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?
I also recently watched Jupiter’s Legacy on Netflix (Meh!), and I want to offer props to the most recent episode of Grown-ish, which I thought was compelling, well-done, and worth seeing.
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.
§ § §
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.
§ § §
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.
August 10th, 2021 at 3:03 pm
I will mention that in the axe scene the camera focuses exclusively on the axe-swinging Magase and the horrified watching over video Seizaki. It never shows Hiasa Sekuro after the establishing shots showing her tied down. That would have, I’m sure, been over the line.
August 10th, 2021 at 3:11 pm
I’ll also mention I enjoyed Gunpowder Milkshake on Netflix. Kind of a standard assassin’s action flick, but with some nice beats. Looks like Karen Gillan has leveraged Amy Pond into something of an action star.
August 10th, 2021 at 7:24 pm
Babylon sounds interesting. I hadn’t heard of that one. It sort of resonates with another series that comes up a lot in recommendations, albeit with a much more explicit supernatural take: Death Note. (I’ve heard the manga is better (read: darker and more twisted) than the anime.) Basically, a teenager discovers a notebook that when he writes a name in it, that person dies. Sounds like he starts with good intentions, but it reportedly goes into pretty dark places.
Most shonen don’t get as dark as what you describe, at least not in a sexual manner, but a lot of seinen do. One of the darkest I’ve seen so far is Berserk, which includes a supernatural rape scene. Another is Hellsing, although I haven’t watched much of that one (too horror oriented for my tastes). Although plenty of other seinen, like Ghost in the Shell, is far more moderate in that regard.
In general, I find most seinen to be have less over the top silliness than shonen. But most sci-fi appears to be shonen.
August 10th, 2021 at 8:13 pm
Definitely interesting! A story centering on the right to suicide is already pretty interesting. The evil apparent demon just ramps things up. The animation itself was also interesting, both in the camera angles and in the occasional departures from the normal drawing style.
I haven’t watched as much anime as you have and hadn’t noticed the alignment of SF and shōnen. It might explain why it’s been hard to find good (i.e. more adult) SF anime. Even in anime I still like my SF a bit crusty.
I’m guessing, but maybe the older demographic for seinen is more tied to Japan’s older mythical stories whereas the younger shōnen audience has more exposure to Western science fiction. (I’d also guess, based on hentai, that manga has way more latitude than anime!) ((OTOH, it is possible to buy hentai anime, so it does exist.))
I do find myself drawn to anime lately. I like the more complex characters and stories as well as how some of them get creative with the drawing styles. (Even the different normal styles are interesting. Babylon has something of a watercolor feel.) Now that I’ve finally finished Fairy Tail I’m starting to explore others. Between Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix, there is quite a selection!
August 11th, 2021 at 9:42 am
I don’t want to oversell the sci-fi shonen link, since some of the most famous sci-fi anime: Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, Legends of the Galactic Heroes, etc, are more seinen. (Wikipedia lists Cowboy Bebop as shojo, which is weird.) But it seems like most of what’s out there, Gurren Lagann, the Gundam stuff, Attack on Titan, etc, are shonen.
I was pretty surprised by how developed anime characters turned out to be, particularly the antagonists. Japanese fiction puts a lot more effort into character development.
I found Netflix and Hulu to be pretty good sources. Hulu in particular seems like a good source for the classic stuff. And Netflix has a lot of exclusive content. Although a lot of the good stuff is only available on Funimation, Crunchy Roll, or VRV. (I favor Funimation since it’s more likely to have the dubs.) But Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu are probably enough for casual interest.
August 11th, 2021 at 9:48 pm
Well, from what I can tell seinen seems a label more for manga than anime. A lot of anime is clearly directed towards adolescent males and easily falls under the shōnen label, but seinen does seem less easy to categorize — older males are more likely to have broader tastes. (That Expelled from Paradise anime movie I mentioned is clearly shōnen and also hard SF.)
