Thursday, August 1, 2019

Legendary Beasts, Giant Robots, Psychics, and Cyborgs ~ The Different Sides of Babel II

We've gone over how Japan's pulp history is a lot stronger connected together than those of us in the west. Nowhere does it show better than in Japan's biggest entertainment exports of anime, manga, and video games. Fun rules the roost, romance rules, and the magic of wonder remains the key ingredient. While bad trends might come and go, the cream still floats to the top and there are still products worth checking out from them to this day.

Can't say the same about Hollywood today.

However, if one were to read old Japanese pulp or manga from say, the 70s, you would be surprised to see how much they had in common with the west at the time. This continued into the late '90s before everything stagnated for us, but that's been covered before. What I want to point out is what was big in '70s pulp and how it bridged the gap.

This was the age of James Bond, Paul Kersey, and Dirty Harry, three different pulp archetypes that lived on strong for decades afterwards. The superspy, the hardened vigilante, and the last good cop, were the go-to characters to use in modern action stories. In Japan the same applied. Golgo 13, Cobra, and Mad Bull 34, among many others, were big and well loved. Not much diverted from this wheelhouse. But there were other series that tried things a slightly different way and met with just as big success.

One of my personal favorite franchises is known as Babel II. This is a shonen manga with a bit of a different twist from what was going on at the time. The original series ran from 1971-1973 for twelve volumes and was written by Mitsuteru Yokoyama, one of the major influences of Katsuhiro Otomo and Hirohiko Araki among many others.

If you don't know the name you might recognize his output. Yokoyama created Tetsujin 28 (Gigantor), Giant Robo, Sally the Witch, God Mars, and Akakage, some of the most important and influential manga series ever made. Babel II is up there with them and might be my favorite of his works.

Yokoyama was known for popularizing the hard-boiled style in manga. This means his heroes and villains don't tend to display their emotional struggles or make speeches about it, but stoically suffer whatever misfortune comes their way as they find a way to do what needs to be done. This makes his works have a quick pacing focused on external threats and a clear dividing line between good and evil. Babel II is a perfect example of this style.

Babel II is about a teenage boy named Koichi who learns that he is a descendant of an alien named Babel and is awakened to be his successor. The name should tell all: Babel was the one in charge of building the biblical Tower of Babel which crumbled because . . . it's the Tower of Babel. Everyone knows how that went. But there is a bit more behind the story which is where Yokoyama gets his set up from.

The tower was meant to be a transmitter as Babel crash-landed on Earth and was stranded, but he had no way of contacting home. Instead he becomes stranded here and becomes one of us. Babel, and his descendants, are imbued with psychic powers which grant tremendous strength as well as control over three mystical beasts of land, sea, and air. The first beast is Rodem, a black panther that can transform its inky shape into whatever it wants. Then there is Ropross, a giant pterodactyl-type creature that can fly anywhere. And lastly there is Poseidon, a giant robot that patrols the seas and is tougher than anything. But Babel puts these into hiding until his chosen successor is awakened and able to use them right.

Centuries and many descendants later Koichi emerges with the most potential. He is chosen to use the remains of the hidden Tower of Babel to either rule the world, or help it. This was a trend in '70s shonen where the protagonist can either choose to be good or evil without being pushed into one or the other, and they always end up choosing good as if it is the natural choice. This is summed up best in Mazinger Z's tagline of choosing to be God or the Devil. Because this is an adventure story meant to connect with the average male Koichi chooses to save the world and heads out into it on his journey to see how bad things might be out there. He soon meets up with a psychic named Yomi who offers to help him rule the world, or be destroyed. Babel II turns him down and that is where the story begins.

What follows is 12 volumes of a cat and mouse game between Babel II and Yomi over the fate of the world. Yomi might be a powerful psychic, but he also has secrets of his own, and an army of devious superspies, soldiers, cyborgs, and psychics at his beck and call. This means there is a lot of infiltration into hidden bases, supernatural battles, and strange new phenomena to investigate when Yomi vanishes from the scene.

