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Casshern (2004)
Director: Kazuaki Kiriya

review by Patrick Hudson

Casshern is a live action film based on a Japanese anime series from the 1970s, Casshern: Robot Hunter. Using digital effects and a highly stylised approach, director Kazuaki Kiriya endeavours to capture the hyper-kinetic anime style in a live action feature. To a large extent, he succeeds and manages to maintain the genre's good points, but unfortunately some of the bad points as well. Hell, some of the good points are the bad points; anime is that sort of genre.

The sprawling, occasionally opaque plot is somewhat difficult to summarise. The world has been at war for years, and is a ravaged hellhole under the domination of a totalitarian regime. Disease and pollution threaten the future of the human race, but scientist Professor Azuma is close to a breakthrough with his 'neo-cell' experiments which promise to grow new limbs and organs for the sick and the wounded.

Dr Azuma's advances are rejected by the health ministry in favour of their own cloning experiments, but he is recruited by the military to research longevity treatments for the aging tyrant. In the meantime, Azuma's son Tetsuya joins the army and goes to the front against the wishes of his father, his terminally ill mother Midori and his beautiful fiancée Luna. A year later, he is killed and brought back to his family home (also where Azuma conducts his experiments) to be buried. As the funereal procession slowly marches Tetsuya's body to the doors of his home, a mysterious bolt of energy shoots down from the skies into the vats where Azuma has been growing body parts. The body parts spontaneously join together and form mutant super-beings.

All hell breaks loose. The army moves in and guns down the fleeing mutants, while the survivors kidnap Midori and drive off in Azuma's car. Azuma rushes out too late to stop them, but, finding his son's body, dunks him in the neo-cell vats, which brings him back to life. However, neo-cells leave Tetsuya's body unstable, and Luna's father (another famous scientist) constructs a suit of armour for him that will contain his potentially explosive form. Thus protected, he sets about trying to save mankind from both the totalitarian regime and the super mutants, who have discovered a hidden cache of giant robots deep in the mountains and declared war on the human race.

This complicated set-up (enough for a film or two in its own right) is just the beginning, though, and from here, we are career through a story of conflicted loyalties, mighty battles of super-powered foes and final redemption. It doesn't always make a lot of sense, and occasionally no sense at all, but that is really secondary to the film's philosophical and aesthetic goals.
warfare in Casshern
Casshern's origins in a long-running TV show possibly explain its disjointed narrative. Certainly, there are more than a few 'what the hell?' moments where one can see that something that might have made sense in the more nuanced version over a long period, is less convincing without more background - the mysterious bolt from above, and the handy cache of robots, for example. On occasion its anime roots show quite clearly and these do not always mesh well with the film's loftier ambitions - the super powered fights and the mystical Casshern don't quite gel with the harrowing scenes of grubby death in the grisly war.

However, the production design and photography are first rate. The retro-future world is brilliantly imagined, with superb detail in costuming and technology, from the old-fashioned military uniforms to the use of propeller-driven vehicles. The technological designs - particularly the robots and tanks - pleasingly combine hi-tech with obsolete trends in industrial design. This look, reminiscent of films such as Brazil, City Of Lost Children, and another recent anime inspired film, Avalon, takes the story away from any connection to the events or history of the real world. It's a myth and Kiriya uses the technical elements at his disposal to explore a world of ideas and archetypes.

He makes wonderfully subtle use of the colour palette, going from sepia tones, to black and white, to over-saturated hyper-real colour. This is achieved through the liberal use of CGI, both for effects shots and backgrounds, in place of mattes for large sets, and in the processing and editing. Very occasionally it suffers from the fate of a lot of CGI films, with scenes that look a little too much like video game cut scenes, and here and there the CGI is not well blended with the grain of the film stock. But design flair and originality combine to make it one of the most visually arresting CGI films I have seen.

There are some good performances from the cast of well-known Japanese actors. Yusuke Iseya does well with the role of Testuya, suggesting the conflict of his desire for peace while being forced to fight, and Toshiaki Karasawa brings energy and charisma to his portrayal of the dark super-mutant leader Brai. Akira Terao as Azuma provides real meat in his performance, and many of the film's more affecting moments are down to him. The female actors are given less to work with: Kanako Higuchi spends a lot of time swooning (to be fair, Midori is in a coma for most of the film), and Kumiko Aso does what she can with the role of Luna the drippy anime girl who wonders why people fight wars - I guess a lecture on geopolitics, the pressures of scarce resources, and the irrational nature of culture clashes is beyond the scope of this film.

As is often the case, the biggest weakness is also one of its great strengths, in this case the mannered, operatic approach to key emotional moments. The slow pace of these scenes - Tetsuya's resurrection, the deaths of super-mutants Sagyar and Akbone, the mutants' over-extended escape from the lab - on the one hand effectively highlights their emotional resonance, but on the other left me shifting impatiently in my seat. It might have worked better if used less often, but when it does work - at the climax, for example - it is very powerful.

If I have a real problem with Casshern, it's with the music. The soundtrack doesn't really seem to be able to decide what it wants to be; with well known classical works mixed with original orchestral music and snatches of rock during the fights. Kiriya probably needed to make a more definite decision about the aural identity of his film earlier on, as he has done with the visual element. And sometimes I really wish Beethoven had never written the Moonlight Sonata.

Casshern is probably not for everyone. If you like your genre films taut and focused, you will find this film frustrating and slow moving. It reminded me as much of Andrei Tarkovsky or Peter Greenaway as James Cameron or Sam Raimi. One can dismiss the film's philosophical and narrative elements as incoherent or na�ve - perhaps a function of the source material - but that is to miss the point. Kiriya isn't trying to reason with us, he's beaming emotions and sensations straight into our brains through the optic nerve. Whatever reservations I have about the film's pace and structure, he has without doubt managed to create an amazing and beautiful film.

Related item:
tZ  Temptation Of The Nonlinear: Kazuaki Kiriya - interviewed
Casshern

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industrial landscape in Casshern

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