Like with Vinland Saga, Babylon‘s first three episodes were released on Amazon on the same day so I figured I play along and watch and review all three. I actually recommend finding the time do so as Episodes 1 through 3 comprise the entire first arc. So as a narrative, they kind of function as a triple-length premiere anyway.
At the first, I was under the impression that Babylon was going to be a straight up procedural drama anime. Protagonist Zen Seizaki (Yuichi Nakamura) works for a government investigations agency with his partner, Atsuhiko Fumio (Kenoshou Ono), in the newly created Shiniki district of Tokyo. His current case involves a connection between the shady business of a pharmaceutical company, an apparent suicide of a doctor who worked for the company, and misconduct performed by candidates of the mayoral election. It’s a by the book case of tackling corruption which I found refreshing after feeling exhausted by recent anime that involve government agencies but also incorporated fantastical or paranormal elements.
Then the story kept going and getting increasingly weirder. Fumio mysteriously kills himself at the end of Episode 1. The lead suspect in all of this, Ai Magase (Satsuki Yukino) is revealed to be a shapeshifter who can hypnotically coerce people into killing themselves and is somehow connected to the government and a suicide pill the dead doctor was developing. Shiniki is also revealed to be a social experiment where any law can be enacted without restriction or regulation. This plan sees fruition at the end of Episode 3 when the newly elected mayor announces suicide is now legal and bunch of people that are either drugged or coerced by Ai jump off a skyscraper to their deaths. I’m not kidding. This is all happens in the show.
In Babylon‘s defense, this turn for the weird is gradually paced across the three episodes and eases you in. It’s when you sit down and think about these developments that you feel puzzled. Ai’s very existence seems at odds with the show’s tone and in regards to the current anime landscape, it’s disappointing to see yet another procedural show veer into the unreal. Shiniki as a setting could make for some interesting political commentary but it will require a lot of strong prose in order to be taken seriously. So far, the first decree is suicide is now legal which is topical given Japan’s high suicide rate but it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.
The direction can be a bit much too. Let’s take Seizaki’s interrogation of Ai from Episode 2 as an example. This event is cut up and placed in between scenes that lead up to him bringing the woman into questioning. They’re also drawn in the faux widescreen that anime seems to love these days. Ai’s recollection of her sexual flings with some politicians are drawn to look like old camera footage and they’re also sequenced to make it look like the Ai in the past is talking to Seizaki in the present. I get the intent here. All this fiddling with narrative structure, shot composition, and framing serves to reflect how weird Ai is and that she’s in control of the interrogation, not Seizaki. Don’t get me wrong, it works but it does feel excessive. You probably could’ve done without the nonlinearity, the faux camera static, and that stupid widescren effect and you’d still convey what you want to convey effectively. Episodes 1 and 3 don’t nearly go as extreme but they do have their fair share of odd editing and framing choices. I hesitate to say the direction is bad, it sometimes does work, but it does feel like the people at the wheel fancy themselves as artists and perhaps too much so at that.
I don’t want to sound too negative. Again, I did really enjoy the first episode for feeling more grounded and realistic compared to other procedural drama anime. I’ll also go ahead and say that I think Seizaki is looking to be a very likable character — a veteran civil servant lacking the usual weariness or cynicism and an incorruptible individual in an otherwise corrupted society. Frankly, my favorite moments in Episodes 2 and 3 wasn’t any of the weird stuff but rather, Seizaki doing normal detective work. Tiptoeing around politics so that he can learn what really happened to Fumio. Forming an inner circle with people he can trust. Those moments were honestly more compelling than shape-shifting hypnotist craving sex and people killing themselves because it’s legal to do so.
You know what Babylon reminds me of? Kado: The Right Answer. Remember that show from two years ago? That show also had a very grounded start before delving into crazy sci-fi territory. And wouldn’t you know? Babylon‘s story was conceived by the same person who wrote for Kado. I never finished Kado but I do remember people complaining about the show jumping the shark and crumbling under its own prose. I almost can’t help but wonder if the same fate will befall Babylon.
Thanks for reading!