges of creativity her presence instigates. Barbara is, in other words, an addictive muse. But does this not lead to another kind of opportunism? Does Mikura love her for who she is or does he need her, like an addict, in order to keep his re-found creativity alive?

Can we not understand Barbara as a sort of succubus? Her presence, by offering her sexuality, starts defining his whole life. Not only does he starts to isolate himself with her in his condominium, the style of the condominium also drastically changes (Narra-note 2). Stylish elegance is exchanged for more trashy pop-art modernism – the signifier that, by infinite repetition, defines this pop-art extravaganza is nothing other than the name Barbara.

Barbara - Sub 2

That Barbara’s sudden disappearance causes a Mikura to fall into a depression marked by auditory hallucinations should not come as a surprise. The loss of this addictive presence that dictated his life makes his life empty and directionless – he can write no longer write anything anymore. Given his depressed state, can he re-find his object of love or of inspiration? Can he, if he succeeds in re-finding her, escape the anger of Barbara’s mother over the failed marriage?

While might feel that the narrative will culminate into a crazy finale, a crazy finale is not what the spectator gets. Instead, the spectator is offered an intimate, psychological, and even slightly disturbing finale. It is a finale that touchingly underlines how Barbara has become a fundamental necessity for Mikura, in order for him to realize a position as a living subject. Is it love? Is it addiction? Love as addiction or as madness? It doesn’t not really matter. Barbara is the one, the finale confirms it, that gives his life sense. But even though Tezuka Barbara’s finale delivers, this dark and twisted finale does not fully realize its budding potential, due to the fact that its preamble – i.e. the sequence framing the impact of Barbara’s absence on Mikura’s mental state – lacks the depth to truly communicate how fundamental Barbara is for his functioning.

What stands out about Tezuka’s Barbara‘s cinematography is its reliance on moments of fixity. These moments are not only used to establish the general visual context of the narrative, i.e. the fact that it takes place in the bustling city of Tokyo, or to visually introduce specific narrative spaces, but also to underline speech-interactions and so on. One could even say that one of the most important instruments in Tezka’s compositional arsenal is this aspect of fixity. But it is not a fixity merely for fixity’s sake. Those spectators with a keen visual sense will quickly realize that this reliance on fixity serves Tezka and Christopher Doyle’s desire to create pleasing visual shot-compositions, shot-compositions that subtly exploits the geometry of the city (Interview-note 1).

Of course, this does not mean that Tezka’s compositions are devoid of cinematographical movement (Cine-note 2). Following movement is generously applied in order to emphasize movements of characters (Cine-note 1). And, in more rare instances, spatial movement is utilized as well, to shift from one character to another for instance. Cinematographical movement is always in function of the characters – Barbara and Mikura in particular. This focus on characters and their interactions, of course,  leads to a more dynamic cinematography, a cinematography that neatly balances moments of fixity with pleasing movement – often within the same shot.

Tezuka's Barbara [Macoto Tezka]

The moody atmosphere of the narrative is, first and foremost, caused by the amazing colour and lightning-design. Each shot is a tapestry of different colours and shades of shadows. Nighttime, for instance, is generally framed with a blend of blues and greens sew together by the ever present shadows. Daytime sequences are, in contrast, painted with a subtle yellowish overlay or with greyish tones.

But the magnificent colour and lighting-design does not only supports the overall atmosphere of Tezuku’s Barbara, but also plays, just like the geometry of the city plays, an important role in creating  visually pleasing shot-compositions. The sequence where the compositional power of colour/lightning is most effectively used is the artful erotic sequence between Mikura and Barbara. But even though this and other erotic sequences are always beautifully visually composed, these sequences lack that something that would make these sequences truly tantalizing for the spectator (Sound-note 1).

A second aspect that plays an essential role in turning Tezuka’s Barbara into an atmospheric mood-piece is the jazzy music, courtesy of Ichiko Hashimoto. But even more than ensuring the moody atmosphere of the narrative, the jazzy musical defines the rhythm of narrative, a rhythm that pleasingly guides the spectator through Mikura’s narrative.

Tezuka’s Barbara is, after all is said and done, a truly enjoyable narrative. With a fine sense of visual composition, Tezka has crafted a beautiful exploration of the addictive side of love. This moody narrative beautifully shows that addictive love, in the end, serves nothing but the egoistic needs of the addicted subject. It is a love that consumes the subject if the love-object is unable to be consummated. That being said, Tezuka’s Barbara does not fully realize its potential. A more tantalizing eroticism and a deeper psychological exploration of Mikura’s subject would have made the narrative into a truly inescapable confrontation with the egoism that characterizes love.

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Notes

Narra-note 1: This aspect underlines that Barbara controls Mikura’s hallucinations. It is by controlling these hallucinations (and causing his creativity to blossom again) that she succeeds in carving a place for herself in Mikura’s life.

Narra-note 2: Barbara, of course, also plays a role in cutting Mikura off from outside world.

Cine-note 1: The first two instances of following movement also reveal the main characters of the narrative. The first instance of following movement reveals Barbara, the second instance reveals Mikura.

Cine-note 2: Shaky framing is sometimes applied as well.

Interview-note 1: Tezka, in response to a question, stated that for Barbara that they did not really use a storyboard, because it did not suit the style of Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer.

Sound-note 1: In our view, it is the approach to sound that has curbed the tantalizing potential of these scenes. An important part of eroticism is function of the sound

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