Runtime: 99 Minutes
Director/Writer: Makoto Tezuka, Hisako Kurosawa (based on the manga of the same name by Osamu Tezuka)
Stars: Goro Inagaki, Fumi Nikaido, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Shizuka Ishibashi, Eri Watanabe, Minami, Ryosuke Otani, Moemi Katagayam, Issay
By Harris DangWhen this reviewer heard of the latest project “Tezuka’s Barbara” (2019) from filmmaker Makoto Tezuka, he was ecstatic. With such talents like star actress Fumi Nikaido, acclaimed cinematographer Christopher Doyle and film producer Adam Torel (best known for establishing Third Window Films), it sent this reviewer into hysterics. The source material that the film is based on was not familiar to this reviewer (although images were seen for context) but it hinted themes that could be appealingly cinematic. With heavy leanings to film noir, the occult, psychological horror, the creative process and human obsession; all portrayed by the fact that the author’s son is directing the adaptation of his father’s work, it sounds very promising. Will “Tezuka’s Barbara” live up to its promise with its allure and mystique? Set in modern-day Tokyo, Goro Inagaki stars as Yosuke Mikura, an acclaimed author who is stuck in a creative rut; struggling to write his next novel. One night while having a stroll in Tokyo, he spots a disheveled woman Barbara (Fumi Nikaido) lying on the floor in the tunnel of a subway station. The two share an affinity for poetry and Mikura decides to take her in his apartment for her to freshen up. But there is something peculiar about her through Mikura’s eyes. For all of her brash behaviour and drunken antics, there is something about her that attracts Mikura. Figuring that she was just a one-off experience, Mikura goes on with his life but he has moments where he has difficulty separating fantasy from reality; particularly in his terms of lust towards women. But during those difficult (and surreal) moments of frivolity, Barbara is always serendipitously present to help him out of a jam. The two then become intimate as Barbara energizes Mikura’s drive to write while Mikura arouses Barbara’s spice for life. But there is something strange and peculiar about Barbara underneath her peppy persona that Mikura cannot quite shake off. You know that wonderful feeling that you get when you witness a story unfold and it upends your expectations in such a way that it you feel a sense of exhilaration and surprise? That is what this reviewer felt as he watched “Tezuka’s Barbara”. Director Tezuka has made films that border on stylistic and surreal; particularly with his debut bonkers musical “The Legend of the Stardust Brothers” (1985) and the mystery crime thriller pastiche “Black Kiss” (2004). In the case of his latest project, it comes to no surprise that of all of his father’s stories to adapt, he chose the 1970’s manga Barbara. The storytelling in the film becomes unpredictable as it innately switches gears as it goes from being a starving-artist narrative to a mystery involving occult occurrences and surreal dreams and finally an on-the-run story that climaxes into something truly disturbing. While the genre bifurcation is considered common in the medium of manga, how it plays out in the medium of film is quite different and the result could have been disastrous.
“The lead couple feed off of each other till it reaches its disturbing climax that is truly fitting of both their character arcs.”Thankfully, director Tezuka and screenwriter Hisako Kurosawa manage to ground the proceedings by keeping the film’s focus on the love story but there is one crucial element that they never let fly over their heads. That certain element is that they are adapting a manga for the big screen, which essentially means that they are not bound to aim for verisimilitude, which makes the story more offbeat and less pretentious than it could have been. The off-kilter score by Ichiko Hashimoto — which primarily consists of Jazz — certainly adds power to the unruly storytelling. The mise-en-scène is strikingly unnatural as the filmmakers aim for a dreamy, hazy atmosphere where nothing is as it seems. Aided by cinematographers Christopher Doyle (who is best known for his visual style where few colours from realism exist) and Kubbie Tsoi as well as the in-tune supporting cast, Tezuka manages to stage the look convincingly, which adds substantial credence to the unstable mindset of Mikura; especially in his difficulty in discerning what is real and what is a dream. The film takes its time in building up the inevitable union between Mikura and Barbara. There are nightmarish scenes where Mikura lusts over women i.e when he meets a woman at a fashion outlet that hints S&M or a woman at a meeting that ends up in a forest that hints bestiality.
“Tezuka’s Barbara” is a wonderfully strange, sensual and eerie love story that takes a depraved look into what constitutes as love.”Those scenes hint at the psychology of Mikura as he shows deep resentment of women and yet has a longing dependency on them, treating them as vessels; a way of coping his own deep-seated emotions. But it rarely comes across as leering or prurient (bar the scene where the lead pair consummate). But it is not always a two-way street as it is revealed that Barbara herself is also looking for a way out of her institutionalised box she is trapped in. The lead couple feed off of each other till it reaches its disturbing climax that is truly fitting of both their character arcs.
As for the work of our two acting leads, Inagaki’s performance is nothing to brag about since he plays his character with a stoic temperament that comes across more as aloof rather than tortured. That said, he is quite effective when his character is allowed to be more unhinged as the film goes along. The real standout of the film is Barbara herself, played by Nikaido. Clearly fashioned and embodied by the look of French starlets of the 1960’s (complete with blonde hair), Nikaido brings vitality and allure to her role, truly making Barbara a manga character come to life. Overall, “Tezuka’s Barbara” is a wonderfully strange, sensual and eerie love story that takes a depraved look into what constitutes as love and how one can incorrectly or deliberately construe it as something else entirely. Recommended.
“Tezuka’s Barbara” will be showing at Fantasia Film Festival from 20th August to 2nd September.