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Tokyo babiron (1992)
A Fascinating, if Limited, Side Story
This is a little-known gem from CLAMP (the superstar all-woman manga team) and (at the time) young director Kôichi Chigira. Chigira would later go on to work as an animator on the 'X Movie' (to which 'Tokyo Babylon' is a sort of prologue) and to direct 'Full Metal Panic!' and 'Last Exile.' CLAMP, after finishing the 'Tokyo Babylon' manga (on which the show is based) in 1993, immediately started their greatest work: 'X.' So this show, which is actually two separate 45 minute episodes (made in 1992 and 1994), comes at an important time in CLAMP history: just before they hit it big. As a result, what we have is an enjoyable but unfortunately limited OVA (Original Video Animation, known here as Direct-to-Video) that acts as an interesting side story to anyone who has read the 'Tokyo Babylon' manga or seen the X television series or film (as there are some shared characters).
The first episode, unceremoniously called 'Tokyo Babylon 1' on the DVD, takes several elements of the manga and adapts them to a new story. Several 'accidental' deaths at a high-profile construction site have drawn the attention of the local authorities. Perplexed, they turn to Subaru Sumeragi, a young practitioner of the Onmyouji arts (an ancient type of Japanese sorcery with roots in the tantric magic of China and India). Subaru uses his powers in a way similar to other anime characters to solve the mystery, but what is interesting here are the unmistakable chants and unusual references. One who is not familiar with the Onmyouji might think this is all made up, but it has roots in Japanese history. Onmyouji were imperial court officials who determined official policy. In a modern context, they link the dark and dreary modern Tokyo depicted with a richer and somehow more 'true' past filled with mysterious powers. Though this can pass by the casual viewer, for those interested in mythology, it is intriguing.
Subaru works with his twin sister, Hokuto and a family friend, veterinarian Seishirou. Although seemingly lacking in Subaru's powers, as the story goes on, some new (and for Seishirou, perhaps darker) facets of the supporting characters are revealed. Hokuto meanwhile has the 'fun' idea of trying to get her brother fixed up with the handsome veterinarian, much to Subaru's chagrin. However, this element of the manga is kept to a minimum in the anime, so those averse to homo-erotic relationships need not fear. As he continues to puzzle over the mysterious 'accidents,' Subaru encounters a woman who seems bent on revenge against the head of the construction project, who himself seems to have a secret power. The finale of the episode, while at the time (remember, this is 1992) well-animated for an OVA, looks somewhat dated now. However, if one is forgiving of this and is willing to approach the episode as a product of its time, it is enjoyable.
The second episode ('Tokyo Babylon 2') is also on the DVD and is the real reason for buying the show. Animated two years later with an improved budget, this is one of those shows that is really great, especially late at night with all the lights off. Subaru this time has to investigate a series of midnight subway murders. Nearly the entirety of the film takes place at night, complete with garish lighting and run-down environs that seem more at place in one of 'Patlabor 1's' decrepit neighborhoods. Indeed, there are many parallels between this and the Patlabor film, including an overworked and seemingly sleep-deprived detective who is on the verge of burnout and a mysterious killer who seems more dead than alive in his emotionless actions. Rounding out the cast are two fascinating supporting characters: the 'precognitive' Mirei, who helps the police by sensing the events of past murders using her fingertips, and Miyatake, a young man who collects the fragments of old buildings that are being knocked down. It is eternally fascinating to me that, upon meeting Miyatake out on the street in the middle of the night with a killer loose, Subaru and his group (led by the intrepid Hokuto) happily go up to his apartment to see his collection. Although this is a dark city that seems taxed by its lack of sleep, it is not so dark so as to keep friends from being made. The second episode tells a good story in a short amount of time, second only to the 'Magnetic Rose' segment in 'Memories.' Watching it together with 'Patlabor 1' is also an interesting experience.
