The otherworldly charm of Kaiba

Masaaki Yuasa is one of those directors with an instantly-recognisable style that, whether or not you personally enjoy it, you have to admire it for being such a refreshing change from what’s considered “normal”. My favourite of his so far is Kaiba, a delightful oddity that was only recently released on home video in the UK. One possible reason for its relative obscurity is that it was originally broadcast shortly after the “DVD bubble” of the late 2000s burst, when distributors became more risk-averse to potential new licences in the face of declining sales, but before online streaming (of the legal variety, at least) was much of a thing. The other, more obvious, reason is that it looks, very, very weird.

On paper, the premise of Kaiba isn’t particularly unusual to anyone familiar with futuristic SF. The aspect that sets it apart is its visual style: rather than being gritty and detailed, it has a dreamlike, naïve and rather childlike aesthetic that would make a casual viewer assume that it’s not a complicated or “grown-up” story at all.

In some ways this makes it a hard sell as a story that deals with mature themes and complex issues such as identity, love, duty and transhumanism, but rest assured: Kaiba does all of these things very effectively. It might not overtly depict the mechanics, wires and other greebling of similarly-themed SF shows, but the abstract visuals are very deceptive.

A side-effect of this is that the viewer doesn’t get distracted by the specifics about how the high-tech stuff works. Characters can literally move their entire consciousnesses from one body to another, but all that’s shown is a conical chip being popped in and out of their heads. Is there an “industry standard” like a USB socket for your mind? Kaiba doesn’t encourage you to ask, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing when it’s freeing up your attention to concentrate harder on the meaning of what’s happening.

The abstract visuals, when I got used to them, hit me with emotional moments that I’m not sure would work any better if they’d taken, say, the gritty cyberpunk realism of Ghost in the Shell. A number of characters meet untimely ends not through graphic splatters of gore and sharp cracks of artificial bones; a 1950s-style raygun spouts a flash of colour, and they vanish unceremoniously into puddles of innocuous goo. This understated approach somehow makes these moments even more unexpected and shocking than they would have been otherwise.

The visual storytelling of Kaiba therefore works like a wolf in sheep’s clothing…if the sheep were drawn by an elementary school child. I don’t think this decision was made out of contrarianism or oddness for its own sake, either: it’s not a near-future tale, nor is it set on planet Earth, so it’s rather appropriate that everything in Kaiba’s worldview is so obviously alien. Many space operas and other stories set on faraway worlds, especially live-action ones, still contain a lot of scenery, props and characters that look recognisably down-to-earth.

Yuasa is one of those animators who is keenly aware that animation can look as detached from reality as you want: if anything, the problem is the “uncanny valley” where realism and lifelike designs turn out to be the most difficult to render in a satisfactory way. Kaiba is set in a faraway and unrecognisable place, so why bother going to all the time and effort of making it recognisable when you could turn your imagination loose instead?

That said: the characters often don’t look human, but they still exhibit very recognisably human emotions and experiences, which is why the dramatic moments work so well. From Chroniko (a classic example of the Little Match Girl archetype of tragic heroine) to Neiro and Popo (idealistic fighters for freedom and justice) and the assorted travellers that our amnesiac hero meets during the search for his identity, they provide compelling vignettes of social and personal issues that transcend the bizarre and futuristic setting.

Some of my favourite pieces of futuristic SF are the ones that use technology and situations that are unique to their own worldview to tell stories that are relevant to the here and now; the ones that are imaginative, but pointedly demonstrate how some aspects of the human condition remain the same…for better or for worse.

Kaiba is definitely one of those, and in addition to the emotional punches that it repeatedly delivers, I was pleasantly surprised when it was was released on blu-ray. Unless it’s already been quietly added to a streaming service without my noticing, it’s just not been available where I live without the hassle and expense of importing. Even if I hadn’t watched it and enjoyed it, I’d still salute the decision to license something so unusual, niche, and potentially financially risky in the first place. It might not be for everyone, but I’m so glad that it exists.

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