“Love is just a blood-match, to see who can endure lash, after lash…” – St Vincent
Though the title "Tokyo Babylon" evokes a contrast between the urban sprawl of 1980s cityscape and the ancient city of desolation, perhaps Sodom and Gomorrah would be a better allegory for the cold and corrupt city that lends itself to the scenery of Tokyo Babylon.
The city’s influence on our main character, Subaru Sumeragi, is undeniable. Thirteenth in the long line of onmyouji (spell-casters, mediums, or exorcists), he is employed as a kind of spiritual psychiatrist to relieve Tokyo’s residents, past and present, of their emotional baggage. Despite his obvious power he has a passive, neurasthenic personality, as soft as wax and as wavering as candlelight. Ultimately a kind and selfless sixteen-year-old boy, the pressure and grime of city life slowly weighs down on his soul.
Not that Subaru’s life is one of introversion and agony – at least not at first. His twin sister Hotoru ensures that. Aggressively cheerful, her personality likely an unconscious front put on to support Subaru’s weaknesses. Her idiosyncrasies are a source of humour and warmth throughout, especially her endevours to push her brother together with their mutual friend Seishiro Sakurazuka. “I wanted you to have something you would love so much, that you wouldn’t care what others thought. Something you wouldn’t change your mind about. It didn’t matter what it was. I just wanted you to have something like that,” she explains to her brother. Seishiro, despite his surname having distinctly sinister connotations with death, is a mild-mannered and chirpy vet who couldn’t possibly be anything more than he first seems.
Starting in a generic monster-of-the-week format, Tokyo Babylon gradually reveals more and more of the characters’ backstories and the tangled web woven between fate and free will.
This is something of a hallmark of CLAMP: the notion of “inevitability”, though it may not be as evident in this as in their other work. Tokyo Babylon could be thought of as the encapsulation of their various themes and tropes: the occult, good and evil, self-sacrifice, sexuality. While some may view this as nothing but talentless repetition or ego masturbation, despite being somewhat cliche due to the context of CLAMP’s subsequent fame, Tokyo Babylon is what I consider the pinnacle of CLAMP’s craft.
Stylistically, the art in Tokyo Babylon gradually improves throughout the seven volumes. Subaru is drawn effeminately and with an elegance that belies his innocence. CLAMP in true form take great pains exploring extremely detailed fashion and distinctive character designs, replete with standard 90s CLAMP anatomical proportions. This is particularly prominent in Subaru’s dress-sense, with his trade-mark gloves and meticulously rendered coats with buttons, zips, lapels, pleats et al. Whether this is truly the style of a sixteen-year-old boy is up for debate, but it is certainly stunning to look at, especially on the full-colour covers and the small posters inside the front cover of each volume.
While Tokyo Babylon may seem like fluff, even in the earlier stories its use of Shinto ideology to present didactic inquests into social issues is scathing. Subaru’s power leads him to help many people, from the murderous to the lonely, and very few sections of society escape without commentary.
It’s this pull of inevitable reality where Tokyo Babylon’s true intentions start to unfurl.
In a dream, a man tells the child Subaru, “Did you know? They say buried underneath every cherry tree is a corpse. [...] The reason the cherry blossoms bloom so beautifully every year is because of the corpse buried underneath.”
Just as the true form of beauty is seen to be one of ugliness, everything we know about the characters is perceived a different shade in the light of truth.
As we saw through the relentless critique of society, so we see more starkly the juxtapositions of obligations and choices, industrialisation and sorcery love and death, and ultimately the selfishness inherent in selflessness.
We see how the catalyst of despair that ultimately manifests as malevolence in the last volume began as an undercurrent that has rippled in every page, panel and brushstroke since the very beginning. Perhaps it is this that gives Tokyo Babylon its unusual allure, palpable tension and lurking melancholy that has endured the 23 years since Tokyo Babylon’s first printing.
Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Tokyopop (15 July 2004)
Originally posted on my blog http://marusamarento.wordpress.com/