Warm Cyberpunk

January 3, 2009


Is Kaiba a Cyberpunk? We’ll get to that in a minute. As some of you may already know, I have a soft spot for Cyberpunk anime. They tend to exhibit unconventional storytelling, fascinating dystopias and visuals of highly artistic merits. A popular criticism against the genre is that viewers find it difficult establishing any emotional connection because characters are so lifeless. Titles like Serial Experiments: Lain and Ghost in the Shell movies for example, feature characters who rarely present themselves empathetically, which is somewhat expected as they inhabit a world dehumanised by our constantly advancing technology. Personally I find such sterile quality strangely alluring, but I can see why it can isolate some viewers. In any case, Kaiba is many things. Experimental anime, fairy tale for adults, intricate mystery…but what intrigued me the most was how warm it felt compared to the previously mentioned series that treats similar existential themes in an emotionally cold manner.

Sea of "roes", or sea of memories discarded into the space as waste

Sea of "roes", or sea of memories discarded into the space as waste

I’d like to think of Kaiba as a “Warm Cyberpunk”, uncovering affects of love and warmth through de-territorialising the confines and oppressions of that cold Cyberpunk framework; a minor anime. Like in Lain and Ghost in the Shell, we are at first thrust into a world stripped off its humanity. Memories are reduced to tiny transportable chips, while people change bodies as if they were worn-out clothes. What is the value of something that can be so easily probed, duplicated, fabricated, and disposed of? How really significant are our feelings and experiences if they are nothing more than those discarded sea of tiny yellow blobs?  It’s a truly frightening prospect.

Uncontainable feelings

Feelings that refuse to be contained. Feelings that trascend memory and body

And yet, affects of warmth can always be found. Can a woman really suppress memories of a girl she loved for her whole life? Has this monstrous technology really robbed people of their humanity, even when people are willing to be reduced to dogs and birds that can’t speak a single word for love? Why is it that two lovers from the past can still sense mutual attraction without knowing each other’s identities? Through the character of Popo (and episode 3), we come to realise that these valuable feelings aren’t infallible, that this horrifying machinations of fabricated existence can blind and isolate us from our loved ones. And that sometimes it’s too late to amend our mistakes. But contained inside that dystopia still exists something human and primal struggling to free itself. It exceeds, it endures and it affects. People strive to connect with others, possess feelings that overwhelms, going as far as to be reduced to mute objects if only to stay near your loved ones. And Kaiba expresses them beautifully. Kaiba is where you can find warmth and light at the edge of coldest and darkest places.

Reach for him. No amount of memory alterations can severe your ties. ;_;

Reach for him. No amount of fabrications can severe your ties ;_;

Also, please take a look at bateszi’s romantic interpretation of Kaiba. Indeed, Kaiba is above all else, a love story.



9 Responses to “Warm Cyberpunk”

  1. Like you I really appreciate cyberpunk and have done ever since watching Blade Runner in my student days (and to my delight later discovering how the original novel was even better still). There is that problem with the genre in that the portrayed coldness of the worldview has a side-effect of distancing the audience from the characters though, which Kaiba expertly avoids.

    I guess it’s because for all the futuristic weirdness we still see recognisable emotions so the story as a whole is still about the people, rather than the places, which is usually the focus of cyberpunk (ie.: it’s more than just “hey, look! cool technology!”). I’m not sure how to put that into words really, but you seem to have said it better than I ever could already! It puts the technology into a human context, perhaps?

  2. gaguri Says:

    Ah thanks for dropping by, it was getting kind of lonely here. I agree with you about most cyberpunk works focusing on the places. The lack of nature and dominance of machines has sucked any warmth and life out to the point that you can no longer feel any human presence, only bunch of buildings and machines, and humans feel little more than smaller machines operating inside it.

    And I think that “putting the technology into a human context” is a fitting description. Cyberpunk in general is so occupied in depicting technology’s adverse effects on humanity but it rarely looks at humanity itself. Kaiba shows us that we can still retain it. Mother’s feelings for her son, feelings between lovers and friends, these are made possible through these once cold technology. Warmth and love blooms from what we originally conceived as cold and lifeless world (and Kaiba certainly does enough job on constantly dehumanising the world at the same time). I think it’s this de-territorialisation of the cold and re-territorialisation into the warmth that makes Kaiba so affecting.

    …for some reason I’m liking my reply better than the actual article -__-

  3. bateszi Says:

    Yeah, I think it’s a series that is at once horrifying and reassuring, a kind of existential crisis that concludes with romantic optimism. But just considering it a little more, I think that perhaps this sense of warmth might be false?

    Kaiba depicts a total breakdown of morality and strips down these characters to their very essence, as if all we really are is tiny golden eggs of memory, floating without direction, insignificant. I thought Chroniko’s story (episode 3) was particularly harrowing because her memories (essentially, her personality) are disregarded in the way one might dispose of garbage, as all of her hopes and dreams are thrown out of the window, into the ether of nothingness, to join millions of others of lost souls without a home or purpose.

    Perhaps Kaiba feels warm because the characters, like Niero, continue to risk dreaming, and loving, and feeling, despite being exposed to such an oppressive sense of frailty and insignificance?

    Sorry if this is a bit circular and rambling, I guess there’s still a lot to say about Kaiba. One of the best series of 2008, for sure.

  4. gaguri Says:

    Hey no problem, I welcome any comments really. I agree with the two points you’ve made, but not exactly sure where we disagree.

    There is a definite harrow feeling that we get from episode 3 (and episode 2) when people’s memories, hopes and dreams are discarded like garbage. It really felt as if this world has reduced people to little yellow blobs, and what’s the point of having dreams and hopes and building up memories if they can be so easily disposed (like Chroniko and the girl from episode 2)? But what hit me the hardest in episode 3 was the fact that Chroniko’s aunt still remembered her. Despite all the suffering, despite her body being replaced with a machine, her precious time with Chroniko endured.

    Likewise in episode 4, we are at first presented how disgustingly people change their bodies, but what follows next is a woman’s love and yearning for a companion (even if it’s a machine). She is reduced to a mechanical dog without the ability to speak, but you start reading more than cold sterile technology of yet another Cyberpunk world. This applies to other situations as well, including how Popo couldn’t completely contain Neiro’s feelings for Kaiba.

    I personally think this breaking down of cold and sterile language that is presented in Kaiba (which, we are also familiar with Lain and other cyberpunks), and finding such exceeding and powerful gestures of love within it, gives birth to the type of warmth that differs from say, the warmth in Iyashikei shows like Natsume Yuujinchou.

    So I don’t know…maybe we’re affected by essentially same thing in Kaiba, but our approaches to understanding it is a little different? Just a thought.

  5. Kim Says:

    I meant to reply to this early but I was away most of the holidays and have just finally started to catch up on things. Of course I am very happy to see you promote Kaiba here. 🙂

    I agree with you about Kaiba’s warmth but I am not sure if I would classify Kaiba as cyberpunk (a genre I find interesting to watch but is not a favorite of mine precisely because of the lack emotion that you mention). Although I suppose Kaiba has some elements of cyberpunk (mainly the whole dystopia and memory altering concept) I feel that the fact that it is very whimsical makes it less cyberpunk. Not to mention the concept of memory alterations has no basis on reality. If I was to classify the series I would say it is a fantastical dystopian science fiction series. If anything I feel Kaiba has more in common with a series like Kino no Tabi with it’s fable like storytelling then Lain or Ghost in the Shell which are definitely Cyberpunk.

  6. gaguri Says:

    Your classification of Kaiba is correct and that Kaiba isn’t really a cyberpunk. I guess I was trying to come up with a term to succinctly describe how I was feeling, and so I ended up generalising the word cyberpunk to refer to that cold advanced technology/dehumanising aspect. O well, maybe I need to be more creative next time ^_^b.

    At least, it seems that I managed to convey what I essentially felt about Kaiba despite other confusions, so it wasn’t a total failure.

  7. animekritik Says:

    I think you can have emotion in cyberpunk, it’s just that the cyberpunk hero is “cool” and jaded and so is often careful/controlling with his feelings. I haven’t watched Kaiba but your caps make it look very appealing..

  8. gaguri Says:

    Please do :3. People may disagree on what their favourite/best anime from year 2008 was, but it is very hard to deny that Kaiba was the most original.

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