There are two instances when anime is, for me, at its greatest. Instance 1 is when it embodies itself successfully, when it takes all that we associate with the label and fulfills the inherent promises found there. The original AKIRA did that; so did projects as disparate as Giant Robo, [C] - CONTROL, and Hyōka.
Instance 2 is when anime draws on things entirely outside the label: Spring And Chaos, Belladonna Of Sadness, The Tatami Galaxy, Mind Game. Those last two were directed by Masaaki Yuasa, as was Kaiba, yet another candidate for the Instance 2 category. Kaiba owes more to experimental Western and European animation than it does anything from anime generally — not just in its look but in its attitude, its mindset, its goals. Normally it's a cliché to say something is "like nothing you've ever seen", but here the label is very much earned.
Ghosts in their shells
Kaiba is set in a universe that has what I could describe as an alternate ecology. Human memories and personalities can be isolated on little conical chips, and a person can swap bodies as freely as one changes a shirt. (Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Unready To Wear" comes to mind.) Memories, too, can be edited and replaced, and the death of a body does not necessarily mean the death of the person. But all this is only available to those who can afford it. The rich who play with such technology live up beyond a barrier of memory-erasing clouds; the poor below scrabble from day to say, selling bodies to give the next generation half a chance at something better.
One day a young man awakens somewhere in the labyrinth below. He has no memory, no clues as to who he might be save for a locket around his neck with a blurry photo of a grinning girl. He also sports a curious, bloodless hole in his chest — one that goes all the way through his body! — and a triangular sigil over his navel. He soon falls under the protection of Popo, the handsome young leader of an underground resistance called the One Mind Society. Their aim is to overturn the power structure, to return living and dying and remembering and forgetting back to the people who do those things in the first place.
Popo dubs the hapless young man "Warp", and keeps him safe by putting him on a ship that's travelling off-world. This doesn't come without a cost, though: Warp's mind is siphoned out of his body and stuffed into another one (it resembles a mute cartoon hippo), and his original body is used — in a scene that's both funny and creepy — as a sex toy by the woman who booked him passage. But Warp also gains an ally, a little creature named Hyo-Hyo that looks like a cross between a garden gnome and a helicopter, and with Hyo-Hyo's help Warp bounces between one world and the next, staying sometimes only half a step ahead of the authorities.
Under his skin (and everyone else's)
This body holding me reminds me of my own mortality
Embrace this moment, remember, we are eternal
All this pain is an illusion
-- Tool, "Parabola"
Most of the first half of the show is about Warp's travels from world to world in various bodies — male, female, and genderless alike. It's reminiscent of properties like Galaxy Express 999, where at each stop along the way Warp encounters people who embody different aspects of the story's universe of interchangeable bodies and souls. Some are whimsical, but a few are heartbreaking; the best, or saddest depending on your view, has Warp encountering an old woman whose sons are convinced she's hiding a great treasure courtesy of their deceased father. Warp uses a piece of technology common to that world, one that allows a user to step into the memories of another as if browsing a library's stacks, and discovers the truth: there is indeed a treasure, but it's not what the boys think it is, and for this they end up wasting their lives in more than one way.
Another key element that develops during this first half is Warp's relationship with a security guard working the ship she stows away in. He's a hothead and a meathead, but one look at Warp in his borrowed female body and he goes ga-ga for her. At first this just seems like a way for the show to be funny, but over time important things develop from it. One is a conceit the show, er, embodies naturally: how we both are and are not our bodies. Warp feels uneasy about being the target of an unrequited crush, doubly so when he's not in a body that's a match for his true feelings; he doesn't want to misrepresent himself.
But by degrees the guard shows his affection isn't necessarily physical; it's the other person he likes, not the other body. All that comes to a head when he finds himself stripped of his authority and forced to make tough decisions about both of them. By the end of the show, we marvel at how a character that was positioned at the outset to seem like little more than a joke has ended up as nothing short of heroic. A fitting aesop for this show: nothing's what it seems in this world, but who among us actually bothers to peer deeper?
The second half of Kaiba brings Warp back home in his own body, and reunites him with the girl in the locket — but it's not a happy homecoming or a joyous reunion. He was once one of the powerful and privileged of his world, and Popo and the others were his sworn enemies. Losing his memories has allowed Warp to stand outside himself, and to realize the only way to redeem himself is to throw away a past that is determined at all costs to survive without him.
Yuasa's cosmic eye
Many shows are great because they do one thing truly well, and the rest competently. "Three great scenes, no bad scenes," as the old formula for a classic movie once put it. Kaiba stands out by dint of doing so many things well it becomes intimidating to enumerate them all. I've already mentioned how its premise and its storytelling mirror and echo each other — concepts like the mutability of body and mind aren't just things the story uses, but are the story itself. Even more impressive was how the show never seemed to be trying; it was all effortless, like play, even when the show brings markedly adult perspectives to the material: class consciousness, notions of gender and sex, etc.
The largest part of how the show makes it seem effortless is through its visuals. Kaiba looks like a children's show — not in the sense that it's aimed at children, but in the sense that it feels like it was made by children. Everything has the blobby, simple-lined design of a kid's drawing, but is also invested with fearless and visionary imagination. One of the gizmos used by the characters allows them to probe someone else's memories by opening a physical portal, which they can step through, and for each character the metaphor of memory is different: sometimes it's a library, sometimes an LP collection, and so on.
Yuasa's work has always drawn on things far outside of whatever else is going on in anime. Here it feels like one of the possible influences was the experimental animation of Faith and John Hubley, especially their epic-length film The Cosmic Eye. I was also reminded of Osamu Tezuka, both in conventional ways (the character designs) and when he was at his most unfettered and radical (the psychedelic excesses of Phoenix).
A lot of what goes on in the Kaiba-verse demands to be explained as we go along, but much of the time Yuasa prefers to just show us, via imagery or pantomime, and trust us to figure it out. George Lucas dabbled in things like this via the non-verbal, experimental mode he used early in his career (THX-1138, and even parts of the first Star Wars), but Yuasa never abandoned the experiment.
Some stories are told because someone was willing to pay to have them told, and some are told because someone had to tell them. Throughout Yuasa's career, he's sided with the second kind of story, and with Kaiba he not only created a story that felt like it was crying out to be told but one that cried out to be told only as he could. And did.