Story & Art: Osamu Tezuka
Translation/Adaptation: Ben Applegate
What They Say:
Wandering the packed tunnels of Shinjuku Station, famous author Yosuke Mikura makes a strange discover: a ragged hippie who can quote French poetry. Her name is Barbara. He takes her home for a bath and a drink, and before long Barbara has made herself into Mikura’s shadow, saving him from egotistical delusions and jealous enemies.
But just as Mikura is no saint, Barbara is no guardian angel, and Mikura grows obsessed with discovering her secrets, tangling with thungs, sadists, magical curses and mythical beings – all the while wondering whether he himself is still sane.
Written in 1973 and 1974 and inspired by the classic opera Tales of Hoffman by Jacques Offerbach, Barbara may be Tezuka’s most psychological and unsettling work, shattering the fine line between art and madness with masterful precision.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
I usually reserve the first few paragraphs to a background about what I’m reviewing, to give a context to those who watched or read it and want it. I’m also a fan of the historical or production tidbits that I scour Wikipedia for. But at the beginning of Barbara, there’s an amazing essay that describes the culture of Japan around 1973 and 1974 when Barbara was published. I implore you to read that instead of whatever I would come up with. So let’s get right to it.
The first two chapters of Barbara present the two characters, Yosuke Mikura and the titular Barbara, and their especially strange relationship. Prior to this, I’ve read MW, Apollo’s Song, and Princess Knight from Tezuka and I can safely say within two chapters that this is a diversion from those three in terms of tone.
Mikura is insatiably curious about Barbara. He wants to write about her, but can’t find the inspiration nor time to do so—largely because he’s trying to deal with Barbara’s own mischief. But what Barbara really does well is keep Mikura grounded in a world he thinks he has control of. Because Mikura, in the first two chapters, is hallucinating. He believes that he’s with a woman when he’s not. He’s first talking to a mannequin and then a dog. But he’s convinced and Tezuka, the master storyteller, weaves the mystery so convincingly that you’re none the wiser.
Barbara is the relationship that you have with liquor and Mikura’s stupor through the first two chapters exemplifies that. She’s intoxicating, yet every time you drink, you feel like you’re alive and snap back into the very reality that you’re escaping from. At least, that’s the way it is, seemingly, from the alcoholic’s point of view. It’s exemplified when Barbara saves Mikura from making love with a mannequin and a dog. She essentially drove him to these acts with hallucinations—a representation of what we want to see out of the world. But she’s the one that picks him back up. And, like an addict of the weirdest sort, she disappears after both of these incidents and reappears. Like a promise not kept after a particularly bad night.
The pace picks up when an old friend of Mikura’s, Russalka, comes to visit Japan. He’s of some sort of French descent and he’s a controversial political figure with whole bunches of bad folks following him. During their journey, they get chased by people trying to kill Russalka and end up at a crappy antique shop that’s owned by Barbara’s mother, Mnemosyne. As in Mnemosyne that birthed nine muses in Greek mythology. It sets up Barbara as something more than just a drunkard and freeloader. She previously stayed with Russalka and was HIS muse, but she was black back then and not a drunkard. As Russalka says, muses appear in the form best suited for the author.
Barbara does serve as the muse for Mikura and he writes an entire novel with a main character based on her, playing the same role to the central character that Barbara does to Mikura. Mikura plans to kill his main character in the novel and is advised against it by a fortune teller in an alleyway. He says that the main character will parallel Mikura’s life and if the main character dies, he will too. Whether Mikura heeds this warning isn’t explicitly state immediately, but it’s clear that he’s going to ignore it. His book goes to print and sells gangbusters, plus a TV drama is on the way! A man who looks just like Mikura is brought on to be Mikura’s double. Barbara’s idea, to allow Mikura to focus on writing. The double takes over his life, basically, and Mikura wonders who the double really is. He even goes off to marry Kai’s daughter, a godsend in disguise as far as Mikura is concerned.
Things move right along after Mikura writes his next book. He promises to marry Barbara after writing it and the ceremony, some kind of demonic ceremony, move along just as smoothly as writing. The ceremony only further confirms that Barbara is some kind of voodoo magician or a witch or something, after she seemingly killed two of Mikura’s acquaintances by voodoo.
The ceremony goes awry when it’s raided by the police. Mikura told Kai about the marriage and he leaked it to the media. Everything goes downhill for Mikura. The book he just finished was turned down, he can only get third-rate magazines to publish anything he writes, and he’ll probably never have a major publishing deal again. Worst of all, Barbara’s gone. But he goes searching. He looks at that same place that same pillar at the station and nothing. But Tsutsui, his witness at the wedding, calls him and tells him that Barbara’s been sighted at Umeda Station. Mikura rushes there and finds here, but she doesn’t remember anything about him and she’s speaking with a different accent (I assume an Osaka dialect? It’s translated as sort of southern). He pays her 100,000 yen to sleep with him, but just as a ruse to get alone with her. Now, it appears that she’s a muse to someone else now, a fan of Yosuke Mikura the author.
All Mikura can do is convince himself that the girl he just saw literally spreading her legs and selling herself to him is not Barbara.
But Mikura goes kind of crazy. Its six years after Barbara left him and he’s married to the politicians daughter, the one who Barbara performed voodoo magic on. They’ve got a kid and it seems like they’ve managed to get by on savings and odd writing jobs here and there.
Mikura actually gets sent to a mental institution after he finds Barbara again—now in the hands of a painter and still going by the name Dolmen—and strangles her to death. In the institution, he meets Mnemosyne again, who says that she’s revived Barbara. But Barbara doesn’t want to see him again “until the end of time.” Mnemosyne even says that his “indecency surpasses even Russalka’s.”
Meeting the leader of Mnemosyne and Barbara’s cult, he’s warned to stay away from Barbara. But he follows Mnemosyne out of the mental institution anyway, a courtesy for the sake of a pitiable man. In the end, he lives out his final days with Barbara, seemingly dying in a house fire.
Mnemosyne shows up and saves both Barbara and Mikura, but his memories are gone and he lives out his days as an old man.
I love Tezuka as an author and artist. I loved Apollo’s Song, MW, and Princess Knight but I just could not get into Barbara. I enjoyed Fred Schodt’s essay at the beginning immensely more than the experience of reading the book. The metaphor of muse to author was executed quite masterfully and, the entire time, I was saying to myself, “Well, this is certainly something of quality but I’m simply not enjoying it.” Had it not been for the obligation to write this review, I likely would have put it onto my bookshelf and forgotten about it. Maybe I’ll revisit it years from now and like it, but it’s just left me with nothing much to say about it other than it is good, but not my thing.
Content Grade: B
Art Grade: A
Text/Translation Grade: A-
Age Rating: 18+
Released By: Digital Manga Publishing
Release Date: September 12, 2012