Directed by Kazuaki Kiriya, 2004, 141 minutes, starring Yusuke Iseya, Kumiko Aso, Akira Terao, Kanako Higuchi, Toshiaki Karasawa.
Folks, CGI (short for crap gore interactively-stuck-on, or some such acronym) can be an evil thing. Think of all the rotten CG-splatter in some of our favourite movies, like Zatoichi, Ichi The Killer and (OK, maybe not a favourite, but it'll do) Battle Royale 2. And also think of Takashi Miike, a man who will use a CG effect so long as it looks as tacky as he can possibly make it (see Full Metal Yakuza for the full horror of this). And, broadening it out a bit, think of what George Lucas did to the original Star Wars movies, not least the awful musical number in the already not hugely dignified Return of the Jedi, or the phoney speeding Spiderman in, er, Spiderman, or even, heaven forbid, some of the really dodgy and not at all convincing stuff in The Grudge. Sometimes, you just want to go to your nearest neighbourhood film director and grab him by the lapels, in order to pound into him the fact that there's absolutely nothing wrong with a couple of stuntmen and a few squibs here and there.
"Opening up the world of possibilities to film-makers" is the claim, the sort of thing you hear Steven Spielberg espousing at any given opportunity. But surely CG is basically just a way of saving a bit of cash, and will look as tacky in twenty years time as the rather unconvincing stop-motion dinosaurs of Ray Harryhausen in One Million Years BC look now, right?
Er... maybe. Occasionally though you get one movie which shows the possibilities of new technology. Maybe the vanguard of live-action CG was Jurassic Park, which even now, almost ten years on, looks pretty convincing, probably because a huge amount of money was chucked at it to see how much stuck. And now, with the release of Casshern, here's the second coming.
Who knows how much of this movie was CG, green-screened, matte-painted, or whatever. And to be honest, when a movie looks this consistently good throughout, who cares? Remarkably, it's director Kazuaki Kiriya's debut feature, which kind of equates to Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel the first time he ever picked up a paintbrush. And, what's more, not only was he the cinematographer for the entire thing, he's based the movie 50-50 on a piece of 70s anime as well as Shakespeare's Hamlet.
It's the near future. Or, perhaps, the past. Or, perhaps, a weird agglomeration of the two, mixing fifties sedans with futuristic biotechnology. In any case, "Eurasia" seems to be controlled by a totalitarian semi-Soviet, semi-Japanese dictatorship with clear Nazi influences. That control is absolute, albeit with some insurgents in Zone Seven, dragging the war well into its sixth decade. The environment has been wrecked; ill-conceived weapons have created rampant radioactivity and foul air, poisoning the populace and causing genetic mutations. Even soldiers have to wear gasmasks so they can breathe. Basically, the planet is dying.
This, of course, causes a problem in terms of recruiting soldiers for the on-going war in Zone Seven, so government scientist Professor Azuma (a luminescent Akira Terao) has come up with a plan: if he gets funding for his programme of research into neo-cells, which can replicate any human cell, he will quickly be able to grow spare part organs for soldiers wounded at the front, enabling them to get back to active combat as soon as possible. Despite the fact he's shouted down when he presents his plan to a conference at the Health Ministry, he's approached by an aide to the ruling General Kamijo, the high-ranking defence advisor Kaoru Naito, with a view to continuing his work. Azuma grasps this opportunity with both hands, not least because his wife Midori is slowly dying and his research is her only chance. His family's falling apart - his son Tetsuya has volunteered to go off and fight, leaving his girlfriend Luna back at home.
A year passes. Azuma's research still hasn't had any results worth the name, and Midori is now almost blind. Suddenly, Tetsuya is killed by a booby-trapped teddy bear and is returned home for a state funeral. Simultaneously, a bizarre, mile-high stone lightning bolt (plot hole #1) hits Azuma's lab at the Defence Ministry, causing strange speckly clock-like lights to fall into the tanks where Azuma keeps his body parts, causing them to bind together and the newly reconstituted dead to rise from the tank. Naito panics and calls in the soldiers, and one by one the neo-Sapiens, as they are will call themselves, are gunned down.
All except for a few, however, who manage to escape and make off in a car with Midori, who was attending Tetsuya's funeral at the Ministry. Akuma, overcome with grief at the death of both his son and his scientific work, takes Tetsuya's corpse from his coffin and revives him in the regeneration tanks, despite the protests of both Luna and (plot hole #2) Tetsuya's ghost...
The resurrected Tetsuya is now very powerful - and we're talking the sort of transformation that turned Peter Parker into Spiderman, or Bruce Banner into The Hulk - and so Luna's engineer father Kazuki, already a close colleague of Akuma, makes him a body armour so strong he can move at double speed without ripping himself into tiny, tiny pieces. His transformation into the legendary saviour of mankind Casshern, slayer of enemies, is almost complete. Meanwhile, the four neo-Sapiens who escaped have made it to a secreted fortress in the hinterland, where, still holding Midori hostage, they build a huge robot army just as their leader Burai, annoyed at his mates getting gunned down, unilaterally declares war on man...
