Monday, February 1, 2016

TOKYO BABYLON Volumes 1-7 by CLAMP


Full disclosure: Slowly yet surely, I'm now reading most of CLAMP's manga since I've been an avid fan of their works in anime (Magic Knight Rayearth, Cardcaptor Sakura, Chobits and Kobato), not failing to mention that my all-time favorite manga (and certainly one that is close to my heart and soul) is probably the frustratingly tragic and punishingly intricate series xxxHoLic. I'm also finally completing my readings for Tsubasa Chronicle on the side because this is supposedly CLAMP's magnus opei and with its flexible narrative concerning alternate worlds, many characters from CLAMP's other works have made appearances in every volume--and the most unforgettable of them is probably Seishirou who was first introduced as Syaoran's mentor from childhood who then stole one of Sakura's memory feathers so he can use it to find a certain pair of vampire twins. In any case, I was curious about him so I asked some friends in fandom who can help me find more about this character and I was then directed to this manga--and experience the pairing of Seishirou and Subaru which caused the very devastation that left a permanent mark on CLAMP's subsequent shounen-ai inclinations in other pairings like my personal favorite Doumeki and Watanuki of xxxHoLic

SeiSub (their fandom-agreed portmanteau) also makes a final appearance in X/1999, an apocalyptic urban fantasy manga that essentially broke apart every SS shipper's heart due to that confrontation between the said men which concluded their very unhealthy yet intense and powerful connection/non-relationship. I was spoiled early on before I even started reading this manga, and I was glad I was because I most definitely need all kinds of preparation to endure what is to come once I do start reading X/1999. Look, I'm a Charles/Erik (Professor X/Magneto) fanatic so intricately depressing pairings between stubborn yet admirable men are my cup of tea already, so I know I am more than equipped to handle Seishirou and Subaru's own sadomasochistic tango, but I never could have anticipated the level in which their own music plays. It's so unbelievably hurtful because on one hand, this is a 'non-relationship' (Oh, CLAMP is the motherfucker of such pairings, trust me) that is ill-advised and unhealthy and yet on the other hand it's also rendered so consummate and beautifully broken that it's unavoidable not to wish that circumstances were different for these two. 

I will make this review as spoiler-free as possible for anyone interested in picking it up but I would also like to touch upon its selling points which make it worth reading enough to follow through with the indirect sequel X/1999 once a reader becomes invested in SeiSub as characters and a pairing. I will indicate where the spoilers are though which I must warn all of you NOT TO READ if you really want to pick up this manga. If not--and you are curious of the situation and why I'm nearly frothing in the mouth about it--then do read through. I'll be discussing HOW THE STORY ENDS for SeiSub in the spoilers because it is a necessary evil, for the sake of any pedantic completist attitude that I have.


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WHAT IS TOKYO BABYLON: This is a story about a sixteen-year-old onmyoji (Ying Yang Master) named Subaru Sumeragi who is thirteenth in the line of his clan. He investigates supernatural cases while also balancing school work. He has an outgoing and fashionable twin sister named Hokuto who also happens to actively ship him (I shit you not) with a kind and handsome veterinarian named Seishirou Sakurazuka who is gosh-darned smitten with said sixteen-year-old even though Seishirou is nine years his senior. As Subaru unravels the underlying pain and suffering in Tokyo where hauntings are more symbolic than simply paranormal, he also has to deal with Seishirou's affections which he does not necessarily discourage, as well as uncover a repressed memory from childhood concerning a mysterious stranger which turns out to be a key event that will change his life from then on.

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WHO ARE THE CHARACTERS: The aforementioned three characters themselves have enough personality to keep readers interested and there is fluff and sweetness shared among them in the beginning volumes--that was until we reach the inevitable despair and heartbreak by the later installments which will shock readers because it's almost a dissonance to what was established in their dynamics. However, there are some clues regarding to Seishirou's apparently questionable persona where he would swoop in during moments when Subaru is in danger and would cast a spell to render him unconscious so he can deal with the case of the week using his own methods that are not as, shall we say, compassionate as Subaru's. Basically, readers will pretty much take the hint that they should NOT TRUST SEISHIROU.


