For the uninitiated, CLAMP is a wildly successful, all-female group of manga creators from Japan. They’ve produced hits such as Cardcaptor Sakura, Angelic Layer, Chobits, and Tsubasa: RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE. Tokyo Babylon is one of CLAMP’s earliest titles that ran from 1990 to 1993. Just a warning to parents up front: this comic deals with occult themes and includes a possible adult-teenager homosexual relationship. If that kind of stuff gets your tighties in a bunch, then you may want to snatch this manga away from young, impressionable eyes. Relax, this isn’t a porn book; it’s not yaoi. In fact, the homosexuality part is only talked about. Mostly jokingly. I think.
Tokyo Babylon follows the story of Subaru, a 16-year-old who moonlights as something of a ghostbuster. He’s what’s known as an onmyoji, a Japanese occult-sorcerer type, who investigates a variety of supernatural mysteries. His family, the Sumeragi, have protected Japan from evil spirits since ancient times. The other two main characters in this story are Subaru’s twin sister, Hokuto, and their friend Seishiro the veterinarian.
The first couple of volumes begin with a formulaic, monster-of-the-week approach. Subaru is portrayed as a quiet and serious guy who is obsessed with his work. Hokuto, his polar opposite on the Myers-Briggs test, usually has to remind him to eat when he gets absorbed in his research. She’s a bubbly extrovert who’s favorite hobby is fanning the flames of Seishiro’s man-love for Subaru.
This is where it gets weird. Seishiro’s a 25-year-old professional man who openly expresses his undying love for young Subaru. It’s not entirely clear if Seishiro’s being serious or just playing along with Hokuto’s jokes, but he hits on Subaru incessantly. Subaru, on the other hand, shows absolutely no romantic interest in anyone, but he also does little to shoo away Seishiro’s advances. It’s bizarre and sometimes creepy, but I’ve seen far, far worse in the pages of manga.
After a couple of character-building volumes, this book begins to build an intriguing narrative involving Subaru’s dreams and Seishiro’s mysterious back story. Unbeknownst to Subaru and Hokuto, Seishiro is a powerful member of the shadowy Sakurazukamori, a clan of assassins that are rivals to the Sumeragi clan. Through the book, Subaru slowly remembers more details of a dream he had about meeting someone under a cherry-blossom tree when he was a child. Seishiro reveals that he was the one who told him that cherry blossoms turned from white to pale crimson because they drank the blood of the corpse buried underneath. It’s not yet clear how this fits into the story, but it shows that Seishiro has been involved in Subaru’s life since he was a little boy.
The story highlights the dramatically different approaches to spiritual protection between Subaru and Seishiro. Subaru is compassionate in his dealings with both people and spirits. He’s probably quiet and reserved because he takes it upon himself to bear the weight of everyone’s suffering. In one story arc, he purposefully allows a group of naÃ¯ve, delusional teenage girls to cast debilitating spells on him. To deflect them would’ve resulted in severe psychological trauma. Seishiro jumps in to make the save and has no qualms about turning the girls’ power against them and handily wipes out two of them””for good. Whereas Subaru selflessly endeavors to use his power to help all, Seishiro’s heart ultimately seems to be in the right place, but definitely plays by his own set of rules. For now, let’s call him Chaotic-Good, although I reserve the right to alter this as more of his story is revealed.
CLAMP’s artwork is clean and reflects the bipolar scene transitions in the storyline. A scene can go from serious ghost story to lighthearted, gay love jokes within a couple of panels””the art intensifies these switches. The more serious scenes exhibit textured shading, dramatic angles, and close-ups while the playful bantering scenes keep it simple and highly expressive. I sometimes had difficulty distinguishing Subaru from his sister Hokuto. I have to admit, I wasn’t entirely certain that Subaru was a dude through much of the first story. Many of the backgrounds are black and white photo replications of Tokyo, which actually mesh into the story and the art style surprisingly well. Tokyo Babylon was produced in the early 90’s, so the pages are a treasure trove of artifacts like tractor-feed printer paper, beepers, and party lines. Oh, how I don’t at all miss those days.
Tokyo Babylon: Book One collects the first five volumes of the original manga run. It takes a couple of volumes to really get the story moving, but once it gets past the formulaic storytelling and establishes some back story, it’s an engaging read that I couldn’t put down. This series promises to build a deep, multifaceted story full of the peculiar complexities that we’ve come to know and love from the shores of Japan.
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