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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Kino’s Journey (Kino no Tabi)

kino

This anime is also known as The Good Mushishi. I almost wish it wasn’t so. While that descriptor is true, its existence points out the anime’s shortcomings. For all its imaginative moments, it settles into a pattern early on and never deviates. Even the last episodes which aim for some harrowing ends up slotting nicely without breaking up picture.

It’s almost like reviewing Mushishi all over again, but the bigger scope makes Kino’s Journey better with more apparent flaws. Some anime can make it through with a narrow range of emotions, especially if they’re short. Narrow focus on themes is often the source of fantastic exploration of them. By nature, this anime has a wide scope. It follows a person through various countries, each one dominated by a theme.

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This anime sets itself up to be big no matter what. The stories aren’t small and intimate. They’re more about big issues like war, fate, religion and technology than personal issues. A single character from a country may stick out, but everyone in it are mostly the same person. Such shallow characterization can work, but you need someone to react to this symbolism.

Character’s views and reactions are integral to exploring themes. It’s not enough to just have ‘fear’ or ‘technology’ as a dominating presence in your story. You need to connect it to the human condition. You need to show how it affects the people, how they react to it and live with it. The best stories show us characters in such crises, gain their emotional punch from a meaningful struggle.

Kino is better than Ginko, but she shares more with him and not just a similar name. There are literally less than 5 moments in which some kind of personality is hinted at. Mostly, Kino does nothing but observe. When she acts, she’s pure convenience. She helps characters solve their problems by being nice, but what’s Kino’s stake?

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Decisions are another way in which we learn about characters. Decisions that relate to themes are even more meaningful. They illustrate a viewpoint and demonstrate it. Kino makes no choices. She comes to a country, observes what’s going on, does the thing that causes the least conflict and moves on. It’s hard to remember what exactly was Kino’s role in many of these stories. In the last episode, she’s interchangeable with any passer-by. Nothing about her is important to that story, only her role.

That’s a problem you encounter with shitty role-players. A character is far more than their little role. If characters are symbolic of human beings, then human beings have various roles depending on who you ask. Even a soldier trapped in the army will have more roles than just a soldier. He’ll be someone’s good friend, perhaps the commander’s most hated and so on. Kino is defined only by her role as a traveler and does nothing else.

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A role can be a part of the personality, but we need to see how Kino views traveling. A soldier can be patriotic or just in it for the money. Both are different takes on the same role that leads to different characters even if they do the same thing and come from the same background. The anime never provides a view about traveling. There’s something vague about how the world is both ugly and beautiful and this grey area is appreciated, but what else? What do we do about the grey?

Grey areas are difficult and I don’t expect answers, but great storytellers show me how they wrestle with the themes. If you can’t answer any questions – and you shouldn’t, because there are no definitive answers – at least throw something. A question shouldn’t drag itself for 10 episodes. The series barely asks a question, let alone provides angles to look at it. Asking questions is fairly easy. The difficult part is trying to find the answers. That’s when you deal with the ramifications. No question has an effect until you check the possible answers.

Some episodes provide moral choices for Kino to make. They’re generic, morally clean choices. They don’t reflect a coherent moral worldview. Kino only chooses the least offensive path. She doesn’t even struggling with these decisions. Remember that this character has been around the world and to many different countries. Traveling and experiencing new worldviews should either give birth to a new, original one or leave you confused and full of doubt. Kino acts instead like a cliched ‘wise Zen master’, viewing things mostly through indifferent eyes. It’s believable, but only if there was a worldview behind it.

The series is capable of darkness. An early episode shows the humanity of slave merchants. Even if it ends by vilifying them, it shows how they can enjoy family and raising kids and company just like us. It’s odd that in under 20 minutes they create simple but lively characters. Nothing about the slave merchants is particularly unique, but the juxtaposition of their ‘good’ and ‘evil’ side is effective for side characters. Kino never gets such interesting characterization. In the arena episode, she always offers her opponent a chance to surrender. Why?

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The slave merchants aren’t the only memorable characters here. This is where the series trumps Mushishi. Its side characters are driven, sometimes flawed and sometimes immoral. Many of the stories cannot be re-modeled for Mushishi since they deal with humanity’s dark side. The variety in characters and themes also lead to a variety in tones. Although the series is often stuck in its ‘contemplative’ atmosphere – a style which, except for Haibene Renmei, always comes off as pretentious – it experiments with tragedy, satire and adventure. The anime doesn’t dig deep enough. It offers themes but rarely shows their complexity, but the sheer variety of them makes the surface attractive enough.

