Review by Sean Boelman
Based on one of the more obscure works of the Godfather of Manga, Osamu Tezuka, Tezuka’s Barbara is a stylish psychosexual neo-noir, and it’s almost certainly going to catch its viewers off-guard. Bizarre but thought-provoking, there are certainly elements here that don’t work, but plenty enough that do to make it an intriguing watch.
The film follows an author who encounters a mysterious woman on the street and forms a dangerous obsession with her. And while this sounds like a simple premise, the script in reality is anything but. There are layers on top of layers that make things get extremely weird very quickly. And like the protagonist, viewers will be questioning their own sanity by the time the credits roll.
Ultimately, the most compelling element of the story is the mystery as to who (or what) the eponymous temptress actually is, and screenwriter Hisako Kurosawa reveals his hand a bit too early. Because of this, the first hour or so is really alluring and hooks the viewer in, only for the final act to drag.
Of course, as is the case with most erotic thriller-type films, there is a message here about the dangers of obsession. But what makes this take on the genre so interesting is that it specifically focuses on the idea of a muse and how not only the artist, but their work is affected by this spiraling rabbit hole down which the protagonist falls.
The character development does leave something to be desired. Those who have embarked on a creative endeavor and identify with the protagonist will undoubtedly sympathize with his plight, but general audiences may find him difficult to approach. Although the noir protagonist is traditionally flawed, he’s almost too flawed to get behind.
Perhaps the absolute highlight of the film is Fumi Nikaido’s performance as Barbara. It’s a very complex role, and yet she tackles it with ease. The range that it requires alone is thoroughly impressive and is a big part of what sells the film’s emotion. Her chemistry with co-star Gorô Inagaki is great as well, although Nikaido almost always takes the spotlight.
Aesthetically, the film is quite good. The fact that it was directed by Tezuka’s son, Makoto, means that there was a lot of effort put into preserving the vision of the original work. The legendary Christopher Doyle served as cinematographer for the film and gives it an excellent look. Ichiko Hashimoto’s score also does an excellent job of recreating the noir feel.
Tezuka’s Barbara is unlikely to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s impossible to deny that it is a unique experience. For those willing to try something that pushes the envelope, this could be very interesting.
Tezuka’s Barbara screened as a part of the virtual edition of the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, which runs August 20-September 2. An encore screening (geoblocked to Canada) occurs on August 28 at 5pm.