Anime Reviews

A romantic interpretation of Kaiba

I was always going to like Kaiba. Even before it started airing, I had, somewhat dangerously, convinced myself that it would be good. After all, with someone like Masaaki Yuasa directing, I had to expect it would special and well, some five months later, here we are again, I just finished Kaiba this weekend.

Lets allay some fears right now. Despite its polarizing visual style and artsy pedigree, Kaiba absolutely isn’t high falutin or pretentious, it is heartfelt and emotional, exciting and twisted, and most of all, character driven. It’s true that Yuasa occasionally indulges in daunting surrealism, no doubt the last episode is a testament to that, but I really hope that you watch Kaiba, because it is lovely.

Well, that’s a half truth. Kaiba is lovely, and sweet, and romantic, but it’s also tragic, and sad, and harsh. I’m recalling a line from Kino’s Journey that comes to mind, that “The world is not beautiful, therefore it is”. This is Kaiba, I think. An idealistic, almost child-like search for some meaning in life within a universe where human memory, the very essence of individuality, is ephemeral, readily transferred into tiny, fragile metal chips and where dreams are copied, fabricated and deleted.

People are weak little things, really. Our dreams are many, and many of them are impossible, but we strive on anyway. One watches Kaiba and feels this romantic melancholy for life, that every person, all of us, might as well be reduced to a grain of sand on a golden beach, one of countless millions, yet we all keep on believing that we can make a difference, or do something important. Sometimes we find happiness, other times not. Kaiba is beautiful for allowing a human life to blossom, like how a flower might sneak through the cracks of a concrete road, only to then be crushed underfoot. A life that was once so hopeful can be extinguished in an instant, lost forever, just another grain of sand. But if life is so insignificant, what is the point of living? Why not just give up?

Above all else, Kaiba is a love story. When Warp and Neiro fall from their lost palace and slip into the amnesia cloud below, Warp’s only concern is for his beloved Neiro’s memories, even at the cost of his own. They roll around in Neiro’s room, drunk, happy, absolutely content within the intimacy of the other’s company, they remain scared, fragile and lost, but they have each other, and that’s enough, I think. Likewise, Popo only realizes the hollowness of his rise to power after his last remaining friend has had her memories erased, “Don’t forget me!” he screams, but it’s too late, everything he strived for has been forgotten. We live for each other, a mother for her son, a boy for his friend, one lover for another. That’s why giving up isn’t an option, our dreams might be hopeless, but they keep us alive long enough to find a friend, a kindred spirit.

16 replies on “A romantic interpretation of Kaiba”

I completely agree with you on this. The romance here is handled nicely compared to some of the other cliched shows out there. To view Kaiba you need to look at what is beyond the odd visuals. Reach out to the characters, the plot, the elaborate world. Thats what helped get over my apprehensiveness regarding the artistic representations of the characters. Once I did I enjoyed the ride so much more than what I expected. Theres an air of innocence (don’t get me wrong this is an adult show, theres even a odd and original, if I may say so, sex-scene placed in those 12 episodes) to the characters that most cute-moe shows try to achieve using their designs. Yet Kaiba’s story and character interaction help create that feel of purity and chastity, and it feels natural instead of stagnant and forced. Its just genuine and heart-felt. One episode in particular shows Yuasa’s mighty pen at directing flawlessly and keep the viewers glued to the screen. To me that flashback episode (10?) where they were rolling around drunk, has got to be one of the most accomplished ands fleshed out episode of any anime currently airing. I loved it to such a great extent. Here is where Yuasa really shows off his directing prowess. Whereas most episodes regarding the main storyline, character roles and intentions are vague and ambiguous, this episode however left everything out in the open, so much so that it might’ve been a tad bit overwhelming (nitpicking heh!) this deliberate style of pulling the audience in is truly and technically proficient. This helped make the whole picture feel complete, connecting the dots as our two protaginists got to know each other. The score is of course brilliant (top notch anime here it has a check in all categories, imo) and accompanies events and situations skillfully without feeling obtrusive and bold. Gah I wasn’t fan when they rolled out kemonozume, but after Kaiba, how can I resist?

As much as I feel like I’ve blogged this to death, I can’t help but at least post one comment about what a breath of fresh air this was. The visuals look NOTHING like anything else, the quirky synthesised score fits perfectly and it encompasses some pretty profound issues.
When placed alongside Kemonozume, I think Kaiba is a more well-rounded and satisfying experience. Both are great love stories and both get the viewer’s attention with unusual art styles but Kemo was still a straightforward piece that didn’t do anything out of the ordinary beyond looking cool and different. Kaiba on the other hand refuses to do anything by the book, and is much more rewarding and memorable as a result. I didn’t agree with every decision the producion staff made but you can’t deny them the kudos for going about things their own way.
Agreed on the character-driven nature of it too – every one of them was well developed and engaging. I could rattle off individual scenes that stuck with me but in all honesty there are too many!

