Kaiba – Adrift in Memories

(This is my review for Reverse Thieves’ third-annual Secret Santa event. I have another Secret Santa review coming up at The Nihon Reiew. Both are spoiler-free reviews.)

I knew a little bit about Kaiba going in: Mainly that the main character wakes up in the beginning of the series having lost his memory, and that the crux of the series is a journey to regain that memory. And I also knew that the man at the helm of the series is Masaki Yuasa, a man with no shortage of admirers, at least in the circles of anime fandom in which I find myself. I count myself among those admirers: The man has a unique, distinctive vision for his stories, and the way they play out onscreen is fascinating. I could see why people may be turned off by the aesthetics of his works, but I find that his unique brand of “ugliness” usually fits in perfectly with the stories he tells.

But, yes, Kaiba. Memory is important to the series not only thematically, but also in the way the story is constructed and presented. One could easily split Kaiba into two halves: The first in which the titular character roams the world searching for clues and (mostly) silently takes in events that provide excellent world building and interesting questions regarding the memory technology in the world. (Long story short: People can upload memories into chips and hop from body to body, essentially rendering them immortal. Only the rich can afford to this, however, because bodies are at a premium. Memories can also be altered; “bad” memories can be deleted at the whim of the memory holder, or anyone else who knows how to do it.) The second half is where Kaiba is able to piece the clues together, and the overall plot takes the spotlight.

If I had to choose, I’d say the first half of Kaiba is better, if only because the way the stories explore the show’s main themes and the way the technology is used are both so fascinating to me that I could watch a whole series of nothing but Kaiba getting involved with random people and observing the world. The memory technology proved particularly interesting for me, because it made me think about how people unconsciously apply the very function of that technology on themselves throughout their lives. Most of us don’t have photographic memory, right? Personally, I remember very few things from my early youth — elementary and middle school are mostly a blur, while high school and college are mostly clear, since they were relatively recent. But I don’t remember everything: It’s mainly the parts of my life that left a deep impression on me — maybe even for reasons I don’t understand — that remain.

So our brains already pick and choose to an extent what memories we retain. Kaiba later dives into the ethics of altering memories: Not just altering a person’s memories against that person’s will, but also a person deliberately choosing to alter one’s memories. There’s at least one prominent character in the show who believes that to alter one’s memories is to defile one’s very existence; however, while I would tend to lean that way myself, I did wonder whether to do that is truly unethical. We are taught in life — and often in fiction — that to face the bad in life makes us stronger. That we must never forget our mistakes. And I truly believe that’s a solid philosophy for most situations. But watching Kaiba made me wonder if there were ever a situation where I would honestly think about deleting an event from my memory. In Kaiba, this technology is mainly seen as a tool of the rich and hedonistic to form their lives into an endless pleasure train, but if such a process were readily available, would it be “right” or “wrong” to erase anything? Would those concepts even apply? Does memory cease to have value if we have such direct control over it? And so on.

It’s random trains of thought that help make the first half of Kaiba so enjoyable to me. It helps that the stories and one-shot characters are largely interesting and emotionally affecting. Kaiba acts as a social observer in what has become a rotten world. It seems like a black-and-white “rich are evil/poor are angelic” split at first, but while there are plenty of awful rich folk in the series, the world on the bottom is not so kind. I find that a lot of the time when fiction ventures into gray morality, it’s an excuse to be brutal and present a never ending series of awful situations. They play at depth, but don’t really build it. Kaiba‘s gray morality is more interesting than most. There are good people, bad people, neutral folks, and those who start off with good intentions but find themselves traveling off the beaten path. The way characters are built really feels like they’ve grown and evolved in reaction to the world they inhabit, and thus, it gives the tragedy at the end an extra oomph.

That said, the second half is a tad shaky, for me. For the most part, I like it — it’s well-written and constructed, most of the twists don’t feel like they come out of nowhere and they have solid impact. But I think the story goes a bit too far with the twists by the end. I could accept most of them, because they are logical extensions of the world building and the motivations of each character. But there are a couple of twists that seemed out of left field to me and took me out of the story. The ending is also sort of a head scratcher for me, albeit one that is not unfamiliar. For reasons I won’t go into, the events are somewhat confusing for me because I wasn’t totally able to keep some things straight in my mind. To a certain extent, I think the ending is supposed to be oblique; still, while I think I get what basically happens, it’s maybe a bit confusing to me. That doesn’t affect my opinion of the story as a whole, however — it’s well-told and well-realized.

