Kaiba’s final episode begins with the plant that is its namesake extending its tendrils through space, eager to consume all memories, to devour everything humanity has fought for and built. It is an omen, a warning, and perhaps an inevitability: if we do not tend carefully to the cultivation of human experience, if we do not seek to share what we have and create an edifice that can last into the future, all of our achievements will eventually collapse into the dirt. We will be as the ghosts of that abandoned moon, or even worse – simply an absence where our feet once tread, where we once strove and yearned for eternity, or merely for a better tomorrow. With the powers currently at our disposal, our capacity for self-destruction seems like it will naturally, inevitably overwhelm our capacity for self-preservation.
Kaiba might well stand in for climate collapse, or nuclear annihilation, or any of the other entirely preventable ends that our steadfast embrace of global capitalism seem to make inevitable. Can we rise to the top of this society and steer it compassionately, intelligently, with an eye for all living things? Or are we like Popo and Warp, who can only achieve ultimate power by discarding everything that power might usefully create, by sacrificing their capacity to feel sympathy and understanding towards the least fortunate among us? Is power itself the absence of such sentiment, the ability to conduct yourself uninhibited by moral restraint? Surely that’s too pat, too cynical of a framing; there must be a compassion that is both universal and undeniable, that can steer us beyond the clinking of coins and spinning of fans.
“People always want to take a dominant position over others.” The evolution of Warp’s home echoes the fatalism of his words, as we see a once-verdant planet where there were no tiers of separation steadily morph into the barren shell of stratified haves and have-nots that we’ve come to know. Does human nature inevitably lead to domination and subjugation, to a system of exploitation where all that is good and valuable in our nature is consumed by those with the power to claim it? Even if only some percentage of human beings are driven by a will to dominate others, won’t their pursuit of that goal inevitably lead to a system of winners and losers, owing to the relative passivity of the instincts surrounding them?
Is it possible to enforce equality without tyranny, and either way, who is qualified to decide what is fair for all of us? And even if we established such a system, how could it continue unimpeded, when we’ve collectively proven ourselves so adept at exploiting and corrupting systems of justice into systems of restraint? Regardless of whether everyone thinks like Warp, enough people think like Warp that a better way might not be possible – enough of the selfish irritants, enough of the characters Dostoevsky so bitterly described in his Notes From Underground, who will throw rocks through a glass palace just to see it crumble. Are we doomed to never create a society more noble than the worst among us?
“Because unless you place others below you, you cannot obtain happiness for yourself.” Warp’s philosophy seems absurd on its face, but is undeniably how many people view the world. So much of political discourse is driven by the fundamental instinct to think “at least I’m not one of that group,” however you happen to partition humanity. Racists take comfort in knowing they’re superior to some arbitrarily defined “other,” and their rulers are happy to cultivate that instinct, allaying any possible demands for better by railing against what they perceive as worse. And at the top end of society, what drives people who have already attained more wealth than their children’s children could possibly spend, if not a fervent desire to still place their peers below themselves? Millions of human beings see their happiness as relative, as a function that can only be resolved by seeing how it comes at some other’s expense.
But oh, how we fight for something better, for a connection unmediated by wealth or dominance! Now that we’ve come to know every character and form of Kaiba’s opening, its procession of tentatively grasping hands strikes all the harder. All of these characters want the same thing – love and connection, the freedom necessary to pursue their dreams, a little slice of happiness in a very big world. And yet the devil of scarcity sets them against each other, forcing them to fight conflicts with no meaningful purpose, pitting them against each other in spite of their shared struggle. The cruelty needed to survive or challenge this world must be tempered, balanced by kindness – without both strength and solidarity, there can be no better future.
Must the cruelty and selfishness of our nature be learned, the way Popo’s selfless wishes were corrupted into his eventual rise to power? The story of Kaiba seems to indicate so – that a Warp unfettered by memories might become a kind and earnest man, driven simply by his love for Neyro, just as Popo was driven by love for Cheki. Then perhaps the plant Kaiba or the storm of electrolyte clouds have the right of it – perhaps we must return to the Garden of Eden, living without understanding or memory, and therefore also without selfishness or sin. But surely, surely our intelligence and ambition are worth something. Surely there must be a way to harness our ambition and ingenuity for collective good, and not just the fashioning of tighter and more effective chains. Surely there must be a better way than giving in to the Kaiba, to emptiness and despair.
Having lived through callous sacrifice and emerged into true regret, the scientist Kichi offers his own thoughts on this fundamental question. “I haven’t lived a life to be proud of, and I can’t apologize enough for what I’ve done to you. But when I met you, I remembered something important. Maybe if I hadn’t forgotten that, I wouldn’t have become like this.” As he stares out across the ruin his hopes and ambitions have wrought, Kichi recognizes the earnest, compassionate hopes that once drove him forward: his own love for Neyro.
If Kichi and Kaiba can be so reminded of what once inspired their ambitions, perhaps there is hope for all of us. We simply cannot allow ourselves to be lost in the pursuit – in the sacrifices that must be made, in the power that must be claimed if a “better” future is to be assured. We must remember our Neyro, our Kaiba, our Cronico – whoever it is that makes us vulnerable, that makes us wish to break our crust and share our bread, as meager as our portion may be. So long as we remember we are not fighting for ourselves, we might journey forward without losing our humanity – and we might not have to journey alone.
