Aoba is an orphan child raised by kindly old Maaya, but her life is beautiful. She lives on the lovely island of Barbara, a sunny, vaguely Mediterranean place where dryads sun their green leaves on the rooftops, where children can fly, and where the natives live forever. Watarai is a handsome “dream pilot” who can visit others’ dreams, but his own personal and emotional life is one of ruins and regret: he is estranged from his teenage son Kiriya, who bears a deep grudge against him.
Watarai is called into a psychological research unit to investigate a strange patient: a girl with psychic powers who has slept for seven years, ever since a horrifying incident in the year 2045 when her parents killed themselves in an apparent double suicide and their now-sleeping daughter ate both their hearts. He dives into her dreams and finds himself in the “little toy world” of Barbara: the sleeping girl is Aoba. But then Watari makes a shocking discovery: Barbara is also the name of a fantasy world made up by his own son, Kiriya, who has never seen Aoba in his life. And Barbara is also the name of an experimental anti-aging drug created by the mysterious Ezra Strady, aka Sera Johannes, aka Aoba’s grandfather.
The connections don’t stop there: visions of Barbara are manifesting themselves in the “real world,” fishermen are sighting a mysterious new island, the boundary between dream and reality has begun to blur. But Watarai’s attention is split between unraveling the mystery and repairing the split with his son, which may be irreparable (“How do you plan to ‘make it up to him’? To the son you abandoned twice?”) And as for Kiriya, as gifted and handsome on the outside as he is cold and nightmare-haunted on the inside, he finds himself in the web of desires of several women, both real and dreamed …
Translated by shojo manga expert Matt Thorn and created by acclaimed artist Moto Hagio, Otherworld Barbara is a deep-dive into fascinating characters and at least two nested science fiction worlds (the “dream” Barbara and the near-future “real” world). There are a lot of ideas here, making it not a quick read: past lives, the planet Mars, environmental collapse, and mysterious deaths are just the beginning. But the core of the story is relationships between grandparents and parents and children: from Watarai’s desire to be a better father, to Aoba’s still-powerful but regret-haunted grandmother who blames Aoba for the death of her daughter, to Kiriya’s battles with Watarai and his classmates and the world (“I have no father! How dare you pretend to be my father without my permission?”). After months of reading only shojo and shonen manga and seinen (men’s) manga, which is frequently nothing but more violent and depressing shonen, reading Otherworld Barbara is a refreshing reminder of the kinds of emotional depth found in works aimed at adults. Mixed with the crystal-clear visual storytelling of Moto Hagio, reading this is like exploring unknown territory of manga possibilities that somehow seems strangely familiar, like lives you could have lived, or like a dream. Recommended.
publisher: Fantagraphics Books
story and art: Moto Hagio