Like many manga artists, Osamu Tezuka is enjoyed in the U.S. mainly for his lighthearted fare. And once artists become known for one genre or another, it becomes exceedingly difficult to publish others of their works that don’t exactly fall into that widely accepted category.
Barbara is one of those Tezuka works that U.S. publisher DMP wanted to take a chance on. So using the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, the company garnered a good bit of support to bring out the 430-page manga in English.
After I finished the book, it was easy to see why DMP needed to go the crowdfunding route. On the back cover, the description reads, in part, “Barbara may be Tezuka’s most psychological and unsettling work, shattering the fine line between art and madness with masterful precision.”
Short response: It is.
I must admit I am not familiar with the bulk of Tezuka’s work. I did watch Metropolis, the feature-length anime based on one of his more serious stories, and is a movie I didn’t particularly care for. I also know he’s done Astro Boy and Atom Cat and Unico and Black Jack, and if those are any yardsticks to measure Tezuka by, then Barbara is certainly a wide deviation from his norm. To give you an idea of how unique this manga is, DMP even released a separate digital companion to Kickstarter backers with an essay dissecting the work, as well as a foreword in the actual book explaining briefly the political and social situation in Japan at the time the manga was originally serialized.
Barbara tells of a famous writer, Yosuke Mikura, who comes across the title character in Shinjuku station. The woman is a stinky, dirty alcoholic, but something about her prompts Mikura to take her home with him. She decides that his apartment isn’t such a bad place to hang out, so she settles in and makes herself at home — especially with the liquor cabinet.
Over the course of the book we see the ups and downs of their strange relationship and the many times Mikura kicks her out for her slovenly ways, then just as readily accepts her back when she predictably shows up at his door again. Even he can’t explain why he doesn’t give her the boot, considering all the times she’s messed something up or how much she’s costing him.
The manga is psychologically interesting at first as it delves into the queer mind of Mikura. From the beginning, he can’t seem to distinguish between one thing and another, which leads to several bizarre but not completely unexpected twists — most times Tezuka cleverly provides hints that could point one way or the other depending on how he would have wanted the story to end, or even could have left the ending wide open to discussion. Other times, Tezuka leaves things blatantly ambiguous. It’s certainly not a new plot device, but it’s always highly effective in dealing that mental blow to the reader.
But then Mikura’s obsessions coalesce and center on Barbara, and the manga starts getting less interesting and more just simply crazy. It all comes to a Matrix-like ending that is expectedly a bit sad, but satisfying.
It’s the roller-coaster feeling of Mikura and Barbara’s relationship, and of Mikura’s life overall, that makes this manga difficult to enjoy. And that’s not even including the famed author’s psychotic-ness in general, with or without Barbara. Many chapters are the same: They start off with a seemingly normal (or at least tangible) situation, then devolve into an insanity that eventually bursts, leaving Mikura to deal with the shock of returning to reality … or with the haunting realization that he does not know what the reality is.
Add in the drunkard’s aggravating personality and deeds that would drive even a saint to slap her upside the head as Mikura often does, and you have a story that’s so peculiar that it takes great effort to keep reading — but at the same time, it drives you to continue on to the end.
Mikura is obviously a tragic character, one for whom a kind of happiness (and perhaps even a bit of sanity) seems as though it could be within reach but then slips from his grasp, one who struggles constantly to chase his desires but never achieves them. And Barbara is the one thing he wants but never truly possesses.
We don’t find out what is behind his misogynistic personifications; he just is like that, and in some way that lack of knowledge adds to the tragedy of his life.
The one thing that is sort of explained is Barbara’s background, although even that could be just another pretense. That revelation — and the story’s eventual dependence on it — both add to and take away from the enigma of Barbara herself, even as the story tries maintain her mystery. It also needlessly gives Mikura a reason for going mad, although by that time even we aren’t certain what might be witchcraft and what might be the hallucinatory product of Mikuru’s fevered brain.
But then, that is probably what Tezuka was aiming for, and in that sense, he’s definitely achieved his goal and shows how unhinged Mikura’s mind has become. Nearly every chapter had me thinking, “Wow, these people are really messed up.” But it also begs the question: Must an artist such as Mikura necessarily go through such madness to create great works?
In many ways, Barbara is not much different from other demented stories. The key to remember is that this manga originally came out in the early 1970s, when far more people would probably have been appalled at the scenarios depicted.
Nowadays, it’s not so much the shock of the supposed deviant life of artists that makes this book so disconcerting and fascinating at the same time. What still resonates after all these years is the mental trauma that Mikura is clearly experiencing. For the reader, the true pain is not only seeing Mikura’s descent into madness, but also recognizing the inevitability of it.
Still, this is the kind of story that makes you incredibly glad you are sane — or at least much saner than Mikura — and, when it’s over, immensely grateful that you are merely reading about it from the outside rather than experiencing it firsthand within your own life.
Barbara is a bit too extreme for me, but it is moving and powerful in its portrayals in a disturbing way.