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Tokidoki Daylight – Tokyo Babylon (Complete Series)

Tokyo Babylon (Complete Series)
by CLAMP
Published by TOKYOPOP

Originally created in 1991 by all-female mangaka group CLAMP, Tokyo Babylon tells the story of Subaru, the thirteenth head of the Sumeragi clan, a family of onmyoji (spiritual mediums and sorcerers) who have protected Japan for hundreds of years. Just sixteen years old as the series begins, quiet and unassuming, he is already an experienced and powerful onmyoji. He shares an apartment in Tokyo with his worldly, outgoing twin sister, Hokuto, who dresses him up like a doll in her hand-picked fashions. The two have become friendly with a local veterinarian, Seishiro Sakurazuka, whose surname suggests he is related to an infamous clan of magical assassins. Despite this sinister connection, Seishiro is mild-mannered, kind, cheerfully protective of the twins and repeatedly claims to be in love with Subaru, which draws enthusiastic support from Hokuto but embarrasses Subaru terribly.

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Despite a cynical opening chapter and the series’ occult premise, the story gets off to a fairly light start and it would be easy to dismiss it as stylish fluff. By the end of the first volume, however, darkness begins to push toward the surface in the form of an old memory that causes Subaru to suspect there may be more to Seishiro than what he claims. This uneasiness hovers in the background for much of the series (only manifesting fully in the final volume), but as it slowly seeps into the fabric of the story it highlights the peculiar depth and Shinto-influenced ideology that has long characterized CLAMP’s work.

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As Subaru performs his missions as an onmyoji, he encounters many sad or lonely people, some of them alive, some not. One early story, for instance, involves a childhood friend of Subaru’s who has fallen into a perpetual dream state in an effort to escape her traumatic waking life. Another features the ghost of a failed actress whose love-hate relationship with the city has kept her bound to the main observation deck of Tokyo Tower. In another, Subaru befriends an old man who has spent years of his life fulfilling a promise to his late wife, desperate to complete it so that he may finally join her.

In one particularly poignant story, Subaru encounters a woman who is determined to place a curse on the man who murdered her young daughter, Mai. Subaru urges the woman to abandon revenge both for her own sake and her daughter’s, and even calls upon Mai’s spirit so that she can tell her mother what she truly wishes her to do. However, instead of angelically entreating her mother to stop, Mai arrives crying in pain, begging her mother to avenge her, something which Subaru finds himself wholly unable to convey.

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The primary message CLAMP drives home in Tokyo Babylon is that no person can ever truly understand another person’s pain, and that the kindest thing people can do for themselves and each other is to recognize and embrace that fact. Interestingly, the character who seems to understand this best is Subaru, though he is also the person who most often tries, as he strives desperately to ease others’ pain while generally ignoring his own. Despite his formidable spiritual powers, Subaru leads an oddly passive existence, dutifully fulfilling his calling as directed, though his personality is obviously ill-suited for the job. He works tirelessly and without complaint, his naturally compassionate nature allowing humanity’s darkest corners to erode his seemingly incorruptible heart.

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Seishiro’s steady pursuit of teenaged Subaru alternates between being sweetly good-humored and intensely creepy, and for those who find the concept disturbing, be assured that the dramatic payoff is well worth it. As hinted early on, Seishiro is indeed more than he seems, though the full truth about him is not revealed until very late in the series. None of the primary characters in Tokyo Babylon is especially transparent or easily placed into manga stereotypes. Each is multi-layered and idiosyncratic, and each lends something unique to this quirky, shadowy tale.

Though Subaru and Seishiro tend to dominate the pages of most volumes, it is Hokuto who is the story’s unexpected gem. Fun and breezy, she initially seems interested in little besides in keeping Subaru dressed up in elaborately assembled outfits and nudging him toward Seishiro. As the story progresses, however, her real depth begins to show, and she eventually proves herself to be strong, compassionate, and kind of a bad-ass. It also becomes clear that her world is dominated by her devotion to her brother. “I wanted you to have something you would love so much, that you wouldn’t care what others thought,” she says to Subaru late in the series, as his world is unraveling around him. “Something you wouldn’t change your mind about. It didn’t matter what it was. I just wanted you to have something like that.”

Despite the series’ many strengths, Tokyo Babylon is far from perfect. Its episodic setup leaves too much room for unevenness and blunder, and it takes several volumes for CLAMP to successfully establish the story’s real tone, which means the series does not really come into its own until volume four. Still, getting there is well worth the effort, and not just because Tokyo Babylon is a great read (though it is). This series also provides an opportunity to delve into early incarnations of the themes and ideas that have come to define CLAMP’s diverse body of work. The selfishness of self-sacrifice, the murky quality of “good” and “evil,” the pain of loneliness, the necessity of wanting to exist–CLAMP uses Tokyo Babylon to explore these ideas to the full extent of their skills at the time, and everything that begins here is carried through their later work, one way or another. This is not to suggest that they are stealing from themselves or just repeating ideas (though they do like to reuse their characters). This is simply the natural evolution of ideas as they progress from one series to the next, finally reaching maturity in xxxHolic, a series which remains ongoing both here and in Japan.

