Kaiba: A 2008 Sci-Fi Gem
I needed something different from the usual fare of light-hearted moe hi-jinks and high-school settings. Something deep. Something artsy fartsy if you want to put it from an elitism point of view. Something that could pull me in from the word go and take me for a hell of a ride.
And what a ride Kaiba was.
It has to be said though, the tastes for this sci-fi anime is extremely exclusive, and I believe the primary reason to be its minimalistic and cartoonish visuals. The character designs are child-like even if the characters are adults themselves, and they are definitely far from the moe girls that the mainstream audience is long accustomed to. But if you could get past that, there’s a brilliant plot waiting in there.
The show begins with the protagonist waking up in a cave, having no idea of who he is. The only object in his possession is a trinket which encloses a picture of a smiling girl. He is approached by a stranger with a giant gun wrapped around his waist and who appears friendly enough. Suddenly a levitating contraption appears behind him and the stranger reacts immediately by firing at the contraption (or Kaiba?) and a one-eye ostrich monster arrives from nowhere and snatches him away. Cue a long chase scene (And plenty of questions to answer already: Why had he lost his memories? Why is there a big hole in the middle of his body? Who is that girl? Who is that stranger? And why did the monster take interest in him?) before he finds disposed into the living quarters of a slum. And there’s a strange scene transposing in front of him. There is a crowd, a machine, and a pile of nail-like objects. A person starts to insert one of those objects into the slot of the machine and shouts for his brother. And then there’s a voice from the machine and what on bloody earth is going on?
And all of these in the first episode.
Most of these questions are answered by the end of the show. Kaiba does go for the first half random episodes and second half main plot approach that most one-cour shows follow. This means that the personal mysteries take a back-seat for the first half of the show, as the protagonist explores the alien environment and gradually unfolds its horrors and harsh realities.
The what-if question behind this series’ conception is unique: What if memories can, be traded and bartered like wool and spice in the market place, and in doing so ensure that humans can live on in newer bodies after their older ones are expended? Countless possibilities and scenarios arise: What of the rich which could afford this luxury? And of the poor which had to sell their precious memories away just to make a living? What of the body which is now nothing more than a shell, and could be changed at one’s own leisure?
Kaiba pulls them off with aplomb. The possibilities are manifested in the form of objects: memory chips, which safely encrypt your memories in previously mentioned nail-like objects, acting like Winzip applications. So even if you die from a horrific car crash in that world, so long you had encrypted your memories, you live on, though don’t complain if you find yourself in a saggy old man’s body when you wake up. Another would be memory readers, which are sorta like stun guns that allow one to physically step into the inner world of the victims and find out their pasts and secrets. These two objects turn out to be important plot devices over the course of the story.
As for scenarios, there’s an interesting variation. There’s an old man who finds out that his loyal spouse isn’t that loyal after an accidental firing of the memory reader; there’s gender exploration when the protagonist enters the body of the female; there’s a famous manufacturer of bodies that has a body of a cat and who has a little dog as an assistant. But by far the most poignant is the one in episode 3, the protagonist (his memory chip now stored inside a dinosaur toy) meets a street-seller girl. This girl had already sold off portions of her memory and is prepared to literally sell off her body and reduce her existence into a memory chip, just so she could provide a better life for the family. She makes light of her bleak situation and relates her hopes and dreams to the protagonist. And while I knew from the straight off that her fate would never be a fairytale one, from the grim vibes carried by the show, the execution was so heartbreaking that it provoked an emotional response from the writer.
As I write this review, I sort of understood the choice of art direction for this anime. There’s sex and gratuitous violence, and I don’t mean little. But because it’s rendered in such a cartoonish way, you hardly notice it, until the message sinks in and you go “He just did that?!” For example, you get ship stowaways meeting a messy ending after the captain finds them out and decides to blast them as a punishment. Then right after the captain sees the purple slimy mess of their remains, he casually laments, “What? You haven’t converted yet? You should have said that earlier! You are good as dead without a chip!” If the art is more conventional, viewers would have been utterly disturbed and distracted by the images to fully understand the implications of those actions.
The pacing increases in the second half of the anime as it races to uncover the mystery behind the main character. There are plenty of memory intrusions, a single flashback episode showing the events leading to the beginning, and enough clues and plot twists for mystery fanatics to go crazy about. While they are pretty well done, they didn’t leave that great an impression on me. The problem maybe lies in the characterization of the protagonist, which can be summarized as ‘silent and kind-hearted’. This works when he is a side character in the first arc, but after he is thrown into the spotlight, the two-dimensionality becomes apparent and I find myself a little hard to care at times. Even a few months after watching this, the characters that instantly come to my mind are the street-seller girl and the captain, who turns out to be a rather lovable rogue.
I’ll like to compliment on the soundtracks, which greatly enhance and contribute to the haunting and melancholic atmosphere. The OP and ED are also sung in English by a Japanese singer whom I think did a very good job, and the lyrics are pretty meaningful.
Well, not everything is rosy with Kaiba though, for it does have its fair share of criticisms. The old troupe of the main character losing his/her memories had long lost its luster, having been used countless times such as in the Jason Bourne novels and in anime shows such as Eden Of The East. But since memories are the major motif of the show, the journey of discovery makes sense in the context. Also, the ending was a little too surreal for my liking, playing on symbolism instead of logic to resolve the overarching plot, and perhaps too rushed.
Overall, Kaiba is a wonderful anime with a high re-watch value. It caters only to a niche audience due to the art designs and subject matter, but you might be blown away if you give it a whirl.