What is truly precious, or irreplaceable? In the world of Kaiba, where both bodies and memories can be bought and sold, it can begin to feel like nothing has any genuine value. Cronico sold her body to help her family, but it only brought her stepmother more grief. Meanwhile, her “precious” memories were ultimately tossed out like garbage, to float into the firmament like a lost balloon. Ultimately, Cronico’s body at least allowed Kaiba to sneak back onto the cruiser; but even that was an insidiously transactional process, relying on the wanton, lascivious hungers of the Chief of Security. Only the opening song seems to disagree – as hands flash through a myriad of forms, their determination to connect remains undiminished. Might we perhaps hold onto love, or at least its memory?
As Kaiba’s fourth episode begins, we find ourselves on a tiny new planet, a place that’s little more than a spaceport and lighthouse. As ever, Kaiba’s distorted, childlike designs serve to soften its brutal narrative; we see almost Seussian monsters devouring each other, while Kaiba-in-Cronico is chased by the ship’s head of security, Vanilla. As Kaiba maintains an uneasy distance ahead of his pursuer, Vanilla laughs in delight, before bashfully stating that “I’m not following you or anything.” In a show this unflinching in its portrait of capitalist dystopia, Vanilla plays an important role: he is the ideal class-maintaining worker bee, the darkness of the system in human form.
Vanilla doesn’t find his pursuit of Cronico threatening; after all, he’s him, and he knows he’s a good guy. He might even find his own behavior romantic – but of course, if Cronico were to truly defy him, things could quickly go very poorly for her. Like so many given positions of policing authority, Vanilla knows the threat his position implies, and is willing to wield that threat with impunity, or even glee. But at the same time, he’s capable of feeling no shame in his behavior, and remains either willfully or naturally oblivious to the power dynamics inherent in his pursuit.
Those who benefit from an existing power structure, and particularly those who enforce an existing power structure, have a clear motivation to see that power structure as “just the natural way things are.” At the same time, any critiques of that power structure are frequently interpreted as a direct attack on them, as if you’re claiming they don’t deserve the things they’ve “earned” – and they can react with violent fury at any such claim. Vanilla is happy to live in his dream world, seeing himself as a “decent, ordinary man,” while simultaneously working to violently defend the class structure of this world. Even those who explicitly work in the violent, enforcement end of class affirmation tend to see themselves as blameless in that system’s perpetuation. Vanilla is just a guy doing his job, so unperturbed by his own actions that he’s happy to cast himself as a playful romantic lead, dancing alongside a girl he has absolute, terrifying power over.
In the face of this “we’re just playing around, but if you defy me I will destroy you” view of romance, Kaiba is able to do what women generally are not: he hides his attractive Cronico body in a tree, and takes on the form of a dopey stuffed animal. With a man like this, staying as Cronico and refusing him would likely incite further violence. As our own world is eager to demonstrate, simply ignoring a man who believes you owe him attention can put you in danger – and dismissing him can make it even worse. Patriarchy provides its own form of class-based, systemically sanctioned power structures, where disobeying your “betters” is always a terrifying risk.
With Vanilla temporarily misdirected, Kaiba-in-Stuffed Animal bumps into this episode’s titular Grandma, the wife of the local lighthouse keeper, and grandmother to two unruly boys. Grandma is kind and generous to Kaiba, but there’s a sadness behind her domestic peace. Grandma urges her grandson to be kind as well, saying “you two can’t be children forever. He’s getting up there in age,” to which her grandson responds “but grandpa is already…” The implication is clear: either due to willful compartmentalization or the general haze of age, Grandma has forgotten the death of her husband, and lives in a blissful, perpetual holding pattern. Forever waiting for her husband to return, she embodies the sad finale of Kaiba’s world: to remain in stasis forever, luxuriating in happy memories, rather than creating new ones.
But before Kaiba can repay this woman, Vanilla storms through the door, slamming her grandson across the room and demanding answers. In spite of Kaiba’s childlike designs, it’s difficult to overstate the genuine terror of Vanilla’s return, and the passive menace of his presence. Very few anime convey the vivid feeling of being in a situation where a cop or otherwise “class superior” has total power over you, and is happy to use that threat against you. In Kaiba, the tension immediately changes when he enters the room – the grandson is beaten and silenced, Grandma devolves into nervous obsequiousness, and Kaiba just flees outright.