As Kaiba and Warp clash in deliriously rendered battle, our focus turns below their grand efforts, to where Cheki and Neyro are tending the wounded and ferrying them to safety. In spite of the apocalyptic violence above, this act is what is truly important: the human spirit’s indomitability, expressed through its unerring compassion even in times like this, even from victims who have every reason to despise these false Warps and would-be tyrants. Even without her memories, Cheki’s kindness remains, proving she is fundamentally instilled with a sense of empathy and forgiveness. We may think we have “lost everything,” but our “nothing,” our base level of thinking, feeling, and existing within the world, is already such a generous gift. Cheki and Neyro may not have much, but they have their strength, their compassion, their determination to help the people beside them.
And we have our hopes, our dreams of connection. As his body is crushed to disable the fans, Kichi tells the Hyo-Hyo that is Neyro “don’t be ashamed. Live for what’s important to you.” The essential fact – you must remember what is important, remember what first drove you to claim power and seek eternity. If we can remember to live for the people who are important to us, we will not be led astray like Chronico’s mother, or Vanilla, or any of the other poor souls who made whatever compromises they thought might grant them a sliver of control over their lives. Do not live just to perpetuate your own existence: live for what you love, that the things you treasure might live safely and happily as well. Kichi might well have arrived at the crux of it, at the solution that enables growth and advancement while avoiding solipsism or cruelty. Live for the people you love, and make your life an act of prayer and thanks to them.
Without that instinct, without that desire to make your life of meaning and use to the people who are dear to you, there can be only emptiness, a voracious hunger that will never be sated. All Warp can hope for is destruction via Kaiba, that “if we get eaten by that, we’ll become one. We won’t be lonely anymore.” It is only this empty edifice, this pursuit of wealth and power for their own sake, that creates such a sense of loneliness. Among the people we love, such concerns are made ridiculous. As his philosophy crumbles, Warp swerves from bargaining to threats, telling Neyro “I can kill you easily!” And to this, Neyro responds with the simple, essential “there’s nothing impressive about being able to kill.”
To subjugate others is the easiest thing in the world; all it requires is selfishness, a lack of concern for your fellow man. To pull a trigger and snuff out a life will always be an easy solution to an immediate problem, an act of dominance that can invalidate years, ages of struggle, and perhaps salt the earth for generations to come. It is because it is so easy to destroy that the work of creating a better society is so difficult, so much harder than it needs to be. To create a better world, we must acknowledge our potential for destruction but still set it aside, trusting instead in our ability to find common ground, to build things whose impact stretches beyond our own needs and desires.
That is the task facing Neyro, as she struggles to find her Kaiba within the recesses of the scared, tyrannical Warp. As so often is the case, the root of his unhappiness is personal grievance: Warp’s feelings of abandonment and despair at being poisoned by his mother. At another time, the pettiness underlying the allegedly all-seeing perspective of the tyrant would be worth consideration and critique; here, Neyro has no time for judgment, only commiseration, as she assures Warp that “no matter how much you consume, your loneliness will never go away.” With these words, she digs further into Warp’s mind, reaching out to the scared and lonely boy who wishes only to be held, to be told it’s okay. And for all her frailties, Neyro possesses that power: the greatest of all in the world, the ability to connect, to understand, to forgive.
In a world that exults in quantifying all we have and all we are as items of specific interchangeable value, only a selfless love can hope to redeem us. We must be able to forgive – there are too many grudges, too many well-earned sources of resentment, for our species to survive the fulfillment of all our hatreds. We must be stronger than our capacity to hate, to subjugate, to disenfranchise and destroy – as difficult as it seems, as easy as it is to fall back into distrust and selfishness, we must be stronger. For a selfless love is the only thing that can save us – the only force that does not take more than it offers, the only route to a world where happiness and security are freely given. Just as Vanilla, Kichi, and Neyro have now done, we must give freely of ourselves, or else a better world cannot be realized.
With Neyro’s arms wrapped around him, her blood freely given that her love might be restored, Kaiba awakes. “I have returned, my Neyro,” he whispers. “Before I met you, I was nothing.” In the end, through giving of ourselves freely, we paradoxically find ourselves with more than we had before. It is not through consuming that we might fill the void within ourselves, by freely indulging our desire for power and control. It is only through giving away that we can find ourselves nourished, loved and sustained, empowered by the love we receive in turn. It might sound simplistic or cliché, but the truth is that we are simple animals, and our most fundamental questions mostly have simple answers. To be filled is not to consume until our selfish desires are sated, for that will never come to pass. To be filled is to love, and be loved in return.
Kaiba ends in silence, its misbegotten souls having reached the surface together, still alive in spite of it all. Former grudges are forgotten, and hands reach out towards each other, clasping in fellowship without question or complaint. Let not the essence of humanity be the desire to claim, to dominate, to consume. Let it be this joining of hands, this experience shared equally, and with love.
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