Do not adjust your sets, the colours are meant to look like that.
Yes, this is Kaiba, a disturbingly whacky sci-fi series set in a universe where memories have been digitised and can be traded if you're lucky enough to have the riches to buy them. The beauty of Kaiba, however, is that it is a multi-faceted series, in that it melds several different genres and philosophies together to become one darkly complicated whole.
At heart, this is a love story, but there are a few major differences. The protagonist - who we'll name Kaiba for now - has amnesia (not an unusual plot device admittedly - see: Elfen Lied, Kanon) and his only memory appears to be related to a photograph of a girl in a pendant he was wearing when he wakes up at the beginning of the series. So, he sets out across the universe to find her. Simple enough, yes?
Well, as I said, Kaiba is a complicated series. While I enjoyed the romance immensely, especially the later sections where we get flashbacks of how the two met and their past, the crux of the series rests on its political and social messages. Due to the nature of using memories and bodies as tradeable amenities, we're invited into a whole new world of thought, where ultimately, it's human life (or alien, as the case may be) that's being traded. This is presented to the audience as an epic journey for Kaiba, where we gradually realise how everything revolves around money, and that everything else is laid to waste in its path - however, where most series would wallow in its misery and ultimately, drown the viewer with it, Kaiba makes good use of characters who live opposed to the views of the worlds. In a sense, we are treated to slice-of-life snippets within the constructs of a science fiction universe.
And Kaiba succeeds at this in remarkable fashion. The odd weaponry, as well as Kaiba's ability to enter into other peoples' memories (and everyone's ability to swap bodies too, it seems) builds a realistic platform for the series, despite the psychedlic animation style. There is no point during the series that this can be dismissed as just another sci-fi series - the social commentary is astoundingly resonant but unfortunately there's just too much of it to talk about it in this review space (my personal favourite would have to be the dynamics of the terrorist organisation Issoudan).
The only reason the story falls down slightly is how slow-burn it can be at times. The asides are well-thought out, but they become a little episodic at times. Luckily, the series' short length saves it and the ending is action-packed enough to make up for the earlier introspection.
Kaiba is one of the most uniquely animated anime series I've ever seen, and definitely the most psychedelic. Even more arthouse titles like Cat Soup and Paprika haven't reached the height of vividness that Kaiba aspires to. Each character is rendered imaginatively, with each being particularly memorable (Kaiba's green hair, Popo's green quiff, Vanilla's likeness to a gorilla).
The art direction is fantastic in its use of flashbacks and the way it fully realises even the most difficult of sci-fi concepts. Some of my favourite scenes were the ones where Kaiba enters other peoples' memories, which are generally conveyed as large rooms with books in (representing memories).
While at first I almost dismissed the series' art because it looked like a children's series, I'm glad that I retracted that within the first few minutes of watching. The choice of art style was inspired and I feel the series would lose a great deal if it had been animated normally. Of course, sometimes it feels like you're tripping out with all the psychedelic paint being liberally thrown about the place, but just every aspect is perfectly realised - from world creation, to animals, to vehicles.
Now, don't get me wrong, what music there is in the series, I love. Every piece of music fits its scene perfectly and the OP in particular is a soothingly peaceful piece of music. Even the voice actors were great, their acting really brought the series together and for a series that relies heavily on its performance to help the viewer stomach its abnormal visuals, this is golden.
However, that's where my praise stops regarding the sound in the series. Simply put, there just wasn't enough of it. It doesn't help that there were a number of episodes that were slow-paced, but coupled with the silence that accompanied most of the scenes, there were points where everything just dragged. Similarly with the seiyuu - fantastic, but underused. The main character doesn't string together a sentence until at least the third or fourth episode, and that's just not enough to convey anything.
Yes, the series is introspective, and to some extent, the lack of sound conveys that. But there were some pretty major points where I wanted to feel the music working my emotions, I wanted its presence or its absence to move me - but I ended up confused by the lack of any music direction. Unfortunately, this is actually one of the times when my viewing experience has been affected negatively my the music and I wouldn't be overly surprised if some viewers can't overcome this barrier of silence.
This is a difficult one to score in that there are a lot of memorable characters, a lot of side-characters and a lot of bodies who aren't characters but that characters reside in. Confused? Yeah, me too.
I think what makes this so hard to consider is that even characters who are in several episodes rarely speak. In fact, by the halfway point of the series, I related more to the ogre of a law enforcement officer, Vanilla, than the protagonist - and for all intents and purposes, his development starts as an antagonist. So you can see my confusion.