Individually speaking: Hokuto at first would strike readers as someone who is shallow and bubbly and sort of aggressive and controlling because she always picks Subaru's outfit to match with her sense of fashion, and would keep pushing her brother to hook up with the twenty-five year old hot vet who is lurking around the twins very suspiciously. It's creepy yet also endearing because Hokuto cares deeply about Subaru that she overcompensates for his sake. More intuitive and courageous, Hokuto feels protective about Subaru even though she is worried that he rarely comes out of his shell that he barely has any real friendships and relationships outside his calling as an onmyoji. She acts as the big sister in their siblingship, and her constant fawning over a possible romantic relationship between her brother and Seishirou stemmed from an insecurity that she will one day lose Subaru to their family's occupation; that one day he will find no comfort or consolation being in her company and leave her. Matchmaking him with Seishirou has her believing it would anchor Subaru to a normal life because her brother is honestly living a life rife with extraordinary moments that normalcy is not something readily available to him. What she fears the most is that she may be right after all.

Meanwhile, Subaru as the main protagonist is just goddamn adorbs. At first I found him a little naive and innocent but this was actually an unsettling contrast to the kind of second life he lives as a dutiful exorcist at the ripe age of sixteen. He is filled with kindness and brimming with compassion, yes, but he also has very strong convictions that are somewhat surprising because I initially mistook his seeming naivety as a fixed thing when he is clearly more mature than he lets on, considering the kind of vices and cruelty that he is exposed to daily, and that is bound to mess up someone to a degree. We only see this later on when he uncovered his memory from childhood. 

My favorite moment from Subaru has to be in volume 4 where he stood up against a school teacher/cult leader who advises her followers to accomplish things using the power of prayer (which does not work when said follower in question is being brutally bullied). Subaru definitely shows his maturity when he claimed: "No one can understand someone else's pain. You can never pretend to know what they are going through, or imagine their suffering. You cannot save anyone." This was a revelatory moment about his character because he is not deluded at all by idealism and school-boy heroics. Subaru knows what he is getting into and he acknowledges that there are limitations to what he can do for other people. I find it such an admirable quality that he would not judge, condemn or pretend to understand someone's experiences with the simple acknowledgement that everyone is different and perhaps no one will ever truly understand anyone. This will serve as his unraveling later on.

And then there is Seishirou Sakurazuka. How do I even begin to describe the hot, hot, HOT and complex Seishirou Sakurazuka? You know what, I won't. I'll discuss about him in the spoiler-y parts instead and let your imagination run wild in this portion of the review instead.


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WHAT ARE THE WEAKNESSES OF THE MANGA: With a monster of the week scenario, this manga is composed of a set of stories where Subaru solves mysteries and exorcises evil spirits. I'm going to be perfectly honest with you: I didn't think there was anything special to this manga until the last two volumes which is finally centered on the conflict between SeiSub (and their stupid and heartbreaking 'Bet') and the revelation of Seishirou's real identity plus betrayal. I will maintain that as I read through the first three volumes, Tokyo Babylon struck me as an unrefined nineties version of xxxHoLic, since both deal with social pathologies metaphorically represented by a supernatural element. That being said, their difference is that Tokyo Babylon tends to be uneven in tonality, shifting from light-hearted shounen-ai material to disturbing paranormal cases that relate to the metropolitan lifestyle of Tokyo and its harmful effects. Meanwhile, xxxHoLic has a more consistent narrative, perfectly mixing the horrific and mundane seamlessly into characterizations and dialogue. But I digress. The best way I can summarize its weak points is that it tends to be a slow burn during the first two or three volumes. The cases are interesting themselves but sometimes feel too drawn out and uncomfortably dark. There are notable ones that really appeal to me, however, mostly because they serve to reveal facets about Subaru and Seishirou respectively. It's deceptively cheesy sometimes but if you keep reading long enough, the pay-off regarding SeiSub will be worth it.