Kaiba will go down as one of my favorites. I thought the soundtrack fit the tragic nature of the series, and I thought the art style allowed the series to address issues that were more mature without becoming sleazy (not unlike the anthropomorphizing that children’s stories utilize in order to deal with issues like death or loss). The opening scene drew me into the story in a way similar to the way used in the movie Dark City (I’m a sucker for stories where the main character seems to know only as much as the viewer). I also really appreciated that the audience gets exposed to so much of the Kaiba universe/story by the end of the series. I was actually satiated at the end of the last episode (anime series rarely do this for me). I can’t wait to see more of Masaaki Yuasa’s work.

Kaiba is living proof that looks can be deceiving. Yuasa Masaaki’s latest work looks like it’s been drawn by children, yet the messages it carries are clearly for mature viewers. The style is beatifully simple, imaginative and kind of surreal. That pleasant image is then heavily influenced by the use of colours. Everything is so pale, bland and monotone that one can feel the underlying sadness. It’s as if the creators are telling us to look at how beautiful the world could’ve been, but what has become of it. This contrast fits perfectly into the atmosphere of the show. I feel Kaiba tells a lot about opposites. There is great potential in the discovery of a way to store memories, but it’s been demoted to perverse entertainment for the rich and a tool to control others. The man who tried to teach people that artificial bodies are inferior to real ones is instantly misunderstood and turned into a fashion icon. Popo, a man of great skill, ends up alone, ruined by his thirst for power. His development is masterfully executed by the way. The scene from his childhood featuring one less of his friends each time it is repeated is simply ingenious.
Back on topic. When everything seems to be depressing, when it seems people will never learn from their mistakes, contrast strikes again. The characters discover what it means to care for someone else and try to make up for their previous mistakes. They fight against all odds and risk their own lives for the sake of those they love. Even the abusive Vanilla turns out to have a good side. Kaiba clearly shows people can change if they look beyond their own selfish needs. Everyone knows, however, that it’s not as easy as it sounds. Maybe that’s why in the end – despite the rather happy conclusion of the story – I still feel a bit sad.

I love that top image of Kaiba and Neiro 🙂
Kaiba was definitely one of the few gems in the sea of mediocrity that was 2008. While I can’t say it is my favorite series ever and it certainly wasn’t perfect (the last episode was way too rushed) I applaud Kaiba for daring to be unique. Although probably my favorite thing about it ended up being the relationship between Kaiba and Neiro. The fact that you could see how much they loved each other just from the animation. I didn’t have to be told they were in love I could just see it in their expressions and actions and that is when I think animation is successful.
I also have to say Popo was a great villain. I know he did some despicable things but in the end it seems he had been manipulated too so I couldn’t help but feel bad for him. To gain everything you think you desire to only realize it is all hollow in the end. Well it looks like he got another chance in the end so hopefully he will make the most of it.
And of course I cannot forget brave and loyal little Hyo Hyo.

@Ivy: Indeed, episode 10 was probably the best of the series (and probably the single best episode of anime this year), hence all of the screen caps in this post are from that specific episode. To be honest, with the way the characters were interacting, it was like watching a live action romance, as if every single scene containing Neiro and Kaiba was imbued with such a warm and natural feeling; it was as close as you can get to capturing “love”, animation or otherwise.
Also, I know what you’re talking about when you point out this innocent feeling that surrounds Kaiba. I think it’s precisely down to how it was designed by Yuasa, as it’s so idealistically and innocently drawn that it’s actually an incredibly subversive and strange experience to watch in fluid motion, as all these horrible events unfold. That is kind of what I was getting at by describing it as an “idealistic, almost child-like search for some meaning in life”. To believe in this idealistic ‘purity’ of feeling, I guess the characters have to be innocent and naive.
@Martin: One day I’d like to go back to revisit Kemonozume. Looking back on it now, Kaiba seems like it is the better series, but at the same time, Kemonozume was two years ago yet contained some lovely episodes too. The one I always remember is where the old couple are driving around this open countryside; just the way the clouds were reflecting on the water, creating an illusion of the characters driving on-top of the clouds, in-between two blue skies, it’s an image that has remained with me ever since.
@okiu14: Your note about how the aesthetic of Kaiba prevents it from appearing ‘sleazy’ is very true. I do think one of the biggest problems with Yuasa’s previous TV series, Kemonozume, is that it’s too ‘vulgar’/extreme for its own good, so comes off feeling a tad juvenile/perverted. Ironically, by toning down the ‘adult-ness’ of his characters, his Kaiba is truly an anime for adults.
I still need to watch Mind Game too…
@Johny: Lovely comment. Nothing more I can say, really, except that I totally missed that element of Popo’s flashback; it’s a series that will get better with each viewing. Anyway, I think you really captured how I feel about Kaiba, right down to its melancholy undertone, in direct contrast with such potential beauty.
@Kim: I’m with you; the bond shared by Kaiba and Neiro really elevated Kaiba.
To generate such a genuine, heart-felt emotion within animation is such a gift, really. Anime characters are typically defined by what they do, in a very physical sense, but with Kaiba and Neiro, merely their body language, the way they share their thoughts, is enough. Comparing it to a much more artificial, dramatic romance like Macross Frontier, Kaiba‘s honesty and authenticity is striking. A true romance.