In other words, it's action packed.

The series isn't perfect. Babel and Yomi's battles escalate three separate times to similar climaxes with similar results leading to bit of repetition in the plot at times. This was mostly because the series was unexpectedly popular and Yokoyama kept giving the audience more of what they asked for. It ran long for a series of its time. But it is easy to get over due to how exciting the series gets and remains throughout.

Unfortunately, it's never been licensed and no one has fully translated the series so it is pretty well unknown in the west. It's a shame, because Babel II is a classic and along with Mazinger Z is a series that should be in print over here. It should have a higher influence than it does in the west, but those are the breaks.

What is more well known over here is the OVA adaption by JC Staff from 1992. This was a four episode series that uses the manga as the basis for set up, but changes just about everything else. It's the most popular version of the story overseas, even though it's not the only one that exists.

There were multiple adaptions of Babel II over the years. Toei did a 39 episode adaption back in the '70s. A condensed 13 episode version was made in 2001, too. But somehow it is the original OVA that made the biggest splash over here when Streamline put it out back in the day. This might be because of how they changed the '70s pulp appeal of the original to an early '90s pulp appeal that anime enjoyed and how big the medium was beginning to get in the beginning of the decade.

This is apparent in the bits they changed from the manga.

First we are introduced to the existence of psychics and Yomi before Koichi even becomes Babel II. Koichi is given a choice to join his organization or die. Here he meets a girl named Juju who becomes his love interest and bridge between the normal world and the world of the psychics that steadily begins to muddy as Babel II learns of his own destiny.

The psychic battles are given more prominence in the OVA over the servants, normal soldiers, and cyborgs. Psychic powers were big in late 80s early 90s Japan because of Akira and the animators really wanted to show that off. This means the superspy stuff from the manga was ejected for more battles instead. But the change in focus works to make the story fit into four episodes.

The climax of the last episode is topped with a kiss before the two leads must go their separate ways for various reasons, but we are left to believe they will meet again. Contrasted with most OVAs from the time period or most western entertainment, this is unusual. Usually the ending is bittersweet at best or nihilistic at worst, but here the heroes win and the deal is sealed with a kiss. He might miss his girl, but he will see her again, and in the meantime it is time to rebuild what has been destroyed. The '90s edge didn't stain this series as much as you might expect. That might be because they respected the sort of thing Yokoyama created.

In fact, Babel II shows the difference between a lot of things that have changed since. The '70s manga was perfectly in line with both western and eastern tastes in storytelling from tropes and pure action. When contrasted with the '90s OVA it shows how much each of us has diverged since. The Japanese still had it. We lost it.

Just think: how many western stories from the '90s do you know that ends with the main character winning and kissing and getting the girl? How many end with the hero better for his victory without some kind of asterisk next to his win? How many '90s stories even have pure white hats as main characters and pure black hats as villains? By decade's end your list of examples will have been whittled away to a handful. By the '00s there would be none.

In the end, however, Babel II is an example of how such a basic premise can lead to such wildly different ideas and interpretations without having to be bland remakes or adaptions. Babel II is one of my favorite manga as well as being one of my favorite OVA series, both showing Yokoyama's ideas in such vastly different ways yet keeping the beating pulp heart alive and pumping at the same time. This happened because that tradition was preserved and still exists to this day.

We can learn from this, and I have learned a lot from Babel II.

Now please excuse me while I wait for Seven Seas to finally announce they have licensed the manga, hopefully with Mazinger Z at the same time. Maybe Discotek will license the original anime and the 2001 adaption at the same time? I can dream. Until then I suppose I'll just watch the OVA yet again.

That's fine with me, Babel II is a great experience no matter how one gets to see it.


  1. Okay. I'm sold.

    Can we get scanlations of the manga? Can you recommend a fan sub site?

    1. I might have seen it on It's only up to about volume 10 but hopefully they're still working on it.

    2. As for the OVA it is easy to find. It even has a cheap Blu Ray release: