Okay, so, like, I really want to talk about
Babylon, and why it’s a good anime. Why it’s one of the best anime this season and
this year, in fact. Why I have to change my pants every time I watch a new episode. And
why I think all of you should be watching it too. But going into any depth about this
series will involve SPOILING THE SHIT OUT OF IT.
The show follows intrepid Tokyo prosecutor Zen Seizaki and his junior partner Atsuhiko
Fumio as they investigate a seemingly simple case of fraud at a pharmaceutical firm. Something
the young fumio finds boring, but which seizaki insists is still vital for preserving justice.
His point is proven in an unlikely manner when their routine dig through layers of corporate
infrastructure hits unexpected paydirt, and a piece of bloodstained paperwork leads our
intrepid sleuths to the location of a dead body.
The corpse is surrounded in the broken strands of a web of conspiracy, and just how vast
that web is is a mystery. But it clearly goes deep, involving career politicians, powerful
businessmen, and an indeterminate number of prostitutes. And when Fumio turns up dead
after following a lead on one of those working girls, something else becomes crystal clear:
this case is way too big… and way too dangerous, for seizaki to ignore.
Some of you might feel like I’ve just gone and spoiled something major by telling you
an important character dies in the first episode, but trust me, I’ve barely scratched the
surface. And that’s my problem. We’re about 6 or so crazy, game-changing revelations
deeper THAN THAT into one of the most compelling, wild, and unpredictable thrillers I’ve seen
in YEARS, and at this point I can’t even talk about what this anime is ABOUT, let alone
what makes it so good, without peeling back some of those layers.
So if you’ve seen the show already, or you don’t mind being spoiled for the sake of
hearing about its most interesting ideas, carry on. But otherwise, just… be aware
that you’re on a spoiler train from here on out, and feel free to disembark whenever
you’ve heard enough to convince you to watch it.
Though, uh, if you do… please come back and watch the rest of the video, too, so that
I can help you appreciate how brilliant this show REALLY is. And it is BRILLAINT.
I promise on my honor as, uh, a guy with a microphone and a lot of free time to watch
anime, that it’s 100% worth taking a blind leap into Babylon. And worth having to struggle
with amazon prime video to do it. Now, for those of you who already know that, and those
who are curious or need more convincing… let’s carry on with it, shall we?
Babylon is based on a book from up-and-coming Japanese Novelist Mado Nozaki; the same talented
author who penned the screenplay for one of 2017’s most thought-provoking original anime,
Kado: The Right Answer. I laid out some of my thoughts about Kado in a video essay from
that same year; “How to Begin an Anime: The Art of the First Episode” – which
I’d encourage you to watch too. I think it’s still an interesting video in spite
of the, erm… BOLD thumbnail design choices I made with it.
But I’m genuinely not sure if I’d encourage you to watch Kado itself in the same way.
2017 was a long time ago. And, unfortunately I don’t have time to rewatch it and check
for myself, at least right now. As I remember the series, though, it shares a predilection
for outlandish twists and turns with Babylon, and mirrors its focus on sociological storytelling
through the very specific lens of Japanese government bureaucracy.
If you’ve seen Gen Urobuchi and Hideaki Anno’s visionary bureaucratic Kaiju thriller
Shin Godzilla, it has a similar feel. But instead of a giant monster attack, Kado questions
how our existing political apparatus – on both a national and global scale – would
deal with the sudden appearance of a benevolent alien visitor who comes offering easy solutions
to war, famine, and the global climate and energy crises.
It then, uh, escalates… a bit, until it goes – and this is the only way I can describe
it without spoiling the whole damn thing – full on anime.
When I initially watched Kado, that ending really put me off it. It diverged so wildly
from the realistic, politically charged brand of science fiction that made me love the series
in the first place that I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. But looking back…
I remember that crazy twist a LOT more vividly, and fondly, than I do the equivalent “shark-jumping
moment” from, for example, Darling in the Franxx.
And even back then – unlike Daaaahling – Kado’s ending always gave me the impression that
it wasn’t a compromise on the creators’ original vision, but rather a very intentional
part of the statement they were trying to make. And I am all for stories doing crazy
things to make a point. I probably need to revisit Kado from a fresh perspective to say
definitively whether it works or not… but, well, that’s not what we’re here to talk
about today, is it? I bring all of this up… mostly to delay
the inevitable point where I’ll have to say what Babylon is ABOUT, honestly. But also
because I think this show balances its more “realistic” political components with
the supernatural, metaphysical elements of its storyline a lot more effectively than
Kado does. And if you’re someone who enjoyed Kado, whether or not you were disappointed
in its ending, I think you’re going to LOVE Babylon.
