Ten years ago if you had asked me what my favourite manga was I could have easily answered, Tokyo Babylon. Now ten years, and hundreds of manga volumes later if asked what my favourite manga title is, I would still eagerly name off Tokyo Babylon with a handful of runners up. It isn’t very often that a title really stands up to the test of time, but Tokyo Babylon still gets me just as emotional as it did the first time I read it. Today I decided to re-read the first volume, and lo and behold by the time my parents were home from morning service I had read all seven volumes again. Given my feelings toward this particular title I decided to share a bit about it. If you are unfamiliar with the tale of the Sumeragi twins, I highly recommend you read it. Also be warned that there will be spoilers ahead! This is pretty much a pile of cliffnotes, not really a review, so don’t read unless you are ok with knowing what happens.
The story takes place in the year 1991, the setting Tokyo, Japan. It follows Subaru Sumeragi on his quests to quell the spirits of Tokyo. His efforts are usually helped by his pseudo protector, Seishiro, while his twin sister Hokuto causes a ruckus for both of them The story is jam packed with emotions. There are times it is outright funny, as well as other times when it is quite heart breaking.
Subaru Sumeragi is the sixteen year old leader of the Sumeragi clan. He is quite talented in the arts of the onmyouji. In fact he is supposedly the strongest of his clan. As leader of the clan it is his responsibility to take on various jobs such as exorcising spirits and dispelling curses. This often causes him to miss classes, and forget to eat. It even resulted in him giving up his dream of becoming a zookeeper. He is often confused and embarrassed by Seishirou’s advances.
Hokuto Sumeragi is Subaru’s twin sister. They look so similar that she threatens frequently to dress as him and cause mischief. Unfortunately for Subaru she is up for creating mischief any time, and anywhere. She is an adamant believer that Seishirou came into Subaru’s life to be his “Someone Special”, and spends plenty of time try to set the two up. Hokuto is also quite the fashion guru. Everything that she, and Subaru wear is hand picked by her. She cannot however tie a necktie. Whereas Subaru is one of the strongest Onmyou mystics in the clans history, she herself has very little talent for magic. She can cast a handful of protective wards, and a couple other spells at great consequence.
Seishirou Sakurazuka is a twenty-five year old veterinarian who befriended the twins when he met a clumsy Subaru flailing about in the subway station. He also is gifted in the arts of Onmyou magic, but he is far more aggressive than Subaru, whom he claims is to gentle. Seishirou sees no problem with reflecting a curse full force back at it’s caster. As a member of the Sakurazuka family, Hokuto presumes that he may be a part of the assassin group bred by the family. Seishirou just claims that he is a normal veterinarian.
Right from the start Volume one starts us out with an exorcism. It was a woman haunting the bed of her former lover. Not exactly what one would expect, but interesting none-the-less. After this we are thrown headfirst into the confusing madness that is Hokuto Sumeragi as she rambles on about how awful men are and how women keep doing silly things straight of shoujo manga. She also tells us that Subaru is far too humble, so much in fact that he should apologize to the greats like, Kujaku-ou and Kato-san. Subaru clearly thinks he is a bit too average for the comparison.
The other short story featured in this volume is about a suicide victim that cause earthquakes at Tokyo Tower. In this story we get to see Seishirou in action as he rescues Subaru from the spirit’s wrath. It seems quite clear that he is very protective of our little protagonist.
There was one other story in here, but it most definitely doesn’t qualify as a short story. This part is clearly going to play a very large role in the overall story. A nine year old Subaru meets a mysterious older boy under a sakura tree. The boy’s face is shaded as he tells the young onmyouji that the reason cherry bloosoms are red is because the tree drinks blood from the corpses buried below. Ewww…much. He also says that he will cut a deal with Subaru, but the wind begins to howl and the boy can’t hear what he is saying. The panel above translates to “I will let you go…”. That doesn’t sound good to me, but it is intriguing.
Volume two starts off with a girl who has survived a terrible tragedy, and no longer wants to be a part of the waking world, so she forces herself into an almost comatose state. This time around we get to see our young hero astral project himself into her mind to try, and coax her out, only to find a younger version of himself keeping her company. She keeps her dreams free of pain by replaying memories of herself and her grade school buddy. This wouldn’t be so awkward had she not told Subaru in the past that she hated him.
As it turns out the little girl, Mitsuki didn’t hate Subaru at all. in fact she really liked him. When she said “I hate you Subaru. You’re not normal”, she actually meant he was special to her, and she didn’t want to share him. spooky. I don’t remember being possessive in kindergarten, but sure why not. All in all she was able to wake up and go on with her life when she realized that her mother would be sad if she died. It was a pretty decent story, and we got to see a little bit more of Subaru as a child. I was totally ok with that.
The second half of volume three doesn’t focus on anything supernatural at all. As a matter of fact our main character this go around is Hokuto Sumeragi. This chapter starts off with Hokuto witnessing a foreigner girl being accosted by a couple of men. We learned from volume one that Hokuto can’t stand that. She immediately goes to girls aid, and shows off some awesome martial arts skills.
