Recently I hung out with a bunch of my anime-knowledgeable friends, and I was inevitably asked by each of them individually if I’d watched anything interesting lately. My immediate response was “Kaiba” to which, without fail, every single one of them responded with, “What, that guy from Yugioh?” Not a single one of them had any idea what anime I was referring to, and in my ignorance of popular anime, I had no idea who they were referring to either. I’m sure this testifies more to the fact that I just don’t pay attention to things that I have literally zero interest in, but I like to think it just gives me more indie cred (or whatever the anime equivalent would be) than my friends.
I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t a little surprised, though; of every single person I talked to, not a single one of them had so much as heard of Kaiba, and except for maybe one or two exceptions, my immediate follow-up question of “Have you ever heard of The Tatami Galaxy?” was also met with blank stares. Now in my mind this was a perfectly relevant question to ask, being that both series were directed by Masaaki Yuasa, who also directed Ping Pong The Animation (a series that I loved). Kaiba, like Masaaki’s other works, has its own very distinct and singular style, and much like both The Tatami Galaxy and Ping Pong, it’s a style that extends well beyond its visual presentation into the less-easily definable territories of subjective response and emotional presence.
The anime takes place in the far future. Memories are now able to be digitized and bodies are nothing more than vehicles for these memories, which are themselves easily transferable and able to be altered, for better or worse. Society is split between the lower world, where the poor reside, unable to afford nice bodies (or even bodies at all, for some), and the upper world, where the rich trade bodies and exploit the lower class however they can. The story begins as our protagonist Kaiba wakes up with no memories and nothing other than a locket with a blurry picture of a girl in it, and the anime follows his journeys as he travels and slowly begins to piece things back together.
It’s worth addressing the animation style right away because, like seemingly everything Masaaki lays hand to, it informs the way the viewer will react to pretty much every other aspect of the story. It is like literally no other anime I’ve ever seen; the closest thing to compare it to would be old Astro Boy episodes, but even then it’s more of an oblique homage at best. In truth, Kaiba abides by its own visual rules and does not conform to any sorts of expectations of what animation should be — and really, this is one of the things that propels Kaiba miles above its peers. You’re not going to see any of the usual anime visual tropes, for example, or anything suggesting that this series took cues from any anime released in the last 30 years. Featuring a muted, earthy color palette and few fine details, there’s really nothing out there that looks quite like it.
It’s squarely “cartoony”, in the most liberating way — lines and proportions are not constrained to the usual artistic guidelines, landscapes are reminiscent of things Bill Watterson could only have dreamed of, and character animations are treated with reckless abandon. It’s a world that is so visually unlike anything else, and this lack of any kind of reference point can be dizzying at times. The universe in Kaiba is a difficult one to make sense of visually, and this would normally be a problem, except that it’s so, so dazzling to be immersed in that this off-balance feeling you get when watching it becomes a vital part of the experience.
For as cartoony as Kaiba is, it is also one of the most consistently tragic series I’ve ever seen. Much of the anime follows Kaiba as he travels from planet to planet, meeting various characters along the way and learning about himself in the process. Each of these vignettes, however, just serves to underscore how cold the universe of Kaiba is, and how cruel, selfish, and violent people can be when given even a modicum of power over someone else. This sharp juxtaposition between the anime’s look and its content time and again acts as a shock to the system, reminding the viewer that at all times, this is a dystopia where a person’s body — the thing that you can see — is only a vehicle for carrying around a person’s memories, which in Kaiba‘s universe, act as the sum of who a person is.
And Kaiba is able to present deep questions to the viewer at every turn. Social commentary on classism, poverty, and revolution are the engine on which the fundamental story is built. Philosophical questions regarding what a person’s body is compared to a person’s mind, or his memories, or his soul also permeate the series in each and every episode. Other anime have tackled these issues, sure, but this is the first I’ve seen to do it this comprehensively, and this elegantly.
I do use the term “elegantly” here with a bit of hesitation; Kaiba‘s story is not straightforward, especially in the second half of the series. In fact, it starts to get extremely convoluted near the end, and I’d be lying if I said I could reliably explain to you exactly what happened in the last episode. It’s not that it’s an open ending, it’s just difficult to make sense of the actual events that take place. Part of this is the fault (or the gift?) of the animation, which can get extremely bewildering at times — specifically, its ignorance of basic things like perspective, scale, and reference points (this is a self-contained universe where almost nothing is analogous to the world you and I are used to) makes visually interpreting certain scenes truly difficult.
