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Osamu Tezuka's Barbara And The Darker Side Of The God Of Manga

It has been said that the reason Japan has such a unique comics and animation industry is that they had Osamu Tezuka and all the other countries didn't. The man they call The God Of Manga (or sometimes The Godfather of Manga) is best known in the English-speaking world as the creator of Astro Boy and Kimba The White Lion but that was only a tiny fraction of his work. Westerners often labelled him the 'Disney Of Japan' (long before that title was ever attributed to Hayao Miyazaki) but it really doesn't even begin to cover it. Tezuka revolutionised Japanese comics, bringing a cinematic style of storytelling influenced by the Hollywood movies he adored. A couple of decades later he did the same for animation. Techniques he developed to save money on Astro Boy (adapted from his own manga series) essentially gave birth to anime as we know it today.

In a career spanning four decades, Tezuka was highly prolific, producing more than 700 volumes and drawing more than 150,000 pages.  His first work in animation was storyboarding Toei's adaptation of his Saiyuki manga ('Journey To The West') but after not enjoying working on the 1959 film, he founded his own studio Mushi Pro. As well as TV series and movies (many based on his own manga) Tezuka also produced more experimental shorts throughout his career. 

Tezuka's restless imagination lead him to produce works of massive variety in all genres. His most iconic early works were for children but his creativity wasn't restricted to kids comics. While often an innovator, he also wasn't afraid to follow trends. Princess Knight was an early work in the Shojo cannon (literally 'girls comics') and he moved into more mature work following the Gekigia boom- "dramatic pictures" aimed at adult audiences.

Although he'll be forever associated with a wide-eyed, rocket-powered, robot Pinnochio, Tezuka created a lot of much darker more mature material. Heck, even Astro Boy (known in Japan as The Mighty Atom) was hardly all sunshine and rainbows, featuring as it does a grief-racked scientist who creates a robot to replace his dead child. But his works took a particular turn into dark themes and shocking events during what is referred to by Tezuka aficionados as his 'Dark Period', in the late 1960s and '70s.

Asian film specialist Third Window has recently released the live-action film Tezuka's Barbara on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital in the UK. The 2020 drama was adapted from Tezuka's 1973 manga of the same name and was directed by the author's son Macoto Tezka (that's not a typo). Tezka's career has seen him work in both animation and live-action and has also been involved in several animated adaptations of his father's works made after his death.

Barbara was definitely among Tezuka's most grown-up works, created at the height of the Dark Period. The main character was Yosuke Mikura, a highly successful novelist, whose fame has won him legions of female fans. However, beneath the surface, he hides secret, crippling sexual perversions that threaten to make his life spiral out of control.

Until that is, he encounters a captivating and beautiful woman named Barbara. But as the two grow closer Mikura begins to suspect that Barbara is not all that she seems- and may not even be human.

The manga had previously been described as 'unfilmable' but if anyone was going to give it a go, who better than the son of the original creator? Macoto enlisted the internationally acclaimed Christopher Doyle, the Australian born cinematographer, best known for his collaborations with Wong Kar Wai (including Chungking Express, In The Mood For Love and 2046) and Director Of Photography on Zgang Yimou's global hit wushu Hero. With Doyle on board, it was sure that the film would be visually impressive at least.

Barbara shares certain similarities with some of Doyle's work with Kar Wai, in that it has a dreamlike quality to it. It begins to lean more towards the nightmarish though as Mikura's grip on reality begins to loosen. The film shows contemporary Tokyo through a noirish lense, all backed up by a jazzy soundtrack. It shows us a side of the Japanese capital rarely seen on screen, as Mikura (played by 13 Assassins star Goro Inagaki) wanders the backstreets, full of vagrants, drunks, prostitutes and sleazy bars and strip clubs.

It's in such a backstreet that he encounters the enigmatic Barbara for the first time. To a casual observer, she appears to be another drunk on the street but when Mikura hears her quote 19th-century French poet Paul Verlaine he realises she is not what she appears and he takes her home to get cleaned up. Barbara is played by Fumi Nikaido ( Why Don't You Play In Hell?) sporting a natty wig and somehow looking more improbably glamorous in a dirty mac than anyone has ever before. Nikaido brilliantly brings Barbara to radiant but unpredictable life, so that the audience will easily understand why Mikura is so drawn to her. Which is just as well, as the sullen and taciturn author is not exactly a likeable protagonist. 

