Tokyo Babylon: CLAMP Premium Collection Volume 1 Review

A few years ago in Japan, publishers brought out classic titles by the all-women manga collective CLAMP and started releasing them as “Premium Collections” with new covers.

Aside from Tokyo Babylon, other series to be given the treatment have so far include xxxHOLiC, Magic Knight Rayearth, Tokyo Babylon’s sequel X (which has just published the final, incomplete Volume 18.5 this month), and as of next year, Chobits. Tokyo Babylon is the first of these collections to be given an English-language release, thanks to Yen Press. This is perhaps surprising, given that Yen has not released much of CLAMP’s work in the past. The only title they have released previously was Kobato.

Nevertheless, it is certainly good to see this old title return. Having run in the early 1990s in Japan, it was first released by TokyoPop, then Dark Horse collected the entire series in two large omnibus editions. Interestingly, Yen’s release matches the page size of Dark Horse’s version. However, things have obviously changed between the two releases, and indeed, since this series began.

The story revolves around three central figures. The first is 16-year-old Subaru Sumeragi, the 13th head of a clan of onmyoji, a group of people who practice magic and divination; he uses his skills to exorcise spirits. He is helped in this task by his ever-so-slightly older twin sister Hokuto, and 25-year-old vet Seishiro Sakurazuka, who says he loves Subaru. Seishiro is also from an onmyoji clan, but his group work in the shadows and specialise in assassination.

Each story sees Subaru being called upon to deal with a different supernatural problem. In this volume, we see him helping a woman who is being possessed by a haunted Chanel suit, while in another he tries to calm a violent spirit in Tokyo Tower. If you are wondering if the mention of Chanel has any particular importance, well, one aspect that makes Tokyo Babylon stand out is the flamboyant fashions worn by the Sumeragi twins. Hokuto is always dressed in lavish outfits. Subaru has his own trademark outfit consisting of a black boater hat with red trim, a black tank top, red jacket, black trousers and shoes, and most importantly his gloves, which he never takes off on order of his grandmother.

This mystery surrounding Subaru’s gloves also appears to be intertwined with an encounter Subaru had as a young child, with a strange older boy who told him the reason that cherry blossoms turn pink is because there are corpses under them, the trees drinking their blood. This older boy made a bet with him, but Subaru cannot remember the details. At one point in the present, the trio go to a park and Subaru wonders if that boy was a young Seishiro. It couldn’t be, could it?

When it comes to examining this manga, there are a few things to take into account. As often commented on, CLAMP are famous for their artwork, and Tokyo Babylon has some of their best. As mentioned earlier, fashion is a big recurring element in the story, and the twins have some of the best outfits of any manga characters ever made, with their trademark avant-garde style. Subaru’s signature look is arguably a classic, but it doesn’t stop CLAMP creating more. These Premium Collection editions with their new covers gave CLAMP the chance to give the characters even more new outfits. In the case of this opening volume, Subaru is given a royal look with a flowing robe, with crown badges and rosettes, one of which is displayed on a knee-length boot he wears. It’s a great design.

Another element worth examining is the plot. CLAMP’s titles before Tokyo Babylon had included the violent fantasy RG Veda and children’s stories such as Man of Many Faces, with CLAMP’s quartet allowing them to work on multiple series at the same time. Published in the quarterly magazine South, the larger chapters allowed CLAMP to cover new areas, so with Tokyo Babylon they decided to delve into social commentary. Mixed in with all the supernatural stuff are more serious topics. In this opening volume, the characters talk about the environment and the damage that aerosols and CFCs are doing to the ozone layer. Hokuto’s  attitude towards using the products is: “It’s already stocked in the shops. If I don’t buy it, someone else will! If humanity’s going to chip away at the ozone layer anyway, I may as well use it to make myself prettier.” This view may be seen as callous, but then again, look at the COVID pandemic; when certain people in power broke the rules then, it leads people to think: “If those in charge won’t stick to the rules, why should I?” It feels like certain attitudes don’t change quickly.

When comparing Yen’s release to the previous Dark Horse version, there are certain elements that stand out. Both contain colour pages, with Yen Press having a fold-out section at the front of the book. Yen also supply translation notes, unlike the Dark Horse edition. This is especially useful, given some of the more niche references CLAMP make in this now 33-year-old story.

There also differences between the two versions translations (Amanda Haley for Yen Press, Carl Gustav Horn for Dark Horse) and lettering (Phil Christie for Yen Press, IHL for DH). The Yen version uses multiple fonts, especially for Hokuto who has a bolder font style for when she is angry, and another for when she is excited, as well as the standard comic sans. Sometimes text is displayed differently. For example, a long thin text box detailing Seishiro’s veterinary surgery in the Dark Horse is written vertically in a normal text size, meaning you have to tilt the page of read it properly; while Yen writes it horizontally but in a smaller size, which may make it harder to read for some people.

Then there are issues regarding the spelling. For example, in most versions of the story the standard way of writing Sakurazuka’s first name is “Seishiro”, but Haley decides to go with “Seishirou” instead to clarify the pronunciation. As for which kind of spelling is more accurate, we do have a pretty good source in the form of X and its recent Premium Collection release in Japan. In it, the major characters got their own individual small bonus chapters in the back of the volumes, and in the Japanese edition, the one covering the character in question writes the name as “Seishiro Sakurazuka”, without the “u”. Thus, it feels that Haley’s translation seems to be questionable at certain times, given this information.

However, in other areas Haley’s work feels better than the Dark Horse edition. This is perhaps best summed up in how she covers probably the biggest issue that new readers to the story have with Tokyo Babylon: the nine year age gap between Subaru and Seishiro, especially when you remember that Subaru is 16. Yes, obviously the fact that Seishiro is a 25-year-old dating someone that young is an issue, but when you read further volumes of the series, you come to realise that it is not the really biggest problem with Seishiro. There are worse things to come.

In the manga, there is a scene where Seishiro is teasing Subaru about their love, and at one point suggests a date for their wedding. In the Dark Horse version, Subaru replies with: “B-but … I’m a guy!” – gay marriage was illegal in Japan back then, and is still illegal in Japan today – but in the Yen release, Subaru instead replies with: “I-I’m a boy, you know”, which feels more accurate given the age difference.

This is also something that should be pointed out: Subaru and Seishiro are definitely gay. There is no doubt in my mind they are gay, and in the minds of most readers, this is also true. Some dismiss this idea however. I know, because when I wrote my book all about CLAMP, a review from the Anime News Network too dismissed this notion, which is weird when you consider that earlier this year, when ANN did a poll to find the best LGBTQ+ pair in manga for pride month, Subaru and Seishiro was one of the choices.

Anyway, when comparing these two translations, both have their positives and negatives. It will certainly be interesting to see how things are dealt with as we progress further into the series, and also how readers new to the story will react.

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8 / 10

Ian Wolf

Ian works as an anime and manga critic for Anime UK News, and was also the manga critic for MyM Magazine. His debut book, CLAMPdown, about the manga collective CLAMP, is available now. Outside of anime, he is data specialist for the British Comedy Guide, is QI's most pedantic viewer, has written questions for both The Wall and Richard Osman's House of Games, and has been a contestant on Mastermind.

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