A review for Masaaki Yuasa's KAIBA

Editor, Europe; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
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It seems you can't safely travel through our forum anymore without stumbling on brilliantly written reviews. Again I lift one of these gems into the spotlight of the main page, and it's no surprise the writer is Eight Rooks. We have used his reviews several times before already, most recently with "City of Life and Death".

This time he tackles the Japanese television series "Kaiba", directed by Masaaki Yuasa who we all know and love for the Studio 4C movie "Mindgame".

Once again the stage is all your's, Eight Rooks!


For the love of God would someone please license this thank you.

I dunno, I’d just been meaning to write something about it lately, and you guys do profess to like Masaaki Yuasa. It's an extraordinary animated series. "Kemonozume" was a disappointment, to a degree - why the ero episode? Why? - but this was just pure magic from start to finish, and pretty much proves that quote of Oshii’s about the original designs for "Ghost in the Shell" (“Cute characters can’t tell serious stories”) was complete and utter nonsense.

(More, MUCH more after the break!)

When someone’s directorial debut becomes one of the most talked-about cult films of the decade, expectations are naturally raised fairly high for whatever they might choose to work on next. When famed production house Studio 4C gave Masaaki Yuasa the chance to helm their adaptation of Robin Nishi’s "Mind Game", the 39-year-old Yuasa was a relative unknown who had largely served them as animator and animation director up until that point. His only writing credit was the screenplay for the animated black comedy "Cat Soup". Yet "Mind Game" was a critical success as a feature film, winning acclaim for the studio the world over, and ensuring any further projects from Yuasa were now hugely anticipated.

"Kemonozume" was Yuasa’s first foray into writing and directing for television, with all the attendant disadvantages and constraints this involved. Moving to the animation studio Madhouse, an established name with years of high-profile animated series behind them, meant a bigger prospective audience and a much longer running time to space out his narrative yet also a more restrictive budget and the need to parcel everything into tidy twenty-minute pieces. The story of two lovers – the favoured heir of an ancient sword school still fighting the shape-shifting, monstrous Flesh Eaters in modern-day Japan and the runaway from said Flesh Eaters who captures his heart – Kemonozume represented clear parallels to many of the themes Yuasa explored in "Mind Game"; sex and sexuality, physicality and how to portray the human body, destiny and self-determination. It built on the fevered, sketchbook animation styles, the use of composite video footage and the rotoscoping techniques employed in "Mind Game" to produce startling set pieces and a cast which featured realistic, compelling character design alongside the expressive and exaggerated.

It was also something of a misstep. Few animated series employ a uniform staff from start to finish and fewer still manage to conceal this. Madhouse did a sterling job of reproducing Yuasa’s signature aesthetic yet, let off the leash, one could argue the director lost his way somewhat over the course of thirteen leisurely episodes versus a brisk one hundred minutes. "Mind Game" was a dazzling display of Yuasa’s comic touch, his ability to unite multiple different artistic approaches and his ability to portray sexual content with everything from brash explosions of colour to sly eroticism. But "Mind Game" lays its cards out fairly early on, whereas "Kemonozume" puts its faith more in running gags alongside a relatively consistent tonal and artistic approach – until Osamu Kobayashi (best known for directing "Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad" and "Paradise Kiss") weighs in for much of the seventh episode.

The artistic approach changes drastically, sex is abruptly thrust to the fore with an emphasis on juvenile humour and far more explicit content, and the series never quite recovers. While there are clear narrative reasons for making the switch, it’s difficult to argue these pay off, with a notable decline in visual quality for every remaining episode and a variety of new attempts on Yuasa’s designs which feel a little too self-indulgent to be entirely successful. Too many big reveals are evident some way ahead of schedule, and while much of "Kemonozume" is a joy, the overall feeling is that of a missed opportunity.

Yuasa’s sophomore effort "Kaiba" is that opportunity well and truly taken.

Imagine Richard Morgan’s "Altered Carbon" novels filtered through Japanese popular culture by way of the underground cartoonists and pop artists from America in the fifties and sixties. Stir in a healthy dose of playful surrealism, stream-of-consciousness musing on the human condition, a constant atmosphere of wistful, brooding melancholy and it transpires what you obtain is one of the most extraordinary animated series ever created.

A young man named Warp awakens in a strange futuristic landscape to discover he’s lost his memories. Pursued by nightmarish aggressors who seem intent on hunting people down for the chips implanted in their heads, he’s saved through his encounter with a small band of rebels who stand alone against the status quo. As explained to Warp, the world of "Kaiba" is a grim dystopia segmented fairly rigidly between the haves and have-nots, where the chips implanted in people’s heads are the reason behind much of this misery.

With the ability to digitally archive someone’s memories and personality then transfer it from person to person, to edit this data or to jump into any body lacking a chip, the rich can afford to indulge their every fantasy, writing over anything they don’t want to remember and skipping between physical incarnations as often as they can afford. The poor are stuck either avoiding those who’d try and steal their bodies or swallowing their pride and leasing themselves out for a fee while their minds languish in storage. Warp is determined to discover who he really is and how he lost his memories, but as time goes on it becomes more and more obvious that not only are there things in his past he’s desperate to forget, but the rebels are not all they seem to be either.

Storylines where a prominent character frequently looks completely different from one arc to the next are notoriously difficult to pull off visually. Lacking the textual subtleties an author can use to guide the reader through changes as they happen, or to establish a baseline personality which remains constant through any number of different forms, a director has to expend even more effort to keep the audience’s attention. Sometimes a film elects for metaphor rather than strict linear narrative, such as Todd Solondz’ "Palindromes" or Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There.

