2 out of 5
Directed by: Masaaki Yuasa
Man, I gotta stop watching critically acclaimed anime without vetting it, first. Although Kaiba has a promising setup, and a great first episode that digs us in for that, but its poor-man’s mystery box plotting and wanderingly “deep” contemplations on, purportedly, memory and existence, are papered over by an appealingly unique visual style – that is, I accuse the show of coasting by on looking cool and acting oblique.
The concept is explained up front: we’re entering a world in which memories can be sucked out of bodies and implanted into new ones – bodies of course provided by the poor, and usurped by the rich. Episode one throws us right into this fray with an amnesiac kid – Kaiba – with, oddly, a hole in his chest, who is immediately swooped up by some bird like creature and ushered off on a wild, exhilarating chase, before the show does a roundabout loop to tell us who’s who and what’s what. But here’s my problem: creator Masaaki Yuasa’s approach to this is so unforthcoming with info of any type – meaning info on any of the characters we end up meeting – that I could hardly be brought to care about the What and Why. It all seems rather self-explanatory, as well: we’re in world where people’s memories are regularly sucked out. What’s the big deal about one more empty vessel? Just because he’s the title character? Just because he has a hole in his chest? To that latter question, while that might sound like a fair thing to ask about, Yuasa’s loopy, bouncy designs are everywhere across the series – animals, people, buildings, worlds – and so it hardly seems like something all that ununsual. This often happens to me with very stylized anime: the style defines everything, which makes it lose impact; there’s no balance.
So we’re presented with a whole bunch of energy up front, then we hit pause for half the season to hang out with characters about whom we’re not given any direct reason to care – and we can assume the reasons, but even given our likely correct guesses (because as info is doled out, it doesn’t seem like a lightbulb moment so much as an inevitability), there’s still this sort of dreamlike, disenchanted style to the writing and storytelling that seems intent on preventing our engagement. By the time we get back around to the meat and potatoes of the story, it all feels way too obvious, and is thus moving way too slow to feel “worth it.”
The faux intelligentsia that poses scenarios that study the affects of the way this world treats memories is another annoyance: episodes that should work as bottle episodes end up feeling empty; they’re just aimless questions asked and presented with surreal animation – there’s not enough grounding to encourage you to actually think about anything.
Clearly, I did not enjoy Kaiba. I hung around for a turning point I was promised in some reviews, but found, as mentioned above, that the overall structure of the lead-in to that point only made its appearance aggravating, and not satisfying. Allll of that grouched about, Kaiba is framed well; that is: I might not go in for Yuasa’s visual shtick for a full length series, but unlike other uniquely-styled shows, I appreciated that the scenes and dialogue were mostly presented “normally,” and with awareness of an audience actually trying to watch something and not just there to stare at pictures. The voice actors were also well matched to the buoyant look and the dreamlike structure, and though I apparently take issue with how this story was told… well, it wasn’t another isakei or magical girl show; Kaiba at least had a good idea at its core, and had it been told more linearly, I do think I would’ve found more interest in that idea.
Instead, I seemed to just have gotten triggered by everything.