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WHAT ARE THE STRENGTHS: Tokyo Babylon does have its merits, though. For one thing, like most CLAMP works, it gets better with each installment. From something completely formulaic where we get a series of unrelated cases, the manga finally divulges from that into something more character-driven, providing us with important backstories for Subaru and Seishirou. This happens somewhere between the fifth volume and continues to get exciting by the sixth and seventh. These two characters, after all, are the heart and guts of Tokyo Babylon. As I've mentioned, there are shounen-ai elements. CLAMP operates on a pansexual level where characters in their works tend to fall in love with one another regardless of age and gender. With TB, there is a small acknowledgment, however, that Subaru is feeling self-conscious about the affection Seishirou shows simply because they are both males which Seishirou casually and deliberately brushes off (and hilariously at that, I may add). Hokuto doesn't mind trying to matchmake them although she did threaten Seishirou one time that if he hurts her brother, she will kill him. So when you pick up this manga, expect some shounen-ai moments sprinkled between pages for comic relief, which are still mild compared to anything else. What was so interesting about this pairing was that there is more to Seichirou's constant pining over Subaru (something...dark), and Subaru's very late realization that he has feelings for Seishirou himself has to be one of the most badly-timed epiphany ever with the most shockingly disheartening consequences!

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WHY YOU MUST READ: This is an indirect prequel to the more compelling manga X/1999 where Seishirou and Subaru reprise their roles once more. When X/1999 started, nine years have already passed since Tokyo Babylon, and a Subaru in his mid-twenties has found himself on the opposing side against Seichirou. The mythos for X/1999 is interesting so I think my recommendation for Tokyo Babylon is closely tied to the sequel that it spawns later on, and this manga is simply a required reading if you want to get into X/1999 afterwards. As for its own series, TB has interesting cases of the paranormal and insights regarding the cosmopolitan side of Tokyo which include its vices, indulgences and corruption. Last but not the least, the selling point is SeiSub as characters and as a 'non-relationship' because TB reveals the history they have with one another whereas X/1999 is its inevitably painful conclusion.



SPOILER ALERT! DON'T READ FORWARD UNLESS YOU WANT THE SPOILERS



TURNING POINT: Tokyo Babylon explores a rather complicated 'love story' between its protagonist and antagonist where there is a romantic angle that somewhat drives the main conflict. We never really get to see how the Sumeragi twins met Seishirou who was masquerading as a veterinarian but he easily injects himself into their lives, most probably by faking a romantic interest on Subaru which made him seem harmless and even cute. I don't know how in the world does a twenty-five year old man get away with trying to court a sixteen-year-old boy but maybe it helps that he is hot, and that the twin sister approves, and that Subaru is pretty much allowing it because he can't take it seriously? The blatant infatuation is creepy at first especially when readers become privy to the fact that Seishirou has disguised himself as a kind animal doctor to accomplish an endgame that reveals itself in the last volume, so his so-called courtship has a nasty tinge of deception to it. 

For some context, here is how Hokuto describes Subaru as a person: 


"He's always had this bad habit of making other people's emotions his own. When they're sad. Subaru's sad. When they suffer, Subaru suffers, too. He's not trying to be a saint. That's just how he is. But because of his job as an onmyouji... He's seen so many people's bad sides, and experienced so many unpleasant things... and he's never been able to get used to it. I'm sure that Subaru remembers all the emotions of every person he's ever dealt with. Even if they themselves forget, Subaru never will. He carries them with him. He can't let them go."

This is a noteworthy characterization. Subaru, as it turns out, does not own up to his emotions because he has experienced so much residual feelings of other people that his own emotions tend to be hidden to him. Now, keeping that in mind, when a breaking point happens for SeiSub in which Seishirou places himself in physical danger when he gets stabbed in the eye to protect Subaru from an attack, this was also the beginning of the sudden shift in their dynamics.

It was a delicate situation because this is when Subaru's feelings began to express themselves unconsciously. Hokuto was there to put him back together and ease his guilt because of what Seishirou has done for his sake. Ultimately Subaru only learned about the truth of how he feels about Seishirou when he conversed with a blind man. This blind man was someone he helped before, and they got to talk about Seishirou after a while and it was in that scene that the blind man pointed out that he can hear the love in Subaru's voice when he talks about Seishirou. Subaru was shocked and as he walked away to go visit Seishirou in his room at the hospital, we get this inner monologue.