After running away the mystery girl tells Hokuto that she is working hard to support her family back home. They are very poor and here in Tokyo she can make good money. Problem is she is working without a visa, and Hokuta just kicked the crap out of a couple of police officers. Oops. Hokuto explains that she wants to be this girl’s friend, and that makes it ok. She even goes so far as to cast a barrier at the cops, knocking them down. When the foreign girl asks why Hokuto would get involved with a gaijin like her, Hokuto responds that that term is too broad. Foreigners are human too, and as such should be viewed as individuals. Besides she had never heard of a country called gaijin.
Volume three is the first volume that is entirely one story. Somewhere in Tokyo a group of people are sending curses through the phone, while this is going on our hero is off to meet Seishirou for a “date”. Sei-chan seems to really like the penguins from the aquarium. While they are out the two have a machine read their compatibility which makes for quite an amusing scene. Poor Subaru is so embarrassed by Seishirou’s flirting.
Their little adventure is interrupted by Hokuto calling to tell her brother that he has a job to do. This story is a bit dark, but one of my favourites in the series. Subaru is to hunt down and put a stop to a group of people using a public party line to send curses through the phone. It seems that there are three girls whom believe that they were warriors in the past, born again to thwart the plans of an awakening demon. They are simply waiting for their powers to awaken in the meantime they are sending curses through the phone to people they think are the enemy.
Not knowing exactly how to find the girls, Subaru calls the number which makes for another funny scene. Seishirou tells Subaru to tell them his name is Pochii, which he does. Pochii is like Japanese equivalent to Rover here. The girls immediately decide he is “the” enemy, so they send a curse his way. Unbeknownst to them he has ways of dealing with curses.
This was the first time I had heard that a curse always goes home to roost, so when I ran into that years later in Hell Girl, I remembered it clearly. So these poor girls that thought they were under attack suddenly were, by their own curse. They were violently ill but otherwise unharmed. It was after this that Subaru realized they were amateurs, and that they were putting themselves in serious danger. This is the first time since he was nine years old that we got to see Subaru in his Onmyouji robes. He looks so damn cool.
This saved the girls temporarily but he needed to get them to stop what hey were doing, karma was starting to pack a punch in the form of spirits haunting them. In a final attempt to help them Subaru calls the party line one more time, and convinces one girl to take the wards down from her room so he can exorcize it. While he is on the line with this girl the other two attack him. Seishirou has major issues with other people hurting his property, so he waits until Subaru passes out and whips the curse back full force. Gotta love the way he walks right through Subaru’s barrier. This guy just resonates evil…..
In volume four Subaru confronts a woman hell bent on avenging her murdered daughter. He tries to convince her that her daughter wouldn’t want her doing such awful things, but what happens when the child is screaming for vengeance. This volume proves just how pure hearted our hero actually is.
Shortly there after Subaru’s grandmother asked to meet him. She had another job request, as well as a darker bit of news. The newest job was to investigate a cult made up of school kids. On the other hand at a divination rite she did a reading on Subaru and it didn’t go well. She warned that he must be very careful.
A teenage girl is being bullied at school so she turns to the help of a local cult full of people just like her. The group leader tries to get the kids to pray and forgive, which isn’t a bad message. The problem is in ignoring the problem, and enduring the pain. She says there is no reason to stand up for yourself as long as you can forgive. Unfortunately the girl in question ends up getting hurt quite badly.
When Subaru confronts the cult leader he is interrupted by Seishirou, who steps in to show a bit more of his darker side. Not that anybody had doubts that he was bat shit crazy at this point, but maybe things will change…Yeah right.
Things are getting a little bit clearer, but we still don’t know exactly what that deal was, or why the sakura hasn’t taken Subaru yet. I think by now we can be certain why the sakura will take him however.
The next story is probably my overall favourite. It tugs at the heart strings, and offers a little bit more insight into Subaru’s dream of zookeeping. In the park he runs into an elderly gentleman whom is surrounded by birds. We find that the old man used to tend to the birdhouse at the zoo. He and Subaru have a lot in common, and become pretty good friends. The elderly fellow misses his wife who died, but he can’t go on to see her until he makes their daughter smile 100 times. The climax of this story is a tearjerker, but he did go on in the end.
The middle story starts with our sheltered hero trapped in a karaoke booth for the first time. Hokuto is doing what she does best, and picking on her poor brother. She devises a plan; if Seishirou can’t sing the random song chosen for him, then he must do whatever Subaru says. If Subaru can’t sing his, then he must do what Seishirou bids. Sei-chan saves Subaru from his song though by requesting an emergency pack of smokes from the vending machine.
It is here that Subaru meets a lonely woman that needs help finding her way home. Did Seishirou know that there was a ghostly woman hanging out near the cigarette machine, or was he just trying to rescue him from Hokuto’s weird idea.
