At the center of story is a teenaged girl who has been in a coma since the age of nine, when she was found with her dead parents. The mother had apparently killed the father, and then killed herself. And the girl, Aoba, was found to have her dead parents' hearts in her stomach. The core mystery, of course, is why this girl ate her parents' hearts, but there are plenty of other mysteries to chew on.
Why does the presumably imaginary dreamworld—Barbara—that Aoba now inhabits seem to affect the real world, and what is her connection to the boy, Kiriya, who she has never met and who shares her dreams of Barbara? And what does this have to do with a mysterious scientist looking for the secret to eternal youth, or, for that matter, with a long extinct race of Martians?
"A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality." - John Lennon
Aoba Jujo is a girl who's lived most of her life in dreams. Ever since the brutal murder of her parents 7 years earlier, she's been in a coma, never stirring despite the seemingly supernatural events that happen around her. Her rest may come to an end however, with the help of Dr. Tokio Watarai, a man who can enter other people's dreams a la Inception, and who is hired to find out the truth behind her coma and possibly get her out of it. But what
starts out as a small-scale job to wake a sleeping girl up soon spirals into something much larger that connects a mysterious pharmaceutical company, missing persons, past lives, dreams that affect reality, martians, cannibalism, and Tokio's own estranged son.
Otherworld Barbara (aka Barbara Ikai) is a fairly recent series from the lesser known (to most Western anime/manga fans at least) but highly influential mangaka Hagio Moto. Ms. Moto was part of the Year 24 group of female mangaka that helped pioneer the shoujo demographic and boy's love (BL) as a genre. Most of her better-known translated titles (like A Cruel God Reigns or Heart of Thomas) are BL-themed, but she's also written and adapted quite a few scifi series, and Otherworld Barbara definitely falls into that category.
The story combines all sorts of popular scifi and supernatural plotlines together with some family and personal drama. From esp to alien invasions to the science of dreams and drugs that make people young again to failed marriages and the struggles of flawed parents, the manga has enough going on that it never gets boring. Unfortunately, instead of blending these story elements together into an interesting, cohesive whole, the end result is a little too messy by the end.
Otherworld Barbara is a very ambitious scifi series, but it just had too much going on for it for such a short story to flesh out. The core plot starts out as a fairly simple supernatural series with some added drama, even if it takes a couple of chapters to piece it together, but more and more plot points are added that the story just didn't have enough time to fully explore. Ultimately certain elements like the ESP and related murders are never explained, which is a bit of a shame. The ending seemed rushed too, with too many major plot resolutions crammed into one short chapter to be especially fulfilling.
The characters are another victim of the series' pacing and ambition. Only Tokio, his son, and Aoba's grandmother get much development over the course of the series, and even then, the resolutions to their character arcs take a back seat to the plot.
Though perhaps that was the point. The way it moved between all the different parts of its strange, surreal plot made it feel almost like a dream itself. Not quite a nightmare, but just memorable enough to tug at you once you've woken up.
Note: Otherworld Barbara is, as of this review, unscanned, and only avaliable through the official English edition, published by Fantagraphics, or the original Japanese release. The English version is a little pricier than average at market price, but you get a very solid hardcover omnibus edition for your money, with color pages, translation notes, and decent paper quality. Overall, I'd definitely recommend it to fans of the author, though new fans might want to start with some of her more accessible and less convoluted titles like They Were Eleven (another scifi short) or Heart of Thomas before checking this one out.