Review: Kaiba (90%)

Facing it
Facing it

In the end, no words were necessary to bring this thoughtful, emotionally resonant work of art to a close. So much was resolved not with words, but with gestures, looks, and the thoughts that have no need to be said aloud.

I have become so conditioned to certain kinds of endings in both mainstream Hollywood film and anime, that my first reaction to the final episode of Kaiba was: “how anti-climactic.” I refer to the very final ones–not the battles with Warp and the Kaiba plant, which are what one might expect. Everyone seems to be alive again (why?). We are left with no words, but only the smile of Neiro toward a prone Kaiba, his heart now filled.

It took me some time to understand that there was no better way to end. Rewatching the final scene confirmed it for me. And the way the end is done exemplifies what made this show so strong, so unique among this year’s entries.

No Shinji and Asuka, they
No Shinji and Asuka, they

Kaiba is one of those deceptively quiet shows whose mood masks its enormous ambition and scope. Some episodes feature few words other than incidental dialogue, especially when Kaiba is in a body incapable of speaking. The spare, yet melancholy soundtrack never intrudes but only underscores the show’s dignified sadness. Which, at first glance, is at odds with the rounded, almost childish art style drawn equally from The Little Prince as much as anime. The story it tells is very much an adult one, even if all the characters look like children–it even includes actual sex, not to mention power politics, betrayal, and grief. And yet, it is also very much like a fable or a parable rather than a straightforward sci-fi narrative. The way things move is hardly “realistic”: the advanced technology that seems more like magic in a pliable world; the representation of memories as being more like actual, visible globules that float in the air and are stored in tanks; the way bodies instantly turn into splatters when killed, which is more comical than gruesome. Yet, Kaiba is trying clearly to express human truths, human feelings, and it does so best in this exaggerated, semi-symbolic manner.

Kaiba billed itself as a love story, a romance. It is through this lens that the show is best seen, rather than as an intellectual puzzle or a mystery about the mind/body problem. We start with a character, after all, who has a hole in his heart and a single memento of his lost love. The stories in the early episodes are all about failed love between parents and children, between lovers, between potential lovers, and between the generations. We see how the world of easy body swapping and memory transfer has altered many of the dynamics that go into human relationships, but not all: people still long for care and affirmation and physical contact with one another, even if that is accomplished by putting a clone of oneself into another body and having sex with it. The end plot arc, which is more action-packed and starts answering questions, seems less a romance–except that it is driven in large part by the actions and the fate of Neiro, the one whose face is in Kaiba’s locket.

I'd like to teach the world to sing / In perfect harmony...
I'd like to teach the world to sing / In perfect harmony...

It is in this context that the end scene finds its potency. Nearly everyone is holding hands at the end, something which the OP sequence has always prefigured but is now, at last, accomplished. Kaiba, who has existed this whole time with an incomplete body, has his heart filled at last–having overcome his bad memories of his mother’s attempted murder of himself, which his shadow self Warp (who is warped–haha, get it?) latches onto and turns into a desire for annihilation. His love Neiro, who stood by him as he relived the painful memories, is once again standing over him, smiling, as she did the first time he fell; he smiles back. It is a clever reversal of the conclusion of The End of Evangelion, a coda of hope rather than of disgust; while it plays with the same idea of unification-as-annihilation as EoE, it chooses to affirm what the Anno of 1997 could not: that unconditional love really does redeem and save.

I tried to figure out, too, whether this was really the ‘reset’ ending that has plagued many otherwise worthy anime like Mai Hime. Because that is what it seems like, at first, with not only Kaiba and Neiro still alive, but all the people who were piled like corpses in episode 11: Popo, the old Warps, etc. One thing in this show, of course, is that it seems that no one is truly dead so long as the memories are intact; and if the body is intact and not simply a puddle on the ground, it’s merely “asleep” and not truly finished. Kaiba won the battle by surrendering the source of his power–his store of memories, which overcame the giant Kaiba plant, destroyed Warp’s palace, and (I think), restored the memories and in a way the life of the bodies lying on the ground. Remember, Kaiba remembers practically everything by everyone everywhere. Which makes him, in a real way, a god of this universe. The theological term for what he did is kenosis, self-emptying; he divests himself of his power in order to accomplish the greater goal of eliminating the source of destruction–the other side of himself as represented in Warp/Kaiba plant. The result is life, and a fresh start for everyone–including himself. At last, he is free to love without the burdens of everyone’s memory inside him. He no longer must be the lonely observer on the outside looking in, as he was for much of the show.

All right, this gives me some bad memories of other icky anime...
All right, this gives me some bad memories of other icky anime...