Some have pointed out that Kino’s Journey is very obvious in its themes. Often characters say exactly what the story is about. In one episode, it’s cringe-worthy. An oppressed tribe literally admits to killing people for the sake of revenge, because oppression. At this point, it’s the artist’s critique of an ideology sneaking up into the character’s mouth. Imagine if a Nazi in a story admitted how wrong Nazism is, but they have to do it because of economic hardships. It’s a lone case. The anime is all surface anyway. The only reason to put things under the surface is because your surface is already full, but Kino’s Journey already has little to say. Such an anime shouldn’t make the viewer put effort. It’s a wise decision to reveal everything, since it prevents an unpleasant air of pretense.

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The art is decent, with strong backgrounds and decent character designs. The character designs are distinctive enough. Town folks get different looks and important side characters look like they can be main characters in their own show. It’s minimalist almost to a fault – the lack of details don’t do anything – but it finds variety in things like mouth size and eye shape. The backgrounds, while similar, capture a unique feeling. A running theme is the idea of the world being ugly and beautiful at the same time. The backgrounds use a mix of bright colors and pretty shapes with a darkened atmosphere to achieve is. It’s not particularly impressive, but it’s nice to see colors that fit the themes.

Kino’s Journey isn’t brilliant. Its popularity has more to do with it not being traditional, rather than quality. Some people are just dying for something without fan service. I’ve seen anime with weirder premises, deeper psychology and better art. Still, the variety in stories and the thematic focus makes it a show that’s worth most of its running time. No one yet knows how you achieve the greatest heights in art, anyway.

3 talking motorcycles out of 6

Toradora

toradoraNote: this series has been dropped at episode 14

Unlike the main protagonist of this anime, I do not have much strength to withstand torture. Put me in the clutches of a diabolical serial killer/torturer, and I have no idea what I’d do. Ryuji, our hero, is one of a kind. Bards should sing about him in taverns all across Tamriel. For 14 episodes, he stands Taiga’s relentless abuse with a smile.

In one of the greatest songs ever written, the extremely white lead singer of the Smiths sings about how it’s so easy to laugh and so easy to hate. Kindness and gentleness are difficult, and I do agree with him. That said, I wonder if the band and their fanbase would change their mind if they saw the anime. Actually, considering how huge this anime is, becoming iconic in the school genre – I think they won’t.

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I’m a defender of the school genre. Many rant about how immature and derivative it is, but few people didn’t go to school. A lot of things happen in school and you meet a lot of people, so it’s a place rife for stories. Its low-key and stable environment actually makes it excellent for stories driven by characters. Conflicts will have to rise from within and not an external UFO coming to wreck the party. These shows rely heavily on their characters, and it’s enough to have a decent, odd cast – see Haganai – to make something decent. Toradora is a major failure because of how insufferable its cast is.

Since we’re talking about symbols and not actual human beings, I need to find a way to explain why and how disgusted I was with them and how that lead me to conclude this anime is horrid crap. Many a great story are about horrible people. In fact, one of the best novels ever is about such a terrible murder. It’s their darkness, their psychology and reasons for being so that makes them so intriguing. How frightening these characters are because we understand them and see us in them. Part of our obsession with villains and their backstories, or with serial killers’ childhoods is because we want to know why they’re like this.

Everyone in Toradora is a bit of an asshole. Actually, only two characters are but they’re so dominant that it’s easy to forget about the rest. Taiga is the big problem, since she’s both the main character and the worst. Tsunderes can often seem creepy, sometimes borderline Gacy-like sadistic. None of them are as bad as Taiga.

The archetype can be funny. Tsunderes’ appeal is their insecurity, how they address the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life – we put up a front in every social interaction, putting a different front in different places. The best Tsundere, Neptunia‘s Noire is all about this. Humor never comes from her being violent – she’s rarely is – but how hard she works on her image.

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In contrast, Taiga is nothing but violence. She reacts to everything with violence, like a 10-year-old playing Elder Scrolls and thinking that it’s supercool to kill every NPC. She may not kill anyone, let alone essential NPC’s but it doesn’t make it any less creepy. In every episode, she beats up people at least 5 times. Her reactions are always with force, causing clear pain to the other characters. I’d expect anyone to beat her in return the first time.

