Casshern (2004) Directed by Kazuaki Kiriya
Starring Yusuke Iseya, Kumiko Aso, Akira Terao, Kanako Higuchi, Fumiyo Kohinata, Toshiaki Karasawa

An explosion of visual effects propels you through a nightmarish world of decimation, disease and hopelessness. Each scene is a careful construction of live actors, matte painting and computer animation, pulsating and shifting faster than your eyes can follow. It’s Japan’s $6 million contribution to the wonderful world of green screen movie making, and it’s a consuming piece of post-production mayhem.

In the future Japan has rekindled its Imperialistic ways, deeply embroiled in a war with Eurasia. On the home front disease runs rampant from a cocktail of radioactivity and chemical poisoning. Dr. Azuma (Akira Terao) seeks funding and support from the government to research what he hopes will be a medical breakthrough using “neo-cells” derived from “original humans” who happen to be some of the people (I think Tibet) the Japanese are warring with; the xenophobic council, loath to give any credence to the foreign devils, laugh him off the stage. But the military is waiting in the wings and with their support Azuma is able to begin research with full funding and plenty of dead soldiers to experiment on.

Casshern 1

If work sounds bleak his home life isn’t much better. His wife Midori (Kanako Higuchi) is quickly losing her own battle with a mysterious degenerative illness and his son Testuya (Yusuke Iseya) hates his guts for not being able to provide a cure. During a photoshoot with his newlywed Luna (Kumiko Aso) and her father Dr. Kozuki (Fumiyo Kohinata) Tetsuya sticks it to his old man by announcing his intention to run off to the frontlines like an upstanding citizen, not heeding anyone’s protestations.

Casshern 5

The hotheaded Tetsuya soon learns his father was right– war is something he could never has expected and the daily dehumanization quickly grinds him to pieces and then spits him out by means of a booby-trapped baby. His mother, now almost entirely blind, is surprised to find him in the garden speaking with her and then shocked when he disappears and is replaced by a soldier informing her of Testuya’s death. Dr. Azuma is informed over the phone but as he breaks down his laboratory is struck with lighting and vats of body parts being treated with neo-cells begin to steam and churn; the arms and legs and heads begin to bind together and from the primordial ooze come regenerated people. The military liaison loses it and orders soldiers to shoot the reborn but in the confusion a small group, following their messianic leader (Toshiaki Karasawa) escape to the street where Tetsuya’s funeral train, his new widow, his ghost and the military all converge. Some innocents are killed and some of the reborn escape with Midori. In a state of shock Dr. Azuma drags his son’s corpse to the vats for reanimation as his disgruntled son argues helplessly from beyond. Luna and her father whisk Tetsuya away and we’ve got ourselves the set-up.

Casshern 2

The rest of the movie is dedicated to the lost tribe of regenerated mutant people wandering through the radioactive wasteland before finding an ancient castle where they keep Midori safe and work on destroying the rest of humanity for the crimes committed against the reborn. While an army of war robots is miraculously constructed based on designs left laying the in the dust Dr. Kozuki uses his knowledge of body armor to stabilize Tetsuya which comes in handy because soon the robot minions are attacking. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, enemies of the regenerated mutant people as well as the state, Tetsuya has little hope but to find his mother and exact his own revenge. Oh, and meanwhile the son of Japan’s dictator initiates a coup, Dr. Azuma continues working on curing disease and Japan continues its war against Eurasia. And that’s only what I could follow.

Casshern 7

Obviously the source material (an old anime series from the early 70’s) had more time to build up characters and tell threads of stories and the overbearing weight of a futuristic war-epic crushes this movie like a tin can. There’s no way that anything as massive can be explained, shown and resolved in a little over two hours, and the American release had about twenty minutes cut. This leaves a lot of head scratching about plot gaps and presumably can also be held accountable for some desperately irrational twists and turns along the way. Sometimes things simply don’t make sense– if you would enjoy this movie at all it will be because you’ve let go of your conventions and accepted the fact that this is a fantastical flight of fancy. However, piecemeal and fractured as it is there’s a surprising amount of moralizing and ethical examination that takes place and while the characters are essentially names and faces playing roles some universal truths are exploited successfully enough to land an emotional punch or two.

Casshern 3

Most people probably wanted to see this entirely because of the fact that it was made more in post-production than during shooting. The saturation which takes place in every scene takes some getting used to but it looks very impressive. I’m not a fan of anime and I’m not particularly fond of CGI but although it frequently felt like I was watching a video game the spectacle was astonishing enough to keep my eyes rolling around a mile a minute. What was curious to me was that the streamlined efficiency of anime, at least the mainstream stuff I’ve been exposed to, was kept to a minimum and the movie looked more influenced by David Lynch’s Dune, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Ralph Bakshi’s more menacing animation. There’s no single aesthetic that runs through the entire film; different locations are shown differently with their own color schemes, filters and effects. The safe havens of the Japanese government and the private citizens are rich and deep, the scenes of the frontlines are all silver and black, the wastelands grainy and bleached. The changes are never jarring and lend themselves well to the overall feel of the movie.

The editing, beyond the obvious piecing together CGI and live action, was also striking. Kiriya and company had a lot of fun with running montages of dialogue or having entire sequences shot over monologues. A lot of the back story that is missed during the frenetic beginning of the movie gets filled in over time during conversations which is rather effective in helping you parse together information. There are some unfortunate hyperactive fight scenes between regenerated super beings but for the most part the camera work is pleasantly reserved which helps balance the amount of activity choking the screen at all times.

Casshern 4

This isn’t a movie intended for actors, but no one was particularly bad. There are enough genre conventions for everyone to fill with just the right amount of overbearing, theatrical emphasis. While the story follows the trajectories of several characters it’s very easy to keep them straight, although this may have more to do with their costumes than their talent. I did enjoy Akira Terao’s understated approach to the Dr. Azuma character and feel he put a little extra effort in out of either embarrassment or years of playing similar roles well.

As with all Japanese movies the music is horrible but the sound is very well designed. The subtitles were easy enough to follow, although I’ve read some criticism. There’s some confusion over releases since the Japanese DVD runs 141 minutes and the US release was closer to two hours but that’s what Netflix has. If you really wanna do it then I figure you may as well do it all the way and this is available to torrent, in its entirety, with English subs.