Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Music of Babylon Blues

Tokyo, Japan, Tokyo Tower, Night, Night City, Tower
BABYLON BLUES, my current cyberpunk horror saga, holds a most unusual distinction: it is the first story I wrote that was inspired by music.

The first time I heard 'Babylon', it was in Leonard Cohen's 'Dance Me to the End of Love'. One line goes like this:
Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone / let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Dance Me to the End of Love is filled with love, passion, sensuality. In these lines you can guess what Cohen really means.

And yet, while the song hints at a wedding and a life-long relationship, 'Babylon' colours the song in darker tones. The Babylon of the Bible is the greatest, richest and most powerful city in the world, but it is also a city of sin and vice. The Greek historian Herodotus describes sacred prostitution practiced in Babylonia, where a woman is compelled to wait in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with a stranger before she is allowed to return home.

This idea of a great love shaded in doubt and the word 'Babylon', lodged themselves deep in my brain, and stayed there for close to a decade.

In early 2018, through the intercession of YouTube algorithms, I stumbled across the song YoiYoi Kokon by REOL.

Calling it 'crazy' is an understatement. The music video is a full-on sensory assault, contrasting the ancient and the modern. Traditional Japanese imagery of koi and fans and screen doors juxtaposed with psychadelic abstract shapes and colours. Archaic Japanese sung at a frantic tempo, accompanied by high-energy synth music. The singer sounds happy and joyous, but the lyrics suggest pain and misery and a headlong embrace of hedonism in the face of changing times.

This sharp contrast between old and new, combined with these observations of human nature, lingered in me. It's easy to enjoy the music for what it is, but to fully appreciate the song you need to dive deep. And I wondered if I could apply these concepts to my own work.

From Yoyoi Kokon, it's a short hop away to Oedo Ranvu.

As with YoiYoi Kokon, it is a high-energy song whose lyrics interspace lust and licentiousness with scenes of beauty, referring to a romanticised ancient Edo and its infamous pleasure quarters. Once again we see the contrast of the ancient and the hypermodern, in the combination of the lyrics and instruments.

Continuing the theme of a decadent Edo, I arrived at Tokio Funka.

As with YoYoi Kokon, it is energetic, fast-paced and deceptively upbeat. A close examination of the lyrics point to an Edo / Tokyo of corruption and decadence. It is an Edo filled with opium abuse, gambling, prostitution, incompetent government officials, and roving gangs wreaking havoc everywhere they go.

This line stood out:
okappiki babiron yowaki mono abandon
Translated, it means: “In this Babylon of thief-takers, abandon the weak."

The Babylon of Cohen's poem-song returned to mind in an instant. A city of corruption and degeneracy, the ultimate symbol of rejection of the Christian God.

A city not unlike the Edo described in Tokyo/Edo of Tokio Funka and Oedo Ranvu, in a period of rapid change and supreme hedonism described in YoiYoi Kokon.

Later in the song, another line goes like this:
sakase yo hana o ukiyo wa setsuna
Translated, it means this: “Bloom, flowers, the transient world is but a moment”.

This sentence captures the essence of Edo-era Japan. The nation was at peace, the arts were flourishing, commerce was king, samurai became bureaucrats and civil servants. Edo became the most important city in Japan, with the courtesans of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters setting fashion trends across the nation.

'Ukiyo', the floating world or transient world, refers to the hedonistic urban lifestyle embodied in Yoshiwara.

At the same time, 'Ukiyo' is a homophone for ‘sorrowful world’ in Japanese. It refers to the endless cycle of life, suffering, death and rebirth in Buddhism, the cycle all Buddhists seek to escape. It is also an apt analogy for the dark side of Yoshiwara.

The life of a Yoshiwara prostitute is a steeped in sorrow and suffering. Held in debt bondage, thousands of prostitutes died from sexually transmitted diseases or failed abortions before completing or being freed from their contracts. Those who died were unceremoniously dumped at Jokan-ji temple. All together, an estimated 25,000 prostitutes were buried in the vast cemetary of Jokan-ji.

The secret to liberation from the sorrowful world is to realise that it is also a transient world. Pain and pleasure, glamour and suffering, joy and sorrow, they come and rise and fall away. Even the transient world is itself transient: Yoshiwara was damaged by fire in 1913, almost destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and finally lost its prominence after prostitution was officially outlawed in 1958 (although loopholes remained).

Call it confirmation bias, a message from the Universe, a nudge from the muses, a whisper from God, but after listening to three songs with similar themes in rapid succession, all of them tied to a line I heard so long ago, I decided to pay more attention to what I was truly hearing.

From these songs, Babylon was born.

A hyper-modern ultra-dense city, the richest and most powerful city in the world. A city that has embraced the world, seamlessly melding East and West. A city that chases desperate dreams of never-ending pleasure, leaving in its wake countless thousands and tens of thousands of burned-up souls. A city that openly rejects the values and faiths of the past, and yet cannot run from them.

Babylon is the distilled essence of every fleshpot, every financial hub, every technological centre, every human hive, concentrated in a single megacity. It is Las Vegas and Hot Springs, Yoshiwara and Kabukicho, New York and Shinjuku, Patapong and Paris. It is the fusion of ukiyo and Sin City.

I took the juxtaposition of timeless and hyper-modern and ran with it. Babylon would be a cyberpunk city, forever tearing up its past and building upon the ruins. Even so, there are still people in that city who keep to the old ways, hold to timeless truths, preserve pockets of the past in hidden nooks. They live in the world but not of it, lotuses floating serenely in the murky waters of the floating world. Babylon is poised on the brink of chaos, but the protagonist is a bedrock of calm.

From these concepts of Babylon came Yuri Yamamoto. Street samurai, Christian mystic, gunslinger and leader.

Babylon Blues is his story. The story of an elite operator and his team as they do battle against the princes and powers of the world. The story of a samurai who has mastered the Way of the hand, the blade and the gun.

The story of a man of the Cross in a world that has forgotten the Christ.

if you want to know more about BABYLON BLUES, check out the Kickstarter here!

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