Eternal life is a pretty tempting concept, but in truth, any actual path there would probably turn out something like Kaiba. Even just in this first episode, a strange and compelling world feels fully established, complete with firm social strata and quirks of social engagement. In this world, minds and bodies can be separated, letting people truly try on someone else’s shoes, or even continuously switch bodies to live indefinitely. This doesn’t result in a golden age – it results in the rich buying bodies off the poor to maintain themselves, and many poor families being reduced to a collection of minds inhabiting one rickety shell. When one character’s brother has his mind forcibly removed by some flying creature, the remaining family members jokingly bicker over whether they should return him to his body or sell the frame for cash. It’s a dark world Kaiba is establishing, but it’s pretty much exactly the world the show’s conceit would create.
Kaiba’s visuals form a sharp contrast with its dystopian storytelling. In contrast to the heavy scifi premise, the art direction evokes Tezuka-esque fifties designs, with characters possessing bulbous limbs and large and simplistic or simple dot eyes. The designs seem intentionally flat and fluid, and the idea of switching between different animal bodies seems more natural given the fact that even the humanoids here don’t conform to shapes we associate with “anime humans.” Kaiba often visually evokes a children’s show, and that may well be the point – dystopias don’t have to look dystopian, and the appearance of playfulness can often hide the reality of oppression.
Not that Kaiba is at all visually unambitious. In fact, this first episode features ambition that sometimes outstripes its actual facilities, a fitting opening for a show by one of anime’s most visually adventurous directors. Masaki Yuasa is never content to let his stories conform to mundane worlds, never happy with a single, reliable visual aesthetic, and so while Kaiba’s character models may maintain some consistency, his direction is as restless as can be. The show opens with a chase scene, with the amnesiac protagonist we’ll come to know as “Warp” riding a bird away from a battalion of those mind-sucking monsters. As the bird leaps and gallops across the walls and tunnels of this world’s slums, the camera spins along with it, following the characters along curving walls and positioning itself as one more flying aggressor in the swarm.
Anime wasn’t meant for shots like this; creating the illusion of moving into a frame generally requires continuously redrawing every single object to account for perspective, and having a shifting camera move not across, but also at diverse angles to and through a room requires similar constant repositioning. Kaiba “solves” this issue through aggressive application of CG objects – the curving wall the bird follows, the twisting watermill that forms the visual centerpiece of the flying sequence. This works to some extent, and certainly results in some visually distinctive setpieces, but it’s clunky. The traditionally animated characters feel out of place in the CG world – these sequences are collections of individually ugly frames that only get away with it through speed and brevity.
The show’s art design is far stronger than those awkward setpieces, possessing a distinctive personality throughout and often conveying key information through color and framing. Every segment of this world has a distinctive color palette, echoing the barren nature of this world – the underworld is all pale grey and brown, the pleasure den is a sickly purple, and only the world of the rich and Warp’s mysterious powers seem to possess any spare colors. The show frequently creates beautiful compositions by sending characters through long tunnels, making shots that are both aesthetically pleasing and reflective of a constantly oppressive world. And the loose diversity of the bodies seems thematically appropriate, an easy way of priming us to be ready to discard our assumed connections between the body and mind. Even Kaiba’s experiments in perspective aren’t all bad; the show often frames its action from either atypical angles or direct perspective shots, maintaining Yuasa’s restlessly experimental style without actively detracting from visual cohesion.
Overall, Kaiba’s first episode is visually compelling and rich with ideas, an episode full of interesting concepts that implies even more. It’s framed as a thriller-styled escape, with Warp only resting briefly at the beginning as the body-switching is established, and then being rushed from pleasure den to port and beyond as he evades the clutches of… somebody. The show’s visual ambitions may sometimes outreach its technical execution, but the aesthetic fundamentals are strong, and it’s rare that a show with ideas this rich is matched with design this compelling in the first place. Kaiba’s first episode is yet another fine debut for Yuasa, and I’m eager to see where it goes.
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