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Tezuka’s Barbara

Tezuka’s Barbara: the ‘un-filmable’ erotic fantasy from Japan’s Walt Disney

The Lynchian noir is a strange live-action movie, a who’s who of East Asian cinema, and Osamu Tezuka’s most twisted work and almost – adored and approved by Stanley Kubrick

A live-action adaptation of one of the most twisted works of the world-renowned Japanese manga artist Osamu Tezuka is now available to watch in the UK. Once deemed ‘un-filmable’ due to its controversial and sexually charged subject matter, Barbara traverses the darkest depths of depravity by way of lust, occultism, and even necrophilia and cannibalism.

But 30 years after the death of the cultural icon (whose work was admired by everyone from Disney to Stanley Kubrick – who asked him to be art director on 2001: A Space Odyssey), Tezuka’s own son has completed a film adaption that no-one else would dare – with a who’s who of East Asian cinema involved, to boot.

Tezuka’s Barbara will now arrive in the UK on June 28 via Third Window Films. To celebrate the release, take the plunge into a world of twisted erotica and Lynchian noir, to discover why Tezuka’s Barbara is more than just the strangest live-action film to arrive from Japan this year.

AN EROTIC, KUBRICKIAN NIGHTMARE SET AROUND TOKYO’S RED-LIGHT DISTRICT

A mysterious, creeping noir, Tezuka’s Barbara concerns the bizarre experiences of a novelist called Yosuke Mikura, who, in a series of encounters involving voodoo dolls, department store mannequins and gothic sex clubs, finds his life turned upside down by a mysterious girl named Barbara.

Slumped drunk in a dingy underpass in the film’s brooding opening (accentuated by a sensationally jazzy score from Ichiko Hashimoto), the film’s eponymous femme fatale is described as “a woman like a city’s excrement”. She seems to constantly lurk in the jaded writer’s shadow, becoming a lingering muse as he strives to find meaning in his work. But as his madness deepens in her presence, the lines between fantasy and reality become blurred as the film draws towards a grim, Kafkaesque conclusion.

“We’re trying to make a Shinjuku of the mind,” claims cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In The Mood For Love), who utilises sumptuous photography of evergreen forests, pink skies and subdued interiors to evoke an atmosphere occasionally reminiscent of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. His quest is fulfilled emphatically during one of the film’s most evocative sequences:

Mikura finds himself led to the lair of a woman named Mnemosyne (named for the Greek goddess of memory) – a Jabba the Hutt-like presence crowned with what looks like a helmet made of blue Maltesers, who sits before a table of tarot cards. In the room to her left lurks a Kubrickian sex cult, who within an ominous, candlelit space bid to marry the doomed Mikura to his elusive muse to the sound of drums and chants.

IT’S WRITTEN BY THE JAPANESE WALT DISNEY

Rather mind-bogglingly, the manga upon which the film is based was the creation of Osamu Tezuka – a legendary cartoonist who producer Adam Torel (also the founder of the UK’s leading distributor of Japanese films – Third Window Films) explains is something of a mythical figure in his homeland. “He’s like Walt Disney in terms of his impact on anime and manga,” Torel tells Dazed. “He’s essentially the godfather of manga.”

As the man responsible for the hugely influential comic strip Astro Boy – one of the most successful manga and anime franchises in the world, having sold over 100 million copies worldwide – Tezuka’s reputation precedes him. But his presence in the West is further cemented by the controversial relationship linking a Disney property to Tezuka’s Japanese 1965-1967 anime TV serial Kimba the White Lion (published as Jungle Emperor in the original 1950 manga).

As outlined in Madhavi Sunder’s 2012 book From Goods to a Good Life: Intellectual Property and Global Justice, Tezuka Productions would have had a “very strong” case for pursuing legal action against Disney for plagiarising Kimba the White Lion in the 1994 film The Lion King. As countless YouTube videos and side-by-side image comparisons today prove, the Disney property features characters, storylines, scenes, and even shots that are noticeably similar to those portrayed in Kimba the White Lion.

