The Fall 2019 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
Shinki is a new “autonomous zone” being established in western Tokyo to accommodate the metropolis' ever-growing population, and the upcoming mayoral elections have dominated discussion in the media for weeks. In the middle of investigating pharmaceutical law violations for the Tokyo Public Prosecutor's Office, Prosecutor Zen Seisaki and his assistant Atsuhiko Fumio stumble on to evidence linking the bizarre suicide of an anesthesiologist to one of the mayoral candidates, Ryuichiro Nomaru. Suspecting a scandal that could tear Shinki's burgeoning political scene into pieces, Zen and Atsuhiko begin pulling at the threads of the case, and with the body count rising, its impossible to say just how deep the corruption in the city could possibly go. Babylon is based on a series of novels, and can be found streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Sundays.
How was the first episode?
If the summary alone didn't clue you in, Babylon's first episode goes out of its way to make sure that viewers know it is an Anime for Grownups™, which isn't a value judgement on its quality or worthiness as art or anything like that, but rather a description of its tone and intent. You won't be finding any parallel universes, otherworldly demons, magic powers, or preternaturally gifted teenage protagonists here (at least not in the first episode). Instead, we've got adults working for bureaucratic investigation agencies who are digging into seedy pharmaceutical companies and local government conspiracies, with a little sex and violence tossed in to spice things up. Babylon is a procedural, first and foremost, and if you aren't down to follow a pair of straight-laced investigator types as they meet up with their police and journalist contacts, stake-out meetups between politicians and prostitutes, and have lengthy conversations about the ethical and investigative value of reading, then this anime might not be your cup of straight black coffee.
If you're like me, though, and relish the opportunity to watch an anime that operates a bit outside the mold of the usual genre fare we get every season, then Babylon might well feel like a breath of fresh air. The novel upon which it is based has apparently received rave reviews, and I can tell even after just one episode that it is taking this tale of political greed run amok very seriously, going for as grounded and understated an approach as you can find in an anime these days. For all I know, there might be extra-dimensional monsters, head explosions, and lurid fanservice aplenty waiting in future episodes, but this opening chapter plays things completely by-the-book, and I dig that commitment to sticking with a story that a lot of other authors would be tempted to gussy up. Zen and Atsuhiro make for compelling leads, a pair of decent men who just want to do their jobs right, though it isn't long before we realize that the two are going to be risking their necks for this case, in more ways than one.
Twin Engine's subsidiary Revoroot is handling the production on Babylon, and if I had one major criticism to lob at this premiere, it's that the flat, low-key style of the art and animation can cause the episode to drag a little bit. The character designs are all fairly plain and blocky, and the only real visual flourish we get is an overblown purple-green tinge to some of the lighting and background coloring that reminds me more of Hand Shakers than anything else. The writing is also a little too straightforward in places, taking us from beat to beat of the investigation without as much escalation of tension as I suspect was the intent – it isn't until the very final scene of the premiere that I really found myself thinking “Ah, here's where things take a turn”.
The first three episodes are up on Amazon, though, so there isn't anything stopping me from digging in to the next chapters of this story. Given how much I've been in the mood for something a little different this fall, I think I might do just that. Babylon is rough around the edges, and it's always difficult to gauge just how good a mystery story like this will be until all the cards have been laid out, but I'm definitely intrigued enough to follow this investigation for at least a few more twists and turns.
Babylon is not the only series this season which is specifically aimed at adults, but it is the one most overt about such intentions and the one most aimed at non-otaku. Everything about the series – from its darker shading to its eschewing of cute factor for realism in character designs to its headier subject matter – is focused in that direction. And it's done well enough in its first episode that I could see this series being a hit if it was on Crunchyroll or Funi. Given that the series isn't necessarily aimed at otaku, however, it being on Amazon Prime might not hurt it so much.
The series almost immediately establishes its tone and style with an opening scene where Seizaki leads a whole squad of people in a raid on a pharmaceuticals firm. Its serious crime-busting focus gets further reinforced along every step of the way as Seizaki and his partner start digging into the company's records and discover a curious spin-off that leads them to crimes of a wholly different and much more political kind – a direction which also turns out to be dangerous as it encounters suicides that may not be what they appear and prostitution-for-votes schemes. Along the way it uses a firm, steady pacing and strong (occasionally a little too strong) use of musical score to gradually ramp up tension. It's quite easy to get gradually swept up in events as they progress into darker and darker corners
Absolutely key to all of this working is Zen Seizaki himself. We've seen plenty of adult characters before who were stern and justice-minded, but this one makes much more of an impression than normal. That could be because his passion is laid out in a more understated way; he doesn't have to go over-the-top or make grandiose speeches to get his point across, as his conviction bleeds out of everything he does. I also found the multiple shots which focused on his wedding ring to be an interesting choice, as if the series were suggesting that his wife and child are the reason why he's so passionate. I could easily see him becoming one of my favorite characters of the year if I decide to watch this one out. Supporting all of this are some sharp choices on camera shots and natural-sounding dialog.
