manga bookshelf

Off the Shelf: Tokyo Babylon

Warning: This roundtable contains spoilers for the entirety of Tokyo Babylon.

MELINDA: So, I’ll be honest, here. Though I am very anxious to see what the manga blogosphere has to say about CLAMP’s body of work as a whole, the biggest reason I proposed a CLAMP MMF in the first place was that I longed for an excuse to talk about my favorite CLAMP series, Tokyo Babylon.

As one of CLAMP’s earliest commercial works, Tokyo Babylon is certainly not their most deftly-plotted manga, nor their most polished—not by far. It is, however, one of their most honest manga, by which I mean that it contains a level of raw humanity and emotional truth that can be harder to find in some of their more sophisticated works.

And when it comes to things like “raw humanity” and “emotional truth,” who do I want to hash it out with? Why, The NANA Project, of course! This week, Michelle and I are pleased to welcome our NANA Project collaborator Danielle Leigh to the table for our MMF edition of Off the Shelf!

Welcome, Danielle, it’s so wonderful to have you here!

DANIELLE: Thanks so much for asking me to participate! We planned this so long ago but now that I’m rereading the project I found I’ve rediscovered my love of the title and, in a way, CLAMP as an artistic group. Even though parts of Tokyo Babylon are clumsy as hell I found myself really appreciating how well thought out the twists and turns were. For example, take all the artistic touches surrounding Seishirō anytime he appears in the work — CLAMP clearly knew who that character would be and what his backstory was from the very start.

And, okay, maybe the foreshadowing was heavy enough to drown in, sure, but there’s also a straightforward simplicity to how events play out that I feel CLAMP’s later titles would certainly benefit from (*cough* Tsubasa *cough*). It’s just refreshing to read a work and think, “yes, this plot was planned but not *forced.*”

MICHELLE: That was one thing I wanted to ask you two, actually. I pretty much learned about manga and CLAMP in the same breath, and because I asked a lot of questions, I was spoiled on the outcome of Tokyo Babylon before I ever read it. But, given that the foreshadowing is heavy-handed and starts at the end of volume one, was the reveal actually a surprise even to anyone who had not been spoiled?

MELINDA: For my part, I would say that the reveal of Seishirō as the Sakurazukamori was not remotely a surprise—nor do I think it was meant to be by that point. But what that ultimately meant for everyone involved was a huge surprise for me. I expected to find out that Seishirō was the “bad guy,” but I never expected his entire Seishirō-san persona to have essentially been a lie. I knew the truth, but I didn’t expect the consequences, if that makes sense.

DANIELLE: I was exposed to X/1999 (or the anime X) before I read this title so honestly I’m not sure if anyone would be *too* surprised about Seishirō being such a bad guy….but I think Melinda’s right. The consequences are so horrific when he finally takes off his nice guy mask that emotionally the whole thing *still* feels like a vicious punch to the gut.

MICHELLE: That’s a good way of putting it!

MELINDA: So, we’ve sort of accidentally started with the end of the series. Let’s back up a bit, so new readers can grasp what on earth it is we’re talking about!

For a series with such a sweeping title, Tokyo Babylon is a fairly intimate manga, in that it essentially has only three characters: Subaru, a shy 16-year-old onmyōji and head of the powerful Sumeragi clan; his twin sister, Hokuto; and Seishirō Sakurazuka, a kindly veterinarian whom the two Sumeragi twins have befriended. Other characters (like the twins’ grandmother, and a young woman Hokuto meets during adventures of her own) flow in and out of the story, along with a host of onmyōji customers and “monsters of the week,” but every real theme in this story revolves around these main three, and them alone.

All three characters are introduced in the first chapter, in which Subaru is finishing up a job exorcising the spirit of a young woman who committed suicide after being cruelly dumped by a womanizing celebrity. While Hokuto chastises Subaru for helping out such a creep, Seishirō points out Subaru’s kindness in freeing the young woman’s spirit for her own sake, establishing the trio’s dynamic pretty much immediately. As the series goes on, chronicling Subaru’s continued duties as an onmyōji, two things will remain consistent; Seishirō will express his love and admiration for Subaru’s selfless spirit, while Hokuto will wish desperately for him to abandon that selflessness just long enough to want something for himself—a wish that will ultimately have consequences far beyond her expectations.

