History, location, and religion aside, the Wikipedia disambiguation page for “Babylon“ has 52 entries under “Arts and entertainment” — 26 of which are songs (including one by David Gray that I rather like). Two entries, a novel series and an anime series (which I binged last night), link to the same page because they refer to the same very interesting (very dark) story.
By interesting (and dark) I mean it’s about good, evil, and whether the right to suicide is a good thing. The battles here are mainly intellectual and spiritual. A key point for the characters is the question: what is good; what is evil?
This particular Babylon began as a novel series written by Mado Nozaki from 2015 to 2017. It comprises three books, Woman, Death, and End. Then there was a manga in 2019 that adopted the novels. (I’m not familiar with — had never heard of — either. I’m just channeling the Wiki page here.) Late in 2019 it was made into a 12-episode anime series (currently available on Amazon Prime).
When it comes to stories my main ask has always been: Take me someplace new!
(This is why I love science fiction and fantasy — it gives authors much more latitude to explore the human condition in unusual contexts. When “regular” authors do that, it’s usually surrealism, which, like abstract art, can be hard to connect with emotionally. Surrealist authors who can compel and engage, for my money, are few and far between. That’s one reason I like Paul Beatty so much.)
Another big ask for me is that I do want to be engaged by a story. I don’t particularly enjoy reading as an intellectual exercise. I don’t conceive of myself as an author, so nearly all my reading is for escape and enjoyment. What I learn about good writing from books tends to be largely incidental.
Which is all to say I found Babylon fresh and engaging. I know of stories that explicitly raise moral questions (one of my favorites: The Good Place), but that kind of thoughtfulness isn’t common, at least not in most fare. (And often what passes for thoughtfulness came out of a can and was reheated in a microwave.)
I also found Babylon dark and twisted. In places, seriously dark and twisted. (In my admittedly limited experience, no one does dark or twisted better than the Japanese. It may have to do with being an ancient culture.)
The story starts off with a raid by public prosecutors of a Japanese pharmaceutical company that was apparently falsifying reports about drug testing. The head of the investigation, and the protagonist, is Zen Seizaki (正崎善). Other characters mention that his name contains characters for “good” (善) and “honest” (正). Also that the name, Zen, is not connected with Buddhism.
As Zen investigates, there turns out to be more to the story; much more. Things first turn weird when, Shin Inaba, an anesthetist connected with the pharmaceutical company, is found dead, apparently a suicide (he slowly anesthetized himself to death while listening to classical music; he died with a big grin on his face).
Then Zen discovers, and brings in for questioning, a woman spotted in security videos. Her behavior under questioning is, to say the least, strange. When Seizaki leaves the room briefly he returns to discover she has just walked out leaving behind a bemused officer who can’t explain. They later learn she is Ai Magase (曲世愛) — the last character of her name (very ironically) means “love.”
Things take a dark turn when Seizaki’s assistant, Atsuhiko Fumio, who was also present for the interrogation of Magase, hangs himself for no apparent reason.
What they discover, after many more suicides, is that Magase can induce people to happily commit suicide with just the power of her voice. She also appears to be able to dramatically change her appearance — they determine she’s appeared over and over, looking different, at many sites of interest.
There is also a strong political element to the story, and it’s the reason the pharmaceutical company was up to no good.
Japan is about to create a “second Tokyo” — a city-nation, Shiniki, that will operate under new laws and serve as an international experiment. One aspect of the new laws will be faster and easier tracks to authorizing new drug treatments, which is why the pharma company was involved.
The mastermind behind this is Ryuichiro Nomaru, a middle-aged politician and candidate for mayor of the new city-nation. He has rigged the election so that the second candidate, Kaika Itsuki, a younger better face for the new nation, will win (but still be under his control).
Itsuki is pushing a “right to suicide” law and even promoting the idea that suicide can be the better choice in some situations. What makes it seductive is the notion that by bringing suicide into the public light, it’s more likely to be considered openly and thus only selected when it has some convincing logic. (The same argument is often made about recreational drugs, and it’s not wrong in itself, but needs to factor in the actual thing being considered. Suicide is a bit more extreme than smoking a joint.)
As it turns out, Ai Magase is linked in with all this, and she seems to be a wildcard working on her own. I got the impression Itsuki was unaware of her influence, and that she was taking advantage of the situation. (We later learn that Itsuki has a strong desire to suicide for family reasons.)
Ai Magase is one of the nastier villains in recent memory. Think Harley Quinn… in a bad mood. For the most part Magase uses her voice (at one point causing a group suicide of 60 people), but — in one of the more shocking episodes — she turns out to have a wild axe-wielding side.
That voice — which has power even when recorded and played back — and her near shape-shifting ability make it pretty clear she’s a supernatural being of some kind, although the characters have no idea what to make of her. (There’s no expert of the occult who chimes in with an expository, “Ah, yes! We’re clearly dealing with a demon of blah, blah, blah.” It’s more along the lines of, “Whoa! This woman is evil and seriously bad news!”)