In the last story in volume 5 Subaru meets a young boy in the hospital. His name is Yuya. We find out that he is in dire need of a kidney transplant, but there are no available donors. Subaru continues to visits Yuya over the course of a few days. As his condition worsens Subaru decides that he will give the little boy one of his kidneys. Always so kind-hearted, but before he can tell the doctors Yuya’s mother attacks him demanding that he give up an organ to save her son. Seishirou gets injured in the fight, and pretty much ruins that entire deal.
Subaru doesn’t handle the loss of Seishirou’s eye wll at all. Not only does he blame himself, but he is scared that Sei-chan may never want to see him again. It seems that he is starting to realize how much he really cares for the older man.
Thanks to a little pep talk from Hokuto, it isn’t long before Subaru is on his way to apologize to Seishirou, whether he accepts him or not. Seishirou insists that it wasn’t Subaru’s fault, that he took the hit because he wanted too. If Subaru felt so bad about it though he could feel free to do a favour for him. Sei-chan was in serious need of some donuts.
While Subaru is out on his donut run, Hokuto proves that she really knows what’s going on. Even though Seishirou hides behind his glasses she can see he doesn’t have the eyes of a normal person. he can also smell the blood on him. She also begs Seishirou not to take Subaru far away.
Poor Yuya finds out about his mother stabbing someone as it was released to the public. Subaru, and Hokuto try to hide him. He says his mom is a bad person, everyone says so. Subaru explains to him that his mother just did what she thought she needed to do because she loves him, and then asked if Yuya thought his mother was bad. He said no, thus proving that everyone did not think she was bad. The news only shows the “reality” of what happened but not the “truth” behind it.
Shortly after this Subaru dreams about the past again, and the strange youth beneath the cherry tree. This time the dream shows a bit of the future, and Seishirou holding a body that looks suspiciously like his. When he wakes up he can’t quite remember what he saw. Hokuto is already bouncing around the house. She has plans to play badminton with the girl whom she met in volume three. I guess she hasn’t gotten caught by the police yet.
The last story in volume six is about a man with a seeing eye dog. Some random punk kids are trying to steal his dog. Subaru gets angry and stops them. He decides then that he should talk to this guy about blindness, and guide dogs. This information may be beneficial to Seishirou in the future. The guy tells him that he must love this friend very much. It was here that Subaru realized that he was indeed in love with Seishirou. Now that he is sure his feelings are true he rushes back to the hospital, excited over getting to tell Seishirou the truth, only to find the cherry blossoms waiting for him.
It seems that when the nine year old Subaru stumbled upon the cherry tree the new Sakurazukamori was in the middle of his first job. He erased the child’s memory so he wouldn’t remember the little girl lying at the assassin’s feet. At that time he marked the boy as prey to the Sakurazukamori.
The bet finally comes to light here as well. Seishirou told the boy that he would come back later, and spend one year with him. If he could not learn to love Subaru, he would kill him. He then sealed the child’s memory so he would not remember ever meeting him before. What a prick!
So now that exactly one year has passed Subaru has fallen in love with seishirou, while the latter claims to feel nothing at all. It was time to call in the debt. He would prove once and for all that regardless of effort the Sakurazukamori could not fall in love, and that Subaru’s life was meaningless.
The only reason that he was able to escape the curse of the sakura was due to the intervention by his Grandmother. Her magic was able to temporarily break Seishirou’s spell. Subaru, heart broken and injured locked his subconscious away inside of himself. He was unwilling to go on. In his current state he could not survive another attack. Hokuto knew that Seishirou would be back for her brother, and thus devised a final plan.
Hokuto donned Subaru’s onmyouji robes and confronted Seishirou. Unfortunately this led to her death in her brother’s stead. All part of the plan though. Hokuto had a plan and she saw it through until the end. We won’t get to see that come to fruition for many years. 1999 to be exact.
The next chapter is very short, a flash back if you will. When Seishirou knocked out Subaru and killed the cult leader a couple volumes ago, this is what happened. We finally get to see what is really going on in Seishirou’s clinic. He is using the animals as meat shields to absorb curses directed at him. That is some nasty business. No wonder he can’t love such a puffball as Subaru.
The last story arc shows Subaru in 1994. He looks a little bit older, and dresses much tamer. I guess that is due to the loss of Hokuto’s crazy designs. He befriends a ghost girl whose mother abused her to the point of death. Go ahead que a Martina McBride song. The little girl helps Subaru find another child being abused, a baby whose muffled screams become violent tremors damaging the surrounding area. After they rescue the child, Subaru asks the little girl if where she lives there is a girl with a face like his. She says she doesn’t believe so.
Overall it is a very nice balance of drama, and comedy. The characters bounce off each other in a truly delightful way. I have read a lot of manga, sand very few tug on my emotions the ways this one does. I am sure that 10 years from now I will still be able to fully enjoy this title. Regardless of how angry Seishirou makes me in the end. Now on to the sequel X/1999. Thanks for letting me get out a little bit of fangirl love. See you guys around.