All in all, these stories could be better and more accessible than they are, but for what they set out to achieve, they succeed well. I asked Kôichi Chigira at the 2004 Anime Expo about his experience directing these episodes, and he said that it was his decision and not CLAMP's to make the stories shorter and smaller. CLAMP of course approved everything and saved their money to make the spectacular 'X Movie.' In all the many versions of 'X,' both Subaru and Seishirou appear again, this time with a very different relationship. What these episodes are great for is their portrait into the character's lives. For those who've read the manga (and believe me, it is well worth it), the episodes are particularly special as they are two complete 'extra' stories. The English dub should be avoided at all costs, as it was done extremely poorly and Subaru was voiced with a very fake and very obnoxious gay accent (and not at all in a good or respectful way). The Japanese language version has wonderful acting by all, in particular Subaru (who is voiced by the great Kappei Yamaguchi). The reissued DVD version (which comes in a blue case and sells for $10) is a very good deal for the money and has improved subtitling over the previous release. As an enjoyable title, especially for fans of the manga, 'X,' or CLAMP, 'Tokyo Babylon' is highly recommended.
An Under-Rated Achievement
Honestly, people are unfair to this film. CLAMP (the original creators) at the time were in the middle of the amazing 'X' manga, and they created this film as an alternate telling of the story which focused primarily on the main characters (Kamui, Fuuma, and Kotori). The other characters are, regrettably, reduced to less interesting background roles, where their unique personalities do not have as much impact. This is the unfortunate circumstance of the movie, because to me, characters like Subaru, Sorata, and Kakyou (who was not even in the film at all!) are who make the 'X' manga come to life. Also, this is a remarkably long film for an anime, so I was surprised that the level of quality of the animation was kept up for a full 100 minutes and that as many of the subplots as were mentioned were included. Whenever a great manga, like 'Akira' for example, is turned into a film, a lot of the other material that make the story so wonderful is lost. However, just as in 'Akira,' the film version of 'X' creates an interesting alternate telling of the story that is accessible to many and is particularly of interest to those who have read the manga or seen the television series.
There are some theories that CLAMP did not have full approval of the film, but they are completely baseless. I have looked into the matter extensively and spoken to the producer, Masao Murayama, at the 2004 Anime Expo. The film was not only made with full approval, but in addition Nanase Ohkawa, the original author of the manga and main writer of CLAMP, wrote the first draft of the screenplay. She is reported to have said at the time that it was exceedingly difficult, since she had to reduce her story (which she had been working on since middle school) down to its barest essentials. However, ultimately it was her decision to try and tell the story of Kamui and the choices he must make. That to her was the most important.
Lastly, I will say that, with some knowledge of the Japanese language and a limited ability to speak and understand it, the subtitling on the official DVD released by Manga Entertainment in the states is abysmal. It is rare indeed that I see such a truly awful representation of the original dialog of an anime, and in a film like this where what is being said is VERY important, it is really unforgivable. Furthermore, the English dub is unspeakably bad. On my initial viewing of this film, I thought it was really not at all good, and the treatment of it by the U.S. distributor had a lot to do with it. However, I had the good fortune of buying the Japanese laser disc release, and upon re-watching it I realized just what a wonderful film this is, if you can give it a chance. Tomakazu Seki's acting as Kamui is second to none (to hear his delivery, especially near the end of the film, is a truly remarkable experience in hearing a master voice actor at work), the mood is dark and grim (especially if you watch the film late at night), the music is minimalist and filled with traditional Japanese instruments that help the spirit of the story, the ending credit song is performed by the ultimate in Japanese rock groups X JAPAN (and this is one of their greatest songs), and the animation is second perhaps only to 'Pinnochio' in an astounding level of detail that has not been matched since. Of all the great anime epics of the apocalypse, this is one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking, especially when the dialog is understood without the tethers of a bad dub or subtitling. Some leaps of logic are required, but if you are patient, open-minded, and especially if you are willing to read even a little of the original manga, the 'X' movie can be seen for what it really is: a fascinating portrait, an exciting look into Japanese societal worries about the then-coming millennium, and one of the greatest stories ever told by the ever-amazing CLAMP. Give this movie a chance. You won't regret it.