It definitely goes to some wacky places, but so far, for me, at least, it’s made it a
lot easier to accept those story shifts. As our view of the conspiracy widens, it becomes
clear fairly quickly that this show has a similarly broad sociopolitical scope. Though
it’s not quite as constrained by existing politics. Babylon is set in Shiniki, a fictional
new district of Tokyo that’s meant to act as a test bed of sorts for radical political
ideas; a place where Japan can try out new policies that will shape its future without
having to implement them on a national scale… but also a place where big businesses can
operate with less oversight. Much like other so-called “special economic
zones” in the real world. The conspiracy that Seizaki stumbled onto
is actually… a lot less obviously sinister than it first appears; it’s certainly undemocratic:
a plot by several of the minds behind Shiniki to install a young, visionary politician named
Itsuki Kaika as the new city’s first mayor. But everyone involved believes they’re working
for the greater good. Seizaki’s OWN BOSS is one of the conspirators, and he pulled
the detective onto the case because THEY don’t know why people are dying, either. And they
want it to stop. Now, I’m the type of nerd who gets excited
simply from seeing anime tackle concepts like that atall; but I know that dry political
science fiction… poly-sci-fi, if you will… isn’t for everyone. Luckily, Babylon’s
main draw doesn’t lie in the ideas and systems that it explores, but rather in the PEOPLE
it creates to explore them; and the atmosphere that it creates around them.
Babylon’s direction and storyboarding is nothing short of incredible. The series presents
every moment of its story with bold, expressive camerawork, editing, sound design, and animation.
In doing so, it seeks to help us get inside the heads of its characters, but also, in
its most impactful scenes, to worm its way inside our own minds, and get us following
new, sometimes uncomfortable and frightening trains of thought.
Babylon’s real power to do that becomes clear in the interrogation sequence that it
uses to frame episode 2. Which is hands down one of my favourite episodes of anime EVER.
Its A-plot focuses on Seizaki’s efforts to bring Ai Magase, a prostitute involved
in the conspiracy, in for questioning. Its B-plot, meanwhile, repeatedly cuts forward
in time to that interrogation; and the portrait these scenes paint of Magase’s character
is… utterly chilling. I can see Ai Magase going down as one of the
all-time great thriller villains. Anime or otherwise. Stellar writing, direction, and
animation conspire with a virtuoso vocal performance from veteran voice actress Yukino Satsuki
to lend the character a screen presence rivaling Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter and Havier
Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. But Magase isn’t quietly menacing, or cold and calculating.
She’s warm, cheerful, attractive, and charming. Dangerously… overwhelmingly so.
As the interview goes on, just by poking and prodding at Seizaki with leading questions,
Magase takes control of the conversation, charging the air in the interrogation room
with an overwhelming atmosphere of sex. As errant thoughts begin creeping into Seizaki’s
mind, the episode’s direction reflects them, becoming increasingly horny and avant garde,
until we’re watching Magase essentially swallow our protagonist whole from the POV
of her luscious, bow-shaped lips. And this isn’t just an example of anime
being horny because, you know, anime. It’s a vital demonstration of our villain’s power.
See, the Shiniki conspirators weren’t working with a prostitution ring to influence their
political allies. It was all one girl. Magase is a woman of many faces, able to change her
appearance such that she’s unrecognizable. Or at least, she is until she speaks. There’s
no mistaking her presence; her enticing, seductive mannerisms. It feels like she could convince
folk to do damn near anything. And, as a point of fact, she can. Seizaki
presumes, at first, that all of the deaths he’s investigating are staged suicides – cover
for murders – but the truth is at once simpler and more complicated. Every suicide is quite
real and voluntary. Because every person who dies in the show, with one significant exception,
is talked into it – into dying with a smile on their face – by Ai Magase.
And it’s still not entirely clear whether that’s the result of some supernatural ability,
or her Charisma stat is just that high. Although, given the show’s name and her involvement
in politics, it is pretty obvious that she’s at least inspired by the biblical – and
supernatural – “Whore of Babylon.” Magase’s abilities present an interesting
conundrum by themselves – how, exactly, does one investigate and prosecute the crime
of making other people earnestly want to be dead under any present law? Will Seizaki have
to bend his morals and go outside the law to get her? That question only gets more complicated
when you factor in her accomplice, Itsuki Kaika – the new mayor of Shiniki – who
begins his term in office by proposing some contentious legislation: A suicide law, enshrining
the right to die. Ai Magase is without question an EVIL person.
She says as much herself to Seizaki in the middle of a livestream where she does some
unquestionably EVIL things. But whether the goal she’s trying to reach by doing those
things – Itsuki’s goal – is itself evil is… well, that’s a lot less clear cut.
Seizaki and his fellow investigators frequently tell each other, and themselves, that it is.
That Itsuki’s suicide law will only lead to more deaths, and that he needs to be stopped
at ANY COST. But then, Itsuki himself makes a pretty compelling
case for the idea that giving people the legal option to die, if they want to, might be a
good thing. And he does so on ethical, legal, pragmatic, AND emotional grounds, all at once,
in a debate scene every bit as compelling as that interrogation.
I don’t want to spoil what happens – you really should watch the debate for yourself.
It managed to convince ME that Itsuki’s proposed law could do even more good than
I initially thought it could, all while presenting some remarkably sound arguments against it.
There’s good reason to have misgivings about legalizing suicide, which the show fully acknowledges,
but the issue is far from black and white. And that’s the real point here.
