Here I go, starting off my inaugural post with a giant generalization: we’re living an era of anime where every series looks pretty much the same. I suppose that argument could be made for any era of anime, really, but today’s stylistic elements commit the sin of being not just all the same, but also just plain bland.
Thus, it’s a real revelation to find a series that looks and feels really unique. It’s almost icing on the cake when that series ends up being genuinely good to boot. Kaiba is one of those gems.
Kaiba is a 12-episode series broadcast from April to July of this year on WOWOW, the satellite network known for showing more mature anime titles (and who just announced a sharp drop in profits for this year). Kaiba was directed by Masaaki Yuasa, probably best(?) known in the west for writing Cat Soup, a surreal short film. (Incidentally, in the States Cat Soup came in this awesome kind of gel-filled DVD case that squished around when you poked it – cool!)
Anyway, Yuasa has come to prominence the last few years as a director in his own right, first with the film Studio 4°C film Mind Game and the 2006 series Kemonozume which, like Kaiba, was broadcast on WOWOW and animated by Madhouse. We’ve seen nary a peep of these properties in the west, probably (now entering speculation zone) because they just don’t look or feel a whole lot like what we expect from anime. True, we did get Tekkon Kinkreet, another Studio 4°C film that’s received comparisons to Mind Game, but Kinkreet came with a nice tagline built-in: “from the director of The Animatrix!” (Not to mention that Kinkreet doesn’t look nearly as fucked up as Mind Game.)
Kaiba is interesting, then, because it bucks Yuasa’s trend of using rough, jerky, always-in-motion character designs. Despite sharing Kemonozume’s character designer, Nobutaka Ito, Kaiba’s characters look incredibly clean and simple. In fact, the most obvious comparison is to the work of Osamu Tezuka. Beyond the surface, though, Kaiba is clearly a Yuasa creation.
The basic premise is this: in Kaiba’s world, memories are physical objects, separate from the brain, that can be stored and moved. This has a lot of implications. For one, people can transfer their memories from one body to another, remaining essentially immortal, provided they can afford a new body. Manipulating memory in this way is, of course, extremely expensive, creating a sharp class division between people who can afford a memory chip and those whose memories will simply float away (literally!) upon death.
Another important note is that this technology can be used for other purposes, like deleting or changing memories. Some choose to do this for themselves, deleting the death of a loved one, for example, while others are manipulated into doing things by the tweaking of a few key memories.
The “rules” of the series are many and complex, and we’re largely meant to figure them out on our own. There’s a sequence in the first episode that sets out to explain a bit of this memory stuff by example, but raises more questions (specifically, more “what the fuck?”s) than it answers.
The whole first episode keeps us on our toes, trying to understand what’s happening. It opens with a shot of a guy, who we’ll later learn is Kaiba, waking up in some kind of bizarre environment filled with holes. Any attempt to describe the utterly bizarre world of Kaiba ends in futility, so here’re some neat pictures.
Kaiba wakes up, totally disoriented, and with a giant hole in his chest where his heart should be. Despite this, he seems fine, but he doesn’t know where he is or who he is. He doesn’t have a lot of time to find out, either, because he’s quickly assaulted by a robot, then saved by some kind of space-ostrich who he holds onto for dear life as it sprints through the city, giving us our first impression of the sprawling, bizarre planet we’re on.
Kaiba is eventually deposited in a settlement of some kind, where he sees the villagers manipulating memory chips, trying to find out which chip belongs to which body. (We also see the plight of people stored in chips but without bodies, who are forced to live in what are essentially Stephen Hawking-type voice boxes, where they can talk, but not much else.) He’s helped out by one denizen of this settlement, Popo, who makes it clear there’s something special about Kaiba, even if he himself can’t remember what it is. Popo helps Kaiba sneak onto a spaceship headed for another planet by moving his memory chip into another body, while his original body is taken care of by a friend, who promptly creates a copy of her memories and inserts them into Kaiba’s body so she can have sex with herself. The ship departs as Kaiba, in his temporary body, looks at a blurred photo of a girl, the only clue he has about his past.
If it sounds confusing, that’s ‘cause it is. All the plot points of Kaiba are eventually tied up, unlike a lot of (far less complex) anime series, but it’s never a simple show to follow. It’s constantly playing with our perception, showing scenes (and entire episodes) out of order and often replaying the same scene over and over – but every time, with some minor difference. We’re forced to try to figure out which is the “true” memory and which is the manipulation. (One of the coolest ideas of the show is a gun that freezes people in their tracks and lets you not only view, but physically enter a person’s memory and walk around.)
In the end, Kaiba, despite being confusing, is not simply a “mindfuck” show – it’s confusing for thematic reasons. So much of the show is tied up in the fragility and unreliability of memory: after all, if memory can be implanted, removed and destroyed, how can we trust it? Therefore, jumbling up the viewer’s own sense of what’s what serves to enhance that theme.
That’s not to say the first few largely stand-alone episodes aren’t a bit tough to get through. The promise of the first episode is that we’ll get to unravel what exactly is going on with this Kaiba dude, but that’s really not touched on for a while. Instead, he hops from planet to planet for a while, seeing the devastating effects of this supposedly great technology, Galaxy Express 999-style.
Episode eight, however, returns us to the home planet and the series becomes much more serialized from there, as we learn all about Kaiba and – well, I don’t want to spoil too much. The final episode, I must note, takes a bizarre dip into Evangelion-style “individuality vs. collective consciousness” territory (as did Macross Frontier – what’s going on here?), but the show’s core themes do remain intact throughout.
And in case I’ve made the show sound incredibly boring by talking so much about theme, let me make this clear: it’s incredibly visually engrossing. I talked about the Osamu Tezuka influence, but that doesn’t really cut to the pure visual craziness afoot. The world of Kaiba is so well-designed and big that it could’ve easily supported much more than 12 episodes of story.
Masaaki Yuasa, however, strikes me as the kind of guy who pours a ton of energy into something all at once rather than let a series run at half-power for a longer time. As of yet, his works certainly don’t lack for excitement. Cheggitout.