Kaiba’s last episode was a tragic story of grief and abandonment, ending with the deaths of all parties involved. The episode before that was another story of grief and abandonment, ending with a mother sobbing over her sold-off daughter. In the world of Kaiba, the tensions of our daily lives are drawn to an unbearable tautness by the encroaching influence of biotechnological capitalism. These characters live in squalor and poverty, but many people throughout history have lived such. What sets Kaiba apart is the fullness of capitalism’s reach, and the uniquely terrible bargains it is sanctioned to make. Here, even our bodies are commodities – in fact, for the poor, they are one of the few commodities they possess with any real value. For the rich, this enables a dazzling new world of personal experience; for the poor, their bodies are just one more thing to be sold, one more thing that can be possessed to account for their debts.
From being a sort of ultimate equalizer between all classes, our bodies have become one more tool of class oppression. No longer are the rich doomed to wither just like the rest of us; instead, they can buy perpetual youth, consuming the vital bounty of people who are predestined to fail. Anything that can be used to draw distinction between the classes will eventually be consumed by the rich, turned into one more expression of their financial supremacy. And on the other end, anything that can be taken from the underclass will be taken from them. Struggling through lives of indentured servitude, where their debts are specifically designed to chain them in perpetuity, the promise of transhumanism is simply “now that your bodies can be harvested, they will be harvested if they seem worth the effort.”
And yet, in spite of Kaiba’s frank engagement with the likely intersection of transhumanism and capitalism, its yearning for the potential of transhumanism remains. Its hope for the future is embodied in its opening song, a devastatingly romantic expression of love crossing time, space, and even our physical forms. While individual episodes find fault in transhumanism’s practical applications, that song is all about its emotional promise, the idea that our souls and our feelings can transcend our mortal shells. No matter how far we go or who we become, our love will find a way.
In Kaiba’s fifth episode, that promise at last earns a fragment of fruition, though with its own harsh attendant costs. Kaiba’s fifth episode sees Warp and Vanilla landing on Abipa, a planet where “you can get that awesome body cheaper than anywhere else!” The future of advertising is transformation, as we see hulking heroes and showgirls bob and weave, meld and separate, their announcer promising freedom from your out-of-fashion exterior. Actors no longer perform in advertisements; they are advertisements, their very skeletons and appendages praising the glory of Abipa’s wares.
Kaiba has plenty to say about all this, but thematic concerns aside, Abipa also seems like an excuse for Yuasa to indulge his love for rough art and deformation of form, and to expand the conception of what a “body” truly means. Abipa’s revelers stretch humanoid form to its distant limits, evoking just enough familiarity through body language to parse as conscious characters. Full minutes of this episode are dedicated simply to celebrating the expansive potential of human expression – the artist’s ability to evoke humanity even in the strangest scribbles, and the audience’s ability to find the humanity in that vague portrait.
Not all of this seems purposeful; Yuasa clearly just loves these sorts of rough drawings. Early in his career, Yuasa’s focus on animation for children allowed him to regularly exercise this passion – children have less stringent demands regarding constancy of aesthetic and form, reflective of their immense capacity for suspending disbelief. Now that he’s making hard-hitting thematic statements for jaded adults, he is forced to improvise to engage his passion for distortion. Mind Game used psychedelics, The Tatami Galaxy used an unreliable narrator, Devilman Crybaby used outright body mutations, and here in Kaiba, the advent of bodily replacement and transformation allows him all the design freedom he could hope for.
That’s not to say this is all Yuasa’s personal fancy, either. “Finding the humanity in a loose scribble” fits right into Kaiba’s questioning of our fundamental nature, of what makes us ourselves. Ultimately, what Yuasa is proving again and again is that our impression of landscapes or even people are a collection of discordant, somewhat arbitrary signifiers. Yuasa can evoke the impression of humanity through an offhand gesture in a collection of disparate, quivering lines. However reduced or reshaped, the fundamental sense of personhood remains. While this world feels strange at first glance, it is remarkable how quickly we become accustomed to it, and see it as just another carnival of self-expression. Through this journey from the exotic to the mundane, Abipa quietly emphasizes that transhumanism is simply one step beyond our current forms of self-expression.
A cartoon like this is the perfect vehicle for talking about transhumanism, as one of the miracles of comics and cartoons is how good the human mind is at humanizing simplified or abstracted shapes. In fact, it might actually be easier to consider transhumanism in this context than in live action, where we’d likely get tripped up by all the thousand signifiers of identity we tend to associate with a person’s physical form. When the physical forms are reduced to simplified shapes, embracing transitions between those shapes becomes that much easier, and we can easily accept that different forms of Warp are all fundamentally Warp.
