by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 7 of
Let's get one thing out of the way first: “The Most Evil” is a nearly immaculate episode on the level of structure, mood, and execution. If it isn't the single most brutal and heart-pounding episode of anime I've seen all year, it's damn close to the top of the list. In one fell swoop, Ai Magase manages to kill 80% of Babylon's cast, upending the dynamic of the whole show and breaking Zen completely in the process. This is the kind of move that would normally come in a story's final chapters, the penultimate twist of the knife that would carve a bloody exclamation point into the show's core message. We're only halfway through Zen Seizaki's waking nightmare, though, which leaves “The Most Evil's” merciless climax as a question mark, instead, one that hangs over the many possible versions of the story that could come next.
It is Babylon's uncompromising commitment to keeping its cards close to its vest that makes “The Most Evil” a lot harder to evaluate within the larger context of the show. Despite the dangling threads that will (hopefully) tie everything together in the end, as of right now, Babylon is telling two distinct stories: One of them follows the Investigation Team's apparently doomed efforts to indict Kaika Itsuki for his role in the suicides of scores of people, and the other is tracking Ai Magase's increasingly destructive game of…well, we'll get to what her actual plan is in a bit. The point is, what makes it feel almost impossible to judge how well an episode like this one works is the plain fact that we don't know what it is all building to, and what we as the audience are supposed to make of any of it. That is, beyond the abject horror we're supposed to feel at witnessing all of Zen's closest allies die horrible deaths.
The Kaika Itsuki plot continues to develop in some interesting ways, picking up with the reveal that his young son is planning to make a stunt-run for parliament to protest against his father's supposed suicidal plans. This leads to a kind-of reveal that Kaika's whole motivation in his bid to legalize suicide was borne from his son's heart condition – Kaika was more than willing to die for Taiyo if it meant that his own heart could replace his son's defective one, though international laws apparently prevent that from being done (for more on that detail, see the Odds and Ends section below). This crisis is what Kaika claims prompted his complete reevaluation of how society handles death, and those that would utilize death for arguably positive ends. As Kaika puts it, he wants all of society to be like him and become “friends with death”, which he feels would lead to a society where people like his son might live, because those who would willingly sacrifice their own existences for the greater good can prosper.
It is, of course, impossible to know whether this surprise pathos dump is just another layer of the deception that Kaika is orchestrating, especially since the whole point of Ai's inclusion in the story means that nothing and nobody can be trusted. This is underscored with shocking force when Zen initiates his plan to kidnap Kaika from the debate site; it is initially assumed that the presence of Taiyo and Kaika's wife will add the extra layer of complication that will spice up the drama, but then Zen loses contact with his First Squad. Then his second. And his third. As the silence cascades in, it dawns on both Zen and the audience what patently obvious fresh new hell has rolled in to sow a little bit of chaos, and though Zen might not be as quick to catch on as we are, the pulse-pounding direction has communicated the perfect dread that tells us that it's already too late. Ai Magase is here.
Shinobu's death is first, and while it is plenty disturbing, it's also the one I wasn't too surprised to see. I was initially skeptical of Babylon killing off such a likable character before giving him any proper character development, but what “The Most Evil” cements is the story's focus on Zen's transformation. Every other character, for better or worse, exists to serve the journey that Ai is taking Zen on. Shinobu's heart-to-heart with Zen didn't quite register as a death flag last time, but it feels positively obvious in retrospect. While I'm sure that there are plenty of fascinating stories Shinobu's murder has robbed us of, his death is landmark moment for Zen's story, which makes it work.
And boy, what a death it is. Displaying more resolve than Ai's other victims, whose corpses are littered about all over the facility, Shinobu somehow managed to stave off his suicidal impulses by shooting himself in the femoral artery of his right leg – he's dying either way, we see, but he had to wrestle back some control for himself in his final moments. His last message to Zen? “Run”.
Here is the man who, just a week ago, was the pillar of casual, effortless heroism in the face of the impossible job that Zen was taking on, assuring his friend that their role in this story was a simple one: Catch the bad guys. Here though, as he bleeds to death with a look in his eyes that is far from stable, he tells Zen that the only choice anyone has in the face of Ai's incomprehensible evil is to run, as fast and as far away as possible.
I will admit that, for as wonderfully executed as this sequence was, I haven't decided on how I feel about its on-the-nose sexual imagery. When Shinobu eventually loses control and takes hold of his gun for one last time, he compares giving in to Ai's hypnotic suggestion to the release that comes from a long delayed climax, which…okay, sure. Then, this urge is further described as a primal and inherently masculine urge that Ai exploits with her magical and inhuman feminine wiles (That phantom sigh you just heard reading that last part was the one I just heaved, which was heavy enough to transcend time and space). As if the symbolism wasn't obvious enough, when Shinobu shoots himself, Babylon treats us to the image of luminous ejaculate flying through the air. The show makes sure to show off the viscous stream of scarlet that spurts out of the poor man's skull when he dies, just in case you thought the white goop that just flew past the screen was color-censored blood, or something.
So of the four men introduced in Babylon's first chapter, two have been killed at Ai's hands, and you'd think that Shinobu and the the handful of nameless colleagues would satisfy Babylon's need for a body count, leaving poor Ariyoshi as the next in line to get the axe. Someone gets the axe, alright, but it isn't at all who I expected: In addition to killing literally every single other member of Zen's task force, Ai gets her hands on Hiasa, who was brave enough (and foolish enough) to attempt taking Ai out on her own. Now, based on the mass suicide that set this whole murder machine into motion, Ai's mind control powers work on men and women alike – though the emphasis has very clearly been on her effect on the minds of men, specifically. While it isn't clear if Ai used that power to kidnap Hiasa in the first place, it's made very plain that Ai relishes the opportunity to dispatch Babylon's sole heroine herself. Hiasa is stripped and strapped down on to a table, and Ai films the whole bloody affair for Zen to watch on a private live-stream, just for him. It's a grim, exploitative, and more than a little melodramatic, but the scene's searingly confident direction keeps the whole thing from veering off the rails. The stellar vocal performances also cannot be overlooked: Yūichi Nakamura works overtime to sell Zen's descent into insane despair, and if it wasn't obvious that Satsuki Yukino is having the time of her life indulging in Ai's unrepentant brand of evil, well, just listen to the barely restrained glee she exhibits as she walks Zen through the dismemberment of his friend.
It's a knockout ending to what is easily Babylon's crowning achievement in thrills and entertainment so far. Yet I cannot help but ask, as Zen is broken into pieces and we reflect on everything and everyone he's lost in the span of a single, awful day: What is it all for? Ai's big supervillain speech about needing Zen to confront evil, to truly reckon with it for the first time, is it all really as simple as that? Is Ai nothing more than an embodiment of pure evil, who exists solely to challenge and break the stalwart, moral hero? Was Hiasa's death just a bloody spectacle meant to demonstrate the evil of Ai Magasa, a point that has been made plenty well already? We're over halfway through Babylon's run now, and it's still no clearer what the show's ultimate message might even possibly be building to, and whether the potentially gross and reductive view of women that Ai could be seen to embody should just be read at face value. Babylon's scripting and direction has been second-to-none this season, but it will all be for naught if the story ends up amounting to nothing more than “What if Bruce Wayne was a Japanese bureaucrat whose life gets ruined by a female version of the Joker designed by and for people who hate women?”
Odds and Ends
• The episode gets bonus points for the pitch black visual gag of cross-cutting Hiasa's murder with Zen's wife and son making a happy little bento. The ketchup blood spray and hot-dog slicing had me feeling like a monster for laughing so hard.
• On suicide and organ donation: So, my limited research has me on the notion that “every country” having outlawed the donation of organs, since that doesn't seem to technically be true. What I think the episode is referring to are the manner in which donated organs have to be harvested from bodies in very particular circumstances, which suicides often disallow on account of often mandatory autopsies. In short, the obstacle looks to be the fact that, in order for organs like Kaika's heart to be considered available to the likes of his son, Kaika's death would have to occur in a way that would allow his brain to die slowly while his organs were preserved. With assisted suicide legal, there would be no obstacles to this, hence the suicide law. If there are any legal experts in the comments who could elucidate further, feel free to chime in!
• Several keen fans on the internet have pointed out that Babylon's original key art cleverly spoiled how each major character was going to die: Atsuhiko by hanging, Shinobu by shooting himself, and Hiasa by total dismemberment. I have to admit, I love it when a show's advertising plays it precociously clever like that.
• Unfortunately, we're going to have to wait awhile to see where Babylon goes from here: The show's third arc has been delayed by a full six weeks. See you all in December!James is a writer with many thoughts and feelings about anime and other pop-culture, which can also be found on Twitter, his blog, and his podcast.
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