Impressions: Kaiba – somewhat better than five fingers and a palm

Oh Kaiba… how people will lavish over you. How you will stroke people’s brains and make them think about things. How you will bring together people.

Okay, so enough of that. When I read one of the first reviews of Kaiba, I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical. Call it Curmudgeon’s Law. Call it “Cameron is a contrarian and will disagree for the sake of disagreeing.” Call it whatever you want to call it. But I promised some folks that I’d give it at least three episodes.

And I have.

Now, Kaiba follows the idea of most hard sci-fi. You take a scientific development (the fact that people have their memories stored in capsules and transplanted between bodies.) Then you examine the effects on society. And I’ll admit freely that part is great. I mean you have a Marxist society. You have a very visible “afterlife” that might not really mean death. You have the idea that there is a “sanctity” to being an original, but copying yourself is illegal. And you have it all without any of the visual confusion that I get from a show like Ghost Hound or Serial Experiments Lain.

In fact, the amount it can tweak my brain makes me interested in the show.

But you know there’s always one guy every season, who stands up in the middle of the parade and shouts: “The emperor has no clothes.”

Well, I guess this time that guy is me.

Because for everything that this show does well, it has one major flaw: Kaiba.

Good lord, this guy isn’t a main character. He isn’t even a plot device. He’s a piece of equipment. He’s a camera for the plot to happen to or around. The only time he actually ACTS is late in the third episode. Otherwise, he’s running away or peeking into people’s memories or getting dragged around. What’s worse is that he doesn’t actually HAVE a personality. He hardly asks questions. I mean he has his body stolen from him and what does he do? Oh, peeks into the room while his body is having sex with a stranger. Good lord, am I supposed to believe this guy is for real?

The thing is that without a character who I can invest myself in, who I care about, all the great world development doesn’t mean squat.

It’s just something that provokes a whole lot of mental masturbation, without the benefit of actually getting off.

21 thoughts on “Impressions: Kaiba – somewhat better than five fingers and a palm

  1. Kaiba plays the role of the 1st person narrator. He isn’t the protagonist so far, despite being the show being eponymous. It’s more a technique than a flaw. But I would predict that as he gains his memories back, we would see more of him.

  2. @tj han – I’m hoping so, because there are things about the show that I like. But I just can’t find myself caring about him right now. I can see your point that it’s a technique, but right now it’s a flaw for me.

  3. I’d watch the first few episodes, and decide for yourself. I mean I’ll keep watching it. But then again, I’m one of those guys that liked Code Geass, so… you know how we are 🙂

  4. To be honest, are you supposed to believe anything in Kaiba is for real? It’s pure fantasy after all, right down to how Kaiba (the character) has no memories and therefore, no concept of morality. I understand your complaint about that lack of empathy you’re feeling for the characters, but still, I think you’re looking in the wrong places if that’s what you need. I don’t particularly care for ‘mental masturbation’, I have no intention of going out of my way to find symbolism in anything I watch, but ultimately, I know I felt absolutely exhilarated after that first episode. I watched it raw too, so, rather than needing to superficially ‘understand’ the plot machinations, almost all of my admiration stems from the mise en scène and soundtrack. For me, you either get that, or you don’t; it’s a very subjective and personal thing. I suppose you could say Kaiba’s like a great song; lyrics, drums, guitar; separate anything out and it’ll never sound as good. It’s beauty is hidden within it’s composure.

  5. Ah. Evidently you’re new to this storytelling format, popularised by Mushishi (and Kino no Tabi, apparently, but I haven’t watched that one). Must be harsh to have this be your first.

  6. Are you alluding to the Zen koan ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping’? Because even if you didn’t your title was awesome. 🙂

  7. Owen: Even with Mushishi and Kino though, the protagonists do actively participate in things, even if it’s just commenting on how things are. But Ginko and Kino you could consider are “whole” people, with a nice complement of memories, personalities and the like. Kaiba as a blank slate isn’t quite as accessible as the former two are. Not that I’m saying that there’s anything wrong with that. 😛

  8. Lol.

    Well, this is your blog after all. I’m enjoying kaiba immensely so far, and would advise others who haven’t seen it yet to try it first and make their own minds up. I think it would be a shame to have been turned away from it by what you read here.

  9. I haven’t seen any of it yet but maybe the prominent themes can compliment the actual nature of the means of communication. On that note I’ve never seen an anime that actually questioned actually “breaking the fifth walll” (regarding the meta) and its implications in terms of the viewer and the investment of identity; maybe if we have nothing to invest our identity in, it could say something, something that I don’t know. On the other hand, it could be impossible to transmit information without actually conceiving of a “proper” story-telling framework.

