Love trumps all lost memories.
Masaaki Yuasa’s 2008 12-episode anime Kaiba is a love story about bodies and memories. Set in a fantastical sci-fi setting with Tezuka-inspired citizens and landscapes, the world of Kaiba is one where body-snatching has become a regular activity. Those with money and power can place their memories into new bodies after death—those without the means merely suffer in the planet’s underbelly. Those who dare try to break to the surface are faced with an ominous purple cloud that will wipe their memories clean. At its simplest, Kaiba‘s world is a dystopia, albeit one with a conflict spun from contemporary class-disparity and poverty. Whose body matters? Whose memories are worth saving? And what is the ultimate price to pay for switching bodies?
Our protagonist, Kaiba, is a clone of an identical boy named Warp, the king of memories. Having completely lost his own memories, Kaiba wakes up with only a pendant with a picture of a pigtailed girl. This girl, the rebel Neiro, is a member of the organization Issoudan preparing to end the evil king Warp’s reign. This is all we know about Kaiba—at some point, he loved someone enough to take their photo and keep it close. He suffers from an aching sense of lost and mystery, one that those who typically have switched bodies might experience.
Loss of loved ones in Kaiba is fickle. In a society where only the privileged can obtain immortality, many lives are inevitably lost to poverty and sickness. Such is the case where Kaiba is transferred into the body of the girl Chroniko, where he can only access snippets of her memories. The episode “Chroniko’s Boots” is one of the stronger entries in the series, and asks serious questions of whether or not memory transfer is ethical in the first place. Chroniko, a girl from a poor family, sells her old body for a new model in order to purchase one for her mother. However, the scientist performing the procedure destroys her memories in the process, eliminating any chance of recovering them. Kaiba rescues Chroniko’s body in order to salvage something, anything—a decision that will impact him in the long-term. It’s a cruel trial-by-fire entry in the morals of this society, and a dark twist on to the speculative fantasy of escaping poverty through science and technology.
Memory transferring can be allegorical for plenty—donating vital organs, plasma—something many without the means must do. The transfer of Chroniko’s body to Kaiba also poses a significant question of gender, one that is addressed in the episode “A Muscular Woman” where Kaiba finally meets a woman, Gel, whose mind has been transferred to that of a man. Kaiba is confused—is he man or woman—what does it mean to live inside a body that doesn’t match your gender? Kaiba comically helps Gel learn how to pee “like a man” and Gel reassures Kaiba that she is still a woman despite her new body. This episode is one of the highlights of the series before it becomes overwhelmed with flashbacks and plot. Gender is never quite addressed in the same way again in Kaiba, but this slice of life thankfully presents a reality of bodies that is also often overlooked in real life.
Loss of the body, memories, gender, and family all swirl together in Kaiba like an electric miasma. It’s a fuzzy mess to parse through when the mechanics of body-transferring and obtaining memories in Kaiba is mixed with Yuasa’s experimental storytelling. While the beginning of the series opts for a slice-of-life narrative exploring this bizarre planetary system, the later half becomes re-occupied with explaining the mythos of Kaiba’s origins, and who exactly, is king Warp. If the first-half of Kaiba is preoccupied with the question of lost and death, then the later-half buries itself in asking what is love, and how can we recognize it. The identity of Gel is revealed to be Neiro, who used the body temporarily to plant a bomb in a memory-storage facility. Neiro is a much stronger character than Kaiba—while Kaiba is capricious and difficult to interpret, Neiro’s motives are clear as day. Neiro, at some point, devoted herself to a version of Kaiba before he lost his original memories. And the poor girl has to suffer for it—love is fatal even when you think you’re doing the right thing.
This love between Kaiba and Neiro is shown in a sequence of flashbacks, of the coupling interacting, kissing, and holding onto each other for dear life while they fall from a collapsing building. Unlike Kaiba, Neiro is a victim of false memories—memories that eventually cause her to seriously question the legitimacy of her love for Kaiba, and whether or not “her Kaiba” is the one she loved at all. It’s a powerful montage when Neiro finally regains her memories of her and Kaiba falling in love, backed by the sinister implications of being gaslit and lead-on by Popo, the leader of the rebel group. Recursion is one of Yuasa’s favorite tropes and it works wonders here.
Things aren’t always what they seem to be in Kaiba—and perhaps that is for the best. Characters such as Popo and Neiro appear infrequently in the beginning of Kaiba, but become vital actors in the endgame, emphasizing Kaiba’s message people can change seemingly at a hat’s drop. It’s a shame that Kaiba as a protagonist is such a blank slate, a tabula rasa of a character that’s clearly surrounded by far more interesting figures. Although it’s probably the best for Kaiba to remain as silent as he is, to maintain his role as an self-insert for what is otherwise an utterly alien setting. The episode “Kaiba” results in Kaiba’s complete renewal of his memories and realization that he did, in fact, love Neiro. The ending, however, did leave me wanting more. The choppiness of the flashbacks do become emotionally overwhelming, but whether or not that was intentional, I’ll never know. What did I learn was that, no matter what Kaiba and Neiro have gone through, they somehow seemed to have tough it out against all odds. Love trumps all lost memories, it seems.
Others have compared Kaiba’s ending to Hideaki Anno’s Evangelion, which might be a good comparison, except that Kaiba’s ending doesn’t result in everyone being turned into goo. Neiro regains some of her memories, albeit altered, and she and Kaiba finally have a second-chance after they destroy some big evil plant alien. It’s an optimistic resolution to what is otherwise an dystopia—although not everyone makes it out alive—it’s ultimately a world where love wins. Love is unexplainable and has a stickiness in Kaiba that even memories and fantastical bodies can’t copy. It’s the glue that keeps bringing Neiro and Kaiba and those they love back to life, back into each others arms. It’s not a utopian ending to an otherwise desolate situation, but it’s one where broken relationships evolve, thrive, and become symbiotic organisms in themselves.