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Kaiba – Episode 9

Kaiba’s ninth episode begins much like its predecessor, with the alleged “King Warp” in the shower, gingerly dressing his wounds while his mechanical overseers question him on what went wrong, and why they can sense blood. As before, words that could theoretically be meant kindly are here known as anything but – though they masquerade as caretakers, his robot guardians are more like sharks, smelling weakness and circling for the kill. To stand at the pinnacle of this world is to surrender all privacy, all anonymity. He is in truth not actually the ruler of this world, but merely its most elevated cog: the crown-shaped screw adorning a machine that is fundamentally indifferent to all of its component individuals, knowing each of them are just parts that will eventually be replaced.

It would be comforting to imagine this impersonal, authoritarian future as the result of some alien intervention or robot uprising, the consequence of something that is foreign to us taking the wheels of our society. But in truth, alienation, the monetization of all life experiences, and a prevailing indifference to suffering can become the rules of society with or without external intervention. The moment we surrender to the inherent wisdom of the market, the moment we decide that capital is the ultimate arbitrator of value, in that moment we have already stepped onto the course of moral indifference and human suffering. So long as we can abstract our individual actions from their consequences as translated through the machine of corporatization and fiscal logic, we can live in a society that is simultaneously driven by humans yet entirely without humanity in its perspective and priorities.

For those at the top, this system is at least presumably gratifying to their desire for wealth and power, while simultaneously flattering to their lingering desire for a humane self-image. By allegedly surrendering their control of the operation of this machine to some secondary vehicle, be it a robot overseer or simply capitalist pragmatism, they can benefit from a system that eats dissatisfaction and shits suffering without feeling culpable for its actions – hell, they can even tell themselves that this is ultimately the only way society could evolve, driven as they are by an almost spiritual faith in the righteousness of commerce unshackled from moralizing regulation. Framed that way, Kaiba’s world actually seems preferable to our own; at least King Warp is still beholden to the system he allegedly governs, while our own kings stand apart from their vehicles of moral oblivion.

Revelations pile one on another as we return to the accelerating conflict of the capital world. First comes an announcement from the false king’s overseers, announcing “there is good news! A new successor has been born” with all the false cheer of a business announcing increasingly predatory terms of service. As the king calls out to “start the fans,” he is contacted by Popo, who promises allegiance and an escape from obsolescence. And then we at last return to our original protagonist Kaiba, as the memory surgeon Kichi reveals that Kaiba as we knew him possessed only a fraction of his own memories, the most any shell but the true Warp’s could hold. Before we can even process this revelation, Kichi is discovered by Popo’s collaborator Sate, and Popo commences his plan to destroy Warp’s past, present, and future.

It’s a bewildering succession of reveals, doubling down on the bold choice to transition from seven episodes of coming to know “our” Warp straight into this tangled political drama, where it’s uncertain if our old protagonist even exists anymore. Our feelings are thus attuned to those of characters like Neyro and Popo, mirroring their understanding of identity’s fragility, of the ambiguity and seeming senselessness of either loyalties or grudges. Who we hate and who we love have become nearly indecipherable; flashes of memories that are not necessarily our own intrude on our most intimate moments, forever emphasizing how we are fragmentary and reproducible.

Perhaps survival in this world demands embracing the inevitability of inauthenticity. So Popo seems to have determined, as he declares to his stolen cult that “following Lord Dada, we will defeat Warp!” Just as the false Warp embraces a throne he has not earned and cannot command, so does Popo use the false authority of Lord Dada to lend significance to his worlds, urging his followers to initiate rebellion against a false idol in service of a false idol. If you are seeking to gain power in this world, you must embrace this inauthentic masquerade, taking advantage of people’s desire for something steady and implacable to believe in. When they cannot believe in their own bodies or memories, they naturally look towards gods and kings – figures which never withstand close examination, but which can often remain too distant to be fully observed.

After Neyro is assigned the “honor” of killing our Warp, she is confronted by her childhood friend Cheki, who demands to know how she transformed from a gentle girl into this cold assassin. Cheki suspects memory alteration, and she will soon be proven right, but such stark methods are in truth rarely needed for such dramatic personal transformations. We don’t require this system of memory transfer and alteration to become entirely different selves; we merely need to be pushed beyond the point where our previous selves could productively exist, and thus adopt the callouses necessary to keep ourselves together. There is little room for gentle people in a harsh world.

Cheki cannot imagine changing so dramatically in order to survive or challenge this world – she has held onto her own gentleness, but that also means she has become irrelevant to this conflict and its resolution. There are countless people like Cheki out there, who honorably hold onto their sense of decency and compassion in spite of the world punishing and suppressing such people without remorse. On another planet, she would be Cronico – here, she survives simply because her friends are willing to undergo such ugly transformations in her stead. And that is not to say Cheki is wrong not to change, nor that her friends are more courageous or noble in their willingness to embrace inhumane methods. This system does not allow for such simple takeaways as one or the other being right; some of us will die for compassion’s sake, some will harden their hearts against compassion in order to secure a brighter future, but all are ultimately victims of a cruel world’s impossible expectations.

“Destroying the memory tanks for that?” Cheki cries. “It’s not right!” It is true, Neyro indeed performed some unimaginable acts of terrorism in pursuit of destabilizing Warp’s rule. But can we allow ourselves to be constrained by conventional morality while attempting to topple a regime that will surely stoke further suffering? Perhaps some people must become indefensible agents of change, embracing the morally reprehensible in order to bring about a future where such conceptions of morality can again be enforced on a societal level. After all, what good can such values accomplish when held solely as personal beliefs, preferences that our overseers are happy to ignore or even exploit in order to maintain their control?

Those in power are often happy to embrace calls for civility in order to prolong their reign. They are eager to promote what Martin Luther King described as “a negative peace which is the absence of tension” over “a positive peace which is the presence of justice,” knowing both complicit allies and well-meaning fools will always celebrate simplistic ideals of kindness and politeness. Seeking true justice often necessitates shattering an allegedly peaceful stasis, that the cruelties which underlie that shimmering façade might be challenged and brought to light. To seek justice in an unjust world is naturally to be an irritant, an outlier, and at the extreme an agent of profound state-aimed violence. No tyrant will fall if we are sufficiently polite to them; no regime will be conquered by everyone just getting along.

Seeing Neyro’s indifference to her moralizing, Cheki steps to the edge of the balcony, wagering her own life as a bargaining chip to reawaken Neyro’s morality. If Neyro can’t see the countless lives in those memory tanks as real or significant, then what about this single life, the life of a friend she’s known since childhood? For all of our high-minded attempts to rationalize grand acts of destruction as necessary prerequisites to a better world, seeing just one person we love in jeopardy has a tendency to reorient our thinking, to make us vulnerable, help us see how each of those lives lost might have similarly extended in a thousand directions, have similarly meant everything and more to the people who loved them. If Neyro can sacrifice countless strangers to the cause but not one treasured friend, then what is her morality in the end? Through wagering her own life in this argument, Cheki underlines the hypocrisy of Neyro and Popo’s hardline stance.

There is no comforting answer in a debate such as this – only compromises and casualties, sacrifices made for the dream of a kinder future. As Cheki is subdued and dragged away, we learn that Warp’s regime has retaliated for the attack on the memory tanks, killing everyone in their northern base. How much must be sacrificed for the sake of an uncertain future, and will whoever remains truly be qualified to lead a compassionate, peaceful society? Can we embrace such methods without them becoming second nature to us, without their efficacy informing our perspective on truth and justice? Will there be enough good left in us to engineer a better world, or will we simply become the next Warp in line?

Kaiba awakens just before the end, with Popo whispering threatening lies about the “traitor Neyro” in his ear. Driven by the false certainty that it was Kaiba who killed her family, Neyro attacks the laboratory, sending both Kaiba and Neyro’s unknowing memory tank plummeting into the canyons below. While Kichi calls out the truth of how he altered Neyro’s own memories, Popo urges her to hold fast, telling her to “believe in your memories! Modifying them would be an ultimate betrayal of our principles!” Like so many despots, Popo embraces the audacity of his own crimes as a defense against their validity, relying on the expectations of decency nurtured by kind fools like Cheki. But somewhere, deep within Neyro’s hideously altered memories, the love she shared with Kaiba carries on. As Popo cackles in triumph, Neyro stares down at Kaiba’s body in horror. And the tears won’t stop.

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