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With its beautiful, clean imagery and striking use of black, Tokyo Babylon is unmistakably CLAMP’s work, though again, it doesn’t show the maturity of their later work, or even X/1999 which began its run before Tokyo Babylon was completed. As early as this work is, however, the visual storytelling is extremely effective, with the same intuitive panel layouts and creative use of space that makes all of CLAMP’s work both a pleasure to look at and easy to read. The artwork shines in black and white, capturing perfectly the stark drama and lurking melancholy of the series, and the story’s seven volumes feel truly epic, largely on the strength of its visuals.

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TOKYOPOP’s English language editions, released between 2004 and 2005, are very nicely done, with crisply reproduced artwork and fold-out color pages at the beginning of most volumes. This series, like much of CLAMP’s work, is unmistakably Japanese, deeply tied to its Tokyo setting and to Japanese culture in general. TOKYOPOP preserves this by retaining honorifics and sound-effects (with translations in the back), using Japanese name order (surname first), and keeping as many Japanese terms and cultural references as possible within the translation. The detailed glossaries at the back of each volume provide context and explanation for western readers.

For fans of CLAMP’s newer work, Tokyo Babylon provides a glimpse into the group’s past which will be both compelling and familiar. For new readers, it is a great introduction to the CLAMP universe, in all its complex beauty.

24 Comments

This is a great review, and very thoughtful. I especially like your comments about Hokuto and the quote you selected for her.

Danielle Leigh

March 5, 2009 at 3:05 pm

I suddenly want to do an immediate re-read of Tokyo Babylon and xxxholic back-to-back. Oh who am I kidding…I always want to do an xxxholic re-read! But you’ve reminded me the beauty of this early CLAMP work, and how much Hokuto’s presence impacted the work as a whole.

You do such a great job integrating images into your posts, they really illustrate your points beautifully.

Thanks for sharing!

[…] post until I’d finished my Tokyo Babylon review, and I finally have! Check it out over at Tokidoki Daylight! It’s pretty image-heavy and probably looks more like one of my persuasion posts than a […]

I wish they would finish X. (It was them that worked on it and then stopped because of the Tokyo Earthquake right?)

Michelle & Danielle: Thank you! You know, I ended up admiring Hokuto so much, she really did act as the heart of this series in most ways. And Danielle, thank you too for the compliment on my use of images! I really think CLAMP sells best with pictures, so I thought I should use some here. :D

Geoff: Yes, I do too! I think there was a problem with the general level of violence in the series besides just the issue with earthquakes, though I’m sure there are people who know much more about it than I do. I keep hearing rumors that they want to continue Legal Drug, but I don’t know what will ever happen with X! It’s so sad!

Oh my god, TOKYO BABYLON. There’s nothing in my history with manga to compare to the pure, devoted (slightly obsessive) love I had for that series when I was a melodramatic teenager. Oh, the angst! Oh, the tragedy! I think I was actually trembling a little when I picked up the last volume from the shop. I’ve often wondered what I’d think of TB if I came across it for the first time nowadays, but this review has set my mind at ease about that. Wonderful art selections as well to show that there’s more to TB than just BL hints and pretty CLAMP males.

Thanks for bringing up Hokuto in such a positive light – you often come across people who only see her as an impediment to an unadulterated Seishiro/Subaru dynamic, but the character ended up giving TB a step-up to wonderful, in my opinion. It was really interesting seeing where they went with her: from her shallow, krazy kostume beginnings to later volumes and her appearances in X that revealed much more going on underneath.

Ellie: Your comment gave me the biggest smile EVER. :D You know it’s funny, for me, the whole Seishiro/Subaru dynamic was so kind of out of left field (mostly because of Subaru’s initial reaction to it), it never even felt much like BL to me. But I might have felt much differently as a melodramatic teenager (and lord knows I *was* one).

Hokuto is so kick-ass, I just loved her! :D

Hokuto is by far my favorite part of Tokyo Babylon. ^_^

A lot of my impression of the series was colored by having been familiar with X first (oops?), to the point that I really have no idea what I would have made of TB if I’d read it and judged it entirely on its own merits. (I don’t feel too bad about that, I guess, but I do feel bad that my feelings about Subaru are so strongly affected by years of low-level fandom influence–and that’s without seeking it out!)

Ysabet: I have to say that I’m *extremely* glad that I read Tokyo Babylon completely unspoiled, particularly for the sake of Subaru. After all, he’s the who truly transforms over the course of the series (for better or worse) and I definitely would have had a different perspective on him if I’d read X first (or listened to fandom).

That said, I’m excited to get deeper into X.

Great review. I like how you put the work in perspective with CLAMP’s current series. Have to be honest, still not sold on reading it yet. I think it’s the 80’s Prince-like character designs. Your review did move me one step closer to giving it a try.

Ed: Thank you! :) I think what made it easier for me to swallow the designs was knowing that in the story, Subaru’s ridiculous outfits are all put together by his sister, and she’s so proud of them it’s hard not to find it charming. I was actually quite surprised by how much I liked this series. I’d read the first couple of volumes and was a bit so-so on it, then finished all the rest last week. It really carved a place in my heart for itself, and I can’t stress enough how much the final volume is worth getting to. If you ever do finally give in and decide to give this a go, I’ll be very anxious to hear what you think.

“The primary message CLAMP drives home in Tokyo Babylon is that no person can ever truly understand another person’s pain, and that the kindest thing people can do for themselves and each other is to recognize and embrace that fact.”

Perhaps that is the most significant reason for the series? Compelling.

Jan (hee): I certainly found it compelling. To be perfectly honest, like so many things, this came into my life just when I most needed it. I think that’s a message I needed to be reminded of.

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