April 19, 2008
A few weeks ago I watched Mind Game again, and not for the first time I wondered what director Masaaki Yuasa was up to post-Genius Party. And what do you know, shortly after I found out: he's directing the series Kaiba, which just started airing on the Japanese satellite channel WOWOW. Makoto Fukuda reviewed the first episode in today's Yomiuri Shimbun. As she describes it, the show is "set in a world when memories can be filed as data, and humans no longer regard the death of their physical bodies as the end of their lives."
I just finished watching the first episode, and I have to say that I agree with Fukuda's review, but she only hints at what I think makes it interesting. At its core, Kaiba offers up a lot of things we've seen before: the titular protagonist wakes up with amnesia, and is almost immediately attacked; strange machinelike creatures are attacking people while a ragtag resistance fights back; even the character designs, which Fukuda describes as echoing "those found in manga for children popular several decades ago" capture that 1960s and 1970s retro feel.
What Yuasa does is he mixes it up and makes it fresh. I like how little is explained as Kaiba makes his way through this new world. When the camera pans up or across in a scene, you're following his viewpoint. Nothing is explained to either of you, so you have to pay attention to everything you see. (Some things are conveniently spelled out, but as the title sequence hints that there's considerably more to Kaiba, you get the sense that there's information that should be filed away for later.) The world is just familiar enough that you know you're in a shady bar, but just weird-looking enough that you're trying to figure out what those lumpy wall protrusions are for. The character designs are retro, but they don't quietly elide the oddball wacky-looking characters I was fond of in older anime in favour of the graceful designs of the protagonists. I got a nice fix of people walking around with potato heads, wobbly jowls, bright red noses and the craziest hips you've ever seen. The cartooniness infects some of the action as well, but not in an at all jarring way. In some ways it's a better interpretation of what Tezuka did in his manga than the beautiful but perhaps too crisp Metropolis.
What I'm particularly fond of is Yuasa's interpretation of movement. As we saw in Mind Game, little of what he does falls into stock anime poses, staging or motion, and that feeling of always seeing something new is invigorating. Between the animation and the storyline—I particularly want to know what's going on with that bird-creature that's saved Kaiba three times now—Kaiba has my attention. I'm hoping someone picks it up domestically so I can watch it with subtitles, but, in another throwback to the old days, I'm perfectly willing to watch it entirely in Japanese just for the sake of seeing it.
Images and a Youtube trailer below.