Monday, August 5, 2013

Anime Review: Kaiba

Anime has a reputation for being strange and off-kilter, and there is some truth to this reputation. Anime like FLCL have long been the pinnacle of "Japan, why so weird?", but anime like FLCL aren't really the norm for anime. Looking at anime nowadays, a lot of it tends to look the same: giant moe eyes, bland male leads meant to be an avatar for the otaku fanbase, and safe marketable art designs tend to be the norm. The most stunningly different show of the year was Flowers of Evil, which went over well with critics but was panned by otaku due to not resembling what they thought to be anime, and rumors of low video sales suggest that we won't be seeing anything like Flowers of Evil again for some time.  It's understandable; anime is a commercial product first and foremost. As much as it pains me to see artistic achievements not reach the widest possible audience, this is the norm. That doesn't stop me from seeking anime out that boldly tries to be different, and more importantly succeeds in that regard.

Enter Masaaki Yuasa, an anime director whose work goes completely against the grain of "commercial anime". None of his character designs are conventional, his stories are told in complex and somewhat messy ways, and they're full of ambition. He's been getting more attention lately with Kick-Heart, a short film that was funded on Kickstarter (I contributed some money to the project), and if you want a quick crash-course in Yuasa's style, watch Kick-Heart. Super flashy, characters look super-fluid and cartoony, and at the heart of it all is an unconventional love story. Those same words could be used to describe Kaiba.

Ah, that romantic first date where you both get drunk and pass out.

I'm convinced that discussing the plot of Kaiba is an exercise in futility; the first half of this 12 episode series is essentially a bunch of vignettes with vague hints toward the greater story, and the second half which does focus on the overall narrative is messy and twisty. It's best to just describe the starting point of Kaiba and then experience the rest of the plot for yourself; in the world of Kaiba, memories can be stored in chips and placed in new bodies in order to prolong lives. However, only the rich can afford new bodies, and at the start of the series there are now more chips than bodies, meaning some people have no bodies. The story beings when a man named Warp wakes up with a hole in his chest, a locket with a blurry picture of a girl inside, and no memories of his past. What follows is several adventures across the galaxy with Warp ending up in different bodies and the memories of other people.

Although the meat of the story is in the second half, I feel like the first half is the strongest part of the series, or at least the easiest to comprehend. The world of Kaiba is pure science fantasy; new technology, characters, and planets are introduced to the audience at a rapid pace and it takes awhile to adjust to how alien it all seems. However, once you adjust to Kaiba's alien environment, you can fully appreciate just how much thought was put into this series. From the very beginning a class system, which is at the heart of one of the show's conflicts, is introduced. The exchange of bodies is extremely important in this universe; those with the cash can upgrade to better bodies or even modify their memories to be more pleasant. The planet on which Warp wakes up literally has the poor underground and at the mercy of devices which steal bodies, while the rich live up electronic clouds. As strange as the locales may seem, the conflicts are universal.

Even perverted sheriffs have hearts.

The other huge theme of the series is memories, and how much memories define a person and what they mean. In one of the most heart-wrenching episodes of the series, a woman trades away something dear to her to regain her memories, only to realize how horrible the thing she done is once she has her memories back. In fact, the best stories in the series I feel are the ones where Warp is an observer character and not the focus. Masaaki Yuasa and the rest of the staff manage to write some really sweet vignettes in this world, which range from strange to touching.

While I take issue with the second half of the show, it's not actually bad at all. Rather, the problems with the second half have to do with how messy and confusing things become. A rewatch of those episodes helps clear things up, but on your first go you're likely to be gawking at the screen asking yourself what just happened. I think the confusion is partly intentional, as characters have their memories altered and become unhinged, but with so many things happening at once it might have been nice to have an extra episode to explain things better. However, the love story involving Warp and the girl in the locket is delicately handled, and it's clear that Yuasa has a thing for love stories given it takes up the majority of his oeuvre. Who knew a man who created a scene where a woman blows up during sex could be such a romantic?

Seriously, this is messed up.

As neat as the sci-fi conventions are and how touching the story gets, the immediate thing that sticks out to the viewer is the visual style. The character models look like they've come straight out of a 70's Tezuka cartoon, and the color pallet varies from dark and dingy to colorful and psychedelic depending on the episode. Sometimes the animation looks really off-model but intentionally so, particularly in episode five where the entire world looks nightmarish and unnatural. In short, it looks like nothing else in anime. If the unique look of the show wasn't good enough, the soundtrack for this series is honestly among the best I've heard in anime, full of ambient electronic music that ranges from tense to comical to gorgeous. The opening and ending songs will not leave your head, as not only are they beautiful, they're sung in pretty good English!

Not sure who finds this sexy, but I know they exist.

Rarely is the anime industry blessed with titles as refreshingly unique as Kaiba, and I feel as though I could recommend it based solely on its style. Thankfully, Kaiba goes the extra mile and tries to tell a huge sci-fi story with varying themes and ideas relating to love and the importance of memories. Sometimes it's too confusing or disturbing, but it's easy to overlook those flaws when something is this visually and emotionally engaging.

Sadly, Kaiba is not licensed in America for streaming or physical release. Your only options for watching the series are to import the DVDs from Australia or to track down fansubs. I highly recommend you go out of your way to see this series if you can and need a break from "normal" anime. I also recommend you check out the rest of Masaaki Yuasa's work, such as The Tatami Galaxy which is actually available for streaming on Hulu.

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