Though the beginning of the series feels straightforwardly light and (rather awesomely) humorous, even its jokes—like Seishirō’s teasing “love” for Subaru—are pretty deeply nuanced, something that’s become even more apparent to me on this particular re-read.

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DANIELLE: Melinda, you are much more generous about taking the opening premise and early characterization seriously than I am. When I was first introduced to the character I found I neither liked nor disliked Subaru and that in the early volumes both Hokuto and Seishirō behave in fairly cliched, and, to me, rather annoying ways. Hokuto often feels like the proto-yaoi fangirl (even though we find out about her deeper motivations much later on), while Seishirō plays the not-really-bad-wolf-in-veterinarian’s clothing (only later to be revealed as guilty of much, much worse than being a potential seducer of a 16 year old boy). Subaru is the empty center of the story and he lacks real definition for a very long time.

This all sounds terribly harsh but I firmly believe that all these characterizations are, in fact, carefully orchestrated by CLAMP to give the reader one hell of a payoff later on. And, of course, Subaru grows tremendously as a character over the course of the series. He starts of as a bit of a cipher (personality wise) and eventually develops real flaws, character traits, and deeper emotions.

MICHELLE: There’s definitely a sense of being lulled into a false sense of security. “Oh, nothing to see here. Just some disposable supernatural monster-of-the-week stories plus some fashion-conscious twin and a lot of BL teasing that results in Subaru taking pratfalls every three pages!” But we later learn that, with the exception of Subaru, everyone secretly had an agenda for acting the way they did, which is just marvelous.

MELINDA: I think why I’m so generous about this (to use Danielle’s words) is because my re-read convinced me that it was all incredibly brilliant, and it also helped me notice a lot of nuance that wasn’t apparent to me the first time around. I’m especially impressed with the way CLAMP handles Subaru.

One personal philosophy that is stated over and over again in this series (expressed by both Subaru and Hokuto at various times) is that no person can ever truly understand another person’s pain. Most often this idea is used to explain a lack of judgement made regarding other people’s choices and decisions and a respect for their uniquely painful circumstances. But while this philosophy seems on the surface to be a grand acknowledgement of individuality, Subaru takes it so much to heart that he not only refuses to make his mark on anyone else, he also resists becoming a fully realized individual himself, as though even that might be an affront to others. He lets other people dictate his movements, his feelings, his personal appearance—he is deliberately a non-entity. And while someone else as spiritually powerful as he is might do these things deliberately to facilitate deception, Subaru does this to avoid being an influence on anyone else. Once I realized that this was what he was doing, I could see it everywhere—along with Hokuto’s need to find a way to get him to rebel against it, even if it meant becoming involved with someone dangerous.

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I’ll be honest—on this re-read I was kind of blown away by how carefully CLAMP crafted these characters, especially Subaru.

DANIELLE: I very much agree with your take on Subaru’s characterization with one important exception — I don’t think Subaru consciously understands a lot of his own choices and behaviors (in other words, I think CLAMP is being deliberate in their writing choices, rather than the character consciously making the choice to become a non-entity). Otherwise, I don’t think he would have such a shocking sense of emptiness, terror and guilt in the aftermath of Seishirō sacrificing his eye to save Subaru’s life. In those moments you can see him gradually awakening, with some desperate prodding by Hokuto, to his true self. Eventually he reaches the point where it all boils over and he basically realizes, “yes, I not only love Seishirō, but I’m also *in love* with him” (I’m just paraphrasing here). That’s the moment he reaches person-hood and it’s in that moment, of course, CLAMP tears it all down by having Seishirō reveal himself. God, it’s just so brutal.

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MICHELLE: Yeah, I do think it’s so deeply ingrained in him he doesn’t know he’s doing it. When one of his jobs takes him to the home of a former classmate who’s spent four months asleep to avoid a traumatic reality, we see a flashback to a very young Subaru taking the delinquents’ kicks originally meant for a stray dog. He’s perfectly willing to take on consequences himself if it means protecting someone or something else, but he’s horrified that someone would do something similar for him.