"I was afraid... you would hate me. That's right... I was... afraid Seishirou-san would hate me. I've met many people in my life. And I've had many happy moments and sad times. But I never thought about... what I wanted them to do, or how I wanted them to feel about me. It's impossible to control another person's feelings. But in the end, if someone hates me or I cause them trouble... I have no one to blame but myself. I may be useless, and there isn't much to like about me... but still, I... That day, as I was banging on Seishirou's operating room door... I was crying... because I was afraid. I was so afraid that he would hate me... and that I might never see him again. I--"



This was so...heartbreaking in so many levels. Take note of how Subaru admitted that he never even thought about how people could feel about him because, as mentioned before, he doesn't believe people can understand one another fully and know their pain and suffering so Subaru, as a result, has never bothered to get emotionally close with someone and aspire for someone to feel something special for him. He reasoned that another person's feelings are out of his control anyway which is true in itself. But now Subaru realized that for the first time in his life he wants something for himself--someone--and it was a terrifying realization. It has made him suddenly vulnerable and exposed, so aware that with such a desire comes the possibility of rejection and pain. But Subaru soldiers on after tearfully admitting that he is in love with Seishirou and so opens the door--only to come face-to-face with the real Seishirou: a man who belongs to the infamous Sakurazukamori assassin clan--and he is determined to win the 'bet' and kill Subaru. And so begins their abusive tango.



When he was a child, Subaru stumbles upon one of Seishirou's assassination assignments. This fateful meeting happened under the sakura tree. The Sakurazukamori's method of killing requires them to bury their victims under an evil, ancient Sakura tree and that they must kill any witness in sight. It was indeed peculiar then for Seishirou to spare Subaru's life with this ominous promise:


"If you and I should ever meet again... let us live together for one year. My heart is the direct inverse of yours. You are kind, and pure, and honest. And I'm sure that is how you will continue to grow up. Your heart will remain pure. So, if we should ever meet again... I will try my hardest to learn to love you. Just for one year. And after that year... if I can consider you "special"... you will have won and I will not kill you. But if I decide... that I cannot consider you special to me... if I cannot distinguish between you and that corpse... then... I will kill you. And so today... I will let you go."


After injecting himself in the twins' lives, Seishirou played a convincing role of the starry-eyed suitor to Subaru, only to eventually reveal that his intention was to test the possibility he could develop feelings for the younger man. The betrayal only deepened when SEISHIROU MURDERS SUBARU'S SISTER HOKUTO. That should have been how it ended, right there as Seishirou carries Hokuto's lifeless body away from a devastated Subaru who was powerless to prevent it. Subaru should have hated him and never forgave him. He never did forgive Seishirou for ripping away the one person Subaru cares about, but this crime was not enough to make Subaru STOP LOVING SEISHIROU. In fact, loving Seishirou has caused Subaru to question everything he knew about himself to the point where he becomes just as pathologically obsessed with the prospect of winning the bet. 

In Subaru's fragile mind, this was the first time he ever loved someone aside from his sister, and since it's Subaru he believes he could never love anyone as intensely again. The trouble is Seishirou is a heartless sociopathic killer who deceived him and destroyed a part of himself Subaru will never get to restore. So, instead of moving on, Subaru decided to walk an extra mile and offer himself TO BE KILLED BY SEICHIROU. The logic behind this shitfuckery is that if Seichirou is incapable of loving him back then at least he can be a WORTHY KILL for the older man. It's the stupidest idea ever but also the most hurtful sentiment I have ever read in fiction. Desperate to mean something more to Seichirou than just some boy he played mind games with, Subaru aspired to die by Seichirou's hand because he essentially has nothing AND NO ONE ELSE to live for--not when his twin sister is dead and the love of his life turned out to be a worthless piece of shit who murdered said sister.

Why would people ship it, you ask? That answer is in the events that followed for the manga, X/1999.


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HOW IT ENDS: We have established that Subaru is irrevocably in love with Seishirou and that if he can't be loved back by said man, then he would rather be killed by said man because at least in death, he becomes significant to Seishirou. It's gruesomely irrational so I have no way of justifying this mindset of his, okay? Nine years later, Subaru puts this plan in place all the while in the backdrop of an apocalyptic battle for the survival of Earth hanging in the balance.