As the chase continues into Kaiba’s mind, the production doubles down on its contrast of whimsical visual drama and furious social commentary. Kaiba is chased by Vanilla in a sequence straight out of a Scooby Doo episode, if Scooby Doo episodes were more focused on class struggle and police brutality than Whodunnit. And Vanilla leans into this darkly playful contrast, shouting out “be a good boy and come out. If you don’t, I’ll punish you.” Of course, as we saw back on the ship, Vanilla is happy to punish anyone, purely because he enjoys inflicting punishment. The enforcers of structural oppression work in a position where they are encouraged to keep the underclasses powerless and afraid, while simultaneously affecting an air of personal responsibility, leadership, and kindness. They do this by saying they’re doing this for our own good, right at the same time as they crack the whip down upon us. And there will always be many people who love this kind of work.
Vanilla is not some uniquely terrible force within this world. He’s cruel and vain, but his world rewards cruelty and vanity, and tells him he is noble for embodying those qualities. Even Grandma’s two grandchildren, when they think she might be dead, are concerned only for the fate of “Grandpa’s treasure,” which they plan to steal and sell. And why would they think any differently? Their own parents abandoned them too, after all, and headed off into space. Here, even family is just a series of potentially saleable commodities; everything and everyone is a product to exploit.
At the command of her grandchildren, Kaiba ends up entering the mind of the comatose Grandma, and discovering her secret sanctuary. Initially, Kaiba finds himself in a padded room with only one bookshelf, filled with books fully saturated with blue ink. But this room is a mental block; by pulling on one discolored block in the corner, he breaks through to Grandma’s true secret room, where she keeps memories too precious for her conscious mind. Like Cronico’s aunt, Grandma hides her most painful, irreplaceable things beneath the surface, where they can be neither lost nor remembered, only guarded for all time.
In this sanctuary, Kaiba comes across Grandma herself, enshrined in a tiny recreation of her own exterior home. Here, she can maintain the world as she was last able to withstand it: with her husband still alive, and her grandchildren more mischievously selfish than malevolent. In this safe internal shell, she can articulate a philosophy that would be heretical on the surface, telling Kaiba that “the boys take after their parents – always lookin’ far off, never seeing what’s going on under their own feet.” All of her grandchildren’s actions serve to cultivate the life forms of their tiny home, but they are incapable of appreciating that. Instead, they are consumed with envy for the glamorous culture that stole their parents away.
Tucked among Grandma’s private memories, Kaiba is the one person to witness her coming to terms with her grief. After a nightmarish parade of her family members call out that “he died in our arms!”, the lock on that sealed book of memories is at last unclasped, and Grandpa himself arrives to comfort her. As he appears, both figures revert to a younger age – the age they first met, now revived in a bright flash as Grandma examines her most painful, beloved memories. Grandma loved Hochi flowers, which could only bloom from a seed that landed on their planet for another. Though he gave her one when they first met, he could never find another – until that fateful day on the lighthouse roof, where he reached for one more flower, and tumbled to his death.
As with Cronico’s story, the speed and brutality of Grandpa’s death is conveyed without melodrama, glamour, or restraint. He was reaching and he fell, and then he was gone – in Kaiba’s cartoonish world, the blunt, mundane horror of a moment like that comes through with absolute clarity. And so we learn of Grandpa’s “treasure,” a flower which had no financial value, but which he happily died for in order to make his wife happy. And so Grandma at last comes to peace, having learned her husband’s death was one more affirmation of his love for her. “The only thing that’s truly big and wide is the vastness of the human heart,” she declares, as Kaiba flees her mind’s collapse into its eventual, terminal sleep.
As you would expect, the tale of Grandma and her grandchildren does not have a happy ending. This family found joy, briefly, but their world offered them no praise or kindling for that flickering hope. Raised in a world that sees no value but capital, Grandma’s heirs could never embrace her philosophy of doing good where you can, and cherishing the people you love. Tossing aside Grandma’s box of memories, they strike out for a bold yet hopeless future, and prove incapable of surviving outside the lighthouse’s glow. Every episode, we must be taught anew how cheaply these bodies and memories are purchased, only to reaffirm how precious they truly are.