  10. @bateszi – I can see your point. And I agree with you in a way. But I do need to at least understand, and I do want a certain amount of drama caused by the main character. I mean a lot of what attracts me to a show are the characters, and when they do stuff I don’t really understand or just don’t do anything, I do get kind of put off. I’d freely say it’s a good show, but I can’t say it’s a great one.

    @Owen – To be honest, I’ve only watched Kino. But to expand on what TheBigN said, I’d say Kino is more of a authorial surrogate, whereas Kaiba is a focal point for the camera.

    @Babel – Well someone had to say it. I mean I do agree with the idea of experience it for yourself, but these are primarily my thoughts.

    @lelangir – I hate to sound stupid. I mean it happens a lot, but I’m kind of confused about what you said.

  11. Sorry, I didn’t articulate it clearly. What I mean is that, can an anime be about its meta-physics? Like how Hayate no Gotoku was always breaking the fifth wall and clearly acknowledging that it was an anime, can an anime’s themes be about the communicatve aspects and properties of its medium? That would surely challenge the way we receive the information itself and thus it would challenge everything we know about it. You were saying how you needed a main character through which you would invest your identity, but what if, not necessarily Kaiba, but any anime, were to say “no, figure out a different way to receive this anime, we won’t give you the luxury of the investment of identity.” This wouldn’t be a subtle critique of the outside world, like Kodomo no Jikan, but rather, a satire of the meta – a satire of its viewers and their processes of communication.

  12. I like to think of Kaiba as what would have happened if Akutagawa Ryunosuke wrote The Worthing Saga.

    Maybe you’d have to read ‘In a Grove’ to understand how the narrative structure works.

  13. I agree that Kaiba doesn’t really get involved that much. However, being able to identify with Kaiba I don’t feel I have a problem with. When he is in his hippo body whenever someone tries to bring him into the drama of the scene we are treated with this extreme close-up of his face, and to me the tension is palatable. He wants to talk, he wants to get involved, but he can’t. I feel the frustration that I think they are attempting to convey whenever he is addressed. I don’t really know what that says about the anime or what the affect of it will be over the course of the series. I’d have to think on it some more.

  14. @lelangir – Wow, you just opened up a hole can of worms there. I don’t know if I stated clear enough what I mean about “investing myself in the character”. I’ve always had trouble finding the right metaphor for what I want from a character. But I think the closest way I can put it is that I want to have a relationship with him/her. Now depending on the type of character that type of relation is going to change. But in the case of Kaiba, I don’t feel like there’s a character to have a relationship with (at least not a main character.) Now, I don’t necessarily think that every show HAS to have that, but it’s something that does hurt my enjoyment of the show. Now onto your real question. I’m always a bit torn about experimentation in fiction. It’s always going to be a risk. On a purely mental level, I agree that the idea of breaking the rules of a proper main character is interesting, but it always ends up coming back to what I feel about Joyce and Faulkner. With Joyce, I feel like he broke the rules to break the rules. I don’t feel like there was any meaning to it. Whereas when I read Faulkner, I feel like he’s breaking the rules for a reason (in the case of As I Lay Dying, he did it to demonstrate the divide between the main characters of the story, in my humble opinion.) But that said… I’m not a big fan of either of them. Because usually there isn’t a reason to screw around with the form to get your story across. That said, people still like both of them. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but I don’t. Now I have to admit, I enjoy Kaiba. But I don’t see any reason to have a main character who’s essentially something of a viewer surrogate. I mean what’s the point?

    @DrmChsr0 – I’ll have to give that a shot.

    @Michael – Sorry for not replying to your comment up above. Actually my intention was something a bit more crass. But thanks 🙂

    @taka – If you come up with an answer let me know 🙂

  15. I was just thinking that maybe it will have some affect on the Kaiba later on down the road. Such as, he could sit and do nothing for the first half will make him more determined down the other end of the road. This anime is pretty short though and that’d be a pretty dramatic turn around so I don’t know how likely that is. The other concern is the message that the director/writer/producer what have you wants to get across. The frustration felt by the narrator hopefully felt by the viewer with regard to this world and the way it handles memories possibly making the viewer value them more. I don’t think Kaiba was founded purely on entertainment value.

  16. @taka – You might be right there. It might have an effect later on, but I don’t see it yet. And I agree that I think Kaiba is trying to get across a message, but I’m not sure what type of message it’s trying to get across with it’s main character. The more I think about it, the more it bothers me that I can’t see a reason to make Kaiba the way he is.

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