At the end of the day, Kaiba is an anime of ideas, where the characters can easily represent certain kinds of ideas or archetypes. Some might find fault with this: for instance, how the title character’s “character arc” is rushed, largely developed near the very end of the show. Other characters, like Popo and Neiro, are arguably given more dimensions. Yet, the story often felt so warm and human, moreso than the similarly themed Ghost in the Shell (movie and TV series). Part of this is because the show rarely delved into overt philosophical discussions, where the characters actually talk about the issues at hand. It preferred to show these ideas in action through the variety of different stories. It was particularly good at showing some of their consequences, as in the saddening episode about Chroniko and the story about the grandmother and her ingrate grandsons. In this Kaiba follows in the footsteps of good literate science fiction, playing “what if” in the context of human life and relationship. I find this approach superior to the talkier style of the GitS franchise, especially in the hands of Mamoru Oshii and his “profundity by quotation” method of writing. The route Kaiba took is more difficult, and more rewarding.

This is a show that I will almost certainly rewatch in the near future. It is rich in both storytelling and in ideas, and in an age of highly disposable anime it is rare to find something that is primed for endurance–for finding new layers and connections–as Kaiba. It requires no furrowing of the brow during dense philosophical dialogues and the need to hit “pause” to figure out what was just said. For that reason, I warmly recommend it not only to those who are already inclined toward “artsy” fare, but to any anime fan. The artwork is unusual, yes, but nothing compared to the Edo pastiche of Mononoke and Gankutsuou. Many famous seiyuu, including Noto Mamiko (Neiro) and Romi Paku (Popo), perform in it. You’re not likely to see something filled with as much heart as well as head in a while, because this is one of those titles that comes along not only once a year, but probably once every few years. While I share the hope of a few commentators that it will not be the best show of the year, because I also want other quality work to come out–should this be the only one, it will have richly deserved its place.

Anime Diet Daily Recommended Allowances

Animation: 88%: stands out for its uniqueness. Bold colors and lines, occasionally rough and crude on the edges–but I am not sure this is unintentional. They help create a surreal, fluid world that is full of surprises and visual treats, from the cuteness of Hyo-hyo to the menace of the Kaiba plant. May be a turn off for some, however.

Voice Acting: 90%: this is tied directly to the level of characterization given to various characters. Many of the top honors go not to the mainstay characters (Popo, Kaiba, and Neiro), but to the side characters from the individual episodes–such as Chroniko’s mother, the grandmother, the woman in the man’s body. Noto Mamiko is to be noted for a fine performance as the kind, conflicted Neiro as well. The rest turn in fine performances, but nothing I can remember in particular stands out.

Music: 95%: a triumph. The OP is my favorite OP of the year, written in (mostly) sensible English and whose melody and words convey perfectly the longing that all the characters feel for love and connection. The ED is only a tad lesser than the OP, primarily showing the other dimension of the show–the quiet melancholy and opposite longing for escape. The in-show music contains some powerful passages in some of the dramatic scenes which underscore that melancholy, and appropriately jaunty music in the humorous parts (of which there are many; I think I may not have conveyed how funny the show can be at times). That it is all electronic, and yet so warm, is also an achievement.

Story: 89%: This is show with two halves. The first is a journey to other worlds to see how the body/memory issues are played out in the lives of ordinary people. The second is Warp/Kaiba’s journey to discover his true self and purpose and a final confrontation with his shadow. Both are enthralling, and if there is any problem it is the reliance near the end on the now hoary trope of unification-as-destruction. It’s worth pointing out though that this is quickly subverted and dealt with straightforwardly, without much mumbo-jumbo. The way that this story shows rather than tells so much of its theme is worth celebrating.

Overall: 90%: contender for best of the year, of course. I can’t think of anything this year so far, unless that old master Miyazaki’s Ponyo on a Cliff is a triumph, that will probably contain as much imagination and feeling as this title. And even Miyazaki seems to be losing those these days if Howl’s Moving Castle is any indication.

9 thoughts on “Review: Kaiba (90%)”

  1. *sigh* I’ve had my own summing-up post in draft form hell for days while everyone seems to be beating me to the pinch in putting it online! With that personal grumbling aside I think this post really captures the essence of the show – it has bucketloads of profound questions, a genuinely unique approach to artwork and storytelling but never truly loses sight of the central romantic theme…arguably its ‘heart’ is what is the most important.

    When placed alongside Kemonozume I think Kaiba is the point where Yuasa has really realised his potential as a writer/director; like you I hope to be equally impressed with more series this year but whether or not that happens I’ll remember this one as being particularly extraordinary.

    A rewatch will also be pretty essential!

  2. This is a bit late to the game (for some reason, I put the series down for six months before picking it up this week to finish).

    The parallels to the End of Evangelion struck me, too — the the point that I was a bit annoyed at yet another anime with an apocalyptic ending.  Having everyone once more alive just compounded that effect — echoing everyone standing in a circle around Shinji saying “omedetou”.  I wonder if it was a deliberate homage (the ending even had a giant robot!).

    One thing I found myself wondering about was Neiro’s name — oneiro being Greek for “dream” and, particularly in the final arc, much of her story seemed dream-like with its non-linear narrative.  Indeed, perhaps she was (or became) a dream for Kaiba.

    Which brings us (by something of a back way) to Kaiba’s name itself: kaiba is the Japanese name for the hippocampus, the seat of memory.

    This show is definitely one I will have to rewatch, if only to see how much of the ending is foreshadowed in ways that I missed the first time through.

Leave a Reply