In a world where we can transfer between bodies with ease, the idea of any specific body being your “true self” might seem quaint. There is your body, and then there is you – the only meaningful relationship between the two is that you happen to start out stuck with one random body in particular. Like those hands reaching in the opening song, our physical forms and our passions need not be united – any shell we bear can be a vehicle for our true feelings. This rings doubly true on Abipa, where bodies are considered no more sacred than seasonal fashion statements. In fact, the only person on Abipa who seems outraged by this state of affairs is Patch, the genius body artist behind this biotechnological renaissance.
Warp meets with Patch in his factory, where he is designing new models with Quilt, his faithful patchwork dog. Both of them are ramshackle creatures; Patch inhabits a bipedal cat who spins wildly on his stick-limbs, while Quilt is constructed of a dozen different bodies. In spite of their cruciality to this age of transformative self-expression, they seem to reap none of its benefits – and as Patch explains, this is an intentional moral stance. “I perfected biotechnology,” he gripes, “It was supposed to be for those who needed it! Not for fashion or leisure!” Shocked by the excesses of Abipa, Patch turned his own form into a moral protest, stating that “I am woven from their discarded bodies. I am the hatred of the bodies that were left behind!”
Patch’s perspective might seem limited or quaint, but the excesses he fears already have precedent in our own world. Anything we possess which can be assigned a monetary value will eventually provoke an arms race within the upper classes. In a world with finite resources, this means that the rich will be consuming and discarding a wildly outsized portion of these resources, as they seek not the base necessities of survival, but the ostentatious displays necessary to impress their class rivals. Meanwhile, those who actually need these bodies go without, their souls scattered into the atmosphere, while the wealthy’s beloved bodies of yesteryear go directly into the trash. There is no greater creator or destroyer of value than capitalism.
Patch’s most convincing argument concerns the creation of Quilt, who was made out of the remains of discarded dogs. As Patch explains, “there were plenty of dogs on this planet, but everyone wanted popular ones, so tons of them were made. Even though there were dying dogs next door!” This isn’t an exaggerated fantasy of capitalism’s future – this is literally what happens in our current world. Thousands of people buy living animals as fashion statements, then discover they don’t want to care for a living creature, and so toss them aside. The shelters of major cities are overflowing with chihuahuas and other “fashionable pets,” because so many people can’t conceive that their extravagant financial self-expression shouldn’t extend to living creatures.
And that’s not even the end of it. In our hyper-stratified gig economy, it’s already possible to purchase human dignity, through online services like Fiverr. Additionally, our current billionaires are already attempting to harvest healthy human bodies to prolong their own lifespans. Just check out the dealings of Peter Thiel, who spends his time not spent complaining about “welfare beneficiaries” investing in methods of consuming young blood to sustain his own lifespan. There is very little you could cynically project about the future of capitalism that has not already been embraced by the present of capitalism, if only in a rudimentary form.
Given Patch’s familiarity with the cruelest and most selfish consequences of transhumanism, it’s no wonder that he’s come to believe our initial bodies are sacred. His perspective is understandable, but too informed by bitterness to be trusted. Patch is letting the thoughtlessness of this world’s implementation of transhumanism, and its gross collaboration with capitalism’s excess and waste, shape his perspective on transhumanism’s ultimate potential. But though Patch can’t see it, his own assistant Quilt puts the lie to his perspective, and embodies what this future could truly be.
As it turns out, Patch once had another assistant – a human woman, who took care of him while he was preoccupied with his work. Through a camera in their shared lab, we see a life of warm familiarity and heartbreaking distance, as Patch’s attendant cares for her perpetually distracted genius. Over the course of these memories, we see her grow older, still loving him, but never really being appreciated in return. Eventually, even when she places her memories in a chip on his work bench, he doesn’t realize what she’s done. Needing a memory chip to activate his latest creation, he plugs her mind in without question, and Quilt is born.
Quilt’s transformation is the ultimate counter to Patch’s belief in the sanctity of our original bodies. Even as a cobbled-together collection of dead dogs, she is still the same kind soul, still dedicated to making Patch’s life easier. When looters arrive to scavenge Patch’s sanctuary, Quilt fights them with all her strength, and is broken beyond repair as a result. And when Patch awakens, lost without his companion, it is only the return of Quilt in a new body that sets him right. Capitalism will do everything within its power to pervert transhumanism’s potential, and turn it into one more expression of the wealthy’s control over every aspect of our lives and identities. But we must not let its evil dampen the beauty of the dream – of those two hands outstretched, or of Patch and Quilt, forever side by side.
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