This fictional depiction of a national conversation about the pros and cons of giving man the
right to die (which is, for the record, a conversation that we probably should have
on non-fictional terms) is intended to provoke a strong reaction from us as an audience.
And then to get us to reconsider our initial stance, whatever it may be. I think babylon’s
handling of this topic is, in itself, fascinating enough to carry the series. But the real purpose
of raising that question is to make us consider a deeper one.
At its outset, Babylon seems to be a simple, thrilling, story of good cops hunting down
evil criminals. At least, that’s how Seizaki describes the work of prosecutors to Fumio
But in reality it is a philosophical deconstruction of those very concepts. A vehicle that takes
viewers on a tour through the foundations of modern morality, and encourages them to
question those foundational values. Babylon – named for the ancient empire ruled
by Hammurabi the Lawgiver, whose ideas STILL form the basis of our legal systems today
– is about the question of what justice really is; and it argues that unquestioning adherence
to strict moral principles is not always the opposite of pure, unambiguous evil. In fact,
it can easily be its bedfellow. When Seizaki realizes that his prosecutors
can’t make a case against Itsuki – because everyone who died did so willingly, and thus
the politician has broken no laws – he and his team resolve to take matters into their
own hands. They hatch a scheme to kidnap Itsuki following the debate; in their eyes, bringing
him to justice for his crimes… But from another perspective… it sure does
look an awful lot like a pack of self-appointed moral guardians who think they’re above
the law using violence to thwart a democratically-elected official because they don’t agree with his
policies. Policies that he’s not trying to enforce unilaterally, mind you; but that
he wants to put to the test of public referendum through the city’s council elections. Oh,
and Seizaki is willing to go through with that kidnapping, even if it means doing it
in front of Itsuki’s son Seizaki is not a bad guy. From our perspective
– or rather, his perspective, since that’s the one the series chooses to show us – he’s
a good man, driven by a passion for justice and a desire to protect his people, doing
what he thinks is right. But to do “what’s right,” he sure ends up doing a lot of questionable,
and at times unambiguously BAD things. Not all of them on the scale of becoming a
terrorist kidnapper. Just on a personal level, he often ends up hurting his own family, missing
important moments in his son’s life while he’s off chasing justice, (and he does so
with such regularity that his wife has taken to saying “it’s alright, there’ll be
other YEARS”). His family is so ancillary in his mind, that we don’t even learn they
exist until several episodes in… and… I mean… getting arrested for kidnapping
would only exacerbate his absence. But he doesn’t even think of that.
So, yeah, it’s pretty fucked up that Ai Magase convinces most of Seizaki’s accomplices
to off themselves. And even more fucked up what she does afterward; even if she does
manage to make it look… shockingly sexy and fun in the moment. She is a bad person
who needs to be stopped from doing bad things… but, uh, maybe Seizaki is, too? Maybe it’s
the doing of evil itself that determines if we’re good or evil. Not the justifications
we come up with for our actions And maybe, not even the net good that evil
might help bring about But then, if that’s the case, it only takes
doing good to be a good person. So maybe Seizaki can redeem himself by recognizing his mistakes
and doing some good in the world. The philosophy of justice that he espouses to his new partner,
Sekuro in episode 5 is certainly flexible enough to account for it.
I mean, he kinda states the show’s whole thesis up front in that moment; that there’s
not always a clear answer to what is and isn’t just, but a just person will always do their
best to find an answer. And that continuing to question your own definition of justice,
even when you’re sure of it, is the only way to ensure that you don’t behave unjustly.
I think that’s a sound moral philosophy. Though again, Seizaki does follow this up
by doing an attempted terrorism, so maybe he’s not the best at practicing what he
preaches. I’m saying “maybe” a lot here because
I don’t yet have my own hard answers to most of these questions, and even seven episodes
in, I can’t predict with any confidence whatsoever where Babylon is going.
Side note: the fact that I’m gonna have to wait until the series returns from hiatus
on December 30th to find out is killing me a little inside each day.
I’m not sure what stance the series is ultimately going to take on the questions it’s posing,
if it takes one at all. It’s done such a good job of making all of its characters complex
and comprehensible in their convictions that it could believably go any number of ways.
But I like that it doesn’t seem to expect me to reach the same conclusions it does;
that it’s main goal is simply to encourage me to ask these questions and contemplate
them seriously for myself. And I like that it recognizes both the danger
and the potential benefits that having such conversations about our moral convictions
can bring. Babylon is a smart, engaging, philosophically fascinating thriller unlike any anime I’ve
ever seen. And if any of that sounds enticing to you – if you haven’t already, of course
– I can’t urge you enough to see it for yourself.
If and when you do, or if you have already, please tell me what you thought of it, and
what your answers to the questions babylon raises are, in the comments below. But also,
please, for the love of all that is moe, be respectful to everyone else who’s doing
the same. Charged as we all know debates about these topics can get… please bear in mind
that it’s still just an anime, y’know? I’m Geoff Thew, Professional Shitbag, signing
out from my Mother’s Basement.