But more than that, nothing is really spoon-fed to the viewer. The story unfolds in a natural way, where it rarely feels written. It tends to expect you to fill in the blanks as you go along through inference; this happens to be one of my favorite methods of storytelling, so it appealed to me hugely, but at the end of nearly every episode I had no idea how what had just happened contributed to the overarching plot. It all comes together, but this is an anime that demands the viewer’s attention at every instant.
But this all serves to feed back into Kaiba‘s distinct and completely incomparable feel. It’s a world that is so removed from ours that its technology feels like magic. Its settings feel otherworldly. Its characters tend to feel alien, and yet Kaiba still recognizes a deep-set human desire for power over others. Through its surrealism and determination to vacuum-seal itself against intrusion into typical anime norms, Kaiba still retains the threads of humanity that bind all people together, in good ways and bad. For all that it’s different, and strange, and ridiculous, it’s still relatable on extremely basic levels, and this communion of the out-there with the here-and-now is one of the major things that struck me about this series in such a positive way.
This would all be for nought if the characters weren’t good, but thankfully we’re treated to some of the most interesting that I can recall from recent memory. Kaiba himself is a very quiet fellow, and for the majority of the first half of the series, he says very little. The other people he encounters through his travels have their own personalities; among my favorites was Sheriff Vanilla, an antagonist who ends up having a surprising amount of depth, and who features in one of the most touching moments of the entire series about halfway through. In trying to keep this review spoiler-free, I will refrain from saying more, but Vanilla’s character is just one of many who flit in and out of Kaiba’s travels and who make a lasting impression on the viewer through their various interactions with him.
Honestly, it’s hard to discuss the characters in this story because they develop slowly, or are in and out within an episode or two, or don’t get any focus or attention until near the end. Kaiba is the only character present in every episode, and evaluating his characterization is difficult as well because of his very nature within the story. His existence moves between bodies throughout the series, and while this shouldn’t matter, weirdly it affected the way that I interacted with and responded to his character. It was an experience completely unique to this anime, and although it blurred and challenged the very idea of “characterization” for the entire run of the series, the layers of fascination that this approach provided were nearly endless.
Impressively, and probably of more immediate consequence to one who hasn’t seen Kaiba and is still reading this review, the writers of the show were able to introduce characters at atypical points in the series, and often for very brief periods of time, while still managing to engage me in their various backstories and situations. In other words, Kaiba is very efficient at getting the viewer to care where he or she otherwise wouldn’t, and Kaiba’s story and his world are all the richer for it.
All these elements — the animation, the story, the characters — are backed by an impressive, mostly minimalist soundtrack. I never realized before how important an opening song can be to setting up one’s mood for an episode until I watched Kaiba; the opening for this series is one of my all-time favorites, not only because it features some really cool animation, but also because the song — a downtempo, art-pop piece sung in English by this Japanese girl — so perfectly captures the essence of deep sadness that runs beneath the surface of everything in Kaiba‘s world. Emotions well up from within at the beginning of each episode, and I found myself looking at the anime differently than I probably would have without it — it’s an opening that is more than just pretty, it’s functional.
I don’t like to use superlatives when evaluating art, if I can help it. I think I fail at this more often than not so this may come as a surprise to some, but it’s true — my opinions on things are always shifting so putting it down in writing saying that something is “the best” or “the worst” has the looming potential to come back and bite me one day. Nevertheless, I can’t refrain here: besides being the absolute weirdest anime I’ve ever seen, Kaiba was also one of the unquestionable best. I cannot praise this anime enough, nor give it any more enthusiastic a recommendation. It’s not for everyone, but for those whose interest has been piqued, its depiction of the world is on par with the bleak settings found in anime like Madoka Magica or Evangelion, and it’s at least as philosophically challenging and mind-bending as either of those.
I hesitate to use the word “perfection”, because that’s a desperately high summit that few anime can reach, but it’s about as close as anything I’ve ever seen. Its style is totally singular and there is nothing — nothing — that you will find that makes you feel exactly the same way Kaiba does. It’s an exhilirating anime in the most emotionally and visually striking ways. It’s about as good an example as exists of the power and importance of animation as a medium — it tells a story that would be untellable in any other format, and it uses its self-imposed visual freedom to do things that simply couldn’t be done convincingly any other way. As a viewer, it’s thrilling. As a fan of anime, it’s completely unforgettable.
Personal value: 10/10