The film does not skimp on the sexual content (there's enough to easily earn an 18 certificate from the BBFC) but much like the manga that inspired it, it is much closer to art-house than B-movie smut. The movie version also leaves open questions that are answered in the manga and is more open to interpretation. Babara's true nature is never explicitly explained and there are questions over how reliable a narrator Mikura really is. It feels equally likely that it's all in his head and Barbara doesn't really exist than there is a real supernatural explanation.

Macoto's film was actually the second to be adapted from his father's Dark Period. Before that came the live-action adaptation of MW (pronounced 'mu'), which is quite possibly the darkest of all his manga. The series and film alike focus on a charismatic serial killer and his tortured Catholic Priest lover. The ultimate revelation of the origin of their relationship and what makes killer Michiko Yuki into the monster he became is about as dark as it gets and incredibly disturbing. Like much of Tezuka's darker works it also has thematic or story connections to World War II, the trauma of which would affect much of his work. 

As well as violence, sex of various kinds and nudity, Tezuka explored much more complex themes and explored the darker side of humanity in this period of his manga. The artwork is also different from his more light-hearted manga, leaning more towards realism than the more cartoony Disney-influenced look of his earlier work.

Tezuka also explored more adult material in animation. At that time, there wasn't really such a thing as adult anime on TV so to do this he had to turn to movies. Tezuka began a film series called Animerama to produce anime movies for adults.

Not only were they unique for featuring adult themes and sexuality that was uncommon in animation at the time, but they also showed Tezuka and Mushi Pro at their most experimental. The films feature a variety of techniques and styles (with varying levels of success) often used to try and cover up the relative lack of a budget. Despite never really catching on with the audience in a major way, Animerama did last for a full trilogy.

The first, 1969's A Thousand And One Nights was a retelling of the classic Arabian folk stories, reintroducing the erotic elements from the originals that have been omitted from most western versions. This was followed up by 1970's Cleopatra, an odd-ball erotic fictionalised biopic based on the infamous Egyptian Queen (with an unexpected sci-fi angle). The latter was unsuccessfully marketed in the US as the first-ever X-Rated animated movie under the title of Cleopatra: Queen Of Sex. 

These two movies have also been released in the UK as a collector's double-pack by Third Window Films (read our review here) and separately by Discotek Media in the United States. From a 21st century perspective, it's hard to call the movies "good" exactly, but as a historical artefact and curiosities, they're fascinating. Brilliantly insightful commentaries by Helen McCarthy, anime scholar, author of the Art of Osamu Tezuka and co-author of The Anime Encyclopedia make them worth seeking out for animation historians.

The best known Animerama movie was the final one, 1973's Belladonna Of Sadness. Although produced by Mushi Pro, it was made without Tezuka's involvement, with him having left in 1971 to focus on his manga. Although not wildly successful at the time, in the decades since it has gained notoriety and cult status

Tezuka did not stay engrossed in the more adults-only side for that long, and the Dark Period gradually came to an end and he never returned to it in animation. It would only be years after his death that any of his mature works would be adapted in live-action or anime. But although moving away from the grimmest of material, it also influenced the latter stage of his career to be able to tell more serious and mature stories without going as far into "Adult" territory.  Some of these works such as Buddha, Message to Adolf and Black Jack are considered to be among his very best.

Success in English for Tezuka (beyond Astro and Kimba) was a long time coming, but eventually saw his work gain plaudits and awards decades after his passing. Western anime and manga fans have often looked down their nose at Tezuka's work seeing it as too old-fashioned and cartoonish, and the success of English editions of his manga have actually been driven more by western comics fans.  But with his work spanning so many genres and audiences, it's indisputable what an important role he played in the history of both comics and animation in Japan and around the world. 

If you've always avoided Tezuka's work for being too cutesie, you'll discover there's a whole other side of the Manga no Kami-sama waiting to be explored.