Kaiba

Kaiba_poster

Great works of art are not easy to review. They are not common like the cesspool of bad art. Bad art is easy to deconstruct, to show how pathetically horrible they are. “So bad it’s good” exists because these works are so bizarre, so extraordinary that they become unique. Bad art is never unique its badness. In contrast, great works of art always end up redefining what ‘good’ is, so any review of a masterpiece will never be analytical and conclusive. It always end up chasing something that we can only grasp a piece of, like a poet looking at a beautiful line he wrote and knowing he can never write a worthy poem of it.

Kaiba is one of those artworks. I say it deliberately. Judgment of it is not confined to anime. It transcends media, reaches something so deeply human and awe-inspiring that it becomes a part of you. Do not expect a rational explanation of why this anime is better than pretty much anything. If we understood completely why it’s so good, we’d have masterpiece dropping from the skies. I can try, though.

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The key to understanding Kaiba is understanding how it tells a story, specifically how it takes advantage of the personal nature of fiction. All art, including fiction, is personal. It is a product of human thought, a translation of your entire Being – your experiences, philosophy, unconscious, passions – into some kind of experience that another being can take on. Kaiba is a ridiculously expressive work. Every scene is imbued with emotion. Every object says something about what it represents. It’s so emotionally draining because of that.

Memory is the big topic, but Kaiba isn’t just about memory. In a cliched way, it’s existentialist, asking what we are. Its answer is memories, but memories are also information. The anime explores this intersection of information that defines us. Notice the symbols. When memory isn’t converted to information, it is organic and free – it is lifelike memory eggs. These are also tiny, fragile and fleeting. The memories float away and are easily lost.

The roe is us, so they use to show how tiny we are when death strikes. When a character dies, their bodies become liquid and vanish completely. The ‘self’ becomes just a bunch of yellow pieces floating way. It expresses the loss of death, how death completely erase us and we become nothing. The memory chip – a drill-like thing – can also die so easily, if it’s lost it’s gone forever. Sure, we can try to capture those roe or to protect the chip, but it’s so difficult. It’s an expression of how fragile we are.

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Yet converting ourselves into information makes us so much easier to control, and easier for us to control others. Altering other people’s memories is a sci-fi trope, but this anime is concerned with how it affects everyone, how it affects our personal lives. We see the small results of this – how erasing someone’s childhood erases who they are and they end up becoming nothing but a memory. How this power to change personal reality blurs into thinking we can change reality itself – a direct link to megalomania and tyranny.

Our memories are our personality. Once we control them, edit them, change them all lines break down. The world of Kaiba looks funny by design, but that’s because how the people experience it. People can also put their memories into a whole new body. In one episode this results in a world where bodies are manufactured like clothes. Its reality is grotesque, a mass of weird shapes that’s disorientating. Somehow we ended up creating a more chaotic reality than nature.

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Leaning towards a socioeconomic critique of society, the anime shows a world in which memories – selves – become products. So a character sells her own body with hopes that her memory will be kept. Selves are no longer precious. This society isn’t painted with strokes of black to show you how evil rich people are. Rather, to illustrate the chaos of it, we see selling your own body and putting yourself in a chip is no guarantee. You’re relinquishing control of yourself, your grip on the world.

Yet this ‘information’ is never just ‘information’. Consciousness was the result of accumalating all these pieces of data and connecting them. So we’re never really dead, and using memories this way is using people as objects. The anime is deeply concerned with living things. In a gallery of memories, the people who own these memories cry out to be released.

Everyone’s concerns are always personal. Although the characters are simple, they have motivation and a humanity. A sheriff who really wants a girl at first seems like a greedy bastard, but he’s a person. That’s his wants, and when we see this want doesn’t make him just an asshole but a good person we’re encouraged to sympathize with him. In the end, he’s a ‘human’ being – with people he loves, things he wants, and dreams lost when death comes.

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Although there are antagonists, the series always reminds us that they’re people in the most simple way. People want power, but not because they’re evil. They want it because they’re human beings, so we see the ringleader of the resistance crumbling to tears when he realizes what he’s done. He had to erase memories that painted him in a bad light, but the result was losing a friend.