But blah blah blah, I’ve probably talked too much about the writing, and not enough about the art. I enjoy the look of the series a lot — like a cracked-out hybrid of Western cartoons and Osamu Tezuka (who was influenced quite a bit by Disney). The style serves as a good contrast to the often-dark elements of the series, and in particular, I think it helps the violence have a strong impact. It probably says a lot about me and the direction in which media as a whole has headed in my life that Kaiba is the first piece of media I’ve watched in a while that actually made my jaw drop when someone was killed. The way death is presented in this series has a harsh, final feel to it that doesn’t play it for fun.

But there’s also a surprising amount of action in Kaiba – probably less surprising for those familiar with Yuasa is that the action has a free-flowing feel to it. Even though I can take a step back and realize how in control Yuasa and his animators are when laying out the action sequences, the work is done in such a way that everything feels spontaneous and alive. That’s often the main strength of the Yuasa-style character designs: They give more freedom for animators to go wild with movement and such when it’s needed. There’s a chase sequence in the first episode that had me going crazy with how well-done it is.

I also love the world design, as well. I tend to prefer “lived-in” science-fiction settings to pristine science-fiction worlds, and Kaiba scratches that particular itch well. The main city in which the series begins reflects the decay of this world so well. Also love the contrast between the various cities Kaiba visits and the locales that are more natural — they feel dangerous, too, but for vastly different reasons. The way the settings all feel distinctly alien and different is appealing, as well.

Basically this is nearly 1,500 words of me saying, “Kaiba is pretty fucking awesome. Watch it.” Really, I should probably be slapped for waiting until my Secret Santa hoisted the show upon me to actually watch the damn thing.

6 Responses to “Kaiba – Adrift in Memories”

  1. Episode 3 of Kaiba (Chroniko’s Boots) is the saddest twenty-four minutes of anime I have seen in my entire life. I never cry at anything, but that episode pushed me pretty close to the brink.

    Pretty much agree with you about Kaiba–brilliant show with a shaky second half that’s nevertheless both intelligent and emotionally affecting. You should definitely watch it again, though–that’s when you realize that every one of those ridiculous plot twists from later in the series was actually foreshadowed from the very beginning, and your eyes bug out in shock.

    Anyway Tatami Galaxy is probably tighter written overall, but Kaiba has a special place in my heart. You should definitely get around to watching Mind Game, at some point, too–I haven’t seen it but have heard that it’s his best and most concentrated work.

    • That’s definitely a sad one. Those early Kaiba episodes do such a great job of being intellectually interesting and emotionally affecting.

      Weirdly enough, though I’m a great Yuasa fan, I wasn’t that huge on Mind Game overall. But I don’t think the circumstances I watched it in were all that great; I think that’s one I should revisit another time.

  2. [...] reviewed Kaiba as recommended by [...]

  3. [...] element of Kaiba I wanted to write about in my Secret Santa review is the show’s black sense of humor, but I couldn’t find a decent way to work it in to [...]

  4. Thank you for an interesting look at Kaiba; it has been a refreshing reminder that I really must get around to watching it.

    With regards to the ideas surrounding the ‘uploading’ of memories, and their subsequent transference, I should like to recommend, if I may be so bold, two books which explore similar themes. The first is Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, and the second Dancing with Eternity by John Patrick Lowrie.

    Admittedly, the latter is, perhaps, not as good as the former; they are, however, both enjoyable reads. More importantly, perhaps, they also include this idea, and explore it as a theme to a certain extent – particularly the latter. I feel compelled to note that they are not strictly a treatise or particularly in depth discussion of the topic, however, but rather touch upon it incidentally, and pose quite interesting questions. If you do, indeed, find this train of thought interesting, however, I would highly recommend them.

    Anyway, I apologise for the lateness of this comment with respect to the age of your post, and my boldness, and possible breach of etiquette, in recommending an unknown chap on the internet a couple of books after reading only a single post of his.

    Thank you again for the post.

    • No worries, my good man. I still get comments from stuff i posted two years ago, so no need to fret about your comment being “late” in any way! And I’m always open to receiving recommendations, so no need to hesitate there, either.

      Thanks for the comment!

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