I found myself liking the random characters that only appeared in single episodes. The old woman who lives in a lighthouse is a wonderful character and her sentimentality is one that stuck with me long after she disappeared from the series. Also, Chroniko is an odd character to talk about, as she takes on various forms in the series, and it's not always her character that we're asked to judge, but others inside her body. This makes it difficult to understand and even like the characters - even characters I did start to like met untimely ends before they started to develop. At times, Kaiba is ruthless with its characters, and there was at least one point in the series where I thought it was going to bump off every character we met.
However, the second part of the series rectifies this when we're introduced to the various members of Issoudan who become longer-standing cast members. Cheki and Popo are well-developed and their subplot appears a lot more character-driven than any other storyline in Kaiba.
But what I really take away from the series is the sheer wealth of characters we're introduced to. We meet a cat-faced fashion designer who designs new bodies and his faithful dog complete with wind-up tail; we meet an old couple who take holidays to a museum to memories; we meet the terrorist faction whose leader, Dada, appears to have powerful abilities including walking on thin air. If Kaiba had only thought more about full development (and reduced its cast size a little), this would have had another perfect score.
In conclusion, memorable art styles are the way forward. While it was a huge risk to market something as clearly off-the-wall as this, I feel Kaiba has the depth it needs to pull this off. The storyline easily makes up for any misgivings about the childish art style.
And at no point can the series be called childish either. In fact, there are some mature themes dealt with in the series (automated sexual gratification, seductive nudity, murder, extreme unprovoked violence) and I suppose it wouldn't be a dystopia without these - its dealing with these issues makes this dark universe all the more believable.
So in short, Kaiba is definitely a series you must watch if you like to be intellectually challenged by your anime. The romance also develops into one of the sweetest stories aired to date (amidst huge weapons, no less, as seems to happen in sci-fi series). There are some scenes in the anime that will touch even the stoniest of hearts. True, the story gets a little confusing at times, especially when Kaiba swaps bodies, and sometimes the cast becomes a little too temporary, but if you can follow the director's madcap camera angles and fast-paced chase sequences, it's well worth it.
Studio Madhouse proved once again why it is the king of anime series, with the most awesome director of our times, Yuasa Masaaki, blessing the medium with some of the most exceptional and artsy anime there are, that have nothing to do with fan service or flower symbolism. Although I constantly nag about pretty colors not being that important, having an unusual artwork helps to make a series stand out from the lot. This counts double for a setting that has absolutely nothing to do with high schools, contemporary Japan or Earth as we know it.
When the setting is mundane it becomes an unnecessary visual alienation to not use a typical artstyle. In Kaiba, looking bizarre makes it easier to understand how different this world is from ours. At the same time it is not completely different from everything else in the history of animation to the point it’s un-relatable for everyone. It’s somewhat familiar with Osamu Tezuka’s artstyle, somewhat like the Smurfs, or like The Petite Prince. It’s a tribute to retro aesthetics which for a retrofan like myself, it makes it more enjoyable.
It appears to be for kids at first glance, which is deceptive as it’s full of nude, bloodshed, eerie monsters and stuff that will probably sent the poor toddlers to the shrink. Everything about it is an allegory, a look into the dark corners of the mind, and deals with all the usual existentialism topics of science fiction, from the meaning of life to finding your identity in a universe where memory is another commodity. It’s essentially like Ghost in the Shell only without the need for super detailed machinery and realistically looking characters. It’s a case of less is more, where minimalism in details makes it easier to convey its message without the need for a thousand polygons moving mechanically on screen.
And then it’s the music. The opening theme is fantastic. Nothing that resembles generic jpop nonsense and it’s highly memorable. The dialogues are also not wasting your time with aimless bickering, as they are very focused on how the character feel or what is going on with the plot, and are often supplemented by a visual representation of what they are taking about.
The plot is non-linear and has a great sense of mystery, as you are thrown in the setting without knowing what is going on or who everybody is. Instead of going for a lazy infodump, the answers are given gradually over several episodes, which means you are always learning something new instead of feeling you are wasting your time in what appears to be an episodic series at first. It also doesn’t overstay its welcome, since it lasts a dozen episodes in the span of which it includes more character development and world building than your average anime that can’t achieve it with even a 100 times more duration.
It is not perfect though, as not everything is explained at the end. We never get any clear answers for what caused the amnesia of the protagonist, or from where did that memory eating plant came from. I had to make up a head canon where the latter attacked the former in the beginning of the story, otherwise the ending wouldn’t make any sense. And I have to point out how minor characters were far too eager to describe the story of their life a minute after they met the protagonist because they only appear for one episode and there is no time to spend on slowly getting to know them better.
