Babylon – Mid Season Anime Review
Synopsis: Everyone knows that life is good. But what if that belief was shown to be wrong one day? Don’t miss the long-awaited animated version of Mado Nozaki’s sensational novel, which critics have described as a poison that enters your body when you read it! This story follows Zen Seizaki from the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office as he investigates a scandal involving a pharmaceutical company. (Official Amazon Synopsis)
Mid Season (6 Episodes) Review (Warning: Minor Spoilers to Follow):
Linny: For those familiar with the author of Babylon and his previously adapted work, Kado, you might be thinking of starting Babylon with apprehensive curiosity, or even excitement if Kado’s late series shifts were something you enjoyed rather than despised. But before we go further, I would like to put a warning for anyone uncomfortable in regards to mentions of suicide and sexual assault as this show does include both to varying degrees. With that said Babylon’s 3 episode premiere provides one heck of a start, introducing a world where a particular woman, Ai Magase, has the ability to talk perfectly happy men into committing suicide and where a politician is sincerely devoting all his time and energy into legalizing suicide. It’s dripping with mystery, intrigue and packs a shocking punch, one that’s sure to hook anyone seeking a seemingly intellectual series with moral debates and social implications to follow.
Tom: Babylon crafts itself with two plots loosely tied together: One tackling head on Japan’s troubles with high suicide rates and how the country views suicide itself. Two, a reimagining/potential deconstruction of the classic “Femme Fatale”/’Whore of Babylon’ concept, using it as a vehicle to seemingly discuss social morality. While both topics are interesting, and worthy of attention, Babylon’s execution feels so on the nose and lacking in refinement that the series becomes increasingly difficult to take seriously the further we get in, making it struggle as an actual critique on Japanese society’s moral and social issues. It doesn’t help that the entire thing is built upon a central conceit that becomes more and more tortured the deeper we go. Babylon’s entire existence is built on the idea that Japan crafts an ‘experimental city’ where new laws can be tried out and tested without having to enact them across the country as a whole (I kinda wonder if the author looked at the U.S.’s State vs. Federal laws and got the idea from there, or perhaps the story of Minnesota’s flirtation with the idea of Athelstan Spilhaus’ Experimental City, but it’s beside the point.) The trouble with this conceit is that it’s totally unrealistic. No country would sign off on this and few people would agree to move their and start a new life if things could truly go sideways so easily, like they have with this introduction of a “Suicide is now legal” law. Because the series hinges so hard on these ideas, used to justify twists that wouldn’t work in any other setting, it becomes a hefty hurdle for viewers to climb in order to suspend their disbelief.
Linny: Hurdles of disbelief aside, Babylon’s biggest issue is how uncomfortable and questionable it gets starting with Episode 5. Up to that point, even if requiring the existence of this fantastical city with experimental law, Babylon worked. But when we delve deeper into the past of the Femme Fatale character, Ai Magase, Babylon starts playing with topics it doesn’t seem capable of doing justice. We meet Ai’s adopted uncle who uses very disturbing phrases to describe her magnetic personality, phrases which one might have heard used by real life molesters or even general public discussion, often used to put the blame on victims of sexual assault such as claiming that the girl was asking for it, that every inch of the girl’s body was beckoning to them, etc etc. It’s all the more disturbing considering this is an adult male describing his niece who is still only in junior high. Yes, the show and character makes it clear that nothing physically sexual actually happened between them but the terms and claims used and made in this episode are made no less unsettling by that and Babylon does nothing to condemn Ai’s uncle or subvert his line of reasoning.
Tom: I’d argue that the depiction of Ai Magase’s origins are even more frustrating than merely unsettling. The sequence honestly feels like an attempt to reimagine the very concept of a Femme Fatale, if not offer up a ‘super’ version of that kind of female character. She has an innately powerful sexuality that scares men, or leaves them powerless before her. That idea, if perhaps innately sexist, is largely inoffensive, and sits no different from other media that have played with ‘so sexy she could kill’ female villains. But instead of describing Ai Magase’s seductive power in more direct terms, the show chooses to use the very kind of dialogue Linny describes above, but goes further even in describing her inactive, yet powerful feminine wiles as, somehow, committing rape on any man in her proximity. It’s a re-appropriation of a very charged term, and a misuse of it because rape requires overpowering the will of another and forcing themselves on the victim. Since Ai Magase has no ill-intention in this origin story it feels like a gross mishandling of a touchey subject matter that removes my faith in the author and his ability to offer up actual, meaningful critique on any of the topics seemingly addressed. This scene could’ve worked in so many other ways without resorting to such charged and willfully misappropriated terminology. Sadly Episode 6 makes it clear that this hamfisted writing isn’t simply a one off misstep.
Linny: Episode 6 offers up a giant, shocking twist..but one that only works if literally everyone involved in this scheme was a complete and total idiot. Without giving too much away, it requires competent and scheming men to have done zero research on their big victory card and reveals just how contrived Babylon’s writing is. This big moment only works in the most idiotic circumstance and given the weight of the matter, it seems nigh impossible and incomprehensible that such a giant and vital piece of information would be hidden from the very people working on it.
Tom: Maybe the misuse of charged terminology, or the ‘written to be defeated’ arguments against suicide (more on that below) could be overlooked if there was solid character work to latch onto. The problem is Babylon is a very focused show. Outside of our lead detective, Zen Seizaki, everyone else is fairly unexplored. That would be fine if the show was as cohesive and gripping as intended, but significant missteps, or bungled arguments feel even bigger when you struggle to care for any of the additional characters.
Linny: Going back to Episode 6, we’re treated to a big debate between all the politicians against legalizing suicide and the one politician for it. This would have been the perfect opportunity for Babylon to reveal some well thought out and impressive arguments for and against legalizing suicide, yet these politicians who have supposedly been preparing for the debate spit out ‘gems’ such as ‘the law is the only thing stopping people from committing suicide.’ In fact, almost all of the arguments against suicide are drawn from simplistic common sense rather than well researched, well argued positions. Even the counter argument in favor of enabling it relies on the already wildly understood concept of enabling assisted suicide for those who are infirm or suffering from debilitating and painful, incurable illness. Babylon brings absolutely nothing new or innovative to this age old debate, making it feel like a tired copy paste, combined with its more ridiculous, unsettling and idiotic plot developments. This makes for a pseudo intellectual show that feels like yet another example of how its author grabs onto interesting ideas but then fails to develop it in an intelligent or convincing manner. I am willing to admit that there’s a chance Babylon could redeem itself and prove to actually be a highly thought out and well written show but given the author’s track record with Kado, I personally am unwilling to take that risk. If you haven’t been jaded by his previous work, or you’re more willing to forgive and overlook the flaws that we pointed out, you might be the intended audience for the series as they say there’s a foot for every shoe. But if you’ve already been a bit apprehensive about the show, it might be best to give Babylon a skip.
Tom: As we hit the midpoint for Babylon I find my original recommendation losing weight. In fact after Episodes 5 and 6 I can’t see myself recommending it to anyone. To be fair, nothing is set in stone. There are ways Babylon could still surprise, course correcting its misappropriation of something like rape and commenting on the innate sexism prevalent in society, where it’s always a woman’s fault for the failures of men (I really, really doubt it though since modern Ai Magase has been proven to be so seductive she can ‘kill.’) but since our author was the mastermind behind Kado, and that went spectacularly off the rails, I don’t have much faith this series will adjust course, but rather get increasingly worse.
Babylon is available for streaming via Amazon.