Review: Tezuka’s Barbara

Macoto Tezka’s live action movie version of his father Osamu Tezuka’s early 70s adult manga combines pastiche and originality in a way that’s dramatically stimulating without being particularly memorable. The original comic’s outrageousness was a function of its time and the author’s fanciful imagination, and while Tezka knows this material inside-out and possesses his own imaginative gifts, he seems conflicted as to how this story and its characters speak to a contemporary audience. The setting is a Shinjuku that seems pretty up-to-date, but the main character, a famous novelist named Mikura (Goro Inagaki), still seems to live in the 70s, with a freighted male personality to match. At first, I was reminded of Robert Altman’s 1973 tribute to Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye, which directly inserted the late 40s version of private eye Philip Marlowe, complete with rumpled suit, chain-smoking habit, and wise-cracking attitude, into the Me Decade, which he couldn’t handle at all. But Tezka isn’t as interested in critiquing his father’s artistic sensibility as he is in showboating the attendant style. Altman showed how genuinely pathetic an ostensibly noble man like Marlowe was when removed from his natural context, but the post-millennial Mikura simply comes across as an anachronism: the hard-drinking, sexually dissipated, artistically self-obsessed writer who was once a kind of icon, especially in Japan. (Supposedly, he’s based on the hero of Tales of Hoffman) He’s Tanizaki with the coolest collection of vinyl in town; Dazai, but with the suicidal romanticism dialed down a notch.

As such, Mikuro requires a female muse, and he discovers the blonde Barbara (Fumi Nikaido) drunk on the streets of Kabukicho and invites her back to his pad to take a shower. Though Barbara, who can drink Mikura under the table while quoting Baudelaire, turns out to be a handful, to use a sexist term from the period the movie references, they become a kind of item, even while Mikura is half-heartedly engaged to the daughter of a powerful man. To his credit, Tezuka senior didn’t steer the story into James Cain territory, to which it was naturally headed, but rather kept subverting the natural flow of the plot into weirder and weirder spaces. Tezka follows him there with mixed results. Mikura’s life trajectory from literary lion to hack to political operative is upended by his obsession with Barbara, who, it turns out, may or may not have supernatural powers (a lot of the kinky fantasy stuff might only be Mikura’s mind breaking down) but in any event the relationship veers off on a highway to hell whose destination is shocking in theory but, thanks mainly to Christopher Doyle’s (and, in some spots, Tsoi Kubbie’s) expressionistic cinematography, merely interesting in practice. 

The ringer, at least for me, is Inagaki, whose one-time image as the member of boy band SMAP with the smallest reserve of artistic resources is difficult to shake. Seeing him naked and involved in fairly explicit sex scenes, all I can wonder is how his loyal fan base will react. Given that he’s a middle aged free agent now, I imagine those who are still with him approve highly. Whatever its value as a creative artifact, Tezuka’s Barbara is decidedly an art house movie. But like its star’s uncharacteristic turn as a literary bad boy, the film itself is more of a curiosity than anything else. 

In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku, Euro Space Shibuya.

Tezuka’s Barbara home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Barubora Seisaku Iinkai

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