Despite the hiccups, it’s a fantastic short series. It is not for a mainstream audience, as most are not going to appreciate it for not being easily digestible. It still achieves way more than most anime with its explored theme that does not stop at the premise, and an artstyle that will never be confused with the cookie cutter shows of other studios. It’s fairly close to masterpiece level and a necessary inclusion to the top lists of anyone who considers himself having good taste.
Neon Genesis, Ghost in the Shell, Zegapain and Battle Angel Alita are masterworks that also play along a somewhat similar main idea.
Mind game, Aachi wa Sspak and Dead Leaves have a somewhat similar wacky animation.
Kaiba is a show of two very distinct halves. This is something important to warn anyone who is interested in watching the show. I’ve seen many reviews (such as ones over at a certain other anime listing site) praise the show as a whole, and also a fair few reviews that are more in accordance with my view of the show praising the first half and being a bit less sure about the second half. Ultimately even if you do end up enjoying the show as a whole the shift from the first to the second half will still probably be quite noticeable. Before I talk about the second half of the show (and its flaws), I want to put across quite how excellent I think the first half of the show is.
Kaiba follows a boy who awakens with no memories, a big gaping hole in his chest and a pendant around his neck with a photo of a girl in it. He awakens in a world where memories can essentially be treated as data. They can be stored on chips, moved from body to body, you can have your bad memories erased and have good memories implanted. You can even enter someone’s mind to look through a library of their memories.
Upon waking the boy ends up going on a journey. The first seven episodes of the anime follow this journey as he travels from place to place, planet to planet, meeting people. Each of these encounters helps build together a rich picture of the world that Kaiba exists in and each encounter explores memory in a different way. His role in these encounters is nearly always passive, and this definitely contributes to the appeal as his presence tends not to really affect the outcome of these individual tales: it makes the image we get of this world seem very untainted.
There are so, so many things to commend about the first seven episodes. How evocative the episodes can be, and at times emotionally affecting (the third episode is nothing short of absolutely heartbreaking). The aforementioned world-building: in many regards the series is genuinely original, and exploring these worlds is always highly engaging. The wonderful action sequences (an early chase sequence is particularly thrilling). The dark sense of humour, which is amusing without ever being obnoxious. The utterly gorgeous artstyle.
But also important to the appeal is the manner in which it manages to explore its themes. Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about Kaiba is the way in which the first half of the show gets you thinking (the second half continues the exploration of its themes, though far less effectively). The central premise opens up the possibility for so many different trains of thought, and the series is keen to trigger quite a few of these.
Would it be ethical to modify your memories in the way the series shows? Could it not be said that we already naturally modify memories in a similar manner (for example repressing memories, such as in episode 4)? How much value do memories have in a world where they can be modified? Following on from this, do memories that are made artificially have any less value than memories which were created naturally (after all the memories are just as real from the perspective of the person experiencing them)? Is someone defined not by their body but instead by their memories? And if so, then first of all what rights does someone with cloned memories have (as brought up in episode 2)? Second of all what right would memories have on their own: if someone is defined by their memories then is it their memories that receive human rights? One episode raises questions about gender and gender roles: if you put a male mind in a female body then is that person male or female? Following on from this, to what extent and in what ways does the answer of that question matter? This is just scratching the surface of the ideas the show explores.
The first seven episodes are great, and episode 3 is particularly brilliant. I would happily have had the whole series be about Kaiba’s travels as he learns about the people of this show’s world. Unfortunately the second half of the series, comprised of the final five of the twelve episodes, is of a noticeably weaker quality. Even those who love the series as a whole seem to be in nearly unanimous agreement that the first half of the series is stronger.
A bit of me wants to tempt snark by suggesting that the reason the second half of the show falters is because it tries to focus more on plot. Part of the problem is that exploring this world and learning about all the different characters in it is so much more interesting than any plot they could have introduced halfway through the series. The other part of the problem is that the plot almost seems to constrain the show too much: within the confines of plot points there just isn’t quite enough room for the show’s vast quantity of imagination.
This is particularly evident in the last couple episodes when the imagination starts pouring through the seams in a surreal, hallucinogenic whirl leaving the plot to flounder. I don’t entirely mind this - a not entirely satisfying and at times borderline incomprehensible maelstrom of imagination is ultimately far more preferable to some insipid, generic shounen for example – and some moments worked quite well, but I’m certainly not entirely on board either (the moment when a mecha shows up ranks among the most appalling misjudged moments I’ve seen in an anime series).
The plot itself isn’t completely ineffective either. It’s fairly interesting, the themes are still there (just not explored in nearly as much depth as in the first half), the romance is mostly appealing and the pieces of the jigsaw tend to slot together fairly nicely. That all said it often feel bogged down, with a few too many twists and an unsatisfying conclusion.
