BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Barbara by Osamu Tezuka, translated by Ben Applegate, foreword by Frederik L. Schodt

BarbaraFor readers familiar with Astro Boy, Buddha, or Black Jack – a few of ‘godfather of manga’ Osamu Tezuka’s signature titles – Barbara might present quite the surprise. This is definitely not your kiddie fare: the front cover warns “explicit content”; the back cover is marked with “18+ mature.”

“Tokyo swallows and digests tens of millions of human beings … then expels them,” the opening panels announce. A filthy young woman squats against a wall: “And here is some of the excrement: Her name is Barbara.” For all her dirt and shame, drunkenness and social rejection, Barbara can quote Paul Verlaine and other French poets while she channels the Greek god Bacchus.

“You don’t sound like a bum or a beggar,” Yōsuke Mikura remarks, before inviting her to his home for “better clothes” and “booze.” Mikura is one of Japan’s most lauded and revered authors, a celebrity with vast social and political influence. He also has plenty of secrets that keep him from establishing meaningful relationships.

Barbara becomes Mikura’s on-and-off live-in companion. She drinks heavily, never cleans up after herself, carelessly asks for and spends his money … and, occasionally, she saves Mikura from himself. They fight, separate, reunite, repeat; he enables her inebriation while she inspires his wildly successful writing. Their strange bond breeds betrayal and murder, amnesia and witchcraft, and even a hint of necrophilia.

Initially serialized from July 1973 to May 1974, Barbara four decades later in English translation feels more like a cultural artifact than timeless storytelling. In a detailed introduction, renowned manga scholar (and Tezuka translator) Frederik L. Schodt provides illuminating context to Tezuka’s creative impetus, the Tokyo of his time, the troubling social mores he portrays: “… some aspects of Barbara may be shocking,” Schodt notes. “I personally suspect that the most disturbing sections to modern readers are not Tezuka’s depictions of nudity, bestiality, and assorted human perversions and madness.” The ominous list goes on, before Schodt concludes, “… most North American readers are likely to be more shocked by Tezuka’s depiction of the violence Mikura inflicts on Barbara, and the relentless portrait of her appalling gutter-level drunkenness and self-degradation.” No expectations of ‘happily ever after’ here, ahem!

Whether just curious or already addicted, Tezuka followers will not be able to turn away. The initially inviting resemblance to his usually adorable characters prove undeniably chilling, and their actions startlingly jarring. Duly warned, embark at your own risk.

Readers: Adult

Published: 1973-1974, 2012 (United States)


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