The battle of good and evil has been waged over and over again across all art forms – especially anime. Some spiky-haired protagonist fights demons in the name of some clear good, saving buxom women and/or the world in the process. That’s precisely why Babylon is special: it breaks the mold. What begins as a murder mystery quickly becomes something much deeper. Babylon is not a tale of triumph; it’s an inquiry. What exactly does it mean for something to be good?
Babylon pursues its answer by tormenting series protagonist Zen Seizaki, a public prosecutor from Tokyo. Zen, whose name literally means “good,” pursues a demon-like woman named Ai Magase. She can cause anyone she talks with to commit suicide – causing great pain to Zen as friends and countless colleagues kill themselves. The catch: Ai is not forcing anyone to do anything.
Aside from one brutal exception, Ai does not actively kill or coerce anyone. She just brings an awareness to people. One character compares the experience to Adam and Eve being tempted by the snake in the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve are tempted by the knowledge of the fruit just as Ai’s victims are drawn to death’s endless possibility. Death is humanity’s greatest unknown and behind it lies the secret of life itself.
Ai just prods what is already there. Like the snake making Adam and Eve aware that God gave them a choice by telling them not to eat the apple, Ai makes people aware they have a choice by simply being alive. They have a choice whether or not to continue to live. The trifecta of life’s mystery, immediate choice, and removal of fear cause any Ai tempts to kill themselves, excitedly.
Ai’s influence eventually leads to a global, moral crisis. Following a Japanese city’s legalization of suicide, governments from all over the world are faced with a quandary: “Is suicide a bad thing… is it, possibly, even good?” It is in this moral crisis that Alexander Woodward enters the scene. He is the U.S. President in the series and widely known as “the thinker,” thanks to his philosophical nature. He decides the question of suicide’s moral standing depends on what it means for something to be good or evil.
Seeking a definition for the good, Alexander eventually finds the following answer: “Good is continuing.” This view of continuation is not as simple as continuing one’s own life. Instead, continue concerns life, or even more broadly, existence itself. Alexander, during his epiphany, sees visions of humanity’s growth. He sees no particular thing because all things that live eventually die – even the sun is not immortal. Only existence never ceases. This means to do good is to act in a way to support existence while evil is acting to harm, or end, existence.
Alexander’s definition is general. Much like the layman definition of the good, what it means to continue is pretty subjective. The definition could validate conflicting viewpoints about the same moral topic. For instance, consider earth vs humanity. Someone could argue that annihilating humanity would be good because it protects the continued growth of life on earth. However, someone else could say that human sentience indicates a special form of consciousness – life – that ought to be protected. If the earth must be sacrificed to ensure the continuation of humanity that is a good. Both answers, while contradictory, fit within Alexander’s definition.
Despite those problems there is a profundity in the simplicity. It captures the similarity of differing moral theories. Whether you debate for concrete rules or the importance of probable outcomes, you argue for what is in the best interest of continuing. That is to say, the good is something known to each of us, even if it’s abstract. We feel it whenever we understand another person, and they understand us. In Plato’s Republic Socrates speaks of the “good” as something intangible but real: a form or idea. “The good” is something within each of us, something to which we all aspire.
Babylon‘s strongest argument for its viewpoint is found not in the show itself but in the experience of the viewer. When Zen and president have their tragic discussion on the rooftop there is a clear understanding present between them and the audience.
Alexander becomes smitten with suicide, unable to resist the knowledge of death. However, he knows the pain his suicide will wrought – not just to his own family but the world. This leaves him in agony. Zen, out of kindness, kills Alexander as they exchange expressions of mutual understanding. Before dying, Alexander tells Zen, “You are a good man.” The strength of the scene lies in the fact that the audience shares in their understanding. We understand Alexander wants Zen to end his pain and that they both desire what’s best for life’s continued growth.
Just as the show has a definition of good, however, so too does it have a view of evil, and just as with the good, that view is not as simple as it seems. Evil, according to Alexander, is to end. However, to end is not referring to death. As all toddlers learn from The Lion King, the cycle of life and death propagates more existence, more life. Death does not act to impede life; it’s intertwined with it.
Ai, on the other hand, is the incarnation of evil: She acts with the intention to destroy life because destruction, for her, is joyful. The one time Ai directly kills involves Zen’s assistant. Zen feels admiration and attraction for the noble investigator. That is precisely why her death is so vicious. Ai kidnaps the woman, strips her, ties her down then kills her through dismemberment all as Zen watches over a stream in a horrific display all for Ai’s amusement.
Ai’s depiction suggests evil is something — like the good — ingrained within us; the other side of experiencing existence. Just as experience faces continuing itself, it also faces ending itself. Sure, most of us do not wish to exterminate life but Ai’s essence can be seen in us in more mundane ways. We all get angry and for flashes wish something, or someone, to be gone – to end – even if just for a millisecond. This is why Ai, with the aforementioned exception, never kills anyone. She’s a temptress, yes, but the choice, to end or continue, is our own.
Babylon searches for moral truth and finds a compelling answer. In focusing on what we experience rather than a concrete definition, Babylon isolates “the good’s” domain. Whether it be from evolution, God, or ourselves the good exists and it exists within us.