Pet Shop of Horrors is a great example of ‘episodic’ storytelling, with its sombre tales contained neatly within each episode. There are two links between stories – Count D and his LA pet shop, and detective Leon, who is trying to uncover the truth about the place.
Aside from the cautious friendship between the two characters, the mysteries here focus on Count D’s customers and their folly.
Perhaps in time, maybe Madhouse could have built successive OVAs into a series – but that was probably never the plan. I guess also, this show isn’t ‘horror’ enough for folks who want gore and shock? And sometimes when a show doesn’t easily fit into one genre, it’s hard to sell. I dunno, I should research its reception!
But my point is (finally!) that this Pet Shop of Horrors is more like supernatural mystery more than full-on horror, and even at times, tragedy.
And while there’s a clear structure to the episodes – meet a customer to see what dangerous creature D sells them, then watch that customer struggle with their choices, there’s enough variety with mermaids, rats, serpents and kirin, and the characters, that I enjoyed each tale.
It was also fun to see what felt like a nod to Gremlins (but may not have been, of course) re: Count D’s rules about his caring for his pets.
Finally, the question of whether and/or how the customers invariably broke those rules was where most of the horror came into play, and depending on whether they were meant to be sympathetic characters, so too, the tragedy.
This feels like a somewhat forgotten OVA from the late 1990s now, but I liked it a lot.
Tokyo Babylon (Tokyo Babylon: A Save Tokyo City Story) 1992-1994
Hello! Today I’m hosting a collaboration with Curtis from Iridium Eye Reviews – our second, actually! We first reviewed Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathersand today we’re going into the supernatural and the occult with CLAMP’s Tokyo Babylon, which can be seen as a bit of a prequel to X but still stands alone.
Thanks again to Curtis for watching this with me and also for jumping around from topic to topic in the write up, as I seem to do 😀
Ashley: Curtis, I wanted to start perhaps in an odd place, with genre or even tone – and see where you thought the OVA landed? I found this note on wiki (wish I could get to the source actually):
Producer Yumiko Masujima remembers how difficult it was to recreate the manga’s atmosphere in the OVAs.
And I thought the episodes were highly atmospheric, strikingly so, but part of me feels that the comedic moments didn’t quite fit with the occult/supernatural, darker tone of the rest of each story. Of course, I’m not a fan of any single tone or mood being ‘unending’ in a work, I love variety, but I don’t know if the sillier moments brought levity or actually undercut the mood.
Curtis: I would’ve never guessed that about the Tokyo Babylon OVA. While I haven’t read the manga, I do think the mysterious atmosphere does show up quite frequently. You even have the darker color palettes going on with the character outfits and the backgrounds. Certainly lots of black and red coloration on so many things. The mix of Gothic and occultic aspects did work more often than not in the visual presentation.
I thought the sillier moments in the first episode seemed out of place like the random jokes, brief comedic facial expressions, or the scene where Seishiro tells Hokuto to go on a diet just seemed off to me. That was a tonal clash with the murders here. They do dial it back in the second episode, but there were also some random moments like Hokuto dressing up in a pink cat girl outfit and briefly meowing. I don’t need to see some prototype Tokyo Mew Mew stuff in Tokyo Babylon, please.
A: Yep, I haven’t read the manga either but I’m certainly curious. Especially to try to learn more about that tonal imbalance. I thought that Hokuto was meant to be a fashion designer, and maybe that helps explain the distinctive outfits for her and her brother, and given the production period I can see a lot of Michael Jackson in Subaru’s first episode outfit. In fact, the costuming really stood out for me – that distinctive CLAMP look with the huge, square shoulders etc
C: Of course. Not to get too ahead of myself, I can see why this particular OVA would be an attempt to get some readership for that CLAMP work. I wonder if those same readers stuck around for X when it came out later.
Okay, I can see that making sense with Hokuto. I didn’t even think about Michael Jackson with Subaru’s outfit in the first episode. Wow, I can’t un-see that. I wouldn’t be surprised if “Thriller” popped on if he was walking around. How appropriate since he does deal with the supernatural. Haha!
Those are typical of some of CLAMP’s darker works from what I’ve noticed such as xxxHolic, the aforementioned X, or some of their manga series such as Legal Drug to name a few.
A: Me too! And I don’t really remember seeing Subaru in X but I’ll have to rewatch it now 🙂
What struck you as a highlight or a strength across the episodes?
C: The atmosphere was certainly a strength. The second episode felt moreconsistent with the more serious tone. Since it’s Madhouse, they certainly deliver in the animation department. Sure, it’s not as impressive as a lot of their later works and has aged some, but it holds up as far as some of their early 90s projects are concerned. There were some creative elements in the fight scenes such as those bird spells, the dog spirit in the first episode, or Hokuto creating a magic circle on the ground with only using lipstick.
I thought a lot of the voice acting was good in the Japanese version. I was surprised to find out that Subaru was voiced by Kappei Yamaguchi of all people whom I didn’t recognize. He’s known for playing far more energetic characters such as Usopp from One Piece, Inu-Yasha, or Monta from Eyeshield 21 to name a few. The delivery of him being timid and overly polite to a fault was certainly against type compared to Yamaguchi’s other characters. Okay, there is a bit of a hilarious in hindsight aspect when you consider Subaru isn’t the only detective to be voiced by him with Shinichi “Jimmy” Kudo from Cased Closed/Detective Conan as well as L from Death Note. Most of the other characters had voices that worked for them even though I found Hokuto to be a bit shrill for my liking even if it made sense for her having comic relief moments. One of my favorite voice actors Takehito Koyasu shows up as Seishiro. Granted, he talked in a bit of a higher register than most characters he typically plays, but he had the right mix of having a deadpan sense of humor, being very calm, but also a sense of creepiness about him (the flashback at the beginning of the 2nd episode being a major example).
The usage of magic seemed to be grounded. The mix of Japanese paranormal elements was certainly fascinating as it’s infused with more Western magic. There were creative usages with the spirits, scrying, and the concept of post-cognition was quite unique. I did like a bit of the symbolism with the Sumeragi twins. Both of them are named after stars with Subaru being a reference to the star cluster of Pleiades (Notice how the car company of the same name has stars in their logo?). The symbolism of that part of the universe comes from a dual meaning in Greek words for sailing as well as a flock of doves. That’s brilliant because he uses white birds in some of his attacks and one can argue that he tries to sail through paranormal seas to make sense of anything when not many can. Hokuto’s name is the Japanese term for the North Star. Despite how wacky she can be, she is able to help encourage her twin brother and navigate him towards the right direction if he feels down or too hard on himself. That was a brilliant correlation with the twin siblings’ interactions with one another.
A: Agree on all of this, yeah – I really liked that detail with the lipstick too, it gave her a bit of extra dimension too, beyond shrill comic relief.
There was also some really dramatic (and effective) direction during the confrontation at the end of the first episode – and this big kinda ‘hero shot’ of Seishirō that I loved. In fact, reading up a little about his role in the manga/having now seen a key scene in episode two as well, it seems a touch menacing just as much as it suggests ‘avenging’ too.
I guess it all feeds into that atmosphere we’ve talked about – all those reds and black, and those stills in the opening to episode two seemed to be composed so well. And I missed the naming and mythology, awesome – love the idea of ‘guiding’ and with the twins’ relationship it seems spot on.
Related perhaps, the Tokyo Tower/Babylon and folly of the villain in episode one made me wonder about the production time, right around an economy burst in Japan, and so it seems fitting then to have a developer as the bad guy. And maybe I shouldn’t be surprised when that sort of thing repeats in modern times, both in fiction and real life.
C: Nice! I was worried that she would be just some filler character that’s just thereto take space, but it was great seeing her actually do something to aid others. Although to be fair, this is CLAMP being an all-female manga group, so I know they would never make Hokuto some useless character and they have a good track record with a lot of their heroines.
Definitely. Seishiro certainly had his big hero moments in both episodes. He certainly seems to be the most capable of the trio while also being the most dangerous which he lampshades when he fights against these criminals. I looked up a little bit about the character in the manga and in X, and it really gives another dynamic of why he does things as there are some ulterior motives.
No problem. It was something I wondered. I thought about the Subaru logo when seeing his name even though he’s not the only anime character with that name I’ve seen before (.Hack//Sign, anyone?). I heard of the name Hokuto because of Street Fighter EX, but I also realized afterwards that the anime Fist of the North Star’s Japanese name is “Hokuto no Ken”, so that made some sense with the star imagery with both twins.
That’s right. Several Asian countries did face a recession in the 90s, so that was fridge brilliance on the creators’ part. Given the current global economic situation, this makes the undertones even more resonating in hindsight especially since in America, the unemployment rate is equivalent to the Great Depression.
A: It’s like being hit from all sides right now, huh?
Anime can feel… maybe a touch frivolous at times, but on the other hand – I’ve really needed the distraction (maybe like most folks) over the last few months.
I’ll try to clumsily segue back toward where we’ve touched on the villain(s) of the OVA, which actually leads me to Seishiro again. I know we’ve already chatted about the flashback scene where he appears to be kinda grooming or at least starting off a pattern of manipulation with Subaru, but given the two episodes only reveal hints of this, I’m left feeling like I won’t get much of a resolution there. Obviously, I think you can still enjoy this OVA without taking the funnel into the manga, but that unfinished thread makes me wish more episodes were produced.
