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With his black suit, ever-present sunglasses and air of entitlement, hit novelist Yosuke Mikura (Goro Inagaki) comes across like a cut-price Marcello Mastroianni. Women swoon wherever he goes, but a ginger-haired, poetry-quoting vagrant he finds slumped in an underpass is more to his tastes.

That would be Barbara (Fumi Nikaido): a booze-guzzling manic pixie dream girl, literary muse, sex object, sorceress or all of the above. First conceived by manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka during his edgy early-1970s period, she’s been brought to the screen by the artist’s son, Macoto Tezka.

Given the sexually explicit nature of the manga, it must have been an awkward undertaking, like having to catalog your father’s erotic art collection. But whereas another director might have had the confidence to do something reckless with “Barbara,” Tezka’s adaptation is a more dutiful affair.

Tezuka's Barbara (Barubora)
Rating
Run Time 100 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

He has clearly given plenty of thought to how the movie should look: It’s full of intense colors, intricate set design and hard lighting straight out of the film noir playbook. With camerawork by renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle and a tempestuous jazz score by Ichiko Hashimoto, “Tezuka’s Barbara” is one of the most aesthetically striking movies to hit Japanese theaters this year. If only the rest of the film were so alluring.

When we meet Yosuke, his outward success masks an acute state of creative and spiritual decline, though Inagaki doesn’t get much chance to make the character interesting. After installing Barbara in his apartment, the author shucks the affections of both his well-connected girlfriend and his doting agent, opting instead for a life of debauchery that may or may not be producing some grade-A writing.

Yosuke’s descent down the rabbit hole leads to an occult ceremony with an extremely minimalist dress code, and eventually to a grim denouement that does an impressive job of swaying any viewers who were still unsure how they feel about the film.

Tezuka was inspired by Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” and he later suggested that his tale could be seen as an allegory for art itself. When Yosuke describes his life’s calling as “beautiful, capricious and a man’s downfall,” he could equally be talking about Barbara.

Much of this is lost in Hisako Kurosawa’s script, which condenses the manga’s rambling narrative into a neat three-act structure, while excising most of the psychology. Though the film is set in the present, its gender politics remain mired in the 1970s. Yosuke’s misogyny goes mostly unchecked, and the female characters seem to exist merely as enticements or antagonists.

Nikaido shows an admirable willingness to shed her wholesome image (fans of NHK morning drama “Yell” will be aghast), but she’s never quite as feral as she needs to be. Shizuka Ishibashi is squandered in a supporting role that could be summed up with a Post-It note reading “good wife material.”

Despite a snappy runtime, the film still manages to drag. Only occasionally does Tezka hint at the irreverence that animated his 1985 debut film, “The Legend of the Stardust Brothers,” which was reissued last year.

It’s tempting to imagine how the director’s younger self might have approached this material. No doubt the film would have been less polished, but perhaps it would have come closer to tapping the madness at the heart of the story. “Tezuka’s Barbara” is an attractive carapace, but it’s hollow.

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