Saturday, February 16, 2013

Graphic Novel Review: Tokyo Babylon Omnibus 1


It's 1991, the last days of Japan's bubble economy, and money and elegance run through the streets. So do the currents of darkness beneath them, nourishing evil spirits that only the arts of the onmyoji—Japan's legendary occultists—can combat. The two most powerful onmyoji are in the unlikely guises of a handsome young veterinarian, Seishiro, and the teenage heir to the ancient Sumeragi clan, Subaru.

Summarizing and reviewing Tokyo Babylon is kind of like trying to summarize Pride and Prejudice.  Its such a well known series for long time anime and manga fans that's its hard to remember that newer fans may not know the ultimate conclusion.

To that end, despite my best efforts, I still probably have spoiled something for the second omnibus (which contains the last half of the series and the part where everything goes awry real quick). For which I apologize.

I originally read Tokyo Babylon 15 years ago, which predates the TokyoPop version by about 5 years.  I ran across fan scanlations of it while looking up more information about X.  Having read about 5 volumes of X by that point I knew who Subaru was, who Seishiro was and had a vague idea about Hokuto.  I also knew WHY Subaru and Seishiro's relationship had evolved to the point it had in X, so I was very very confused when I started Tokyo Babylon.

Originally Tokyo Babylon, which has the subtitle of  "A Save Tokyo City Story" was a bunch of loosely connected day to day chapters following 16 year old Subaru Sumeragi, 13th Head of the powerful onmyoji Sumeragi clan, as he helped restless (and often violent) spirits move on.  With the help of his twin sister Hokuto (the elder twin), a vivacious and meddlesome fashionista, and Seishiro Sakurazuka, a veterinarian friend who was 'in love' with Subaru, he dealt with the ghoulies with as much love and compassion as he could foist on them.

Often the spirits had died due to greed, envy, pride, or violence connected with the underlying theme that Tokyo was a city of decadence and disillusionment.  Interestingly Seishiro says he loves Tokyo because "Where else would you find people reveling in their imminent destruction so happily?" (that's from the fan scan, not the official book) while Subaru loves the city because of the potential it has.

I'm never certain if CLAMP meant for Tokyo Babylon (and X for that matter) to be a dissemination of the vulgar and sinful lifestyle city-dwellers live.  Certainly the 'Babylon' in the title refers to the biblical 'Babylon' or the city that inhabited all the evils of the world.  And the amount of references to the biblical Babylon is pretty high. [spoiler]And in the hindsight of reading X every reader will see that Seishiro espouses the ideals of the 'Dragons of Earth' and Subaru espouses the ideals of the 'Dragons of Heaven', their respective roles in the coming Armageddon X chronicles) [end spoiler]

Putting aside the fashion the characters wear (this is from the early 90's), the artwork is not as neat and efficient as readers of CLAMP's newer works (like Gate 7, Kobato or Tsubasa/xxxHolic) are accustomed to.  There are only the subtlest of differences between Hokuto and Subaru for instance.  Subaru is drawn softer, with a more rounded look to his face while Hokuto is drawn a bit sharper, with a stronger line of face.  Seishiro, who starts turning into the guy I recognize from X about halfway through this omnibus, is drawn with a gentler face and expressions for the most part.  Sometimes he'll get a malevolent expression, or a more serious one, but for the most part he remains pretty affable.

Once you get past the more 'day to day' chapters of the beginning (which should be read just for the odd tidbits that CLAMP tosses in there to hint about a deeper mystery behind Seishiro), Tokyo Babylon becomes a focused story of parallels of consequences and whether innocence can exist in a land of corruption.