OK, so the plot of this is neither believable nor fully comprehensible. Sometimes this movie feels like either you need a PhD in sub-anime plot twists or a solid background in comprehending semi-logical plot leaps, so labyrinthine are its twists and so incomprehensible are the motives of its characters. But it's not an exercise in plot; it's a visual treat, the equivalent of a rather nice Belgian chocolate cheesecake for your eyes. Much of the plotting of Casshern is nonsensical to the point of incomprehensibility, rendering it one of those movies where you just have to try to suspend your disbelief and natural inquisitiveness and go with the flow. It's a feature of every Shakespeare play (and don't forget Casshern is partly based on Hamlet) that you have to concentrate enormously for the first half hour or so, otherwise you're never going to have a clue what's going on. And Casshern's no different – you need to work out who's who (and what drives who) very quickly, otherwise, especially with all the complex political machinations that take place during the film, you'll end up lost quite swiftly. You can't help wondering if some of the no doubt huge wodges of cash thrown at the SFX might have been better spent on sorting out the script, which has the feel sometimes of being made up on the spot.
It's scarce to see a movie, let alone one from a first-time director, where every shot is a marvel, so carefully constructed, lit and shot that it's difficult to concentrate on much else. But perhaps one of the film's problems is, and it pains me to say it, is that it's just too damn good-looking. Right from the start you're bombarded with memorable image after memorable image, to the point really where you get overloaded. And while the stunning art design continues all the way through the movie, by the end it's almost as if you've been bludgeoned into submission - about halfway through, I almost got desensitised to the fabulous visuals and started engaging my brain; a problem when the movie has such obvious issues in its storyline.
While the performances are never less than solid, Yusuke Iseya's Tetsuya/Casshern really does push the boundaries of believable tortured superhero, preferring instead a stoic grimace when fighting to save mankind and/or Luna. Yes, Casshern the man is astonishingly brave, yes, he's still madly in love with Luna, but why does he have to be so cardboard in places? He's a cartoon character, to be frank – but bearing in mind this movie's provenance, that's not hugely surprising. Akira Terao is nothing short of imperious as Professor Azuma, while Kumiko Aso, despite her role in the film being little more than sitting, standing or lying with eyes wide open and running to Tetsuya's aid when needed, shows that her strong performance in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo was no fluke.
A strange meld of Zatoichi meeting Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow via Battle of the Planets, Casshern gives a dazzling display of special effects virtuosity whilst wearing its Weimar-era cinema influences on its sleeve. While the plot is over-complicated, the characterisations underdeveloped and it's a good half-hour too long, if you're prepared to go in thinking this isn't the second coming of cinema but instead a glittering yet flawed live action anime you're not going to be disappointed.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 8/10. Gorgeous eye-candy, shame about the plot
Violence: 11/10. Mass carnage on a robotular scale, giant nukes and all
Frightwigs: There's always room for a frightwig
Communist/Fascist imagery: epic
Style: Live-action anime. Contradiction in terms? YOU watch it!
Casshern Mask: This year's Battle Royale collar. Mandi would wear one down the shops
Films in a Similar Style: Akira, Metropolis (1927, not the anime one), Triumph des Willens, the masterpieces of Soviet Cinema, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Battle of the Planets
*** Beautifully baffling! ***
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Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2005
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.casshern.com/ - official international site with trailer, interviews, making of, etc
http://www.gofishpictures.com/casshern/ - official USA site
http://www.joblo.com/index.php?id=3829 - interview with director Kazuo Kiriya
http://www.kiriya.com/24h/enter.html - Kazuo Kiriya's official site
http://www.lovehkfilm.com/panasia/casshern.htm - insightful review from LoveHKFilm
http://www.midnighteye.com/reviews/casshern.shtml - Midnight Eye call it "not a totally binary affair though". Make of that what you will. ;-)
http://www.empireonline.co.uk/site/incinemas/ReviewInFull.asp?FID=10655 - our favourite movie rag Empire's take on the film
http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,14931-1496894,00.html - The (London) Times wasn't too keen either
http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/fridayreview/story/0,12102,1424452,00.html - The Grauniad hated another movie we like! Nuahgty Grauniad!
http://www.kfccinema.com/reviews/scifi/casshern/casshern.html - KFCC liked it, mostly
http://www.eyeonanime.co.uk/site/articalereport.php?articaleid=8 - interesting review from an anime fan's perspective
http://www.dvdscan.com/casshern.htm - thoroughly attentive technical review of the Japanese DVD, done with love
http://www.atamaii.com/casshern-041108.html - Casshern TOYS!!! Merch... mmm, merch goodness...