This anime is in the end about treasuring people. The idea of memory is just a tool to show us how we can lose people, no matter how hard we work to keep them. We put their identity, their whole being in a chip but then that chip is lost. We sell a loved one’s body, hoping the salesman will keep the information in a chip. A friend blocks our ambition, so we erase some memories only to realize the whole person is gone. Eventually this anime reaches an important conclusion about being – we need each other, we’re social animals, power doens’t make up for it.

The castle of Warp is a lonely place. The only person he has is an all-seeing robot. He’s not happy and the only thing he can talk about are who to execute. He may be the king of memories, but these are his own memories. What good are they? In a beautiful scene Popo and the resistance at the palace, and it has a huge opening to a black void. That’s the height of power to you, a lonely high place looking out into nothing. The only thing that’s there are themselves, yet they’re craving control.

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The romance between Neiro and Kaiba isn’t a symbol for romance, but what’s really important – connection. Even during oppression, they found something of their own, a precious shared memory that’s enough. Separate yourself from the struggle for power. The privileges of the rich to put themselves in memory chips and live forever aren’t that worthwhile in the end. Every world touched by this is grotesque, people are lost yet they are still people.

You cannot talk about the art without mentioning the Neverhood, which seems like a direct inspiration for the anime. Both endings and beginning borrow from it. It opens with a man seeing an unknown, bizarre world. The ending includes a darker version of the hero and a gigantic, self-sacrificing robot. Like the Neverhood, the design is cartoonish, nonsensical and imbued with meaning and emotions. Look at the planet where the only thing that matters is the story of two old people. The planet itself is nothing but their tower. The underworld is almost colorless – but almost, since it still has some life in it. The club is colorful and weird but has a dominating shade of purple – a disorientating effect. Vanilla looks like what we expect from an asshole with the fat belly and aggressive face (Only his character later proves to be more). There is even a creature who flies by a propeller and doesn’t speak – like the sidekick from old video games. It’s as unrealistic as you get, but no scene is without emotional overtones just like life – and that makes it far closer to reality than anything else.

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Likewise the soundtrack couldn’t be better, a collection of gentle electronic sounds. It fits with the slightly childish designs, but it has the same fragility of the world. A lot of it sounds like Boards of Canada, only it takes it to less nostalgic tones. The soundtrack mostly expresses a reflective, introspective atmosphere, one of both awe and terror. Some tracks are colder and harsher that reminds us that this world is still harsh, a world where selves can be sold. Some tracks have beautiful, intimate melodies to go along with the theme of connection.

There is no other anime like Kaiba, an anime so expressive, where every shot is charged with emotion, wonder, terror and humanity. ‘Depth’ isn’t the right word. It’s not an intellectual, symbolic exercise like Paranoia Agent or a psychological exploration like Digimon Tamers yet it’s somehow better than these two. Perhaps because it takes anime to the origin of art – the expression, not explanation, of human experience. Nothing I could write would do this anime justice.

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Sundays Without God (Kamisama no Inai Nichiyoubi)

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This is such a bizarre anime. I’ve seen anime and movies with trippy imagery. I’ve read stories with pages of gibberish, yet few works of fiction left me with a sense of culture shock like this. Such anime are so original it’s hard to make them truly terrible, since the novelty value is there. Creators also tend to be as confused as the viewer, so they rarely reach their full potential.

When you have a unique premise on your hands that doesn’t owe anything to any tradition, there are two ways to go about it. You can either go full retard, mine the premise for anything it has and throw the kitchen sink along with everything. Since you have no idea how your anime is supposed to work, all you can do is try everything and hope something sticks. There’s a famous anime who did this and it’s called Future Diary.

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The other route is the safer one. You let your story flow, but you never try too hard to understand it. You let characters interact and explore your world, but you refrain from anything too attention-grabbing. The anime will narrow its focus. Its structure will become almost RPG-like, giving the protagonist a basic objective to complete and finish it off.

Sundays Without God takes the latter route, but the result isn’t a complete failure. Despite not playing with the structure, its setting and premise are so weird that the feeling of culture shock is persistent. The stories that make up the anime are also good enough on their own and take advantage of the setting. You cannot tell them in any other context. Still, something feels off. It’s not completely weird, not completely normal and leans towards the weird without mining it too much. The result is anime that’s enjoyable like an ordinary anime while feeling weird.