Even Cowboy Bebop, which is definitely more mature, has Faye Valentine. 😀 😉
I don’t know if you have any experience with Japanese cinema, but one finds that same depth of characterization and development. I think culturally they’ve always taken storytelling seriously, and they have thousands of years of experience with it. Western storytelling is prone to getting lost in the spectacle.
Yeah, the anime on Netflix, Hulu, and Prime, will keep me occupied for quite a while. 🙂
Especially since that’s only part of what I watch, and watching is only part of what I do. Too few hours in the day sometimes (especially since I seem to spend some of them napping). Last night, for fun, and because I didn’t want to watch anything serious, I watched an episode of TOS — “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, which I’m sure you know is the second pilot, so things are a bit different from the first season overall. No McCoy, for one (let alone Chappell). And then, of course, Gary Lockwood and Sally Kellerman. And Kirk’s first ripped shirt. Very nostalgic!
August 12th, 2021 at 1:22 pm
The demographic targets do seem more apparent in the manga market, mostly because they get serialized in magazines dedicated to those particular audiences. Reportedly you can tell by the type of lettering used in the titles, although they often have have names like “Shonen Jump”, which makes it pretty obvious. I’m sure it mostly carries over into anime because so much of anime are adaptations of manga stories.
I’m pretty impressed by how faithful most anime series are to their manga source material. Movies are less so, but mostly because they’re forced to condense a lot of story. In some cases, the anime has a bit more foreshadowing, because the anime script writers usually have the full manga series to refer to, while the original manga artists might have been making it up as they went along.
Where No Man Has Gone Before actually gave me an existential jolt as a boy. The first time I saw it, I assumed throughout that Mitchell’s was being driven insane by the transformation, until Kirk’s monologue implying that no, anyone given that kind of power might do exactly what Mitchell was doing. And the episode basically ratified it be having the woman choose to help Kirk, despite going through the same transformation. To my six year old self, that was pretty profound stuff.
August 12th, 2021 at 7:51 pm
I’ve heard that about the lettering, too. Thinking about it, American print media can be very oriented towards specific demographics (food magazines, car magazines, etc) whereas our visual media overall is more generic. There are cable channels or shows that are specific, but somehow they don’t seem as exclusive to me as some print media. I suppose visual media channels involve much greater costs than producing some small magazine or manga?
TV series in general seem to have more range these days. TV has finally matured? I find I have been drawn to series more and more due to the greater depth and time. Movie adaptations have always been a challenge, exactly as you say, trying to compress the story. There aren’t many movie adaptations I really like, but quite a few TV series adaptations I do. (OTOH, the anime movies are kinda nice for a quick sampling of something.)
“Where No Man Has Gone Before” was written by Samuel Peeples, an experienced novelist and TV script writer. It’s cheesy in places, but I was impressed by the depth it did have. There were some very good stories that first year.
August 12th, 2021 at 8:44 pm
I think you’re right about print vs visual media. The print stuff is usually the work of one person, or is assembled from the work of individual people, or small teams of people. I remember reading something once about how authors shouldn’t worry about a publisher stealing their work, because the authors are actually the cheapest source of such work. So if an author wants to specialize in, say, medical thrillers, or romances in ancient settings, it might work for them. Most of the TV and movie stuff involve large scale production teams totaling in the hundreds of people, so extreme specialization usually isn’t economical.
August 12th, 2021 at 10:20 pm
Yep, exactly! Kinda reminds me of ‘zines; remember those? Often just one or two people with a mimeograph machine and a mailing list.
August 14th, 2021 at 7:58 pm
Watched Technotise: Edit & I, a Serbian animated movie, on Prime the other night. It was kind of interesting.
August 24th, 2021 at 11:05 am
The other night I watched the 2010 Japanese anime movie Welcome to the Space Show, which was cute and fun.
August 16th, 2021 at 10:38 am
By the way: