Subaru Sumeragi and the dark side of total empathy in Tokyo Babylon

By: Celeste Seifert June 12, 20190 Comments
Subaru with his eyes closed and many hands grasping at him

CONTENT WARNING for discussion of sexual assault, child grooming, and abuse. SPOILERS for Tokyo Babylon and X.

If you have spent time reading manga and watching anime, at least for a good portion of the early 2000s, then you have heard the name CLAMP: a prolific and genre-bending group of woman creatives who began as a doujin circle in the 1980s and are tied to over two dozen manga and countless animated adaptations.

Though most well-known among younger fans in the West for works like Cardcaptor Sakura (and its long-delayed sequel Clear Card) and their character designs in Code Geass, some of their most influential early works were considerably darker in tone, like the Devilman-esque X.

Two young men and a young woman wearing black lie in a bed together, looking up at the camera. They are wearing handcuffs.

Tokyo Babylon, one of CLAMP’s earliest published works, touched on issues that were relevant after the Bubble economy burst in ‘90s Japan and continue to strike a chord today. Serialized from 1990 to 1993 in the shoujo magazine Wings, it is the story of Subaru Sumeragi, a 16-year-old onmyoji: a practitioner of onmyodo, a cosmology that combines natural sciences and occultism. The series follows him as he takes on different cases of unexplained phenomena with his twin sister Hokuto and the friendly but mysterious 26-year-old veterinarian, Seishiro Sakurazuka.

Initially presented as episodic, with periodic allusions to a strange meeting between Subaru and Seishiro years ago, the main driving theme of Tokyo Babylon is Subaru’s unlimited empathy for everyone, be it victims of supernatural occurrences, earthbound spirits, or simply an elderly man at the park. To Subaru, all deserve to be cared for, even at the cost of his own well-being.

Subaru on the cover of the first manga volume, holding a globe

Many popular male heroes work to save others with weapon in hand, but this is not the case with Subaru. He is the scion of a powerful family, but many of his cases are solved by Subaru establishing common ground and actively listening to the people around him.

In my first experience reading Tokyo Babylon, Subaru read as an ideal that anyone, but especially a teenage girl, could aspire to be: someone who was skilled but defined themselves by how well they treated others; who was always there to offer a helping hand to a person in need.

In the earliest volumes, CLAMP feeds into that ideal, but as the story progresses, the perspective of empathy grows more nuanced: a person can be selfless, but only at risk of their well-being.  Subaru’s journey shows the rewards and pitfalls of a life dedicated to helping others, but also how it leaves marks on his psyche.

At the end of Tokyo Babylon, Subaru is unable to withstand the cruelty of the world and is left to pick up the pieces of his shattered innocence. Subaru’s empathy is both his greatest strength and greatest vulnerability.

washed out image of Mitsuki crying, saying that assault happens "every day."

Empathy as Positive

The positives of Subaru’s ability to empathize with others are at the forefront of the “Dream” volume, when he travels into the consciousness of Mitsuki Kaburagi. Mitsuki drives herself into a neverending dream after being unable to talk about a horrific sexual assault.

Subaru, as someone who is “special” to Mitsuki and the main focus of her happy memories in her prolonged dream state, can more readily access her consciousness. He is not viewed as a threat, and even when threatened in the dream world, Subaru refuses to fight back at the risk of injuring her soul.

The only way he is able to convince Mitsuki to awake is by listening to her story and returning it with sincere advice: he states upfront that even after seeing her memories, he cannot “understand everything that’s going on in [her] heart.” Instead, he focuses on the possibilities of forging a better future for herself and to share the burden of her trauma with people she cares about and who can help her.

Subaru never attempts to “fix” Mitsuki’s situation, but offers her a chance to take the first step in moving past it, on her terms. While it would be easy to frame Subaru as naive, the story reassures us that others really do care about Mitsuki and want to help her.

Subaru letting a grieving mother take her anger out on his body

Empathy as Negative

While Subaru assisting Mitsuki was somewhat dangerous, it is also framed as a case for his work, and something only someone with his capabilities is able to do. In the chapter “Rebirth,” however, Subaru goes above and beyond.

First, he offers to donate a kidney to a grieving mother’s last living child, and then he places himself in physical danger to allow the mother to take out her anger on someone when it appears his offer came too late (even though this ultimately won’t help her). This is not part of his job; he simply wants to relieve their physical and emotional pain because he feels for them.

However, this self-sacrificing attitude leads to Seishiro stepping between Subaru and the mother during their scuffle and losing his right eye.
It shows Subaru that his willingness to go into danger has consequences for more than himself, and Hokuto has to talk him down from a physical outburst after this event. Subaru’s sentiment is never demeaned, but when he visits Seishiro in the hospital, Seishiro frames his own actions as “selfish”: he wanted to make sure Subaru was uninjured, but due to his possessiveness over Subaru.

This episode encourages the reader to consider whether Subaru’s actions should be viewed more as self-destructive than helpful and if that sense of empathy is ultimately harmful. However, it is also necessary to consider Seishiro’s ultimate position in the story, as an antithesis of Subaru and his empathy. Tokyo Babylon’s subtitle is “A Save Tokyo City Story,” but it becomes increasingly clear that saving Tokyo comes at a high cost for its savior.

Seishiro gripping Subaru's throat possessively

Empathy Undeserved

Which brings this article to major spoilers for the end of Tokyo Babylon and its sequel, X. The reader is told from the beginning to distrust Seishiro. That he is an adult who professes his “love” for a teenager should already set off warning bells, but because similar age gaps are an unfortunately prevalent trope in shoujo titles, I, as a teenager, didn’t think too much about it. Despite the many hints that Seishiro is not all he seems, I thought Subaru’s empathy, selflessness, and capability to see good in people would win in the end.

That might be how other stories end, but not Subaru’s. Tokyo Babylon has already shown how hurtful people are towards each other to pursue their own happiness, and such stories, as Seishiro says in Tokyo Babylon’s climax, “happen in Tokyo every day.” Subaru is betrayed by the man he only just realized he loved, and that love is smashed to pieces.

Seishiro reveals his actual intentions are not as Subaru’s hidden protector, but as a predator stalking his prey. Seishiro is the Sakurazukamori, a person who uses onmyodo for assassination and subterfuge. In the past, a very young Subaru unwittingly saw Seishiro commit a murder and Seishoro “marked” him for death because of it.

Seishiro makes a “bet” that Subaru cannot win his love, yet it is a false one: Subaru is a child and remains one during the bet’s time frame, and he has no clear memory of this apparent agreement. For multiple reasons, he cannot consent.

Seishiro impaling Subaru on a Sakura tree, revealing his betrayal

The bet was meant to mean failure for Subaru either way. Seishiro admitted his philosophy in “Rebirth,” but expresses it much earlier: he thinks that a person’s actions can only be based on the selfish pursuit of their own happiness. Even when Subaru falls in love with him, Seishiro cannot recognize it. A person like Seishiro cannot empathize, because he never allows himself to be vulnerable to anyone. He manipulates others’ feelings and tosses them to the side.

It might seem like CLAMP’s message about empathy is “do not open yourself to others, as you will only receive pain,” but it is not. Subaru’s empathy still made many people’s lives better, whereas the empty Seishiro can only destroy.

Hokuto’s perspective drives this home. She understands the depths of both perspectives, the selfish and selfless aspects. While she warns Seishiro several times that she is suspicious of him, she places her trust in Subaru. It ultimately leads to her seeking Seishiro out and dying in Subaru’s place. She is not naive to evil like her brother, but chooses to believe in redemption in spite of the world’s ugliness. Her perspective tells the reader that Subaru’s lack of self-regard is the harmful thing, not empathy itself.

Subaru explaining his past to a young mental image of Kamui

Empathy Unresolved

Tokyo Babylon is not the end of Subaru’s story, but at this time, it seems that his fate will remain permanently unfinished. Subaru and Seishiro’s relationship, now as adversaries, is featured prominently in X, which takes place almost a decade after Tokyo Babylon.

Subaru has hardened from his past ordeals and is determined to seek out Seishiro, but also continues to care for others’ wellbeing—most notably Kamui, X’s protagonist. Kamui’s circumstances run parallel to Subaru’s, as both suffer the loss of a loved one from someone they once loved and trusted.

However, Subaru’s relationship with Seishiro received a dramatic shift. Instead of being introduced as predator and victim, CLAMP decided to reframe Seishiro and Subaru as star-crossed lovers. Instead of continuing to embrace the nuances and complexities of Subaru’s struggle with his selflessness, they narrowed the focus of their relationship, even when making it clear that Tokyo Babylon is canonical to X.

Two young men stand back to back, tangled in red threads. The one on the right has a bandage over one eye.

CLAMP’s decision to continue Subaru’s story when he’s an adult after the fallout of personal tragedy was something I craved. Yet X takes a roundabout method in showing his coming of age. Seeming to regard Subaru’s story as “finished,” the themes of their relationship in X instead center around Seishiro having developed sincere feelings for his victim. While it does lead to his death, it still romanticizes the starkly toxic relationship from Tokyo Babylon in hindsight.

In X, Subaru fulfills his oath to be the one to kill Seishiro. He becomes the new Sakurazukamori and joins the Dragons of Earth: the faction who works to destroy the world. However, despite this shift, Subaru still cares for Kamui, and Kamui still holds him in high regard.

Subaru does not become Seishiro. He smokes, he takes Seishiro’s position, he does everything that in another story might signify him “becoming” the man he hates and loves, but he still holds on to his inner selflessness. Subaru still cares about humanity, despite how much he’s suffered.

Seishiro whispering unheard words in Subaru's ear as he dies

Though it takes place in the same universe with the same characters, the two works take different stances, and I find Tokyo Babylon’s message surrounding empathy stronger. It doesn’t help that X’s most empathetic original character, Kotori, is gruesomely murdered, nor that CLAMP has not finished writing X, so Subaru’s story remains incomplete. Though I recommend X as an interesting take on the premise of the world ending in the next millennium (‘90s manga were obsessed with the idea of the world ending in 1999), Subaru’s character arc, while a standout, is molded to suit the story being told.

X is about the end of the world and how a select few react to it. Tokyo Babylon is about humanity and why Subaru’s willingness to empathize with and include himself among it holds meaning over Seishiro’s dismissal of it. Tokyo Babylon made me want to try to make the world better, while X made it harder for me to understand why the world is worth saving.

Reading Tokyo Babylon today is different for me compared to when I first did in my mid-teens, but I still empathize with Subaru wanting to help people. I still wait for the day when his character arc has a definitive conclusion, and, much like all those he helped across CLAMP’s body of work, I hope he finds happiness.

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