I was baffled by how much my father praised the movie Blade Runner after we watched it together— it’s not a bad movie but there’s a reason it didn’t win any Academy Awards. I was also baffled by how praised George Orwell’s 1984 is in the realm of English literature. Again, it’s not bad, but I’d never consider it my favorite book. While Kaiba is largely building off of these giants in its dystopic society, it did it right. That’s because it focuses on the humanity of a dystopia, rather than the society itself.
One of the first things we see in the show is the machine memory chip-sucking flying things that absorbs the chips of a couple of random guys on a natural-looking bridge. We don’t know anything about these guys, but we can assume from their reaction and physical appearance that they’re pretty ordinary working-class people, and through this we can immediately get that this is a futuristic world with a government or society that is either oppressive or neglectful. These few seconds let us infer everything that 1984 and Blade Runner spend significant portions of their time to establish and analyze.
From here, Kaiba takes time only to look at the human effects of this dystopia. Later in the episode we see the squalor most citizens live in— small gatherings of people with scrap equipment and innumerable memory chips and nothing to do with them. This only preps us for the tearjerker in episode 3 with Chroniko’s Boots (as I discussed the other day). The episode effectively highlights the corruption and apathy of the society in Kaiba, but the focus is put on Chroniko and what happens to her. Contrast this with 1984— sure, there are other relevant characters besides the protagonist, but it only marginally exposits how society is corrupt through the events regarding a particular character. We do see this in one character, Julia, but she tells us very little about the world of 1984 that we didn’t already know.
Listen to the music, too— one of the first songs that is played is “Catch it up!” It’s an action-y, heavy synth song that instantly reminds me of Tron (the original Tron, mind you). And, lo and behold, Tron is another futuristic dystopia movie! Immediately after this tech-y sci-fi song, we’re brought back to the humanity of this world in Planet (laughing version) which is characterized by its bizarre sound that feels down-to-earth and alien all at once. Even here the focus remains on the people, and how they interact under these circumstances.
This establishment of the extraordinary before giving the audience something to empathize with is how Kaiba conveys its dystopia. It goes a step further in “show don’t tell”— rather than letting the audience see the corruption in the society and how X government official gets assassinated, we see the personable side of it and where we would stand in the shoes of others. And, more importantly, we see Kaiba standing in the shoes of others. The show gets away with expositing what the world is like by making it Kaiba who is watching this unfold. This further establishes Kaiba’s relatability to the audience, which makes us root for him just that much more and be even more surprised when we realize he’s supposed to be the evil king of this world. How can a boy so empathetic be a cruel ruler? And, mind you, all of this is to facilitate the arc of the show. The dystopia isn’t simply a setting in Kaiba, it functions as an influential part of the narrative. And, as such, the expositing of the dystopic setting is all part of the story of Kaiba.