MELINDA: Perhaps I should have chosen my words more carefully, because the truth is, I agree! When I say he’s “deliberately” doing this, I don’t necessarily mean that he’s completely aware of why or even always when he is refusing to assert himself as an individual. But I still think that kind of behavior is deliberate. Somewhere inside him, Subaru has determined that he should not put himself forward in a way that impacts anyone else—maybe it’s a reaction to the amount of power he knows he possesses, or to being given such a heavy role in the world at so young an age, or something completely different—but even if he’s not aware of all the steps between that determination and the actions he takes every day, I feel that’s still a real choice.

Michelle, I’m reminded too of the scene in which Subaru is trying to help a group of girls who have been practicing amateur dark magic over a party line. This scene hit me especially hard after the fact because of Seishirō’s interference, which at the time feels like absolutely the correct reaction. As Subaru is voluntarily taking all sorts of damage in order to avoid hurting the girls, I found myself somehow on Seishirō’s side, unwilling to accept Subaru’s selflessness when it meant he’d be sacrificing himself to atone for someone else’s horrible mistakes. But of course, Seishirō’s motivations are entirely sinister, while Subaru’s alone are pure. The way that CLAMP stealthily aligns the reader’s sympathies with something that is ultimately evil in a scene like this is also part of what makes later events feel so brutal.

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This is also part of what makes Hokuto’s journey so moving and tragic, since we essentially find ourselves mirroring her own concerns for Subaru (or at least, I do), but unlike a lot of supporting female characters in manga featuring a male protagonist, she doesn’t only exist in the story for his sake. One of my favorite chapters in the entire series is one in which we get to see Hokuto’s life outside of Subaru’s (yes, she actually has one). In this chapter, Hokuto helps a young foreign woman escape from police, and in pretty spectacular fashion, too. Here, Hokuto—who is otherwise shown mostly in her role as Subaru’s caretaker and personal fashion designer—is a bona fide hero herself, showing up exactly when she’s needed to kick some serious ass. It’s the only chapter in which she appears on her own like this and I wish there were more, though I do appreciate the fact that later in the series when she’s headed out on a “date,” it’s implied that she’s meeting up with the woman she befriended at that time.

By about halfway through the series, I found I absolutely adored Hokuto—which of course made her end especially horrifying. What are your thoughts on her?

DANIELLE: Even though Hokuto has tried to distinguish herself from her brother—and to help give him the tools to do the same—I still feel like half of Subaru dies with Hokuto in the end. And I hate this feeling, because it goes against what the character herself says she stood for (i.e. that even though they are brother and sister, and twins, they are *not* the same person). On the other hand, I feel as though my inability to see her as separate from Subaru is also a consequence of that character failing to follow her own instructions. She gets so caught up in trying to give Subaru his own identity, I think she sacrifices parts of her own identity—not merely her own life—on his behalf.

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MICHELLE: I was thinking along similar lines, actually. If one person is allowing their identity to be largely defined by another, that means there exists someone whose purpose it is to try to shape that person into what/who they think they should be. Which ultimately means Hokuto is a fairly selfless person, too.

Perhaps that’s why I so dearly loved the chapter where we see Hokuto help the foreign woman, because she suddenly comes so vibrantly and independently alive. I don’t think we even knew she had powers of her own up until that point—possibly because they are so modest that they wouldn’t be of help to Subaru on the job—but she is such a pure heroine in the other lady’s eyes that I wish we got to spend more time with her, to see how she truly sees the world when she’s not so desperately trying to save her brother.

MELINDA: You’re both brilliant, and (of course) right. And maybe what you’re getting at is something beyond either of the philosophies stated by Hokuto and/or Subaru over the course of the series. Perhaps both of their ideas are too simple to be useful.

While Hokuto is desperately trying to carve out identities for both herself and her brother as individuals and Subaru is desperately trying to have no identity at all, the truth is, they are both separable and inseparable at the same time. While they clearly are and must be individuals, they also can’t help being two parts of a single unit, and trying to define themselves entirely as either one or the other is simply not possible, or even desirable.

Is it wrong that they should need each other? I don’t think so. Nor is it wrong for them to be considerate to each other as individuals (this speech of Hokuto’s is one of my favorite things in the series, by the way). And in the end, the loss of either of them is inevitably devastating to the other. It would have to be. And even though I hate seeing what happened to Subaru over the loss of Hokuto (or contemplating the state Hokuto would have been in, had it ended up the other way around), I guess I can’t really wish for them to have been less important to each other. Can you?

