This astonishingly affecting and effectively told episode of Kaiba shows that the issue of memory and identity isn’t just something that tickles the intellect. It goes straight to the heart of who we are as humans.
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
–Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H.
I have always held that the best science fiction is not merely an exploration of neat ideas and technologies, or stories told in convincing future settings. Good science fiction must tell good human stories first. It has to touch on universal human desires, longings, and fears and how those technologies or ideas impact people on a fundamental, primal level. There were times when Kaiba’s nearest intellectual ancestor in anime, Ghost in the Shell, got too technical and abstract for its own good, particularly in the hands of Mamoru Oshii. Closer to Kaiba’s spirit of humanistic SF was the granddaddy of all cyberpunk film, Blade Runner, with a compelling character in the replicant Roy Batty. This episode of Kaiba demonstrates for me that out of all these examples, Kaiba has the warmest and most empathetic heart. The story it tells is simple, sad, and filled with emotional and intellectual depth.
It accomplishes this with relatively minimal dialogue; it shows, rather than tells, all of its points. Again, before Kaiba exchanges bodies with Chroniko’s, the artists manage to contain so much expression in the mute dinosaur, mainly through body language–an irony in a show that is about a world where bodies are dispensable. We see the emotions of Kaiba in the way he (or is it really “he” in a meaningful way?) clenches his fists in frustration at the waste of Chroniko’s body, the way he walks down the street. More affectingly, I can see the terrible situation that Chroniko is in despite her seemingly happy demeanor as she tells her story. Her intellectual and artistic talents were sold, and any potential unhappiness caused by it erased. She cannot remember anything before the boots of the episode’s title. Her body is to be sold to the rich, in language that is grotesquely similar (and in some way more horrifying) to that used of prostitution, with the false promises of money and continued memories and life. Even as she tells these details with the confidence and carefree nature of a child, the extreme dehumanization of her position is clear, and so long as memories are so malleable, there can be little chance for change–for change is in large part fueled by the memory of bad conditions and oppression. It is a world where promises mean nothing if the memory of the promise is erased, as it is for Chroniko, and where the end result is her beautiful original body (how quaint!) in a trash heap for a rich client. She is as fleeting as her namesake, Time.
All this is shown, not told. When Kaiba enters her body in both solidarity and sympathy–after seeing in horror that nothing is left of her memories–it is as if he is on a mission. She has lost her memories, but Kaiba has not lost his memory of her. He enters the memory of Chroniko’s mother to see what remains of Chroniko in the mother’s tortured conscience and recollection–cleverly depicted as a growing library. Watching those scenes was painful. The mother’s actions were depicted as understandable but still inexcusable–she is living, it seems, with the other side of memory, in which all the happiness of the past only serves as a prodding guilt in the present. The thing is, though, is that ability to remember and reflect makes her very human–not exactly sympathetic, but someone who anyone who’s made bad, permanent mistakes in life can understand. Perhaps a modicum of conscience prevented her from entirely wiping away her bad memories a la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though there are scenes depicting her as trying to leach out some of the pain from her head. Kaiba enters those memories, and as he leaves on the spaceship again, a weeping mother at last realizes what she has done, unaware that in some limited sense, because of the power of memory, a small part of her daughter continues to live on in Chroniko’s body and Kaiba’s memories.
Alfred Tennyson wrote the epigraph out of grief for a dead friend, the “A.H.H” of the title, in an attempt to not only sum up his feelings and memories of his friend, but also his doubt-ridden faith in God and in his relationship to the world. In moments of deep grief, it seems words are inadequate to describe the sense of loss and the sense of dislocation that the death of a loved one produces. The only language is but a cry, and nothing else, like that of an infant who knows no other way to get attention; it is a cry that was made without a sound when Kaiba was a dinosaur, and bewailed by the mother at the piano, bereft of her sister and her niece. Only the body remains (oddly enough), inhabited by another soul, flying away in the space full of scattered memories that may never find a home. And it is a homeless universe, in which no body or place is ever really final for a person, and where the poor are thrown into garbage heaps and their souls and memories disintegrated. Can a wandering soul like Kaiba ever find that connection between himself, his bodies, and the rest of the world? Does he have a place to rest his head?
Whatever the answer is–I must find out. I am very tempted already to declare this the best of the year so far.