Osamu Tezuka – DMP – 2012 – 1 volume
After checking every day for a month, this arrived in the mail yesterday. I was so excited. This is the first of DMP’s Tezuka Kicksterter projects, this time another “experimental” work along the lines of Swallowing the Earth. I may be one of the few people that appreciated that work for the absurd and supremely sublime crazy it pumped out, so I was thrilled to get another taste. With the last two Vertical Tezuka projects being reprints of stuff I’ve already read in English, this is the first time I’ve had the pleasure of reading a new Tezuka title since Ayako, at the end of 2010. Thus my excitement.
Barbara is a strange work, which I was sort of expecting. It’s almost more concrete than some of the other mature work, too. The story is fairly straightforward, about a novelist who finds a homeless woman at the bus station one day and decides to start caring for her. She’s rude, an alcoholic, doesn’t bathe, frequently wanders off, and steals money from him. Still, he can’t bring himself to chase her off permanently. The story is embellished with all the angst inherent in the late 60s-early 70s literary scene. Lots of poetry quoting, pondering the nature of art, angsting about quality and whether or not one can produce, et cetera. The introduction by Frederik Schodt mentions that this is a fairly authentic representation of the literary scene in Shinjuku at the time, and I was surprised by how closely it matched with what I’ve read about its western counterparts.
There are, of course, hints of conflict. The main character, Yosuke Mikura, hints at a problem with sexual deviancy within the first few pages. He claims this is why he is hesitant to marry the two women whose fathers are courting him on their behalf (his publisher and a prominent politician). The first two chapters are about this problem, which is apparently that Mikura can’t tell the difference between non-humans and humans, falls in love, and has torrid sexual affairs with dogs and mannequins.
Mikura’s sexual deviance problems are left by the wayside during a few chapters that explore deviance in others, then the story turns for a more serious look at Barbara and Mikura’s writing career. Mikura comes out of a slump and begins to write seriously, producing a bestseller. Meanwhile, strange things keep happening surrounding Barbara. A friend from his that lives out of the country comes to visit, and recognizes Barbara as a woman that was his muse for a number of years. The friend is a political radical in his home country, and while being pursued by assassins, Barbara takes he and Mikura to visit her mother.
Now, Barbara’s mother. Her character design is a visual reference to the Venus of Willendorf, which is strange, to say the least. In fact, I can’t emphasize enough how bizarre this really was. It’s a really random thing to base a design on, and quite striking in the context of the series. The Venus of Willendorf is an ancient Austrian artifact that predates Greek mythology by about 20,000 years, and yet the story names her Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory and the mother of the muses. The muses in mythology were fathered by Zeus, but Barbara’s father is allegedly Bacchus, hence the drinking. Mnemosyne hints that Mikura should listen to Barbara more, who really is looking out for his best interests, and that his friend has spoiled his abilities as an artist by becoming involved with politics.
And thus, our first hint that Barbara isn’t a drunk hobo. When Mikura writes a bestseller, Barbara brings one of her hippie friends over and suggests him as a manager for Mikura. Mikura throws the drunk bum out, but when he comes back with a shave and reveals himself as an exact double of Mikura, Mikura relents for some reason, and lets the man make all his public appearances. This goes strange places, but ends with him taking one of the persistent wedding candidates off his hands. Whatever.
Surreal events continue, culminating into Mikura unveiling Barbara as a witch. Which has nothing to do with mythology, but I don’t know. They have some sort of black mass wedding that gets ruined, then Barbara splits and Mikura becomes a broken man.
The later chapters are about Mikura finding a Barbara look-alike, then becoming increasingly positive that the woman really is Barbara. Murder, insanity, a voodoo twist, and a very strange, almost anti-climactic ending that leaves off with Leiji Matsumoto publishing Mikura’s last great life’s work about Barbara finish out the book.
So, from sexual deviance, to mythology, to witchcraft, Barbara is the story of a prominent author who went from incredibly wealthy to a destitute homeless man living in the mountains. Along the way, again, there is much discussion of the literary greats, their influence, and the messages they delivered. These parts read a bit earnest and heavy-handed, and more than a little dated, but it’s hard to criticize it for being the product of its times. Again, it is surprisingly straightforward for being one of Tezuka’s mature work, in that the story is always about Mikura’s relationship to Barbara and his career as a writer. But it also takes the strange turns that I so enjoy in Tezuka’s work, too. The Venus of Willendorf touch was particularly nice, as was the chapter that suddenly went into detail on the history of witchcraft. And while I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t have an explosive ending, as these works usually do, I thought the random appearance of Leiji Matsumoto was a fine touch of the bizarre.
As a straightforward story, some might find it disappointing since there are so many strange twists and turns. Others might fault it for not exploring the depraved and/or humanistic themes that stories like MW and Ode to Kirihito look at. And it’s not nearly as completely crazy as Swallowing the Earth. But as a mature work by Tezuka, I found it to be extremely satisfying in a way that only Tezuka’s work really can be. Here’s hoping that it’s a success for DMP, and we’ll see many more like it.