by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 5 of
Content Warning: Due to the nature of this week's episode of Babylon, this review will discuss sensitive subject matter, including rape and incest.
There are two threads at work in this week's episode of Babylon, one of which continues the generally engaging mystery surrounding Kaika Itsuki and his mysterious mission, and the other…well, the other digs into Ai Magase's past, and let's just say that it's going to be difficult to parse. The Kaika stuff doesn't feature too much into the proceedings, to be honest, but it works well to establish the rapport between Zen and his team of investigators, specifically with the Police director and Hiasa. To blow off some steam, Zen engages with them in a friendly and surprisingly well animated kendo sparring match, and the whole sequence has everyone feeling more human, especially Hiasa. Up until this scene, she had been presented as a very cold and detached woman, more a sounding board for Zen than anything else, and getting some insight into her martial arts hobbies and even her moral code goes a long way towards shaping her into a believable, three-dimensional character.
When Kaika makes his proclamation about wanting to set up some manner of debate between himself and any politicians that would debate his proposed suicide law, we can practically see the gears turning between all of the investigators as they jump into action – the camera even makes a point to focus on the crew's coffee pot, because this is the kind of procedural where long hours of meticulous work is what gets the job done. It isn't exactly earth-shattering television, but it's exactly the level of exciting that Babylon ought to strive toward.
Then there's the other fifteen minutes of the episode, which goes all in on setting Ai Magase up as the preternatural agent of chaos that Zen and Hiasa will be doing battle against. Technically speaking, the story is constructed with all of the low-key suspense that makes the rest of the show work, and what we learn about Ai isn't new per se. She's not just cunning, duplicitous, and dangerous – she possesses some kind of supernatural abilities that give her total control over the people she subjugates, the kind of control that could, say, persuade dozens of otherwise healthy and sane individuals to leap from a building to their deaths. In order to make sense of what should be an utter impossibility, Zen and Hiasa make their way to an inconspicuous Kyoto health office, where a man named Kurauzu Sakabe is hiding in plain sight. Kurauzu, as it turns out, is Ai's uncle, and he was also her physician when she was in middle school. Boy oh boy, does he have some stories to tell.
This is where talking about Ai Magase, and Babylon's treatment of women in general, is going to get very tricky, because the show is dipping its toes into incredibly sensitive territory that could either make for some surprisingly nuanced storytelling, or completely blow up in its face. The first major red flag is when Kurauzu recounts a time in Ai's youth when several young men came to him for help, all of them suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and all of them making the same claim: Ai Magase raped them. Now, dealing with sexual assault in and of itself requires a very deft hand indeed, but Babylon muddies the waters further by clarifying that Ai Magase never once touched or violated these boys in any physical manner; rather, her so-called “rape” was a psychic one, in which she invaded the minds of the boys in a manner that disturbed them to the point of seeking psychiatric help. When Kurauzu meets the adolescent Ai for the first time in years, he elaborates by admitting that his niece's budding sexuality and charm was so unbelievably powerful that he literally started drooling over her within seconds of her walking in the door.
Needless to say, Babylon is on the verge of making some awfully gross statements about Ai, and by extension the latent, seductive power of the Feminine that she seems to represent. Bouncing through every room she's in with an enigmatic smile, Ai's “power” is portrayed as almost entirely passive, at least until the final moments of the episode (more on that later), and this is what makes the use of the word “rape” to describe her actions feel so gross. Rape is by its very nature an abhorrent and deliberate crime, born from a disregard for the victim's humanity and agency. Rape, in other words, cannot be a passive crime; it requires the rapist to make the active choice to set aside the will and well-being of their victims in order to satisfy whatever base need they are pursuing.
The problem with how Ai's character is presented in Kurauzu's flashbacks is that whatever power she seems to be exerting over people is not necessarily portrayed as a manifestation of active choice. The boys that feel this anxiety over Ai haven't been made to say or do anything against their will, as far as they know, and even Kurauzu makes it clear that he never actually did anything to Ai, and that he is fully aware that wanting to have sex with his underage niece was a terrible impulse that gestures towards an unforgivable crime on his part. But for a bunch of young men (and at least one older relative) to feel uncontrollable lust for a middle school student does not make that girl a “rapist”, full stop.
Now, there is obviously some sort of wrinkle to Ai's whole being that is either supernatural, or the result of some kind of science-fiction experiment gone wrong. When she tells her uncle that she would gladly participate in counseling, because she struggles so much to relate to other people, you even get the impression that this power of hers to allure and potentially manipulate others isn't one she has full control over. So it could very well be that Ai is going to be presented as a character who possesses a terrible power and has lived a terrible life because of it, and Babylon's potentially regressive views about agency and the male gaze could prove unfounded. Perhaps Ai simply amplifies or exaggerates the instincts and desires that already exist within the people around her; this would make the show's commentary on the sexual and suicidal impulses of the people that die in her wake a different kind of messy, and still potentially sexist, but still infinitely less gross than “She mentally rapes men by being so maliciously sexual that they go crazy just trying to resist the urge to have sex with her”.
Then again, the Ai Magase of the present day really is some a manipulative and murderous monster, which just makes things even muddier. When she calls Zen at the end of the episode, she's in full-on supervillain mode, taunting the prosecutor with a monologue about her desire to be an old-school RPG-type hero, just before one of the investigators sent after her runs gleefully into oncoming traffic, ostensibly at Ai's command. In this instance, Ai really is violating the minds and the wills of innocents people, and committing murder in the pursuit of her still unknown goals. If I'm being honest, she makes for a delightfully entertaining antagonist, and Satsuki Yukino is clearly relishing every line she gets to deliver.
What could very well make or break Babylon is how it will end up threading the needle that will close the gap between the two Ais that we meet this week, and how characterization ultimately speaks to the show's larger conversation about…whatever it is trying to say. Is Ai Magase simply a straightforward interpretation of the Biblical Whore of Babylon, a seductress avatar of all things “Female” that lead men towards their downfall? Or will she prove to be a real human being, a woman whose desires and motivations stem from genuine emotions? The latter version of Ai could prove to be a compelling villain indeed; the former would make her into a walking symbol of age-old misogyny, just another femme fatale who ruins everything by being too damned sexy for the good, honest men to resist. Let's hope that the show ends up taking the higher road.
Odds and Ends
• There's a whole lot of focus on Zen's wedding ring this week, especially in the scenes he shares with Hiasa. Is Zen's fidelity to his theoretically existent wife going to be tested? I'm worried that might be the case, because it would only reinforce how the only women in Babylon exist simply to make trouble for the world with their pesky genitals.
• This is the second time this week an anime has forced me to reckon with a character's grotesque orgasm face, and I'm worried that this precludes some sort of terrible trend.
• I'll be honest and say that the “Suicide Law” plot is threatening to become too obtuse for its own good. Shiniki's completely chaotic legislative process just doesn't make a lot of sense as its presented, and I'm having a hard time parsing out what exactly the stakes are, and how things are meant to proceed from here. Hopefully future episodes clarify all of this, and also make Ai's characterization feel less icky.
• My theory on Ai being Hiasa in disguise is on ice for now, though if she can get into people's heads as much as is being implied, I can't see how we're meant to trust *any* women that will show up in this story, which is a perfect distillation of what worries me so much about where Babylon is heading. I'm putting down money here and now that Ai will end up impersonating Zen's wife before the end of the series.
Babylon is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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