The best thing about the anime is it unique setting and tone. It’s a perfect example of how you don’t need a lot of details to create a unique world. The world here is simple. God is gone, no one can get born and dead people don’t really die. It’s apocalypse in slow motion. We’ve had a lot of stories about what happens after the apocalypse and we tend to imagine it as something swift and fast. Here, the world is in the process of ending.

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Human beings are resilient things, though. Even if the sun will explode, we’ll most likely try to save something. Survival instinct is so strong that it defies rationality and free will. In this case, the world isn’t ending so much as life reaches its epilogue. Life isn’t bad, but it keeps moving in an ordinary pace towards its ending.

What do you do when you’re the last generation? The anime is essentially about this, but it seems so weirded out by its premise it doesn’t really explore it. The first stories deal directly with these themes – one character is about to be the last of the last generation, which is the worst isolation you can have. The city of the dead is an interesting expressions of the Metaphysical Rebellion – how we can rebel against our circumstances and reject them.

The structure doesn’t prevent exploration of these topics, since many shows used shorter length with depth. The method of storytelling gets in the way. There’s an objective to solve, and the characters spend more time trying to solve it. While the pacing isn’t thriller-like, it’s too fast for such a premise. It doesn’t slow down enough to show how characters exist outside the story.

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Characters’ existence outside the story is one of the best ways to convince us they’re real, to make us care about them and see their humanity. Stories are something humans create and we don’t live in just one. A focused storyteller shows snippets of other stories the characters can have, but then goes back to the main one. A master storyteller can imply these side-stories and connect them to the main plotline. The anime doesn’t do this. Its focus is too narrow.

It’s a shame, because the storytelling is quite excellent. The format is familiar – we have a good, well-meaning character visiting people and helping them. Ai isn’t just a vehicle to tell the stories of these people. Her personality and position is directly tied to her role. In a world where everyone’s ready to die or desperately fighting death, she’s a piece of light. She’s the youngest person alive, a possibility that there might be a future.

She’s not a lantern, though. When things go bad, Ai doesn’t say some nice things and the story ends. Often, she gives those pep talks but stumbles. The world is, after all, ending. Problems still exist and are hard to solve. Ai may be an optimist, but she’s a struggling optimist. We see her doubts, how much she tries to cling to her optimism despite everything.

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This is where the anime’s faults lay. Although this is an excellent usage of such a character, they don’t take it far enough. Ai struggles, but the creators put her so much in the role of problem-solver she doesn’t have time to ingest the struggling. There’s no time to see how the possible failures affect Ai’s psych. Stories don’t always end just like she wants them to, and that should influence her worldview. How do you stay optimistic when things don’t go as expected? Do you blind your own eyes? Do you become pessimistic, or do you accept things as they are? The anime never addresses these questions.

The themes of wishing does make its appearance, but the creators aren’t sure what to do with it. People wish for things. Sometimes they come true, sometimes they don’t and sometimes they come true but the result is painful. It speaks volumes when a messy anime like Big Order addresses these themes better. They’re present, but wishing is not a plot device here and there aren’t enough angles to explore this topic from. It’s just there.

The art style continues the weird nature of the quality. The character’s looks are distinct and memorable enough, but the art style itself isn’t. You can put these characters in a school anime and they wouldn’t feel out of place (except for the outfits). There’s variety in how everyone looks and the school arc lets them show off their designs, but nothing connects it. Characters shouldn’t just look distinct but there should be a style that connects them, quirks that make the design memorable and make you wonder what else you can do with it.

On the other hand, the color schemes and backgrounds are beautiful. The anime finally fulfills potential. The colors are balanced. Light and dark tones are mixed. A burning red or a cold blue is are the dominating colors, and they have just enough brightness to make the world seem normal. There’s also a little darkness in them that reminds you that the world is dying. It’s a balance that’s hard to get. You can easily find yourself in bland colors, but here they’re the perfect mix of darkness and lights that fit the weird tone of the series.

Sundays Without God is a flawed anime, but nevertheless an anime like no other. Its failures hold it back from greatness, and but their nature prevents them from being offensive. When it falls, it’s not because it does stupid things. Rather, it’s too afraid to play with its ideas. They stand on their own, and even as basic storytelling it’s good enough. Someone might one day run away with these and render this irrelevant, but until then it’s worth your time.

3.5 sundays out of 5