"Kaiba" is both surprising and startling for how it approaches its mutable protagonist. For all its visual experimentation and lack of fine detail it is, at times, as matter-of-fact as any hard science fiction. The brief introduction that graces the second through sixth episodes is a marvel of clarity in exposition; memories may be hard-coded into this chip, it says, then the chip extracted, re-written, re-inserted or transferred. The hero of this show is able to do this; here’s the body he currently inhabits. Concise, informative and entertaining, it both instantly grounds you and seizes your attention.

Yet that’s all you get. There are no primers for the latecomer or incongruous speeches delivered in crude monologues right in the middle of a lengthy set piece – "Kaiba" never makes undue concessions for or talks down to its audience and is all the better for it. It demands some effort on the part of its audience, but repays it with interest; there are none of the problems with tone or pacing "Kemonozume" suffered, and even those episodes which could be thought of as filler are never less than enthralling. While science fiction has a well-established tradition of asking what it means to be human, and what might happen to our humanity if we learn how to cast off all our physical limitations, "Kaiba" puts a haunting new face on relatively familiar material, a sprawling collage that invites comparison to George Herriman, Osamu Tezuka, Doctor Who, Vincenzo Natali, Ralph Bakshi, Peter Chung and countless others, yet stands alone as a heartbreaking exploration of bloody-minded hubris, flaws, imperfections, second chances, forgiveness and whether or not someone can learn from their mistakes.

While the look of the toybox cast is the immediate talking point - not unlike Moebius reinventing Astro Boy with frequent nods to Jean-Paul Gaultier’s carnival menagerie in Luc Besson’s "The Fifth Element" - the Japanese voice cast turn in sterling work. Of particular note is Kiyoshi Yoshida’s ("Kurozuka", "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time") extraordinary score, alternating between childlike, almost comical melodies; harsh, retro synthesizer work which adds to the impression "Kaiba" is some under-rated treasure from two decades ago only recently unearthed; and breathtakingly emotive ambience that contributes hugely to the impact of many of the series’ key moments.

Still without a Western release at the time of writing, "Kaiba" is only commercially available on Japanese DVDs lacking English subtitles and prohibitively expensive for many. For those with either deep pockets and fluency in the language or no objections to tracking down the fansubtitled release, it stands as a staggering demonstration of the power of the medium, of how a great director can use any visual approach to tell his story, and of Masaaki Yuasa’s talent now he has well and truly found his feet. For any broad-minded fan or simply anyone interested in a smart, intelligent, bittersweet science-fiction love story "Kaiba" comes hugely recommended.

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And you can watch Kaiba's opening sequence HERE!

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Around the Internet

Todd BrownJune 9, 2009 6:38 PM

Gotta disagree on Kemonozume ... I loooooooooove that show.

NemoJune 9, 2009 7:08 PM

Love Kemonozume and Kaiba.
Any chance in a future for English friendly version ?(Rhetorical question)
Also how about Genius Party and GP Beyond review ?
I was on the verge of ordering Genius Party Japanese version and just found out that Genius Party DVD will be released in Australia 24/6/2009 with English subtitles and half price of R2 ! Now need to find the way to import it in the US.

Rhythm-XJune 9, 2009 10:24 PM

License THIS for North America? It will never happen. Our anime distributors are fresh out of good taste, intelligence and class. God, how I hate them so.

fuddufJune 10, 2009 3:46 AM

also loved this AND kemonozume. i honestly think masaaki yuasa is one of the finest directors of any medium at the moment. he has such a fresh style and original voice, i cannot for the life of me understand why more people aren't talking about him or interested in him.

Rhythm-XJune 10, 2009 8:11 AM

People are dumb. A lot of them, in all walks of life. People are dumb and everyone ultimately suffers for it. Simple.

methosbJune 10, 2009 11:16 AM

Loved Mind Game and Kemonozume. Didn't love Kaiba but it was still enjoyable. Definitely prefer the animation styles from Mind Game and Kemonozume over Kaiba though.

fetch foxJune 10, 2009 11:45 AM

Kaiba and Kemonozume are two of my favorite series. I gotta say though that I'd choose Kaiba over the two. It was really something special with its great music and fantastic story. It will never get licensed though because it's not really a mainstream anime series. One can always hope though

lblistersJune 10, 2009 4:36 PM

Kaiba was awesome, I cried. Darker themes and massive-scale conclusion. Although with the body-switching plot, I felt a little uncertain at times who was who.

terebi-kunJune 10, 2009 11:01 PM

Osamu Kobayashi seems to be the go-to guy to get a backlash from fans (this happened also in another series; Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann).

Kemonozume was always visually interesting, and there's a couple of great characters (the sensei monkey and the giant detective), but in the end it loses the grip on the story.

Mindgame and Nekojiru-so are the best of Yuasa's works in my opinion, though.

Matthew LeeJune 10, 2009 11:30 PM

Thing is I've got no problem with Kobayashi as such. I did like Beck; I gave up on it, but largely because I thought the music was hideously embarrassing (which seemed to remove much of the point of watching). I enjoyed his work on Paradise Kiss, too. I don't mind the [i]idea[/i] of "guest animator" episodes - Kaiba has one - but bizarre little squiggles and laid-back whimsy didn't seem to work in this context.