These range from the story of an African Lion whose father is murdered in the opening act (before later reappearing as a cloudy apparition) by a scar-faced rival and his evil hyenas, to the circle of life and coming-of-age themes of the ensuing adventure. The Lion King’s producers claim to this day that any similarity is purely coincidental, despite Matthew Broderick stating in 1994 that he himself thought that the character of Simba – who he voiced – was meant to be Kimba, the white lion he had seen in a cartoon as a child.

IT WAS AN ‘UN-FILMABLE‘ PROJECT OBSTRUCTED BY TRAGEDY AND THEN BLACKLISTED

While Tezuka was best known for works like the former, it was the appeal of the more adult-focused works in the two decades prior to his death in 1989 that attracted Torel to the project. He pinpoints the “sexual and psychedelic” Animerama films (A Thousand and One Nights, Cleopatra, and Belladonna of Sadness) that Tezuka worked on in the late 60s and early 70s as the catalyst for this dramatic change of direction. “They were big-budget films, and they just bombed,” says the producer. “They destroyed his company. And with that, he started getting into very dark manga.”

Tezuka, then, became preoccupied with immoral characters within stories marked by violent crime and sex. Highlights include the Twilight Zone-like horror anthology The Crater, the nuanced sci-fi romance series Apollo’s Song, and Message to Adolf – which follows three men named Adolf (including Hitler) around WW2. In 1973 Barbara joined this curious oeuvre, soon being marked as “un-filmable” due to its controversial nature.

Even when the animator’s son Macoto gained the rights to adapt it to film several decades later (no easy feat with such a big-name attached to the source material, Torel assures us), the project proved chaotic. It took over ten years to get the film adapted and financed – with the unexpected death of original producer Yoichiro Onishi in the mid-2010s putting the film in limbo once again.

Even when a superstar celebrity joined the production, things didn’t get any easier. The casting of Goro Inagaki (Thirteen Assassins) as Mikura should have been a coup: as a former member of the pop group SMAP, whose 2003 single “The One and Only Flower in the World” remains the third best-selling single in Japanese history, his presence should have raised the film’s profile dramatically. But after Inagaki left the powerful talent agency Johnny’s & Associates in 2017, Torel claims that the lead actor of Tezuka’s Barbara was “essentially blacklisted from Japan (media)”.

“No newspapers could write about the film. No television was allowed to mention that he was appearing in this film. Broadcasters weren’t even allowed to say his name on television,” says Torel. “No cinemas would book the film (at first), so it was a double-edged sword. We got a massive name (in the film), but we couldn’t do anything with him.”

IT’S A WHO’S WHO OF EAST ASIAN CINEMA 

Despite the ramifications of Inagaki’s presence, Tezuka’s Barbara would eventually release in Japan in 2021, more than two years after completion, playing at “60 or 70 cinemas” and receiving “about 50,000 admissions” – a modest victory at the height of the pandemic. But as the film now releases in the UK, its brilliant assembly of renowned talents will prove a significant draw.

Beyond director Macoto Tezka, whose zany 1985 musical comedy The Legend of the Stardust Brothers became a cult curiosity in the late 2010s, legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle – arch-collaborator of Wong Kar-wai and a Cannes Technical Grand Prize winnerbrings a sense of delirium and experimentalism to the film.

Production designer Toshihiro Isomi builds on the mysterious feel, having previously honed his craft working with Academy Award-winning director Hirokazu Kore-eda on Nobody Knows, After Life, Distance, and Still Walking. Isomi also worked on the cyberpunk classic Electric Dragon 80.000V alongside Tezuka’s Barbara make-up and costume designer Isao Tsuge, whose credits include projects with legendary Japanese directors Shinya Tsukamoto and Takashi Miike, as well as the Academy Award-winning Departures – scored by Studio Ghibli’s Joe Hisaishi.

Capping off this impressive list of names is female lead Fuki Nikaido – the actor who plays the eponymous Barbara being something of a muse herself, having starred in multiple films helmed by Japan’s “enfant terrible” Sion Sono.

Tezuka’s Barbara is released in the UK on June 28 via Third Window Films