Unpopular Opinion: Babylon

babylon

This will contain major spoilers for episodes 1-7 of Babylon.  You’ve been warned.

Babylon is an interesting show, arguably one of best of the season, despite it’s relatively low profile.  It’s a mystery, thriller, cop procedural with a lot of strong elements.  The presentation is solid and the characters are believably human though several of the main characters either feel especially strongly about certain things or have very weird ideas regarding how society should function.

The backdrop to the mystery, thriller is a great idea in concept as well.  A new city called Shiniki is being developed in part of Tokyo, in an effort to revitalize the economy.  This is just a cover though, the real aim of this new city is that it’s a new Special Administrative zone with a great deal of autonomy – and the politicians running for Shiniki mayor want to use it as a testing ground for new laws, and potentially even systems of government.

Enter our protagonist, Seizaki Zen.  His jobs looks like a portmanteau of police inspector and criminal prosecutor, with him going in person to seize evidence but also reading through all the evidence to build a legal case against the suspects.  He gets involved because of an unusual suicide, a noteworthy pharmaceutical researcher, who is backing one of the main candidates for Shiniki mayor.  The sudden suicide causes Seizaki to investigate the political party in question and finds evidence what looks to be a prostitution ring set up to gather votes.  However a few things don’t add up, like certain groups involved seem to backing different candidates and so on.

This is all basically a giant misdirection however.  It turns out at the very least, the current lead candidate – a former high level politician – and a few other keys officials, notably Seizaki’s boss, have hatched a plan to make the most of Shiniki’s secret function, the testing ground for laws.  The lead candidate is going to back out so that a young man, unaffiliated with any political party can win the race, allowing the old political veterans to run things from behind the scenes.

This is brings me to my first issue with the show, though it is a very minor one.  First of all, this definitely a lesson in the “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself” handbook.  As soon as our young candidate wins the mayoral election, he fucking disappears with all the necessary documents, throwing everyone else into disarray as they still have to elect the rest of the city council.  I sort of question why the older politicians didn’t just take charge and run this themselves.  I see the appeal in pretending to let the new blood run things, while managing the real power behind closed doors but anyone with  half a brain should know better than to hand someone significant power on a plate, especially when there is no guarantee you actually control them.  Maybe it’s about reputation, maybe it has more to do with Japanese culture and I’m missing something, or maybe the older politicians just thought working behind the scenes would be more efficient – I can’t say for sure.  All I can say is that you have to be careful when setting up a figurehead, and they did a terrible job on that front.

The story is further confused as not only does Seizaki’s partner suddenly commit suicide before the election, but after Itsuki, the new mayor, disappears a whole bunch of people jump off the new city hall building – including the cop who was with Seizaki when he interrogated one of the suspected prostitutes.  Turns out all of the “prostitutes” were one woman and far from being a prostitute she was apparently crucial to making Shiniki’s secret function possible.  I’ll get back to this mystery woman later.  Following the group suicide Itsuki proposes that Shiniki institute a new law making suicide legal.  This understandably causes an uproar since it looks like it’s tied to the group suicide.

Seizaki is put in charge of a task force to build the case to arrest Itsuki, so that the older politicians can take charge.  This effort ultimately fails so instead the entire task force prepares to kidnap Itsuki after a debate he has with 4 city council candidates about the suicide law.  This too is thwarted when almost the entire task force commits suicide, including one of Seizaki’s close friends.  As the friend describes it, all it took was a whisper from the mystery woman and he wanted to kill himself.  Technically he describes this overwhelming sensation of overflowing but I’m less interested in that and more focused on the practical results, a lot of people die and Itsuki evades capture.

Maybe it doesn’t come across this way as I describe it but for the most part Babylon is a very gripping and interesting show.  There are however two major problems I have and they are basically the fulcrums around which the entire story revolves.  Let’s start with the suicide law.

Just to set my own bias down, I personally think suicide it ultimately an act of weakness and cowardice.  Living is difficult, for all the joys of life there many struggles and hurdles as well, and while it takes more than a little effort to overcome our biological imperative to stay alive, ultimately I think dying is much easier than living.  So obviously I’m against the proposed suicide law, but that’s not really my problem as far as the show is concerned.  My main problem was the debate about the law and fucking failure that it was.  Big concept stuff like this always risky especially in a tiny package, with a lot of other material to cover – i.e. this anime.

The suicide debate was a joke, the character who was supposed to have the strongest against it had a garbage argument about how we can’t be rational about death.  Meanwhile the other 3 against who argued from the moral, potential increase in suicide due it being legal, and economic sides of the argument were basically brushed aside by one-liners from Itsuki.  The fact that the show – via Seizaki and Co. – was like, “Nani!  He knocked down all the arguments against the suicide law!” was retarded.  Itsuki didn’t refute jack shit, he gave them one line responses about unrelated, or at best tangentially related topics, like weed usage and suicide during the Roman Empire – and he backed none of it up.  This is one of problems with anime digging into new social, moral and legal concepts, these concepts need to be thoroughly fleshed out to be convincing/interesting and most anime are too short or have too much else to cover to flesh them out.

