[matty note: This is a response to The Reverse Thieves blog project that recommends anime series to a another blogger and then reveals on Christmas day. If you're interested in participating next year, check it out!]
Death is but a door. Time is but a window. I'll be back. - Ghostbusters II
This is a little sci-fi gem of a series that I haven't heard much about. Maybe it was because I taking a short break away from the anime realm back in 2008, but then I wonder why this series hasn't been mentioned very often anywhere else since then...
I knew I was going to be taken outside of my current anime comfort zone once I watched the opening sequence:
Let's examine the opening a little. The focus wasn't on kids turning towards the sun and suddenly start running at full force. It piqued my interest because it zeroed in on something some animators might be a little embarrass to show; the hands. Showing different characters curling into a ball seemed a little more genuine than what other series have done as well. The use of Siera Kagami's Never provided a hopeful, yet, empty feeling for the audience - and funny enough, that's the predicament the main character faces in the show.
The first few minutes of the first episode couldn't have started out any more odd, but consider it trail by fire. The story starts with a young boy awakening in a quiet room on a window ledge that overlooks buildings that look like melted candle wax. He doesn't say anything, but it's clear that he has no idea where he's at, who he is, or what is going on. Then, he opens a photo locket that hangs in front of his chest with a hole through it; it's a picture of girl. She kind of looks like Super Milk-chan! However, it isn't clear if the picture is showing us exactly who she is. Is she grinning mischievously, or perhaps she was taken by surprise? Whatever it is, it isn't just a photo of person you'd expect to see kept close by to someone. We just have to press on for now. We're only left to wonder at this point.
Damn decent of you.
After a sudden chase scene, the young boy steps into dream-like world that's cold and lost. Many of the settings and designs in Kaiba look like they were taken from The Yellow Submarine with abstract creatures walking or flying about in landscapes that are vast and empty. There are no signs of life shown; signs, trash cans, light posts, or even doors to shops or homes, but there are people mulling about, and they seem not too bothered. How can anyone live here? The look of the characters, at least in my eyes, resemble closely to the Astro Boy era of Japanese designs. Their bodies are very round or floppy, have simple attire, beady eyes on supporting characters and intensely sharp eyes on the main ones.
What also lends itself to the Astro Boy-esque look is the technology ideals from that generation. Much like the society in Kaiba, technology isn't bound by any laws. This is where the plot comes in. The young boy, known at this point as Warp, lost his memory. He wasn't in a car accident or just suddenly woke up with amnesia. His memory was blocked off from him from electrical clouds that he fall through before he landed and awoken in the desolate city. There is a reason why this may not be just an accident. You see, in this world, memories can live on even after death. When one dies, their memories turns into little yellow beans and then float up into a stream (sounds similar to the lifestream in Final Fantasy VII, huh?). It sounds romantic, but then there are people who put these memories into these tiny clone-shaped chips that can be put into artificial bodies, essentially prolonging life or at least the memory of a previous life. With these chips, you can flush away the bad memories and inject good memories.
"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."
This premise sounds very familiar of one of my favorite parts of the William Gibson novel Neuromancer. In the novel, there is a character, Dixie Flatline (not to be confused with the Vocaloid composer), who was a famous hacker who died but had his memories, or rather abilities and information, stored away into a ROM. In some ways he is merely a replica, a copy, but there is a mind.
Kaiba also touches the line of identity the same way Ghost in the Shell did. Even without our bodies, are we are who we are? What about the memories we don't want and can dispose of? Would you if you could? Who are you, then?
Going back to the appearance of the series, what also stood out for me (and you can tell me if this was maybe intentionally on the creator's part) of how the style of the series first appears to be a playful kid's show that was forgotten became a relic of a what some would call "simpler times", then comes back to us questioning our entire being. That is to say, since a big part of Kaiba is about memories and the thoughts that define who we are, in a world where people can keep the good and do away with the bad, maybe the choice of using innocent designs was to call back to look back at our memories and what ugly parts we painted over is to put us with the characters making us as lost as they are. If that's the case, then I think that is brilliant idea. The same way Madoka Magica used a friendly appearance to mask the grim world of magical girls, to use nostalgic designs we may be familiar from childhood to question our memories is a clever and impressive technique.
I think the Felix The Cat film from the 80s did the same thing, only unintentionally. I just remember that film making me feel uncomfortable and not as simple as the original cartoon that aired decades earlier.
I don't know what's required to make an anime series a classic. It seems this is the case of an anime series that is highly praised by the few that happen to come across it (thanks, secret Santa!). A cult classic? At any rate, for a series that makes it complex to posses a memory, I know that Kaiba is outstanding enough for people to keep it in their good memories.