@bateszi: Mind Game is a great romp. There’s a pivotal scene near the beginning that’s uncomfortable and a bit odd, but once you get through it the movie really takes off. There are definitely some great action scenes in Mind Game. It’s quite a ride.
Upon reflection, I realize that there was a lot of gore it Kaiba. The fact that the blood and gore was yellow, green , or orange made it palatable, but it doesn’t change the fact that the audience was witnessing death and mayhem. I loved the art and style of Kemonozume, but I only got to the second episode because of it’s “lack of respect for life.” That may not be quite the right way to put it. I’ll get back the series one of these days, though.
@Kim: I, too, agree with you. Kaiba’s and Neiro’s relationship was very touching and real. Kaiba is one of the few series that I’ve sat through the opening song and credits for every episode (instead of clicking ahead) because it seemed to capture the mood of the story (especially the love story). I was humming the Kaiba opening and ending songs for about a week after finishing the last episode. Great series! So sad and yet with a touch of triumph.

@Bateszi: I loved the ep in Kemo too, but otherwise it was a show that aimed for the gut with “I can’t believe they just did that!” moments; Kaiba goes for the heart and the brain too, which makes it come across as having more to say.
I must confess I’m loving Frontier, but purely for entertainment value. There’s nothing profound about it as in the case of Kaiba – the Macross franchise has become a parody of itself in a way, and I really wish it could find its way back up the the heights of Plus and the original.
I ought to check out Mind Game but I find that I have to be in the right mood for Yuasa’s stuff to really appreciate it. I guess that’s the price paid for being so deliberately removed from the mainstream series. I have to say it took a couple of episodes to really convince myself that Kaiba was outstanding; after that it was absolute brilliance.

@bateszi: “Lovely comment”, eh? Now that’s something I don’t hear very often. 😉
@Martin: I agree with you regarding the Kemonozume vs. Kaiba thing. The former invites the viewer to dive into the surrounding insanity, enjoy the overwhelming paranoia and go “WTF, mate?” more often than not. The occasional calmer episode just serves as preparation for a next dose of over-the-top crazyness. Kemonozume is supposed to be pure fun. Weird, twisted and mad, but still fun. Kaiba on the other hand is meant to touch your heart and make you think about what has happened on screen. Maybe that’s why – as okiu14 noticed – blood and death are presented in such a way that it doesn’t distract from the real purpose of the show.
What I’m saying is it’s tough to determine which one is better. They’re just too different. Funny thing is this just prooves how great a director Masaaki is – he managed to create 2 great and unique anime series, totally different from anything else out there AND from each other. I wish I had as many cool ideas as he does…

@okiu14: I definitely recommend you go back to Kemonozume at some point. Like Kaiba, it takes two or three episodes to really hit some form, but looking back on it now, a couple of the better episodes are simply inspired.
Of course, it makes use of a lot of (realistic) sex, violence and crude humour, including copius amounts of nudity (which is surprising given the typically conservative nature of Japanese TV). I’m not sure if that taints your opinion of a show or not, but I thought I’d warn you anyway. Regardless, I think Kaiba is a lot more accessible than Kemonozume because the characters are a lot easier to empathise with.
Also, I’ll be sure to plan a viewing of Mind Game. I’ve noticed that, for whatever reason, I never seem to make the time for anime movies. For example, I still haven’t seen Paprika or Howl’s Moving Castle, to name but two. I’m not sure why that is, really, but I’m woefully behind the curve. Sword of the Stranger is another one that I’m really anxious to take a look at.
@Martin: I’m still watching Macross Frontier, which is at least a sign that I’m enjoying it, but it definitely feels superficial too. Kind of like Code Geass, it’s very ‘flashy’ and sensationalistic, but the direction and characterisation feels somewhat lacking, as if we’re missing some key element inbetween reaching ‘point a’ and ‘point b’. For example, since when was Alto such an ace pilot? Stuff just keeps developing with little to no foreshadowing.
Anyway, I know that once it’s finished, I’ll forget that Frontier even existed, which is a shame because Yoko Kanno’s contribution is fantastic, but it’s missing the deft touch of a director like Shinichiro Watanabe (who really made Macross Plus as good as it is, in my opinion) to really invest my emotion within the characters, most of whom are artificial stereotypes like Ranka. On that note, I must admit I really like Sheryl, simply because she seems to be the only one effected and conflicted by the events surrounding her.
@Johny: You’re welcome! 🙂

@bateszi: Thanks for the Kemonozume encouragement. I definitely don’t have issues with nudity, violence, or crude humor, but I as I’ve gotten older, I find I don’t have patience for those things if they’re not well done, don’t have some sort of importance to the story, or are just plain juvenile. Not that juvenile is bad; just not my taste anymore. I’ll probably be watching Kemonozume sometime later this year.
And I understand your movie situation. 20 minute episodes are so easy to squeeze in. An hour and a half+ requires some planning and commitment. I’ve got a few movies I’d like to get to as well. I generally always make time for movies that I’m excited about (Paprika and Howl’s Moving Castle qualify), but movies that look interesting but are exploratory efforts sometimes take a little time to get to (like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which is a great film as you know).

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