published by Dark Horse; $19.99 US
From the opening pages, it’s clear that this reprint of an early CLAMP series was created two decades ago. It’s the fashions, you see — flat hats, flowing coats, polo shirts, aviator glasses, oversized suits, and ridiculous dresses — and the overall style of the manga that stamps it as originally published in 1991.
Tokyo Babylon is the story of two young men banishing supernatural evil. Subaru is the compassionate 16-year-old heir to the Sumeragi clan of mediums, accompanied by his fashion-obsessed twin sister Hokuto. Their companion is Seishiro, a mild-mannered veterinarian and “scion of the family that rules Japan from the shadows”. He also exists in order to provide that boys’ love element CLAMP fans appreciate. The setup, exorcising hostile spirits to try and bring peace to a variety of “clients”, may remind readers of CLAMP’s later xxxHoLiC, only without the all-knowing guide.
The stories begin episodically, in a sort of “this chapter’s monster” approach. For instance, Subaru frees a young woman from a possessed Chanel suit, commenting on materialism. Hokuto then rants about how bad hair mousse is for the ozone layer while Seishiro talks about Chernobyl being a warning sign. (See? 1991.) Another story features Tokyo Tower being haunted by an aspiring actress who committed suicide. These tales include the rich or famous or those who wanted contact with them. Later, the victims become people more like the readers — a comatose schoolgirl with a common past with Subaru and girls on a chat line meddling with magic to feel special. The final story, about a cult targeting teens, continues into the coming second volume.
Soon enough, we start seeing Subaru’s flashbacks to a mysterious stranger and a legend about cherry trees watered by the blood of corpses. That plot point about someone met as a child and only dimly remembered is a very common manga trope — immediately undercut by a character talking about how popular that story trend is. There’s a lot of telling the reader the subtext in this volume, which is part of its charm. It’s relatively straightforward about what it wants to do, and easy to read visually to boot.
What initially struck me most was the gorgeous shots of nighttime Tokyo, although there’s a certain ambivalence about the city and what it does to people. Also, Hokuto is hilarious when she speaks for the fans, trying to push the two guys together romantically. This omnibus volume is substantial, over 550 pages, and will be for sale in comic shops on March 13. The series was previously published in seven books by Tokyopop, and it’s a prequel to X/1999, where the male characters return.
I’m told that the series eventually becomes much darker than what we see here, but in the meantime, I enjoyed the air of nostalgia Tokyo Babylon created. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the more enjoyable CLAMP works I’ve read.
By the way, 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 copy.)