The way I see it there are three arguments for the suicide law that hold any merit whatsoever.  Euthanasia, which I believe is legal in many countries.  Let’s say you’re old and dying or have late stage cancer and would rather go without anymore pain – you ask the doctors to put you down and die in peace.  I’m actually for this because I don’t see why you should have to suffer when there is no hope of recovery.  Also rather than be a potential financial burden on your family in your old age you can die before the medical bills really start racking up as you degrade due to old age.  I think we’d need to set fairly strict stipulations on it’s use in practice but in principle I’m ok with euthanasia for people with no hope of recovery.

The second is a liberty argument.  Basically do you have the right to die whenever you want to you, by whatever means you want to?  Suicide is a weird thing to be illegal in the sense that you can’t charge a corpse with a crime.  However people can be convinced of things, so presumably the law is mostly there to punish those who might convince others to commit suicide rather than the suicides themselves because there’s not much you can do to the suicides.  If suicide is not illegal, can you be punished for convincing someone to commit suicide?  Hard to say, and this will be a major issue with the suicide law since our mystery woman apparently has godlike charisma and can cause anyone to commit suicide with nothing more than a whisper.  My guess is that this part of the law is what Itsuki is trying to subvert because it advances the mystery woman’s agenda because she can make anyone commit suicide, and if the suicide law passed, presumably she could do so without any legal repercussions.

The third argument for the suicide law is one that appears after the debate is already over when a kid, who made a viral video asking everyone to fight against the suicide law because his dad was going to kill himself, is brought on stage.  Turns out it’s actually Itsuki’s son and he apparently has some kind of heart condition.  Itsuki seems to be framing his desire for suicide as a means by which to facilitate organ transplant to save his sons life.  This to me is by far the most interesting argument for a suicide law, whereby someone who doesn’t want to live, dies and gives up their organs to those in need.  It’s messy because if the suicide were expressly for the purpose of organ donation then it seems moral, even heroic in a sense, to sacrifice your own life for someone else’s.  At the same time though the suicide law does not stipulate that you have to donate your organs, so while it could be used for a moral cause there’s no way force everyone to be moral.

If I were to support a suicide law, not the one the show proposes but one for the real world, I think euthanasia and suicide for the express purpose of organ donation would be just about the only things I could support.  And frankly it’s a shame that this isn’t addressed in more depth because I think Babylon could have a been great on this front if the show were basically about nothing but the suicide law debate.  If this show had the political maneuvering of the early episodes and then built up to a major debate on the topic of the suicide law, the climax of the show, with in-depth, nuanced arguments backed by relevant data as well anecdotal stories and fully realized character motivations and backstories – then it could have not only made the concept interesting but would have made for one the best political shows of all time.  Instead I think Babylon will fall apart because of major problem number 2, the mystery woman – Magase Ai.

In fairness to the show I think the focus of Babylon will be on juxtaposition of making suicide, and by extension persuasion to commit suicide, legal and the malicious magical suicide inducing whispers of Magase Ai.  Magase is a character who I think is fairly interesting in concept but I’m very worried about the execution.  For starters how does she even exist?  Let’s assume for a minute that her charisma is natural, that she has a naturally overwhelming presence and such awareness and command of her body that her ability to persuade and make others feel things with verbal and non-verbal cues borders on magical.  How can she appear as so many different women?  This setting takes place on earth and no fantastical powers are in play, at least that’s how things have been presented.  Magase is not a secret agent and the differences between her various appearances are too great for it be a disguise, and by the way if they explain her away as having a bunch of different disguises that would kill the mystery for me.  How in the fuck is she a shapeshifter to the degree that she can be mistaken for Itsuki’s wife?  How?  Does this not fly in the face of all the grounded realism of everything else in the show?

Moreover what worries me is that her character is consistent, in the sense that she appears to be Chaotic Evil by D & D standards.  Not only does she enjoy doing bad things, she does them for their own sake and wants to communicate to Seizaki, a person who is just, that evil has a purpose.  Which she does by dismembering a woman, presumably Sekuro his new partner, and causing the task force to commit suicide.  We know that Seizaki has a family and they now have a giant death flag as well.  So my worries are two fold, one this show will degenerate into an edgy, shock value story that survives on you not understanding how anything works and only being invested in how much damage Magase wants to do to Seizaki for her own twisted ends.  And two, that the reason Magase has the shapeshifting power is so Seizaki doesn’t do the logical thing, put in ear plugs and gun her down as soon as he sees her.  Because he totally could, if she couldn’t shapeshift.  I REALLY don’t like it when people are given abilities they shouldn’t have because the plot basically demands that they have them.

I am still going to watch the show, but putting my thought on paper has really helped me pin down my overall feelings on it.  I’m seriously worried this will fall apart.  It’s been very good up until now, but the suicide debate, which should have been a major event, was a joke and the story has become much less about the suicide law and more about Magase Ai.  And while I’m interested conceptually in a thriller centered around someone who is essentially a malevolent shapeshifting succubus, I’m worried about the execution.  Frankly I think Magase would be a much more interesting character if she were a literal succubus in a fantasy setting.  Imagine if Magase was in a Game of Thrones kind of setting, where a whispered word could cause suspicious political deaths and she could charm the influential to do her bidding.  Not only would she fit better into that kind of setting with the powers she seems to have but I think you could make her far more dangerous in a medieval fantasy world, where there would be fewer records of her behavior and people with any kind of authority to go after her would be few and far between.