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DANIELLE: And forgive the irreverence of the following comment, but what the hell are two 16 year olds doing with such trenchant life philosophies anyway? Oh, CLAMP. Even though Subaru looks like a teenager, he and Hokuto never really get to act like they are one (compared to say, Watanuki, who gets to throw tantrums, complain constantly, hold irrational grudges, and generally act like a pain in the ass. Every inch of him a teenager most of the time). Even when Hokuto’s doing silly things in a silly way for a very silly reason, there’s such an element of *seriousness* to it all. It kind of breaks my heart all over again.

MICHELLE: One wonders how much of a childhood they were actually able to have, with their parents gone and such heavy responsibility thrust upon Subaru so young.

It’s such a sad life for him, and one that doesn’t get any better. I’m not sure how much either of you have read or seen of X. I’ve seen the anime, but read only the first volume of the manga, and I’m not sure Melinda’s done either, or if she’s investigated to see what eventually becomes of Subaru.

MELINDA: I have read all of X/1999 (and didn’t care for it much, though I’m trying to let the new omnibus releases convince me that there’s more to it than just waiting for Subaru to show up), so I do know what becomes of Subaru, and you’re right, it really it does not get any better for him. There is more hope for alternate-universe vampire!Subaru in Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (he at least gets to have a twin again), though of course that isn’t quite the same. I guess that’s an advantage to being a CLAMP character, though… you do get second chances, one way or another.

I actually wanted to talk a bit about both these characters in other CLAMP universes and also what traits Tokyo Babylon does and doesn’t share with other CLAMP series. While reading Cardcaptor Sakura alongside Tokyo Babylon for the purposes of the feast, I was struck by one of the funnier philosophies they share—that designing and creating outfits for someone might be the ultimate gesture of love. Comments?

DANIELLE: In spite of the fact this series is a prequel to X/1999 (and a kind of dress rehearsal for the relationship between Kamui and Fūma in that series) in my mind I connect it to xxxHolic more than CCS, Tsubasa or X/1999. But I think that’s an artistic link, rather than a character or thematic one, that’s going on in my head. Thinking it over, I feel like X/1999 is the sprawling, epically messy unleashing of the very carefully designed plot of Tokyo Babylon. The story is, in fact, so fantastically messy the damn thing — for whatever reason — can’t even be finished. I get the feeling I might be the only one here who is rather fond of X/1999 (or the anime X) but it’s a fondness that comes from appreciating how imperfect it is as a sequel and as a narrative work. In contrast, you could never use such a mild word as “fond” to describe how I feel about Tsubasa or xxxHolic (although for very different reasons).

I really like Melinda’s point, though….providing a friend or family member with a costume change is the ultimate act of love in the CLAMP universe! :-)

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MICHELLE: I’m not anti-X, but I feel oddly disconnected from it.

And yes, I am sure Hokuto and Tomoyo would get along fabulously. Hokuto could be a kind of mentor to her… it’d be great!

Of course, another theme that begins (I think) in Tokyo Babylon and proceeds to permeate CLAMP’s other works is the idea of “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.” Seishirō loses his eye to protect Subaru, and then suddenly eyes are lost or swapping all over the place. It’s become such a CLAMP trademark that it’s actually a cliché now, sort of how people just stopped being surprised when Joss Whedon kills a character.

MELINDA: I admit I like the eye exchange in xxxHolic the best, but maybe that’s just because it was my first. Heh.

There are a lot of themes that run through CLAMP’s work as a whole, both visually and otherwise. One of the things I’m struck by with Tokyo Babylon, however, is how little it resembles its sequel, in every way, really. Danielle has already touched on this, in terms of structure and plot, but visually, too, they couldn’t be more different.

DANIELLE: Agreed. The reason I also think of X/1999 as messy is because it actually looks quite messy in comparison to the crisp, clear art of Tokyo Babylon. I absolutely love the art in Tokyo Babylon, it remains second only to xxxHolic in my own personal ranking of CLAMP styles. I think X/1999 pretty much begat Tsubasa, and my god does the art in that series drive me up the wall.