SeiSub's small personal drama in the midst of such a major catastrophic event still feels very significant because one thing that CLAMP is so good at is creating characters with such strong connections with each other AND THEN PROCEED TO DESTROY THE FUCK OUT OF IT. Sakura and Syaoran are the soulmates of the Clampverse but they never really get to be together for good when Tsubasa ends. Kurogane and Fai--yet another non-relationship coded with shounen-ai--are more or less semi-canon already but they never really DTR-ed even if it's so obvious that the feelings they share is more than platonic. Meanwhile, only Cardcaptor Sakura's Touya and Yukito are outed as a gay couple in a fulfilling relationship, and all the other ones (such as my OTP Doumeki and Watanuki from xxxHoLic) are open to debated interpretation and ship tease.


Shipping CLAMP couples is very much like playing an extended game of 'Why are you hitting yourself?' with the writers


The second pairing to be spelled out as romantic in context is SeiSub but theirs ends up in shambles. In a climactic event, Seishirou and Subaru fight to the death. I won't discuss the actual details of the fight but what I will say is that SEISHIROU DIES BY SUBARU'S HAND which was not how Subaru intended. But as it turns out, Hokuto, his late sister, cast a spell that will prevent Seichirou from killing Subaru. If Seichirou tries to kill him via a chest blow, the attack will bounce back and kill Seichirou instead. So Subaru sits there with his hand lodged inside Seichirou's chest, close to where his heart is, and as Seichirou bleeds to death, Subaru has this fucking speech that was too much:


“I tried to kill you, inside my heart; to erase your existence there. But I couldn’t do it. Even if I meant no more than a grain of sand to you. Even if you felt no more for me than a twig you’d snap under foot. I thought . . . I wanted to be killed by you. So that my heart would at least be free.” 



That wasn't even the worst part...the part was SEISHIROU'S LAST WORDS:




"Subaru-kun...I hope you know...how much I..."

And yes, CLAMP intentionally NEVER REVEALED WHAT HE SAID TO SUBARU. Instead, Subaru was the only one who heard it and with tears in his eyes, he only remarked, "I never thought that you could say those words to me," as he clutches Seishirou's lifeless body close right there as the world was supposed to end around them. It's been debated for a long time that Seishirou's last words are a confession of his real feelings after all; that he did LOSE THE BET BECAUSE HE DID FALL IN LOVE WITH SUBARU. 

What else could it be? What else would have reduced Subaru into a mess of regrets and later on into a catatonic state after hearing the very words he longed to hear from the only man he had ever loved, but never dreamed he would receive, and only when it was very much too late?



This theory was reinforced by the fact that when you kill a Sakurazukamori assassin, you will have to take his or her place and become one yourself. Seichirou has murdered his own mother because it was a necessary stepping stone into suceeding her. During her last breaths, Seichirou's mother told him that there is no greater death than to die by the hand of your beloved. Also, Seishirou knows about the spell Hokuto cast upon Subaru. This means that when Seishirou attacked Subaru, he knew it will bounce back and Subaru would be the one who kills him. THAT MEANS HE WAS MERELY MIRRORING THE DEATH OF HIS MOTHER. Seishirou's death was meaningful because it was committed by his beloved (Subaru). That's how fucked up Seishirou is; his ultimate expression of love is his death. So even if we never get to confirm if he did confess his love for Subaru during his last moments, we have this interesting parallel with his mother that can reinforce the idea that yes, GODDAMMIT YES, Seishirou was in love with Subaru and all he can offer to him is his death. 

And--tragically--Subaru did become a Sakurazukamori in his stead which is all kinds of misery because Subaru is now branded a killer who belongs to the rival clan. And you know what, HE SEEMED HAPPY ABOUT IT. To Subaru, becoming a Sakurazukamori sustains him with a connection to the late Seishirou even if meant giving up his magnanimous vocation as a onmyoji. See, I told you it's fucked up.


RECOMMENDED: 8/10

1 comment:

  1. Oh man, what a lovely post to come across in my referrals! (I'm Larissa, the owner of the Seishirou/Subaru fansite you linked near the bottom of this post, and I'm tickled that you quoted me.) Seishirou/Subaru is one of those pairings that makes you wonder why anyone would want so much pain, but man, they're some great tragedy. Really, this whole post is fantastic, and I especially love the comparison you made between Tokyo Babylon and xxxHolic -- it's been so long since I read the latter that I forgot they even were that similar. Now I want to go back and reread all my CLAMP manga, haha.

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