We return to Kaiba in a moment of utter catastrophe. Having journeyed halfway across the universe in pursuit of a love he could barely remember, Kaiba’s dreams have turned to nightmares, his life stolen by the very woman he sought to protect. Through the meddling of Popo and his allies, Neyro was conditioned to see her former love as the enemy, another tyrant who must fall in pursuit of a brighter dawn. Only when the damage was done could our star-crossed lovers recognize each other; only in the ruin of Warp’s empire could their promise be fulfilled. In his pursuit of a world without Warp’s all-consuming tyranny, Popo has sacrificed everything that made that pursuit desirable: the hope of a happier world with his friends beside him, where Neyro and Cheki can live freely, both in body and mind.
Neither that future nor that freedom have come to pass. In order to ensure the downfall of Warp’s regime, Popo has been forced to contort both himself and his friends into harder, crueler shapes, shapes capable of cutting through the just and unjust with equal efficiency. It would be easy to condemn Popo for his choices, for conspiring with the false Lord Daida, and for reprogramming his friends into agents of violence with untroubled, spotless minds. But as Popo would surely counter, what choice did he ever have? Was Warp’s empire going to crumble in the face of stern words and formal complaints? Was Kaiba’s alleged love for Neyro going to free the millions suffering in servitude, in stasis, in the tortured performances of the memory circus?
Achieving a brighter age necessitates grappling with a darker one, and denying yourself the tools needed to overcome such inhumanity could easily be considered naivety or even cowardice, rather than moral righteousness. Across history, “I’m going to achieve change the right way, according to the rules” has always been a road to self-delusion, one frequently encouraged by society’s actual oppressors. After all, what could any tyrant want more than an opposition who are unwilling to make the harsh calls, unable to pull the trigger even for the sake of their fellow victims? Society’s overseers delight in framing themselves as stewards of order, and will gladly furnish paths of civil disagreement that ultimately possess no capacity for meaningful change. Tyranny need not be a god-king atop a lofty pulpit; it can simply be a system that promises the form of democracy without the substance, a world where everyone contributes and nobody counts.
To disrupt such gilded prison cells, it is often necessary to take on the role of the disruptor, introducing violence into a world of unjust peace. A future of miracles necessitates an age of monsters, of liberators who can take the violence of regime change upon their own backs, knowing they work in service of a future that would never condone such terrible methods. Perhaps that is where Popo went wrong; in his relentless pursuit of Warp’s demise, he lost sight of the future waiting beyond Warp’s empire, of the kindness and generosity he once shared with his precious friends. Can we slay the beast without becoming beasts ourselves, without descending into a cruelty from which there is no return?
Kaiba’s eleventh episode opens back on that one treasured memory, of the three friends sharing what they have while still hungering for more. It was this simple injustice that sparked an inferno, that destroyed the legacy of Warp and brought an empire to its knees. Perhaps we must retain our humanity simply for practicality’s sake; we are strongest and wisest when we fight for each other, allowing ourselves to bear a burden that the people we love might walk freely. It was Popo’s dreams of freeing Cheki from want and making her a “princess” that inspired him to go so far, to lose so much in pursuit of a softer world. Could he even describe what he’s fighting for anymore, absent the superficial propaganda of Daida’s order?
Popo speaks in the language of violence and domination as he describes the purpose of the many fans: a clear threat to the underclass, forever implying that if they truly displease Warp, they will be lost forever in a memory-sapping miasma. As we’ve seen to be true in our own world of AI and automation, capitalism does not truly venerate the worker, but instead sees it as an unsavory middleman in the process of wealth extraction, an imperfect method of dividing humanity from its productive potential. Though society is built on the back of millions who toil without hope of advancement, that alone is not enough; there must always also be the threat of ejection, whether through being tossed jobless into the street or erased by these giant fans. When your overseers have stripped you of all your useful parts, taken what of your body and mind they find valuable, what remains is nothing more than trash, and trash must be swept away.
The fans begin their terrible work as Popo rejoices in his defeat over Warp, and carries Sate upwards towards the city’s peak. His victory is immediately framed in terms of its consequences as the electrolytic cloud descends, with Sate musing that the only safe places are now Daida’s room and the ancient palace. Popo was willing to sacrifice the memories of his friends for this victory, but what of all these other innocents, who had no knowledge of or complicity in his project? How much must we harden our hearts to create a better world, and what sacrifices are we permitted to ask of the people beside us?
For Cheki at least, victory over Warp apparently demanded her whole identity. Popo embraces her as they reach their escape ship, though what he holds is no longer really Cheki – it’s some Cheki-shaped shell, who can no longer either condemn him for his crimes or rejoice with him in his victories. By draining Cheki of the human doubts that prompted her to wager her own life, he has also stolen her ability to understand what he has accomplished, to serve as anything more than a compliant doll applauding his achievements. The real Cheki begged him to hold off from this course; having reprogrammed that condemnation out of her, he has now lost his treasured friend, and stands alone atop his throne.
“From now on, all our memories will be fun ones,” he assures the blank-faced Cheki. “We can say so long to being poor.” But what is left of them to share these happy memories? Popo has abandoned all the gentleness and moral ambitions his friends once loved him for, while Cheki has truly lost everything, her mind and memories sacrificed so that she might become a sharper instrument of rebellion. If you must sacrifice precisely what you were hoping to venerate and restore through your efforts, what have you actually achieved? Perhaps holding to the gentle methods is not simply a reflection of naivety – without maintaining kindness and gentleness in the face of barbarism, we might achieve victory, but only through transforming ourselves into that which we despise.
In contrast with Cheki’s emotional oblivion, Neyro now recoils in fear from the prospect of having her full memories returned, not sure she could bear the weight of knowing just how much Kaiba meant to her. She now sees the value in the release Popo was offering: if your selfhood is nothing but your mission, it is easier to get by, easier to forget tragedy and seek victory without question. The things that make us human hold us down in some ways, it is true – they keep Neyro crawling in the dirt next to Kaiba, keep Popo stretching his hands towards a lost mother and dwindling past. But if to ascend is to abandon what makes us human, is to rise freely on the winds of selfish ambition, then perhaps it is better to stay among the misfortunate, in the muck and the suffering of day-to-day existence. Our tears are acts of contrition, are gifts to the ones we love; if we cannot give freely of our tears, then we have nothing worth sharing with each other.
Having made his terrible choices, Popo now has plentiful tears, but no one to share them with. Rising from dreams of his impoverished childhood, he voices a prayer to the mother he can no longer restore, stating “I’ll never return to the undermoon. I’ll become happy. It’s okay, right? There’s nothing wrong with being happy.” Popo has bargained away so much that he can no longer even articulate his desires, beyond the vague thought of “eventual happiness” that guides all who have consumed everything and found themselves still starving. Casting about himself for some kind of answer, some remedy to the loneliness he has earned, his gaze falls on the Kaiba plant. “Shoot my memories and Cheki’s into that thing,” he cries, ready to sentence all of consciousness to a unified death, if only so he might be reunited with his love.
This last act of sentimentality, a final synapse firing in defense of his old prayer for peaceful coexistence, is his undoing. Recognizing his weakness, Sate shoots him down, and is shot down in turn by the cabal of old Warps, who are then betrayed and defeated by the original usurper. Popo aspired to be the leader of humanity, but ultimately simply wished to be beside the person he loved, unfettered by a constant need for nourishment and security. Ultimately, greed always reasserts its supremacy; Popo was too human to rule this world, and his pain at losing his precious connections made him vulnerable. Out across the city, memories are sent skyward, their bearers lost in a haze of unknowing while the callous Warp looks on. And the fans keep spinning.