MICHELLE: I think “messy” is a great way to describe X, but for me it feels that way largely because of its huge cast, compared to the extremely intimate trio in Tokyo Babylon. Granted, I’ve not read the majority of the manga, but from what I’ve seen it looks like there’s just not time to get to know and care about everybody, there’s just so many people and so much going on in the scenes that the visuals can’t help but be all crowded and hectic. There’s no time for atmosphere, which Tokyo Babylon possesses in abundance.

I actually got used to the art in Tsubasa after a while—well, more or less—but the in-your-face gangliness of the character designs is not something I’ll ever be a fan of.

MELINDA: I think I may love the artwork in Tokyo Babylon even more than xxxHolic, but if so, it’s not by much. Both series are striking in their elegant storytelling, their stunning use of black, and a sort of woodblock sensibility that makes them feel somehow timeless. Even Tokyo Babylon‘s unapologetic 80s fashion sense manages to come off as elegant in CLAMP’s hands. xxxHolic also resembles Tokyo Babylon in its intimacy. Even though there are a greater number of vital characters, and obviously the story is much longer and wider in scope, the main setting of Yūko’s shop creates the same kind of private world Tokyo Babylon‘s characters live in.

DANIELLE: Honestly, Melinda sums up the ties I see between these series so beautifully I don’t have too much to add. I would just say if Yūko’s shop is is the centerpiece of xxxHolic, then Tokyo itself is basically the fourth character in Tokyo Babylon. Before the series gets almost claustrophobic in its tight focus on Subaru and Seishirō’s relationship, there’s a lot of pontificating in the omniscient narration about Tokyo as a kind of mirror of the human condition. It’s totally overblown and hokey, but that’s CLAMP. And I’m okay with it.

MICHELLE: That’s a great point, and you’re absolutely right. And a lot of the woes leading to the supernatural crises that Subaru is called upon to solve have something to do with Tokyo, from celebrities seducing pure-hearted girls to thugs running rampant in an apartment block, leading the residents to gossip about their misdeeds. It’s almost as if Subaru is having to clean up Tokyo’s messes.

I agree that visually (or perhaps the word I’m really looking for is stylistically), xxxHOLiC is probably the most similar to Tokyo Babylon of all CLAMP’s works. It feels like they really exhibited some restraint with these series. They didn’t go overboard with swirls and feathers and putting wings on everything, but kept things kind of understated and gloomy.

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MELINDA: I certainly agree, Danielle, that CLAMP’s Tokyo parables are pretty hokey, though what makes it all worthwhile for me is the payoff in the final volume, where Seishirō mocks Subaru’s agony over his betrayal by saying, “Things like this happen in Tokyo every day.” With that one sentence, Seishirō manages to belittle not only Subaru’s feelings in the moment, but also basically every single time the two of them had ever talked about the city as they worked to help its many lost souls. It’s so cruel, but wow does he hit that on the nose. I’m not sure it would have had the same impact without the overblown narrative in those early volumes.

Another connection this series has with xxxHolic is the primary message being aimed at its protagonist by those who love him—Hokuto and (interestingly) Seishirō in the case of Tokyo Babylon and Yūko and Dōmeki in xxxHolic—that lesson being that it’s ultimately selfish and perhaps even hurtful to devalue and thoughtlessly sacrifice oneself for the sake of others. Ironically, it’s Seishirō who says this outright in Tokyo Babylon, after sacrificing his eye to save Subaru (whom he actually does not love at all), and given that irony, perhaps it’s fitting and meaningful somehow that, unlike Watanuki, Subaru never really gets the message.

DANIELLE: I must pause here to mention that Watanuki is my favorite CLAMP character of all time. Dōmeki is probably my second favorite.

Okay, here’s a question that’s been on my mind—do we really think Seishirō does not care for Subaru at all? And by “care” I mean have some interest in Subaru in his own evil, twisted fashion and not…you know. Anything resembling traditional human affection. Why in the world would he go so far in order to keep his original “bet” (that, honestly, he made with himself, not even with Subaru). Or am I letting knowledge of X/1999 cloud my reading of the prequel?

