The Corpse at the Root of the Cherry Tree: Horror and Glamour in Tokyo Babylon

Tokyo. The capital city of Japan. In 1991, its population numbered 11,923,346. Between day and evening, it differed by two million souls. The unparalleled city of night.

Even in a world where magic and spirits are real, evil most often takes human form. Tokyo Babylon is the story of Subaru Sumeragi, a sixteen-year-old onmyouji (a medium), the next head of his family. He not only has strong powers, but a strong sense of compassion, compelling him to exorcise people’s demons–literal or figurative. Aided by his twin sister, Hokuto, and their friend, Seishiro, Subaru goes through a spectacular loss of innocence as he witnesses human suffering across Tokyo.

Tokyo Bablyon is one of CLAMP’s earlier works and also one of the first BL (Boy’s Love) manga published in the west. CLAMP is a four woman group of manga artists whose popular titles include Cardcaptor Sakura, Magic Knight Rayearth, and Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle. They have twenty-eight works under their collective belt. (If you’re interested in a quick look at the CLAMP universe, this video will give you a field trip through it). At a first glance, many of their works seem rather sparkly and fluffy, which is common in shoujo manga (comics aimed at young girls). However, one of CLAMP’s greatest skills is the ability to combine romantic and interpersonal elements with touches of macabre and psychological drama.

Tokyo Babylon Vol. 3 "Call.B"
Tokyo Babylon Vol. 3 “Call.B”

 

Tokyo Babylon Vol. 3 "Call.B"
Tokyo Babylon Vol. 3 “Call.B”

 

Tokyo Babylon Vol. 4 "Crime"
Tokyo Babylon Vol. 4 “Crime”

Tokyo Babylon ends up looking and feeling more like Die Stadt than Cardcaptor Sakura.

Tokyo Babylon Vol. 2 "Dream"
Tokyo Babylon Vol. 2 “Dream”

While Tokyo Babylon is drawn in a typical 90’s shoujo style akin to CLAMP’s other works, it’s sharper and darker. The above two-page spread is an example of the heavy use of black ink and negative space that shows up again and again throughout the manga. Subaru’s position on the page, distant from even his own thoughts (“Where am I?”) creates a sense of isolation. Even the length of his shadow gives the impression that this place is vast beyond our comprehension.

Sometimes an ordinary scene will shift visual styles to show a move away from the ordinary well-lit world to an introspective or threatening atmosphere.

Tokyo Babylon Vol. 2 "Dream"
Tokyo Babylon Vol. 2 “Dream”

In this scene where Seishiro is driving Subaru to work, the first two-thirds of the page are pretty ordinary. There’s an establishing shot of the traffic and two panels of them in the car. All of that background, including the natural light, disappears once Seishiro questions Subaru about his dreams. This sudden switch actually becomes more unsettling when followed by the next page.

Tokyo Babylon Vol. 2 "Dream"
Tokyo Babylon Vol. 2 “Dream”

The setting returns in the small panel on the top right… along with Seishiro’s normal, pleasant demeanor. His switching between his public and private personas follows the focus of the conversation–a shift from the outside world to the inner. Therefore, the “outside world” disappears to make way for Subaru’s internal conflict and emotions. Not only that, but Subaru and Seishiro themselves start to fade. Seishiro practically blends into the page while Subaru’s hair becomes part of the backdrop, leaving us with just his face. Dropping backgrounds like this isn’t uncommon in manga, but it is usually noticeable in Tokyo Babylon because they tend to be grey or complete blackouts.

A romantic scene from Cardcaptor Sakura.
A romantic scene from Cardcaptor Sakura.

Here’s an example of a background-less scene from Cardcaptor Sakura (um, spoilers, I guess). There’s a bit of screen-tone, but other that, all other details have been dropped to let the audience focus on Syaoran, Sakura, the bear, and–most importantly–Sakura’s love confession. The same technique, but with a different effect on the reader.

Tokyo Babylon plays on several contrasts, not just between light and dark, but between the ancient and the modern, the material world and the metaphysical one, the beautiful and the sinister (these two things often go hand in hand), and love and apathy. For example–modern vs. ancient–there is a short prologue about the Tower of Babel followed by a shot of Tokyo Tower (a literal communications tower). Simple, not very hard to parse, but it gets the point across.

Tokyo Babylon Vol. 0 "TYO"
Tokyo Babylon Vol. 0 “TYO”: Tokyo Tower is a monument of great significance across all CLAMP works.