It’s a bit unfair of me perhaps to call that a ‘fault’, but I thought I’d ask what flaws or issues you found with Tokyo Babylon?
C: Yeah. History can really re-contextualize so many things in numerous arts. I’ve certainly noted how this happens in my other reviews with some things being better, different, or worse in hindsight.
I can definitely see that point. While I haven’t watched as much anime as I have recently, I did need to have some kind of escapism in between work and trying to stay informed of the current state of this world (COVID-19, the racial climate, US politics being an election year, etc.). Trust me, I really needed something like that lest I become irritable or paranoid. Okay, moving on…
That is certainly an issue with Seishiro since he has all of these subtle dynamics. Without getting any more context from the manga and/or X, I would have no idea why he has those kinds of interactions with Subaru. The unfinished aspect of the anime would be the biggest flaw and I’ve certainly noticed it with other OVAs of the 90s and 00s that felt like glorified trailers for the manga series they’re based on (Fight!! Spirit of the Sword, Angel Densetsu, and even the Battle Angel anime come to mind). Going back to Seishiro, I thought he had a habit of Tuxedo Masking the situation if that makes sense. Actually, it might be even more excessive than Mamoru’s/Darien’s alter-ego because he makes the final attack while Subaru is licking his wounds. This undercuts the main character and he should have at least made that coup de grace in at least one of the episodes. That was such bizarre characterization that did the medium no favors.
Besides the unfinished nature of the OVA or how Seishiro was portrayed, I had some issues with some of the audio and certain characters. I was not a fan of that insert song that was also the ending theme in episode one. It sounded like a really cheesy visual kei ballad that went nowhere and was chock-full of random English lyrics even by anime standards. I couldn’t take the schmaltzy nature of that song. While the main trio certainly have their own clearly-defined personalities, I had some trouble getting into some of the supporting characters. The detective felt generic to me even if he did have purpose in the plot. The villain in the second episode was way too shallow. Murdering people over a seat on a subway? That is one of the most petty things I’ve ever seen a villain do and it just made him way more cartoonish even if he was threatening.
There was also an unintentionally funny scene where he tells Mirei to run as he gives her a ten count before he chases her. Really? You’re going to rip off Shere Khan from The Jungle Book (yes, the Disney version)? The only thing that would’ve made this even more egregious would be if he told her that she’s “trying his patience” in the middle of said countdown. In addition to those things, this OVA felt like a case-of-the-week format, but never follows through because of the two episodes. Looks like I’ll have to watch the live-action sequel, read the manga, and watch X TV to find out everything that happens in that part of CLAMP’s universe.
A: Yes, great point about the villain from episode two – it felt incredibly flat, or at least a lapse in the characterization maybe, because the seat motivation spoke of zero rationality, like they were going for supremely ‘out of control’, but otherwise, there was time taken to show that he was quite functional.
To pivot back to something I really liked – Satoru Miyatake, who collected and catalogued stone and the attached memories, from building sites was fascinating. I really liked that idea and wished it could have been expanded somehow. It really fired my imagination though he was really just kinda plonked down into the storyline there in a way!
C: Thanks, Ashley. That episode’s villain felt like some generic and shallow “evil for evil’s sake” caricature. Killing people over a seat has to be one of the most superficial villain motivations I’ve ever seen. As much as the Joker can be chaotic (the severity of such depending on which iteration being shown), even some of his reasons go beyond “because he’s evil and/or insane”. Come to think of it, he did seem functional albeit extremely violent which hurts the narrative even more.
That was a great idea and I definitely agree with Satoru Miyatake. It gave a new dynamic that I’ve never seen before with the concept of scrying which really works in an occult detective context. That’s a superpower you don’t see too often even in a psychic or supernatural context. This could’ve been explored much more like finding out a character’s personality or past by what they own or that power being used to solve more crimes.
A: I love to see more of that too – actually, I’m re-watching The Vision of Escaflowne at the moment and the Tarot stuff gives me a slightly similar vibe. I miss that sort of thing in supernatural storytelling too!
So, I feel like I’m going to end up ‘shooting for the middle’ here with my rating – and say that I think 3 out of 5 stars suits how I feel about it. Worth a look but not essential for me, despite how much I enjoyed it for the most part.
C: Nice. It’s such a unique power and it would’ve been so perfect for Tokyo Babylon. Escaflowne is definitely one series I would like to see again. I still think it’s crazy how this got played on Fox Kids briefly alongside Digimon, Power Rangers, and X-Men reruns back in the day.
Using your rating system, I would give Tokyo Babylon a 2.5 stars. There were some good things in that anime which I don’t deny, but I thought it was average as a whole. I could see CLAMP fans digging this more than me especially if they know things about the manga, X, and/or Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle. Thank you so much for collaborating with me on another anime review!