MICHELLE: “Care” has so many connotations of loving kindness, that it’s hard for me to even use the word in this context. I think Seishirō delights in tormenting Subaru, and that Subaru is his favorite plaything. So he’s not utterly unconcerned with him, by any stretch of the imagination. It still really bothers me that we don’t learn what he said to Subaru in X, and I’m not sure CLAMP ever intended to tell us, even before the series went on hiatus.

MELINDA: I think that’s a really fair question, Danielle, and seriously I just don’t even know. I don’t know how much we can trust everything that Seishirō says to Subaru at the end of the series. He claims to feel nothing at all for Subaru and to perceive no difference between him and a common household object, but then you’re right… what the hell? Why bother with the “bet” in the first place? Why didn’t he just kill Subaru the first time they met? And even if you (or we) are letting our knowledge of X get into the middle of this, I think that’s fair, since it is a canon continuation of this storyline.

I feel like… he’s lying. Or perhaps he doesn’t even quite realize that he’s lying, since he’s completely inexperienced when it comes to human emotion.

Also, I agree, Michelle. I really wish we knew what he said to Subaru at the end of their arc in X. It will haunt me forever, as these things do.

DANIELLE: CLAMP really loves to play with shadow selves and mirroring and Tokyo Bablyon is just *bursting* with mirroring imagery, particularly with Seishirō. Everything about his representation points to the existence of the dark identity he’s skillfully hiding (i.e. part of the foreshadowing we discussed earlier). But we never get a hint that the surface self he presents is bleeding into the hidden self. I think I would understand that character a bit more if we saw any tension or conflict in how he perceives and understands his own actions. But we never see that happen. At least in this series.

MICHELLE: Oh, now you’re making me think of a character in Cardcaptor Sakura, but I’m not sure how much I should say without knowing where certain reveals transpire or where Melinda is with the series!

MELINDA: I’ve read all of Cardcaptor Sakura, so you’re good to go.

MICHELLE: Oh, good! I was going to mention the dual identities of Yukito and Yue. Granted, Yue is not evil, but he is rather cold and unemotive, but has been hiding himself in the body of open and friendly Yukito for so long that some of Yukito’s feelings have begun to rub off on him, particularly as regards Tōya. And that’s something that doesn’t seem to have happened with Seishirō, who is able to just manipulate the Sumeragi twins without apparent qualm.

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MELINDA: I was thinking about that, too, Michelle, even though Yukito/Yue is such a drastically different character than Seishirō. I have to admit, the way that character is handled is so much more in line with what I expect from a shoujo manga than what CLAMP does with Seishirō.

You know, Danielle, I actually think what you just said about Seishirō is one of the reasons Tokyo Babylon was so surprising to me the first time I read it. I was relatively new to reading manga at the time, and I’d read a lot of shounen manga and a lot of fairly uplifting shoujo, and one of the things that nearly always happens in those series, is that characters we initially perceive as villains will turn around and become very sympathetic characters, by way of backstory or some other kind of revelation later on. The message driven home by that trope is that understanding is the key to learning to love someone, or perhaps that anyone can be granted salvation (of a sort) by way of understanding. These series are careful to always give us something to latch on to—to help us understand even the most seemingly depraved characters before the end.

Tokyo Babylon rips that trope to shreds by giving us nothing of the sort. Not only does the series end with unrepentant tragedy and despair, but there’s absolutely no sense that we should understand why it had to happen. There’s no redemption for Seishirō, because there’s not even the slightest hint of humanity for which we might feel sympathy. Seishirō’s motivations are inscrutable, he makes horrible things happen, and there is no understanding it (nor certainly any fixing it). The message of Tokyo Babylon is that sometimes people are just horrible, goodness does not always win, and our weaknesses may very well be exploited without any chance at all for us to learn from them. It’s a bleak, bleak message that I never expected to find in a shoujo manga series, and it left me absolutely wrecked as I finished it.

Of course, this was also kind of awesome.

So, I’ve talked a little here about my own personal response to Tokyo Babylon. I think you both know me well enough by now to know that it’s important to me to feel emotionally affected by a story, and I’m sure my strong emotional response to this series has a lot to do with why it’s such a favorite. Though it’s interesting to note that unlike so many favorite stories of mine, there isn’t a character I personally identify very deeply with—unlike, say, NANA, where I do find exactly that kind of touchstone in Nana Komatsu. I think I’m a more emotionally-driven reader than most, however, so I’d be curious to know what your own connections are with this series.

