Tezuka's Barbara

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/27/20 08:24:37

"Do not abuse your muse."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED VIA THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: After some nifty animated titles, "Tezuka's Barbara" opens with a gorgeous blue-tinged view of Tokyo courtesy of Christopher Doyle, a jazzy soundtrack from Ichiko Hashimoto, and a great noirish bit of narration that screenwriter Hisako Kurosawa may or may not have brought over straight from manga/anime legend Osamu Tezuka's original work. It's an incredibly promising start for a film that winds up a bit all over the place, but at least that seems to be in the tradition of the original graphic novel and maybe this handles it a bit better.

"A woman like the city's excrement of millions it swallowed and digested - that was Barbara." She's a homeless girl that writer Yosuke Mikura (Goro Inagaki) encounters on the way home one evening, taking an interest as she drunkenly recites poetry and says she's heard of him, although she's blunt about how the novels that have made him rich are simple, middlebrow literature at best. He kicks her out after she gets mouthier and starts drinking his 50-year-old single malt, but soon encounters her again. He should perhaps be wary - as he grows more obsessed, Barbara (Fumi Nikaido) seems to supernaturally eliminate those she considers threats, and he's not the first person to have seen her as a muse.

Though manga-ka Osamu Tezuka created a number of more adult-skewing works, he is likely best known as the creator of Astro Boy, and even his more horrific works share that strikingly clean style, while son Macoto's films have often been grimy, noirish things. Macoto has said that Barbara was the piece of his father's work he feels most in sync with artistically, but bridging the two visions takes a fair amount of work. Happily, the filmmakers have put together a really terrific crew to make it happen, with Doyle (and Kubbie Tsoi) contributing beautiful shots that nevertheless feel icy, a mood matched by Hashimoto's soundtrack that feels like it harkens back to a different period's sort of movie. The production design departments along with costume, makeup, and the like create striking looks that are heightened but just far enough that it's easy to slip in and out of the more apparently fantastical moments. It's not perfect - there's one character where the attempt to capture her hairstyle or headwear had me thinking "what is that?" whenever she was on screen - but it's an impressive job of adapting someone whose style was not designed for live action in the slightest.

(Apropos of nothing, the English-language posters which have the names of the father and son side-by-side transliterate them differently, "Osamu Tezuka" versus "Macoto Tezka", whether to downplay the family connection or heighten how the son is noteworthy on his own.)

That combination of reality and unreality goes for more than just the visuals; the movie at times seems to ask the audience to speculate on whether Barbara is real or not - two of her earliest appearances come during moments that establish Mikura as an especially unreliable narrator where sex and women are involved - but though the filmmakers plant this idea in the audience's head, they are smart enough to not go all-in on this as a big reveal that locks the film in as one thing or another. Barbara could be a figment of Mikura's imagination, she could be an actual muse, or she could be a homeless girl nevertheless smart enough to have insight on what is and isn't good writing that Mikura recasts as something else. Tezka and Kurosawa instead do a nifty magic trick here, keeping the mystery of Barbara front and center while one should arguably be looking at Mikura breaking down from his envy of a friend already being canonized as a great writer and belief that his own work is commercial pap, but do so in a way that makes it fit together.

The two top-notch leads go a long way to making it work. Goro Inagaki spends the entire movie walking around as someone who is able to be superficially cool so without effort that the rage and jealousy underneath cannot easily break through - even behind dark glasses he projects a certain self-loathing or fear, occasionally becoming a treed animal. There's something identifiable about him wandering into Barbara's weird world that doesn't quite register as sympathetic, something small. Fumi Nikaido, on the other hand, does good work without ever being given the chance to wink at the camera and assure the audience that Barbara is better than the mess she's presented as. She staggers about but never feels clumsy or like she's faking, and projects a sort of charisma that never quite leaves the muck where Mikura found her. She's got a casual sort of intelligence and just enough scorn to be confounding

There's a nice supporting cast, too, filling in the smaller roles with the same sort of targeted skill seen with all the behind-the-scenes crew. There are times when one can see some tension between the styles of father and son, or issues with the mostly-successful effort to update a 45-year-old work into something contemporary, but overall, this is a smart and sexy thriller that seldom makes more interesting choices than one might expect.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.