Then comes the painful task of trying to evaluate the series as a whole. The first seven episodes easily warrant a 9/10 from me. The last five episodes I’m more conflicted on. On the one hand I recognise they’re very flawed, but ultimately I do find them more interesting – warts and all – than many less flawed series: I’d rather have something ambitious that fails majestically than something more usual that manages to hit all its aims unremarkably. So count the 8/10 I give this series as an endorsement of its first half (9/10) and an acknowledgement that the second half (a 6 or 7/10) possesses some interesting qualities in spite of its slip ups.
Straight from episode 1 it's clear that Madhouse tries to pull off a narrative in a reversed timeline as the first scene shows a strange boy waking up to discover that he has no memories. The setting is that of a future where memories can be transformed into data and transported from different bodies and as the world is explored more thoroughly, we also receive shattered pieces of information about the protagonist. These do little more than confuse you at first but prove to be vital if you want to comprehend the latter part of the show.
Pulling off a story with such an unconventional timeline takes creativity, but Madhouse is up to the challenge. Amongst the numerous clever plot twists and shocking revelations they bring up several questions of relevance; can the concept of a free will truly exist in a world where memories and one’s physical form is so easy to tamper with? And is a technological advancement that trivializes the vitality of one's memories and the body one was born into, an insult to nature and life itself? Several other issues that become relevant with body-swapping and such are the less pleasant topics of sexuality that happens to be a not precisely prominent but still featured theme. People in the Kaiba universe have been known to download false sexual memories for their own pleasures, as well as create their own collections of mindless children to abuse.
Kaiba proves to be an intellectually satisfying ride with an equal ability to confuse and enlighten. Remain concentrated though, and I promise that everything will turn clear when the show is finished!
From the more experimental depths of studio Madhouse comes a mind-numbingly amazing piece of visual eye-candy that would justify watching Kaiba even if the story was horrendous. Eccentric character designs merge with a world of strange shapes and colors that use the potential of sky-high production values to be about as memorable as the animation in Mononoke. Action scenes are usually impressive, and my only real complaint is that a few episodes (the latter ones in particular) seem to fail in bringing the same visual splendor to the screen as their predecessors.
It could be argued that Kaiba's soundtrack is way too minor to fit a story of such extravagance, but just like in Serial Experiments I saw the muted use of music to be both favorable and negative. Most of the scores are memorable and well-made, but there are many emotional key moments that are accompanied with nothing but silence. The emotional punches tend to hit you effectively regardless thanks to excellent scripting and voice acting, but obviously they would have reached even higher levels of impact if they were backed up by some music.
The opening theme, as well as the ending theme, is a calm and most fitting song that lays out expectations for the sci-fi love story you're about to see.
In the end, this section is not rated positively due to an abundance of likeable characters. In truth, the individuality in Kaiba is so muted due to the constant swapping of bodies that you might end up perceiving each character as pretty much devoid of any form of personality. What becomes important is thus the way they interact and change over time, and in the end you might discover that they were in fact better than you thought.
Without resorting to spoilers I might just add that many characters are revealed to hold extremely fundamental secrets related to their actual identities that are exposed later on, but only implied in earlier scenarios. Your personal perception is bound to change over time as you learn new, unpredictable, things about characters that seemed trivial at first. Said unpredictability is most likely one of the key factors to Kaiba’s awesomeness.
Though-provoking, extremely well structured and filled to the brim with frame after frame of artistic wonder; Kaiba is that rare anime that has shockingly few flaws that you can expose. I also reckon that it's rewatch-friendly as it might be fun to search for details in the storyline when you already know the largest aspects of the world. Warmly recommended anime from a person who rarely likes anything this much!
What I Liked: The character and set designs, which are a delightfully surreal mix of Superflat motifs and nostalgic Tezuka-style curves. The muted yet colourful colour palette that lends itself to the overall unnerving tone of the world within the show. The minimalist electronic soundtrack. Episode 5's use of off-model animation to mirror the dystopian utopia setting. The wistful Opening Theme. The world-building is immaculate, and the whole memory chip technology is interesting. Even the side characters are well fleshed out. Vanilla.
What I Didn't: As awesome as the soundtrack is, it does get a little repetitive. The plot has some little problems - for example, Issodan and their actions feel a bit uninspired and trite, especially since they're mostly tied to the show's exploration of the ethics of manipulating memories.
Final Verdict: Don't let the cutesy character designs fool you, Kaiba is a complex and highly experimental fever dream that unfolds into one of the better love stories of the sci-fi genre. It skilfully uses its unique technologies and characters to probe ethics, mature themes and the human condition, though the plot does lose its sheen towards the end. All this is wrapped up in perfectly curvaceous animation and a beautifully minimal soundtrack. On my Favourite Anime of All Time List.