DANIELLE: I think my connection to this series is almost completely on the level of “that shit is entertaining.” Yes, I’m moved by what happens to Subaru and Hokuto but there’s also this *thrill* of reading a story where the creators aren’t afraid to just go for it. Melinda, you’ve beautifully analyzed your expectations versus experience of the work, but man. All I can say is, that was a really *good time*—that reading this story was, in its own way, *fun.* The older I get the more I realize how rare it is to be able to say that about a piece of popular entertainment. Too often we see the flaws and the cracks and all the random authorship-by-committee stuff that gets thrown into mass culture to make it palatable for too large an audience.

Here all I see is CLAMP pulling a ripcord I didn’t even realize was there. So, yeah…I second Melinda: It *is* kind of awesome.

MICHELLE: I feel similarly, Danielle, though for me there’s also a very powerful undercurrent of nostalgia, as Tokyo Babylon was one of the first manga series I ever heard about, and the first I was so excited to read that I bought the complete set in Japanese and scoured the internet for text translations.

But when I consider my response to the story itself, one of the things I’m most struck by is CLAMP’s chutzpah. I frequently wish that creators would be brave enough to go for the sad ending. It seems to me this doesn’t happen much anymore. Could this possibly be some Western influence creeping in? Now, granted, I’m not basing this on scholarly research or anything, but it seems to me that sad endings were more common in the past. Now even CLAMP seems to shy away from them—please note I say this without having read the endings of Tsubasa and xxxHOLiC, so please don’t spoil me!—if the way they handled Kobato. is any indication. There was the potential there for a bittersweet ending that would retroactively have cast the entire series in a more positive light for me, but they didn’t commit to it.

So while I lament that there aren’t more of these wonderfully, awesomely sad shoujo classics, I am very grateful for the perfect examples of same that do exist. (Aside from Tokyo Babylon, I am counting Banana Fish among them.)

MELINDA: You’ve rounded things out so nicely here, both of you. Thank you! And many thanks to you both as well for indulging my desire to dwell on this dark little series that has been such an enduring favorite of mine.

As we wrap things up, I’d like to make make one very heartfelt plea: We know that Dark Horse has acquired the license to reprint Tokyo Babylon in omnibus format, though the timeline has stretched quite a ways beyond what was originally reported. We know these releases take time and work, but… might it be soon? Pretty please?

It’ll be so lovely, won’t it?

MICHELLE: Very lovely indeed.

To submit your contributions to the CLAMP MMF for inclusion in this month’s archive, please send your links by email to or via Twitter to @mbeasi. If you would like your contribution(s) to be hosted at Manga Bookshelf, please email them to Melinda, along with any included images.

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  1. Ooh, Tokyo Babylon—this is an old favorite, the first CLAMP series that I got hooked on! I saw the anime first, which I loved enough to seek out the manga. I remember buying the Japanese volumes because it hadn’t yet been licensed in the US, even though I could only read a little Japanese at the time. Mostly I just looked at the pretty pictures, but I remember struggling to read the big revelation scene at the end with a Japanese-English dictionary because I was in shock and denial about what was happening. (I bought the TOKYOPOP version when it came out, of course, and was thrilled to read it in English, even though the ending was still devastating.)

    I’ll agree with you guys that there was ominous foreshadowing about Seishirou from the start, but his betrayal still came as an emotional shock, even though I already suspected that it was coming. I could accept that he was a bad guy, but I couldn’t accept that he truly felt nothing for Subaru. I remember talking it over with a friend who said something similar to what Melinda said, that Seishirou doesn’t have enough experience with love to recognize his own feelings for Subaru, which gave me a tiny bit of hope and comfort to get me through that bleak ending. I don’t think that he’s consciously lying, but I do believe that he cares about Subaru in his own twisted way, and I would say that his actions in X/1999 confirm that, even though we don’t know what his final words to Subaru are. (And I think it’s fair to take both series into account, seeing as how they’re connected.)

    Anyway, thank you for the great discussion—I’m definitely going to go read the series again now!

  2. I love this series, too. And now I’m going to have to reread it. And I am not sad about this one bit.

    Melinda said, “. . . Seishirō’s motivations are entirely sinister . . .”

