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Friday, September 20, 2013

Manga Review: Barbara

Author: Osamu Tezuka
Digital Manga Publishing
432 pages
Wandering the packed tunnels of Shinjuku Station, famous author Yosuke Mikura makes a strange discovery: a seemingly homeless drunk woman who can quote French poetry. Her name is Barbara. He takes her home for a bath and a drink, and before long Barbara has made herself into Mikura's shadow, saving him from egotistical delusions and jealous enemies. But just as Mikura is no saint, Barbara is no benevolent guardian angel, and Mikura grows obsessed with discovering her secrets, tangling with thugs, sadists, magical curses and mythical beings - all the while wondering whether he himself is still sane. (Source: DMP)
If your first thought when you hear 'Doctor Osamu Tezuka' is children's manga and Astro Boy, cheerful robots and visual gags and colorful fantasy worlds fit to explore through, you would do best to set all those thoughts aside. Once you open up Barbara, it's obvious that there are two Doctor Tezukas - the man best known for his creations like Astro Boy and Kimba who appeals to all age groups especially kids, while there is also the man who wrote Barbara, the man who explores the depths of human psychology in all its dark terrific details.
Barbara is, put simply (if possible), the story of one man's fall through the shadowy pit of the human psyche as he loses his mind, and the woman who takes him there. It is not so much a children's story as it is a cautionary tale for non-cautionary adults. It's a naughty fairy tale that breaks taboos, bends reality, and blurs the line between dream and nightmare.

The title Barbara is an example of gekiga, or "dramatic pictures", a genre of manga perfected by such manga-ka as Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Kazue Umezo. In his later works, Doctor Tezuka joined these men in the gekiga genre, breaking away from the public's vision of him as a storyteller for young people only. Probably his most notable gekiga title (although this is arguable) is Message to Adolf, although it is hard to write a story based on three very different men named Adolf set right before World War Two and not delve into the core concepts of what makes a gekiga manga (and if you have Viz's past release of Adolf, you are sitting on quite a gift).
Recently, a lot of his gekiga works have been published in English, from Black Jack to Ode to Kirihito and MW, which have all been published by the manga publisher Vertical Inc. The title Barbara, however, has been wrested away from Vertical thanks to the efforts of Digital Manga Publishing's Kickstarter to get Barbara in English and in print. Whatever you may think about such a publisher using Kickstarter to fund a license, you cannot deny that it is a great gift to be able to read such a title in English, after so many years.
At first, Barbara seems like such a simple story. Famous writer runs into attractive alcoholic woman, lets her sleep in his apartment, they fight and she moves out but they eventually find themselves living together again. And then it gets oh so darker and oh so more complicated than at first blush. Y'see, our darling drunk Barbara isn't all you think she is - and our fearless main character is going to learn this the hard way.
Barbara is populated by unlikable, broken human beings who constantly do wrong things and are definitely not excused for their actions by the text. Yosuke Mikura is the best example of this: our guide through the dark underbelly of Japanese culture is someone who beats women, drinks heavily (although not nearly to the same extent as Barbara), thinks little of other people, and can be pretty controlling at times.
And then we have our female lead, Barbara, who is an absolute mystery. She is the drunkard who stumbles through train stations while quoting French poets. She is the unknowable beauty who keeps walking in and out of Mikura's life much to his aggravation. She is, ultimately, the mystery that must be solved, for knowing Barbara is knowing why this entire story has been put into place in the beginning. Just as she draws the unwitting Mikura into her web of deceit and boozing, she draws us in with that single, all attractive question: who is Barbara?
The manga Barbara is like a dark noir mystery set in a troubled Tokyo during the 1970's, a city which was apparently dominated by literature hipsters and the utterly destitute and hopeless. It is a drama of mystical proportions, which halfway through tips over the line of magical realism into urban mythology. This Tokyo is one where the unwashed masses unknowingly rub shoulders with the practitioners of lost arts on a regular basis.
It is an utterly engrossing tale that is not for the faint of heart or those who have sensitive tastes: there is bestiality, incest, naked orgies, drugs, murder, and - well, so much sex it should be criminal. There's a reason DMG slapped a Mature rating on this one; don't be lending this one to the children. But oh boy, is it worth it. Underneath all the sex and sin is a story of emotional entrapment and human enchantment, and the story of a young girl quoting Verlaine in the subway, stinking of booze and looking for another place to call home.
Although I got my copy of Barbara by funding the original Kickstarter, you can order your own copy via any online book store or at your local comic book shop.

For more information on DMP titles, releases, and the latest news, visit the Digital Manga Inc.'s website: