It’s a familiar set-up of romances and fairytales: boy meets girl and falls madly in love. He can’t get her out of his head and finds himself drawn into her life and out of his shell in his sensuous obsession. Except here, perhaps our meet-cute is a little less dreamy: the boy, in this case, Yosuke Mikura (Goro Inagaki), is a washed-up writer wallowing in self-pity, and the girl, Barbara (Fumi Nikaido), is a grimy and boozed-up enigma he encounters stumbling through the underground of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station. When they meet, both are less blinded by love and more bleary-eyed by their substances of choice. But as soon as Yosuke brings Barbara home, she unleashes a hurricane of sexuality and weirdness into his world.
This dark erotic drama is a jazzy and jaunty adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s adult manga Barbara. Spearheaded by the artist’s anime director son Macoto, the film is a celebration of Tezuka’s imagination, taking a gritty and exhilarating look at the deranged in this unusually dark work.
In Barbara, Yosuke finds a potential muse to lift him out of his malt whiskey-drowned moodiness. He searches for someone to love, as well as someone to love him and love his writing, dreaming not only of sexual fulfillment but artistic praise and endless admiration. The romance between the leads is a slow burn — filled with exposed skin, lusty looks, languid sex scenes, and lurid encounters. The jazzy score from Ichiko Hashimoto is loaded with moaning and wailing trumpets, perfectly matching the mood of the story and capturing the fumbling eroticism of a twisted-up romance.
The course of this turbulent affair does not run smoothly, and it doesn’t help that Yosuke is self-pitying and self-absorbed while Barbara is erratic and eccentric. The basic set-up of a meeting of tortured souls draws on mystery and film noir tropes, yet quickly enough, the story grows increasingly ludicrous, taking sudden turns toward the psychotic and supernatural. Scantily-clad voodoo rituals, occult explorations, black magic, and blood oaths all find their way into the film. If that’s not enough jolt to the imagination to spur on Yosuke’s writing, nothing is.
The narrative can be a bit scattered as it spills out from the mind and onto the Tokyo streets, with not much of its spooky sexiness being earned by the plot. While the pair play off one another well, the characters can occasionally appear as cartoonish cliches, and not just in the sense that they are drawn from a manga: Yosuke comes across as a caricature of the depressed and lonely writer who swills whiskey and wears sunglasses indoors, while Barbara is a feisty femme fatale who can seem flat. For all the exposed skin, the leads do not feel fully fleshed out, and the depths of their personas remain shrouded in darkness and lost amongst the outrageous outbursts in the story.
Osamu Tezuka, considered by many to be a patron saint of manga, garnered a reputation as a genre-busting and technique-pioneering artist and animator, paving new ground for the types of stories manga could tell — which we see on clear display in the explicitness of Barbara. It should be noted that Macoto Tezuka does a noble job of trying to translate his father’s imagination to the screen, which can’t be an easy task. Even if he doesn’t unpack all the meaning in the work, he handles the content with affection and care, while Christopher Doyle — credited for the cinematography along with Tsoi Kubbie — brings the cult-favorite animator’s images to life in all their raunchiness. Yet perhaps some things are indeed lost in translation from manga to movie — or some characters are not meant to be seen in more than two dimensions.