Hokuto and Subaru display several layers of duality. It’s clear that Hokuto has the more aggressive personality, is more fashion forward, and is more modern in general. Subaru, on the other hand, is passive, traditional, and lets his sister choose his outfits.

A selection of Hokuto Sumeragi's fashion sense.
A selection of Hokuto Sumeragi’s fashion sense.

Hokuto seems at first to be flighty and superficial, but as the story progresses we see that she’s determined to protect Subaru and make up for his naivete. (Her name actually means “North Star,” a symbol of guidance). While Subaru is a powerful medium, he can be pretty clueless. Hokuto fears for her brother. She worries that his capacity for love will one day leave him vulnerable to heartbreak.

Subaru’s natural ability to empathize with others is the driving force of his character. When Subaru sees someone in need, he feels compelled to help them, even if it puts him at risk. He’s sensitive to troubled humans and spirits alike. While this is a good trait, it makes him susceptible to emotional trauma. Subaru sometimes get pushed into corners when faced with questions of morality. In one chapter, he comes across a woman trying to summon an inugami (a vengeful dog spirit) to get justice for her daughter’s murder. Because curses always involve some sort of terrible blowback, Subaru tries to convince her not to seek revenge by insisting her daughter wouldn’t want her to go through with it. When he channels the ghost of her daughter, however, he learns that the woman’s daughter actually does want vengeance for her death. Subaru is the only one who can hear her. Does he lie and save the woman from the consequences of her curse, or does he end the spirit’s pain by telling the truth?

Apathy is easier than caring. Hokuto has a great monologue in the first chapter about the environment and beauty products.

“Take the ecology. We pay lip service to it…as in, it doesn’t affect my lipstick. My hair mousse, however, that’s another matter. Don’t take my Freon out of the can, no matter what it’s doing to the ozone layer. Water shortage? I’ll stick with my shower in the morning and my bath at night. Forests in decline? Sorry, I need pulp for my manga and heavy gloss for my fashion magazines. […] The products are already in the store. Even if I boycott those goods, others will buy them. And if everyone is using Freon anyway, I may as well use it too…

TL;DR “everyone else is doing it. I can’t change anything.” The world of Tokyo Babylon is unfeeling. The city as a whole doesn’t care about the bullied student or the neglected elderly or the struggling actress who committed suicide. There are people like them all over Tokyo. Terrible things happen everyday. They’re meaningless. Except to Subaru. Subaru does care, which leaves him open to harm.

Love is dangerous. Keep in mind that Tokyo Babylon is a shoujo and a shonen ai (Boys’ Love), so it has a romantic subplot. If Subaru is already made vulnerable by his compassion, imagine how he could be hurt by that kind of love. Hokuto expresses these worries to Seishiro at one point, saying that if Subaru were ever betrayed by someone he loved (romantically), then “[he] would surely die.” It adds a lot of tension to Subaru’s interactions with Seishiro, especially as Seishiro continues exhibiting…questionable behavior.

A soft moment between Subaru and Seishiro.
Tokyo Babylon Vol. 4 “Crime”: A soft moment between Subaru and Seishiro.

Seishiro is a vital part of Subaru’s support system (the panel above is from the chapter with the woman and the murdered daughter). He often saves Subaru from tight corners and goes to great lengths to protect him. However, Seishiro is supposedly from a clan of assassins who use their onmyouji powers to kill. (It’s worth mentioning that though Hokuto says this about him in the first chapter, he doesn’t confirm or deny it.) He can be gentle and comforting, but also dangerous and, from time to time, downright sinister. Seishiro says he loves Subaru–many times–yet even Subaru can’t tell what Seishiro is really like. Once again, duality.

Tokyo Babylon Vol. 1.5 "Destiny": Seishiro, right after saying something incredibly cryptic.
Tokyo Babylon Vol. 1.5 “Destiny”: Seishiro, right after saying something incredibly cryptic.

From Seishiro, I want to talk about cherry blossoms. The title of this post mentions cherry trees and corpses and I feel this is one of the core elements of Tokyo Babylon. This requires some close reading of Vol. 1.5 “Destiny.” I’ve been struggling not to give too much away, but I’m justifying this because it’s an early chapter and I’m not showing you the whole thing.

Cherry trees are pretty. The sakura tree is a Japanese national symbol. Cherry petals and cherry trees are a cliche in shoujo manga and anime. Usually, a girl will confess her love underneath the tree. If you see cherry petals floating around a panel, it will probably be in a romantic context.