An operation that attempts to deal with Itsuki and Magase goes horribly wrong (because they don’t yet appreciate her power), and Zen’s friend and co-worker, police inspector Shinobu Kujiin, is forced (along with many others) to commit suicide. By shooting himself in the leg he holds out long enough to inform Zen about what’s happened.
Worse, Magase has kidnapped Zen’s second assistant, Hiasa Sekuro, who was assigned to Zen after Fumio hung himself. Because she wants to demonstrate her evil, Magase forces Zen to watch a live video feed. Suffice to say it involves dotted lines, an axe, and Zen’s second assistant. Absolutely the darkest and most twisted scene in the series. (I was a little surprised they went there.)
I’d say overall the series was darker than many anime, but what stood out was how close to being sexual it was. Granted the Chinese seem to be much more chaste in their media than the Japanese (just consider hentai), but most anime I’ve seen stays pretty much in the PG range. (That said, my anime experience isn’t extremely broad.) I’ll just leave it that this series is definitely dark, twisted, and a bit sexual.
In the later episodes Seizaki ends up in the USA working with (and then for) the FBI (who approached him while he was on house arrest following the debacle). Cities all over the world have been adopting the “right to suicide” law, and governments are wondering what, if anything, to do about it.
The POTUS is a former video game champion who still plays and spends a lot of time thinking about what’s best (he’s known as “The Thinker”). A major part of one episode involves a summit of world leaders who discuss the morality of suicide.
To make things a bit more interesting, the animation has some fun putting them in abstract spaces while they discuss human abstractions. I enjoyed the sequence involving the Trolley problem and the analysis of it under utilitarianism.
There is some gun play, but no gun battles, no armored mobile suits, no magic or superpowers (other than whatever Magase is), and no future tech. It’s even possible to read this as Magase just being evil and adept, not supernatural (the Wiki page even seems to suggest this). Certainly it’s never spelled out exactly who she is, where she came from, or what her end game is.
Back in college, when I took world lit, I was told the Japanese don’t share the Western need to fill in all the blanks, spell things out, or wrap things up. What experience I have with Japanese cinema and anime seems to bear this out. I find I rather enjoy it; I like a bit of mystery in a story. Filmmaker Nicholas Roeg had the idea that we don’t know everything in life, and so his movies don’t explain everything.
Certainly Babylon leaves a great deal unexplained. The single season seems to form a complete arc, and nothing on the Wiki page suggests a second season. All things considered, it’s hard to imagine a second season.
I give this a strong Ah! rating. It kept me interested enough to binge all twelve episodes even though my original plan was two nights of six and six. But after six I decided to make it eight and four. And then nine and three. And then, what the hell, all twelve because I had to see what happened.
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A quick mention that I watched Jupiter’s Legacy on Netflix.
Meh! Definitely a Meh! rating.
I admit much of that is because I think superhero stories are a bit lame, but especially so as live action. Actual humans running around in costumes is… just embarrassing. It’s not real or natural, and at this point (at least for me) it’s gotten really, really old (’cause it was never that fresh to begin with).
I do better with animation or actual comic books.
Jupiter’s Legacy, somewhat like Invincible (an Amazon Prime animation; see Tons of TV), is about the older and newer generation of superheroes and the conflict between the ideals of the two groups. It raises some interesting questions, but never really explores them.
The series only lasted one season, and, to be honest, I can see why. That said, I liked it a whole lot better than, say, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
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Finally, if you have Hulu or access to Freeform TV, major props to the most recent episode of the Kenya Barris show, Grown-ish.
See my (largely ignored) post, Barris-ish AF for more about this trio of shows.
Of the three, Grown-ish, I suspect due to its younger demographic (and possibly in virtue of being on the Freeform network), has the latitude to be more edgy and life-like (as sitcoms go).
The August 5th episode, S4E5, “A Boy is a Gun”, was an excellent episode I’d urge everyone to try to see.
It’s about yet another shooting of a young Black man by police, and if your response is “oh, this again,” then you can eat my used shorts. The episode is, in large part, about exactly why we can’t tune this out.
The opening sequence was especially well-done. Supporting character, Doug (Diggy Simmons) is out for a nice jog. He stops at a local convenience store to buy a soft drink. During this sequence they switch to another young Black man also at a convenience store buying a soft drink.
The camera stays behind the young man so it’s not obvious there’s been a switch. As we exit the store behind him, he’s confronted and shot dead by the police. The camera ends on a closeup of his wallet making it clear it’s not Doug.
The episode centers on Doug’s reaction. His initial denial because the situation was so similar and his coming of age, so to speak, when just a week later another young Black man is shot and killed by the police.
The episode ends with the list of names we should all try to remember (but there are so tragically many of them that it’s almost impossible).
It certainly didn’t begin with Trayvon Martin, (it didn’t even begin 30 years ago with Rodney King), and it equally certainly didn’t end with George Floyd (since then 229 more Black people have been killed by police). But somehow we have to try to make it end. This is not “bad apples” — this is systemic evil.
Stay safe, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.