d. Kazuaki Kiriya / 2004 / Japan / 140 mins
Alongside Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Casshern was one of the first films to be shot on a digital backlot. It would go on to out-do The Matrix and become the closest thing to a live action anime that audiences would be able to see. Loosely based on an animated series from the 1970s that has recently been rebooted, Casshern tells the story of a young casualty of war in the not-so-distant future who is resurrected by his father and uses his improved agility and strength to fight the newly created Neo-sapiens and the killer robot army they control.
Whilst the plot might not sound particularly intriguing, a lot of effort has clearly been put into making Casshern a film that explores the essence of man’s violence and the need to cohabit peacefully, a sentiment that becomes more clear as the film goes on. The resurrected Casshern and his previous human incarnation, Tetsuya Azuma (Yusuke Iseya) play the role of a Frankenstein’s monster and golem, as do his enemies, the Neo-sapiens (their creation is heralded by a single lightening bolt of sorts) but a more contemporary comparison is likely with Robocop or even Japan’s own Astroboy. The post-apocalyptic setting will be familiar to all those who are fans of Japanese anime, especially those with heavy cyberpunk and steampunk overtones. What distinguishes Casshern’s world from others of the genre is a liberal use of Russian, Serbo-Croation and Bosnain writings that add a little more flavour to this story of a world at war between East and West.
Casshern was the first film Kazuaki Kiriya had directed, his experience being in music videos. To this end, the film feels like it has been subdivided into scenes, each with a distinctive style and musical accompaniment ranging from classical music to heavy rock. No matter what platitudes about the evils of war the character’s give out, Casshern is primarily a product of style over substance. At it’s most impressive, it is staggering to consider how its meagre budget was stretched to accommodate such breath taking visuals, an incredible assortment of rusty antiquated contraptions, sci-fi vistas and vibrant costumes provide a true feast for the eyes. In other scenes it is less successful, one sequence filmed in grainy black and white outstays its welcome, the soldiers in gas masks and low cut shirts look more appropriate for a fetishist’s basement rather than any form of military and an even more repeated use of lens flare than in J.J. Abrams recent Star Trek reboot can skirt becoming migraine inducing at times. There are more hits than there are misses however and it is worth watching just to see what tricks Kiriya is able to pull from his conjurer’s hat (a stop motion sequence being particularly memorable).
The story does feel drawn out however, especially within its second act and in its concluding scenes. Just as character’s state the obvious to ensure the audience is keeping pace, repeated uses of black and white shaky-cam depicting Tetsuya’s time at war seem hackneyed and overly manipulative, as does much of the ending and its lecture like commentary on the state of mankind. The inclusion of actual archival footage of atrocities seems in poor taste and feels like Kiriya is employing cheap emotive tactics to achieve what his characters and story are not capable of. It is difficult to take seriously a film whose most famous scene is that of its superhuman-ninja protagonist combating a seemingly endless army of robots alongside heavy guitar riffs without any sense of knowingness or wit. Kiriya wants to have his cake and eat it, the film is at pains to abhor the evils of warfare and violence and yet basks in beautifying and objectifying its intricately choreographed fight sequences. None of this would be a problem if the film showed the same willing sense of irony that films such as Kung Fu Hustle do, but to do so in so po-faced a manner is a little difficult to stomach.
All in all the story attempts to raise itself to a standard that it only occasionally manages, but there is enough visual excitement on offer it is unlikely audiences will care much. There are strong performances by supporting cast members, Toshiaki Karasawa as Burai manages to steal the show and has by far the most complex character on offer. It’s possible that if Burai and Tetsuya had realised their connection earlier on in the film that their characters opposition might have had more opportunities to shine but as it is, the eye-candy on display is more than enough to keep a restless audience captive for its two hour duration.