Casshern is one of a very small category of movies I call “experimental epics,” where a groundbreaking look-and-feel is combined with an engaging story to produce something totally new: part science fiction, part retro-futurism, part mystic fantasy and part family epic. It could have been a mere exercise in effects technology, but it has a fearless passion to it, a heedless excess that makes it transcend its pulp-fantasy roots and its occasional heavy-handedness. The real source of the film’s inspiration is the mid-Seventies anime Robot Hunter Casshan, but the film bares only the vaguest possible resemblance to the original story. A slavishly faithful remake would scarcely have been worth bothering with. Instead, the movie takes some of the core conceits, surrounds them with an all-new setting and and allows them to take on an unexpected gravity.
Casshern is set in what could be called a “retro-fascist” world, one where Asia and Russia have been fighting the rest of the world in a war that has dragged on for decades. Massive steel effigies of various dictators loom over giant factories that belch out filth and fire, and all the signage is in both Cyrillic and kanji. Airships ferry soldiers to and from the battlefields, where a few stalwart holdouts (branded as “terrorists,” of course) continue to make trouble. The look and feel of the movie are absolutely dazzling, even if (and sometimes because) they seem not quite real, but fanciful and exaggerated. Blade Runner showed us what the future might actually look like, but Casshern is entirely imagined (which is no flaw, simply a difference of intention).
To counter the devastating effects of decades of war on the people’s health, Professor Azuma (veteran actor Akira Terao) pitches his regenerative “neo-cell” technology to the scientific leaders of the Greater Eastern Federation. They spurn his work, but Azuma is privately approached by the shifty-eyed Naito (Mitsuhiro Oikawa, the cold-eyed Chinese gangster leader in City of Lost Souls), who’s got plans to sell the good doctor’s work to the military and create an army of endlessly self-regenerating soldiers. Needless to say, this doe s not thrill many of the people whose livelihoods depend on injured or dead conscripts, and they close ranks to keep Azuma out.
Azuma’s work is also a personal matter. His wife Midori (Kanako Higuchi [Ronin-gai]) is going blind, one of the side effects of pervasive environmental decay, and his son Tetsuya (Yusuke Iseya, of Wonderful Life and Dead End Run) has enlisted to fight alongside his comrades against the wishes of his family and his fiancée Luna (Kumiko [Kairo] Aso). After experiencing a horrific My Lai-like incident, Tetsuya is killed in battle, and on the same night his body is to be returned to his family there’s a freak accident at the lab: Suddenly, hundreds of disparate body parts begin spontaneously fusing together, and out of the lab vats arise a brave new species of humanity. The grief-stricken Azuma uses the same cells to rejuvenate his son’s body as well, as panicked soldiers storm the lab and gun down the “neo-sapiens” (as they later call themselves).
The neo-sapiens are a hardy bunch, but they’re far from immortal, and most of them die immediately. A handful of survivors, led by the white-haired and steely-eyed Brai (Toshiaki Karasawa), stagger into the snowy wilderness and discover a massive fortress with a dormant war-robot production factory. Determined to take vengeance on the human race that spurned them, they set to work building an enormous mechanized army, and declare war on humanity. (I had to wonder why a robot factory like that would be sitting unused instead of, say, being co-opted by the victors and made to churn out munitions or C rations, but never mind.)
As you might imagine, humanity’s only hope at this point is the resurrected Tetsuya. Luna’s father (an armorer for the military, who was rather ironically worried that Azuma’s work would put him out of business) builds him a special bodysuit to keep his unstable biology from self-destructing. Tetsuya can barely stand on his own two feet at first, but it’s not long before he’s tearing robot hordes in half with karate chops…and asking Luna painful questions about the meaning of his existence. Humanity won’t claim him as one of their own; why, then, should he bother saving them? At one point someone says “If we’re all to be reborn, why strive for anything?”, words which could also just as easily be Tetsuya’s.
Like many of the best effects films, there’s never a shortage of things to look at in any one shot. Every scene is composed with the attention given to a good painting, or—I feel this is an inevitable comparison with such movies—a graphic novel. The majority of the film isn’t action, but the pacing and editing are fluid enough that you almost never notice. And the action itself is staggering stuff, a whole war epic’s worth of combat scrunched into a few minutes of screen time. This was, amazingly, director Kazuaki Kiriya’s first time behind the camera. A photographer whose mainstay was originally music videos, Kiriya pitched his vision of the film to executives at Shochiku Studios and was rewarded with a lavish (US$40m) budget and t op-shelf talent. Sometimes he comes close to going overboard, but I have a hard time holding a grudge against someone who goes all-out to fill the screen with wondrous things.
Casshern invites comparison with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow for obvious reasons. Captain also used digital technology to create a whole world unto itself, also at a fraction of the cost of realizing it concretely and with a unique flavor to its visuals. The main difference is one of tone: Captain is lighthearted and freewheeling, an unapologetically pulp adventure; Casshern is morally ambiguous, foreboding, and tormented, and draws heavily on the same Buddhist and Confucian moral ideas that also fueled many of Osamu Tezuka’s most ambitious works. This comes out a little too often as people talking about what should be done instead of actually embodying their principles, but I’d rather have a movie that dealt with big ideas a little bit clunkily than not deal with them at all.
Perhaps one of the freedoms digital technology is conferring on filmmakers is not just the ability to create any kind of world he desires, but also to tell daring and risk-taking stories that make use of such visuals, and which might not be commercially feasible any other way. It is so easy to make bloodless, cynical little movies—many of which ostensibly cost several times what this one did—so whenever I see something like this it’s always a cause for celebration.
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