Directed by Masaaki Yuasa
Amazon Prime and YouTube
CALLING Masaaki Yuasa the new Miyazaki would sound tired, not to mention inaccurate — he’s a little wilder, a little less restrained; calling him Makoto Shinkai’s contemporary would be unfair — he’s so much better (more subtle, less sentimental) than the blockbuster director of Your Name and Weathering With You.
Kaiba opens with a boy; he has a triangle of three connected circles tattooed to his belly, and a hole where his heart should be. He lies on a melted bed (Plastic? Metal?) and the wall behind him has been blown out, the edges partly melted.
Who, what, where, how, why? Kaiba (we only learn his name later) barely has time to react when a skonk — a large automated flying drone — pops up behind him through the wall gap and a boy with a big gun fires (At the machine? At Kaiba?); a roadrunner-like bird springs across the screen shoving Kaiba aside, carrying him away, and the show is literally off and running.
You’re as confused as the protagonist, who has lost his memories; perfect opportunity for Yuasa to sketch in a few details. The boy is lost in the planet Lala, a world where the rich live in a contiguous upper stratum held aloft by towering columns (literally the upper crust); the poor live in honeycombed warrens far below.
That’s the basic premise; what really hits you at first glance is Yuasa’s animation style, a childlike cleanlined look that recalls everything from Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy to Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet — Kaiba looks like Astro fitted with a mop of limegreen hair; the rescue bird has powerful ostrich legs and a single toon eye encased in a green bubble (the creature says nothing, expresses itself in astounding leaps and bounds); the big gun is a brass metal ball with a handle at one end, a nozzle at the other, firing yolky cookie dough. Looks like children’s anime, and if you didn’t know any better you’d expect cheerful adventures and easy lessons in life and love and togetherness to follow.
Kiyoshi Yoshida’s dreamy synthesizer score suggests differently, evokes a tone that Yuasa maintains for much of the series: the gauzy state between subconscious and wakefulness, with unexpected forays into nightmare. The gun fires cookie dough; the dough wraps around your body and melts you into a puddle. The skonk chasing Kaiba is knocked down, and folks scramble to collect the memory chips that spill out — earlier we saw skonks dive down on fleeing pedestrians, sucking memories out of their skulls to be stored in those little cone-like chips.
In a quick review that introduces most of the succeeding episodes, Yuasa explains that technology has enabled us to record memories into chips but only the rich can afford to buy newer, younger, stronger, more beautiful bodies in which to insert said chips; the poor sell their bodies to the rich for cash. Corollary to memory transfer: one can suck out bad memories and insert happy ones, improving one’s mood immeasurably; Yuasa goes into the implications of that later.
Meanwhile Kaiba has been smuggled aboard a ship by transferring his memories into the body of a girl (one of the countless kawaii — cute — girls that populate Japanese anime); the woman who helped Kaiba into his new body has made a copy of her own memory chip, inserted it into the boy’s old body, and is basically making love to herself (Kaiba watches through a peephole). The character designs suggest wholesome Tezuka-like adventure but what folks forget is that Tezuka often ventured into dark territory, even with his popular Astro Boy series; this may be Yuasa’s tribute to the old master, at the same time adding his own eerie mix of melancholy, deadpan humor, surreal imagery.
For a few episodes Kaiba rides the ship to different planets with different stories: in one two boys seek their grandmother’s hidden treasure; with a special projector they access her memories — creating a circular opening resembling a comic strip’s thought balloon — and send Kaiba in (Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. anyone?) to learn the treasure’s location. In another, a cat named Patch fashions ever evolving trends in wearable bodies (wildly different shapes and sexes, bright neon colors, deliberately introduced defects) while his loyal dog named Quilt stands quietly by his side. We visit different corners of this universe Yuasa has made, where body-switching is a commercial enterprise, memory an ephemeral, highly mutable concept, and the rich have invented a few perversities to add to an already enormous heap.
Most folks prefer this picaresque first half with its more easily digestible tales; the second half pulls everything together in an intricate ambitious scheme: the power struggle over who will rule Lala and its network of worlds, who controls the memories that are either stored in chips or float — like so many plastic beads — across the ocean of interplanetary space. I think the second half indispensable to the overall work; having shown us the consequences, Yuasa now shows us the struggle to either correct said consequences or push aforementioned implications to their extreme yet logical conclusion.
Key to understanding what Yuasa is trying to say (skip the next two paragraphs if you haven’t seen the series!) is Kaiba — not the boy hero, but a monstrous plant traveling through space towards Lala to swallow the memories of all its inhabitants. Kaiba’s love Neiro (who he first sees as a blurred image in a locket, later as an assassin targeting him) names him “Kaiba” because his recall seems so sharp (he had drawn intricate murals of people and scenery from memory); the word is also Japanese for hippocampus, the organ in the brain responsible for transferring short-term memories into long-term storage. Kaiba’s real — or original — name is Warp, whose statue and images can be seen constantly through the episodes, in video screen and statues throughout the many planets.
Which suggests a number of things — Kaiba is both hero and villain, being the tyrant who established this vast social order, and the technology that made the order possible; he’s also the innocent hero wandering through space, witnessing the suffering his order has caused. Losing his memories is instrumental in forcing the change, having lost power and status (in this world memory is power, and absolute command of most if not all memories is absolute power) to view the world from another vantage. Not just memories though, but which version of that memory — at one point Neiro seeks to kill Warp because her memories have been altered to eliminate any mention of their time together; she ends up trying to save him because he’s become (thanks to her) Kaiba, or as she puts it “my Kaiba” — the possessive determiner suggesting she has as good a claim as any of the many power figures struggling for control, or at least asserts she does. Who’s to say she’s wrong?
Preferring the first half or the whole or getting yourself lost in the narrative’s complex twists, it doesn’t really matter — one can simply sit back and enjoy the series’ haunting imagery, the disconnect between bright toon-like characters and their dark dangerous world, to the accompaniment Yoshida’s unearthly melodies. Yuasa is arguably one of the most inventive of the next generation of animators to follow Miyazaki, Takahata, Oshii, and this arguably one of his best works.