Well, it's August once more, which means it's time for another round of Old School Month. Much like before, we'll kick things off with yet another Tezuka work. This one, though, is very, VERY different from the last one, and not just because it's a One Volume Wonder.
BARBARA, by Osamu Tezuka. First published in 1973, and first published in North American in 2012.
Yosuke Mikura is a famed author, but he spends most of his days wandering the streets of Tokyo, where he searches for inspiration as he laments his own troubles. One day his wanderings leads him to Barbara, a filthy, homeless drunk woman who still manages to quote French poetry with ease. She latches onto Yosuke and more than once inadvertently saves him from danger and distraction. Is Barbara the muse of inspiration that Yosuke has been seeking, or will she lead him to ruin as well?
Barbara was one of the first crowd-sourced Tezuka works released by DMP, and right away it distinguishes itself from those used to Tezuka's older, better known works. If you're expecting something simple and child-like like Princess Knight or Unico, you may be in for a shock. While I do get (to some degree) what Tezuka was aiming for with this work, he sure takes his sweet-ass time getting there, and the path it treads is one that is ultimately very strange, kind of rambling, and rather cynical and pessimistic.
It starts out in a very episodic manner. Yosuke will encounter some strange woman, he ends up falling for her, and Barbara unintentionally saves him from some strange fate. That fate could be anything from sleeping with a dog (no, I'm not joking about that) to just getting lost in his own past. The pace only picks up once Tezuka starts tying things together into a singular plot thread, as Yosuke starts to find real success as well as the temptations of business, revolution, and politics. His newfound success also leads Yosuke to reconsider his relationship with Barbara. Before, he viewed her as little more than a curious nuisance. Afterwards, he begins to fall for her, and it's their relationship that drives both the remaining story as well as the larger themes of the story at large.
It's pretty clear that Barbara is Yosuke's muse in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Before she comes along, Yosuke is too busy being a grade-A ass. He's drowning in his own self-loathing and doubts, and he's convinced himself that he is unable to love a normal woman. Barbara is a far more difficult character to pin down, although a lot of that is on purpose. As a muse, her personality seems to shape itself based on the needs and desires of those around her. The few things that seem to be constant are her hedonistic tendancies and a childlike sense of selfishness. Put them together and you have a couple that's hard to like, but interesting to follow and observe.
It's only once she enters his life that he is able to find some focus and inspiration in his life. It's only then that Yosuke begins to see that Barbara isn't a bother, but instead a beautiful source of inspiration. She's literally given him a reason to live and work, and he falls for her almost instantly upon his realization. Of course, the only problem with loving a muse is that inspiration is a fickle thing. It can leave just as swiftly as it comes, and no one man can keep it to himself, even if he wishes to in the name of love. Worse still, a man could easily drive himself to ruin trying to recapture that same source of inspiration.
You can see how such a moral could appeal to a man like Tezuka at this particular point in his career. Tezuka had already been creating manga for a couple of decades with a lot of big name titles to his credit. By the 1970s he was wanting to expand his horizons and struggling to stay relevant with the masses. His work tended to be shorter, stranger, and more experimental, and Barbara just happens to be one of those experiments. Is it a successful experiment? Not entirely. Even when the story finds its focus, it does tend to ramble. I swear it takes the story just as long for the story to conclude, dragging out every bit of misery, as it does to get going. The characters are abrasive and hard to relate to, even during the good times. Barbara is ultimately a difficult work to like, but a fascinating one to think about.
While the artstyle is still recognizable as that of Tezuka, Barbara reflects the works of an artist who has come a long way from the simple, Disney-influenced forms of Astro Boy and Princess Knight. The character designs still have some of that old-school rubberiness to them, but their faces and bodies tend to be more angular and realistic. When you do see exaggeration, it tends to be more like a caricature than a cartoon. Despite the large print size, the panels tend to be small and thickly packed on the page, only expanding during big dramatic moments or episode of supernatural goings-on. He does use a lot of mundane backgrounds, but at times the imagery expands into the bizarre and psychedelic. It's hardly a surprise, considering that this was made in the 1970s.
The later works of Tezuka are not always an easy, friendly thing to read, but let it never be said that Barbara isn't thought-provoking. It's an interesting contrast to his better-known works, and while it's not a completely successful work, those with an interest in more experimental, introspective work may find something of value here.
This book was published by Digital Manga Press. It is currently out of print.
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