The fact Ryuji stays there is flat-out creepy. Moreover, she treats him with pure condescension. Rarely, if ever, she addresses him in a way that’s not hostile. Early in the series they make a pact to help each other, but Taiga doesn’t actually help him until the middle of the series. All the episodes are about the characters doing stuff and Taiga beating people up. The anime never answers why, exactly, Ryuji puts up with so much physical abuse.

Yes, ‘abuse’ is the only word that can describes their relationship. Switch the sexes. Imagine if Ryuji was constantly beating up Taiga, calling her ‘bitch’ and so forth. It’s nothing but sick. You can only watch it for so long before getting tired of this torture porn thing. Not only Taiga is violent to everyone, she also has a weird entitlement problem. She expects Ryuji to take care of her and do everything for her. She never asks, demands with the expectations that Ryuji must do it for her.

In the end, she’s nothing but a horrible person who beats up everyone but also thinks everyone owes her everything. Now, a character being a terrible human being isn’t enough. How their actions are framed is important and now we get to the main problem. Taiga is framed as okay.

A backstory occasionally rears its head, feelings of insecurity do show themselves. None of is it actually dark, none of it gives us a glimpse into a troubled psych that can only react with violence and cannot connect to people. The backstory may justify anger, but the anime never acknowledge how bad Taiga’s case is. No one around her also reacts like they should. They treat her like she’s a quirky friend, someone who occasionally goes off, like that friend who swears a lot. This is a person who’s in desperate need of help and a lawyer. It’s no longer a person having anger issues but a criminal that everyone tolerates because the plot demands it.

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Such light framing of dark material is unforgivable. Humor doesn’t have anything to do with it, but how the frame never addresses the darkness of it. Physical abuse leaves people with trauma. People react harshly to physical abuse. If people stay for a long time with a physical person, being nice to them and doing what they want it means they got issues of their own. I can’t stress how dark this material is, yet the light framing is disrespectful to anyone who went through physical abuse.

Taiga and the framing of her behavior towers over the anime, so everything else ends up pointless. No matter how hard they try, the creators frame Taiga as quirky and cute. Nothing can salvage the anime, but then again it doesn’t seem they try. There isn’t much in the way of stories or characters. Ryuji is like that dude from Haganai only not as hot. Somehow he manages to be perfect and eventually the center of the harem because he’s nice to everyone and doesn’t have wants of his own. To the anime’s credit, the secondary male actually has a purpose here and he’s a bit hot, but besides being a more energetic nice guy there’s nothing to him.

Other females consist of a wacky redhead who’s entertaining for five episodes and then becomes tiresome. As for Ami, she’s another generic asshole who’s overall unpleasant without the darkness. Like Taiga, she treats people like crap but the cruelty is never meant to shock or make us reflect. Funniest thing is how the anime passes her off as sexy. Not only the characters can’t drive a story, but they look bad.

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Art style is another problem the anime suffers from. No one has a distinctive look. School anime, at worst, create pleasing to look at characters. You may not experience anything profound but there is aesthetic value in the designs, in understanding human beauty. Designs don’t have to break boundaries, but little touches like Sena’s butterfly and deep eye color make an anime more pleasing to look at.

Toradora does nothing like this. Taiga does have a weird hairstyle, but Minori isn’t memorable at all. She has huge eyes and short red hair. End description. Worse offender is Ami who is meant to be the sex symbol. To express this, they gave her a longer hair and slightly bigger breasts. Unlike shows where the characters are actually sexy, her figure isn’t defined or emphasized – which is necessary if the character’s beauty is important to her personality. Her hair is just long without hairstyle quirks. Look at any anime that has a character whose beauty is important and you can always spot details expressing it – just as I described Sena in the above paragraph. The designers decided to do the bare minimum.

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Character designs are integral to how we view them. How people look is a part of them. It doesn’t mean characters should all be sexy (that’s actually quite odd) but their looks should somehow find their way to their personality. If your character is meant to be beautiful, make them beautiful. Toradora is satisfied with just sending the signals, mistaking low effort for minimalism. Minimalism is when you have few details but these details are important. Ami’s design and everyone else’s has no effort put into it. A simplicity that has no elegance, that emphasizes no details is just a product of no effort and laziness.

Maybe the anime drastically improves. I have a hard time believing it. Watching this anime became painful. Witnessing the abuse Taiga inflicts on everyone, and expecting to be entertained and amused by it is too much. Torture porn at least acknowledges its characters suffer even if it expects me to find entertainment in pain. This anime pretends physical abuse doesn’t cause any pain. Truly, it’s objectionable almost on a moral standard.

1 abusive partners out of 5