Legal Drug Ch. 10: Cherry blossoms in a romantic context. (Sort of.)
Legal Drug Ch. 10: Cherry blossoms in a romantic context. (Sort of.)

Tokyo Bablyon, however, takes the beautiful and familiar and makes it horrifying. We get our first glimpses of that in “Destiny.” Subaru has a dream about himself at nine years old in which he meets a high school aged boy under a sakura tree. The older boy tells a disturbing legend about the cherry blossoms.

“Why do you think they bloom so beautifully each year…? It’s because of the corpse. You see, once the blossoms of the tree were white. Pure white…like snow. So…how do you think that the cherry blossoms turned that pale crimson? It’s because they drank the blood from the corpse underneath the tree.

The older boy spends the whole sequence with his bangs over his eyes. It’s meant to conceal his identity and to make him more threatening. Though he’s still expressive, we can’t see his more easily readable features. Adding that to the creepy story he just told a little kid, it’s obvious that he’s not to be trusted. What I think is interesting about the mystery teenager here is that his appearance is rather normal. He’s wearing a typical Japanese school uniform, he has an average haircut, and he’s traditionally handsome. Those details only make this more unsettling. Just looking at him doesn’t immediately inform us of his character. If the scene were well-lit, he could still have his eyes covered and we would just take it that we aren’t supposed to know his identity yet.

ill-cut-a-deal-with-you
Tokyo Babylon Vol. 1.5 “Dream”: Subaru’s dream/memory under the cherry tree.

It’s a beautifully depicted cherry tree, with lots of feathery edges. The picture is a bit small, but you should be able to make out the petals floating down around Subaru and the boy. I like that manga allows for smaller inserted panels so that we can see the boy’s reaction to Subaru asking if the person under the tree is in pain. Note that the tree is a good few feet behind the boy in this panel.

Tokyo Babylon Vol. 1.5 "Destiny"
Tokyo Babylon Vol. 1.5 “Destiny”

In this two page spread, space seems to have been compressed, allowing for the branches of the cherry tree to reach in over the boy’s shoulders. They’re framing the boy while simultaneously creeping towards Subaru. While the branches are stretching toward Subaru, the boy has his hand on Subaru’s face. We can take it that the cherry tree is an extension of the boy, or that the boy is an extension of the tree. Either way, they are linked. So, in this scene, we have two familiar, beautiful things that hide a dark secret: the boy and the sakura tree.

The cherry blossom motif continues throughout the entirety of Tokyo Babylon. Even Seishiro’s name contains a reference to them (Sakurazuka). They are often presented in a menacing light.

Tokyo Babylon Vol. 5 "Save.A": "It said that the cherry blossoms...are planning to steal you away, Subaru."
Tokyo Babylon Vol. 5 “Save.A”: “It said that the cherry blossoms…are planning to steal you away, Subaru.”

It’s not a big leap to say that the cherry tree represents Tokyo, as portrayed in Tokyo Babylon. Sakura trees are a symbol of Japan and Tokyo is the capital. The city is beautiful and full of life, but also holds horror and cruelty. Subaru cries for the corpse at the root of the cherry tree and for the victims of negligence across Tokyo. One of the most gut-wrenching phrases in this manga is, “This sort of thing happens every day.” It trivializes the grief felt by Subaru and others. Yet this is a common belief among Tokyo’s citizens. That’s the tragedy of Tokyo Babylon.

Tokyo Babylon Vol. 2 "Dream": "But I'm not so special because it happened to me...I guess it happens every day."
Tokyo Babylon Vol. 2 “Dream”: “But I’m not so special because it happened to me…I guess it happens every day.”

 

Tokyo Babylon Vol. 0 "TYO"
Tokyo Babylon Vol. 0 “TYO”: “Where else on Earth do so many people enjoy their descent into destruction?”

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to talk about every single part of Tokyo Babylon because I’ve already written a novel and I want to avoid spoiling major plot points. I encourage you to read the comic for yourself. If you’re interested in more, there is a two episode OVA animated by Madhouse (the same studio that brought us HunterxHunter 2011 and One Punch Man). The OVA contains stories that aren’t in the manga, but they do animate the scene from Vol. 1.5 “Destiny” so I highly recommend checking it out.

TL;DR I cry about Subaru Sumeragi every day.

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