    I think they are more scientific, in a way. He gave feelings a try (the same way a certain character in Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks did). Seishiro went through the motions, did the right things, made the right noises, played the role, possibly hoping that he would grow into it and really start to feel and know and understand. One last chance at salvation.

    But it didn’t work. Even to the end of X, he didn’t understand, but he thought he did because, based on logical scientific conclusions, Subaru ought to have wanted to kill Seishiro. [SUPER X SPOILERS]I think for me it was key that Fuma-as-Kamui made it clear (to the readers at least) what Subaru’s real wish was and that he knew what Seishiro wanted, as well. For me, the confirmation that Seishiro really did think Subaru was special lay in the fact that he let himself be killed because he thought that’s what Subaru wanted/needed [END OF SUPER X SPOILERS], and you don’t place a premium on someone else’s feelings/wishes/desires (or what you think those things are) if you don’t care for them in some way.

    This is that scary side of love: the part that has to do more with choice and action than feelings. The part that will kill and die for the beloved if that’s what is best for the beloved in your opinion. Scary, intense stuff. (Love and death, as that character pointed out in War for the Oaks, are the things humans are often obsessed with, which is why they are so often coupled.) The ending of Tokyo Babylon was so powerfully devastating for me because it was totally plausible to me at the time that someone could act like a human being perfectly while concealing a monster beneath.

    The ending was personally terrifying because I had gone through a period as a young teenager where I really didn’t feel emotions the way people were obviously supposed to. Anger was about the only thing I really felt. Everything else felt like putting on that mask and doing the right thing because it was the right thing regardless of how I felt about it. It was no huge leap to see that someone could fall off that edge on the other side and choose to be a sociopath. It hurt me that while I identified with Subaru, I also identified with Seishiro, which is not something a sane person wants to be true. So while some people complained about the “fake” ending or talked about how “unrealistic” it was, well, I didn’t say anything.

    Really lovely roundtable, folks! I stayed up way too late to read it last. I may regret that later in my dreams . . . : ) If only every character in X could have had this rich of a backstory published and in place before the series started . . . Holy cow . . .

  3. This was a good read.

    Now this made me understand some things about X/1999. Subaru finally found somebody who shared his same pains. Kamui’s character development is the opposite of Subaru. He starts distant, quiet and when getting attached to Fuuma, Kotori again he develops his own identity. However, just then Kamui’s life goes through tragedy and while not being cold anymore, Kamui stops acting like himself. He gets close to the Dragons of Heaven including Subaru. Subaru sees himself in Kamui which is why they are almost like brothers. Additionally, in the 18.5 volume of X Subaru comments he knows Kamui’s true wish even though Kamui is not aware of it. One important thing of volume 18.5 is that Subaru regained his old look, wears gloves and even has Seishiro’s eye. I have no idea what does this mean though.

    I believe if ever Clamp decides to continue it, Subaru will obtain happiness if his “younger brother” realizes his true wish and develops his identity.


  1. […] her three favorite CLAMP women as well. Melinda, Michelle Smith, and Danielle Leigh devote their On the Shelf roundtable to Tokyo Babylon, and Kate Dacey picks Suki: A Like Story as The Best Manga You’re […]

  2. […] truth is a bit more nuanced. Though I count several of CLAMP’s manga among my very favorites (Tokyo Babylon, Cardcaptor Sakura, and xxxHolic are a few I’ve praised vocally over the past few years), my […]

  3. […] Off the Shelf: Tokyo Babylon (Melinda Beasi, Michelle Smith, & Danielle Leigh, Manga Bookshelf) […]

  4. […] Osashiburi, Melinda-san! I hope our readers didn’t think the Tokyo Babylon roundtable did us […]

  5. […] Okay, yes, I’m a fangirl on a massive level, here, but there are so many reasons why this is my favorite CLAMP series (and one of my favorite manga series of all time). I’ll […]

  6. […] this Tumblr post totally spoils the whole series, but it’s hilarious. Here’s a more substantial overview of the whole series, with art samples and spoilers. (The publisher provided a digital review […]

  7. […] about the full series at length, both in my original review of it at Comics Should Be Good and in our roundtable discussion last year, so I won’t spend time repeating myself here. Instead, I’ll talk about […]

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