Barbara is a girl living in the streets of Tokyo. She become the muse of Yosuke Mikura, a popular writer, especially with the ladies. Between Yosuka and Barbara starts a relationship which is beneficial for his writings, but can end up in despair when Barbara chooses her freedom above the luxury she can get.
Barbara (ばるぼら) is certainly an interesting graphic novel. Serialized in from 1973 to 1974, it was made in a time when Osamu Tezuka was struggling to solidify his place in the seinen genre of comics–while at the same time keep hold of his reputation as a childrens comic artist. The novel follows a somewhat successful novelist, Yousuke Mikura, and the trouble he gets into when he a mysterious woman starts living with him, Barbara.
The first five chapters mainly focus Mikura’s condition as a sexual deviant, where he experience odd hallucinations, and the misadventures that he gets into with Barbara. Although they’re decent enough in their
own right, the majority of Barbara’s problems lie in these chapters. Many seinen artists at the time were utilizing sex and violence to make their stories more mature. You get the feeling that Tezuka was trying too hard to appeal to the seinen demographic with these chapters, there are several instances of unnecessary nudity and violence; there are several instances of Barbara displaying her breasts for no logical reason, a poorly implemented scene of attempted rape, as well as a twisted portrayal of sadomasochistic culture. They’re decent chapters, just a little rough around the edges.
Another problem is that these chapters bare little relevance to the remainder of the story. Most notably is how Mikura’s sexual deviancy is only mentioned once throughout the the rest of the story; swept under the rug so that it doesn’t get in the way of the plot. And the rest of the plot does benefit from this, which is surprising seeing how his deviancy was initially the most interesting thing about the story. Still, it’s a glaring inconsistency.
After a shift in the narrative, the plot improves drastically. A clear focus and direction is given to the narrative, making it feel more “solid;” instead of being a series of separate misadventures, each chapter contributes to the overall plot–perfectly building up to the climax. The nudity and violence are also given reason and substance, to the point where it no longer feels forced. Mikura doesn’t change much as a person throughout the story, but the journey he goes through is captivating and intriguing. Barbara has a rough start, and it takes a while for things to really come together, but it pulls through in the end–eventually giving us a powerful and poetic conclusion.
One thing of note is that the treatment of women can be a little unsettling. Barbara gets slapped around by Mikura quite a few times, and there’s some subtle overtones of objectification. It’s not particularly surprising seeing how this was 1970s Japan, but it’s still worth pointing out. Not that women-beating wasn’t looked down upon in Japan, because it was, but most of the stuff presented in Barbara wasn’t really something that would have bothered its audience. I personally didn’t enjoy the novel any less because of it, but I could imagine someone more sensitive to such things being irked.
Another thing is that Mikura is a total jerkass, which may or may not add to his depth as a character. As Frederick L. Schodt makes clear in his forward, Mikura’s moral ambiguity was probably intentional, so that we the audience could decide for ourselves how much of a bad person Mikura is. The stuff he does throughout the novel is clearly bad, but it’s difficult to assess just how bad of a person it makes him. He’s mentally insane, and there are external forces which continually screw around with him.
Ultimately, Barbara is a story about love, determination, insanity, success, failure, and how all of that applies to the nature of art. I wouldn’t exactly call it a masterpiece, but it’s definitely up there with Tezuka’s better works.