Casshern (2004)

Casshern first published by Movie Gazette

In 1973, Tatsunoko Productions created an animated series for Japanese television called Shinzo Ningen Casshan, about a heroic superfighter named Casshan who defended the human race against wicked androids accidentally unleashed by his father’s experiments. It was pretty much your standard good-versus-evil anime, daft enough to find room even for a canine cyber-sidekick named Friender who could conveniently transform himself into an airborne jet when transport was required. Yet for his feature debut Casshern, fashion photographer and music video director Kazuaki Kiriya has retained just the barest bones of the original’s plot, and changed everything else beyond all recognition. The result is a live-action, big-screen war epic whose vividly colourful CG backgrounds are offset by a morality that is all grey – and Friender has only the briefest of cameos as a very ordinary mutt.

A fifty-year war between Europe and the Eastern Federation has left environmental devastation in its wake, and ravaged the population with disease and genetic disorder. While Professor Azuma (Akira Terao) reluctantly accepts military funding to continue his experiments with regenerative ‘neo-cells’ in the hope of finding a cure for his dying wife Midori (Kanako Higuchi), his son Tetsuya (Yusuke Iseya) is killed on the battlefield. A freak lightning storm causes the professor’s bank of “spare parts for the human machine” to mesh into new life-forms, and when the military fires upon them unprovoked, the four surviving mutants, led by Brai (Toshiaki Karasawa), take Midori hostage and flee to an abandoned castle where they create a huge army of robots to take vengeance on the entire human race. Meanwhile the professor washes his son’s corpse in the same revitalising fluid from which the mutants emerged, and Tetsuya is reborn as the moody messiah Casshern. In the melodramatic confrontations and baroque battles that follow, it is difficult to know who is the real enemy as everyone, apart from the compassionate Midori and Tetsuya’s fiancée Luna (Kumiko Aso), seems compromised by a destructive hubris that is all too human.

All at once the myth of Frankenstein, a family tragedy, a saga of sweeping conflicts, a plea for peace and brotherly love, an apocalypse of biblical proportions, and a pessimistic morality fable, Casshern is nothing if not ambitious. Yet for all the demands which the convoluted and not entirely coherent plot makes on the viewer, in the end its anti-war message is too simplistic and unsophisticated to make any effort of concentration seem worthwhile.

Fortunately, however, there is ample compensation in the film’s sumptuous visual aesthetic. More reminiscent of the operatic expressionism of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) than of more recent retro-futurist works like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), Casshern is so stunning and strange to behold, saturating the screen with such rococo detail, that it is impossible to believe it was made for under 6 million US dollars. Overlong, heavy-handed and thoroughly humourless it may be, but Casshern really does represent a spectacularly stylised mutation of the way we look at the world of war.

Summary: Overblown, overearnest and overlong, but Casshern also looks spectacular and strange.

Anton Bitel