Overall, Babylon has some rough edges so far but plenty enough promise and ability to be compelling that I will certainly be watching at least the additional currently-available episodes. If you're looking for something different but not whacked-out this season, this is it.
Is there anything more thrilling than watching a group of men in suits conduct a raid on an office? If you answered “yes,” Babylon may be a tougher sell, because it's very much (as of this first episode) “White Collar Crime: The Anime.” But if like me you obsessively read mystery novels that don't necessarily involve murder or devotedly ingest all mystery and crime shows on as many viewing platforms as you can handle, then Babylon may feel like a breath of fresh air in this season of primarily fantasy-based shows. Plus the first episode ends on a pretty great twist, although I think we can be virtually certain that it's not going to turn out to be what it at first looks like.
The story is very much a procedural in terms of execution. Because of its twenty-three-minute runtime, it doesn't get as heavily into the details as many procedurals do, which may be something of a boon. Primarily what we learn is that Seizaki is an investigator for a special unit within law enforcement, and when things go sideways in behind-the-scenes kind of ways, his group takes over. That means that when a university is getting a kickback from a drug company, Seizaki and his team move in. And when that turns into something much more sinister with the discovery of a very oddly-planned murder with political ties, it's very much in his territory.
That there is a murder at all is good news for the episode, if not for the doctor who gets offed. It injects a more traditional, or at least more “Law&Order”-like, vibe into the show, which it definitely needs if its going to have any appeal for the majority of crime show aficionados, because while reading about guys combing through documents is fine, watching it gets dull fast. That there's a very strange element to the murder just makes it more interesting, because it raises the question of if the doctor committed suicide, was murdered by someone who had zero fears of being caught, or if the doctor was a willing participant in his own murder, making it sort of “suicide by murderer.” The answer to that is going to be a major piece of the next episode (which preview guide means I don't have time to watch at this moment), and if reading Ellery Queen has taught me anything, it will have serious implications for both the case as a whole and possibly the series going forward.
Babylon does play its “this is for grown-ups” card a bit much in this episode, primarily in terms of all of the office scenes and the fact that it largely takes place in low-lighting or in the dark. I think there's a good crime show underneath all of those reminders that this isn't an isekai power fantasy, though, and I'm definitely going to be following up on that last-minute twist. Crime in real life is awful, but in fiction, it's something worth watching.
During yesterday's premieres, I praised the quasi-police procedural Special 7 for understanding the importance of combining its exposition and general setup with some urgent narrative hooks. Its two main characters were introduced during the course of an active bank robbery, and the episode went on to convey their initial bonding over the course of a tense police chase. It was far from a perfect premiere, but it certainly understood the importance of grabbing the audience's attention.
I'm guessing you can tell where I'm going with this. In contrast to Special 7's fast-paced introduction, Babylon spends its whole first episode dithering through tedious police protocol, as its protagonist Zen Seizaki investigates an increasingly mysterious case. Most of this episode is taken up by dramatically inert discussions between Zen and his partner Fumio, and though things technically “escalate” over time, their case felt bland and circuitous from start to finish. By the time things finally heated up at the end, I had been checking my watch for a good third of the episode.
Part of Babylon's problem might simply be that it is entirely loyal to one of my own country's most overproduced and creatively inert genres: the prime time police procedural. Babylon feels exactly like the kind of story you'd experience on an episode of CSI or Law & Order, and these stories are rarely particularly interesting in any sense outside of their basic “plot beats are happening” narrative pull. This sense of dull familiarity is further bolstered by the show's flavorless visual execution; the character designs are bland, colors muted, and direction competent but uninspired. Babylon really doesn't take advantage of its medium in any way, and could have been produced just as easily in live action.
All in all, Babylon's first episode isn't truly bad in any way, but also isn't inspired in any way, either. If you're a big fan of police procedurals, Babylon offers a pretty standard example of the genre; otherwise, you can easily skip it.
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