Publish date: July 10, 2013 Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Just this evening, I had the pleasure of reading volume 2 of CLAMP’s Tokyo Babylon, released by Dark Horse this week. My mind is spinning with trying to digest the beautiful complexity of this manga. It’s difficult to know where to begin when reviewing such an epic tale. The thing that I keep coming back to is the characters, and I guess that’s as good a place to start as any. There are three main characters that this story follows, and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered any three fictional people who became more real to me in such a short time. The main protagonist, Subaru, works as an onmyoji, sort of an exorcist and medium rolled up in one. A large portion of the narrative relates to the purity of this character. Subaru has a kind, giving nature, and a desire to help those he encounters. Of course, this trait, coupled with an innocence that many might perceive to be naïveté, makes him susceptible to all sorts of nastiness. He’s also a little shy, probably from a need to protect himself. It’s risky to care about others. I think that anyone who’s ever felt socially inept, like me, can relate to this vulnerability in Subaru.
There’s so much to be said for the way our own world, in this case represented largely by the darkness of the Tokyo in which Subaru resides, works to smother that kindness whenever it finds it, but there’s also real benefit to retaining that goodness if we can. It’s certainly not easy, and I doubt any of us could do it at all if we didn’t have help. Some of us retreat into ourselves, while some of us fortunately have a buffer. Subaru is lucky enough to have his outgoing sister, Hokuto, who often cocoons his soft spirit in the shell of her larger than life personality. She also serves, at times, to lighten the proceedings, which could get pretty heavy if not for the levity she provides.
The third regular member of the cast is Seishiro, the kinda-sorta love interest for Subaru. There’s a kind of tender menace to this character that I found very interesting, and although he’s a bit of an enigma for a good portion of the story, this mystery only makes him that much more interesting. The interactions of these diverse personalities led to some genuine wisdom in much of the prose here, and an insightfulness that was surprising at times. Although the story was initially released over 20 years ago, many of its lessons of tolerance and respect are more relevant now than ever.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the art at some point. If I had to sum it up in one word, that word would be “elegant”. It has a lot of what we’re used to from manga and anime, and I also see elements of indie comic art from the ’90s, which was about the time this was initially published, but there’s also a subtlety in the pencil work, an attention to detail in the way a panel is shaded or the fine lines in an old man’s face. It’s very compelling stuff that enhances the story that much more.
With regard to the story itself, it’s a doozy. There are lots of great twists, and a light edge of darkness—it is a book about the supernatural, after all—but that suits me just fine. It’s extremely moving, and just plain sad at times. The end had me wiping my eyes and blaming my allergies. If I had to point out a negative in this story, it would probably be the overwhelming tragedy of the whole darn thing. Don’t read this and expect to not carry it around with you for a bit.
In summation, I can’t think of anyone I know who wouldn’t enjoy this. Manga can be a little daunting, especially if it’s not the kind of thing you normally read. Even if this is your first time, I think this is a great beginner’s manga for adults. Tokyo Babylon has got some meat to it, so don’t go into it simply looking for a good time, but you will find yourself moved by this living, breathing artistic treasure.
I'm a lifelong media junkie, with a special love for comic books and geek culture. There's a fine, blurry line between a good time, and art that actually means something. I'm interested in exploring the ways that both sides of that line impact our lives, and the things we can learn about ourselves and each other.