2004年05月19日 水曜日

Casshern: SciFi Unseen

by Deborah Shamoon

Features, Movies

Japan may lead the world in animation, but it's not generally known for live action sci fi films, or at least serious ones for adults (Godzilla notwithstanding). Budgetary restraints are probably one reason, but advances in computer animation could change that. Behold, Casshern, Kiriya Kasuaki's massive, visually stunning new epic. It's probably the best SF film this year that you won't see.

Casshern animeCasshern is actually based on a relatively unknown 1970s anime TV show of the same name, given a shiny new CGI gloss and serious tone, meant to appeal to the 30 somethings who grew up watching it. In spite of its attempted seriousness, however, the plot is silly even by anime standards. Set in an alternate future in which Japan has conquered the world, the story concerns a group of Frankenstein-like clones intent on destroying all humans with their robot army. Humanity's last best hope is Tatsuya (Iseya Yusuke), a reanimated corpse with post-traumatic stress disorder and a stretchy vinyl exoskeleton that gives him superhuman strength and the ability to fly. All the stock characters of 70s anime are here: Tatsuya's unloving scientist father Dr. Azuma (Terao Akira), his sickly, sainted mother archetypically named Midori (Higuchi Kanako), his innocent, child-like girlfriend Luna (Aso Kumiko), the evil council of wrinkly old politicos, and in the team of bad guys (headed by Karasawa Toshiaki), the charismatic psychopath, the bitchy fighting girl, the vain handsome guy and the irritating hunchback. If you have seen even one of these shows, you know already exactly what is going to happen and in what order everyone will die. As with so many anime movies, you can expect to hear long soliloquies on what it means to be human, the evils of war, vague mysticism, mushy-headed philosophizing, rampant oedipal conflict and of course the obligatory flashback to Tatsuya and Luna as children, running together in an idyllic green field.

Of course, the SF anime genre still has its strong points, even after 30 years. Don't be fooled by the occasional mentions of cloning and terrorism inserted to give the plot a veneer of currency. Like many shonen manga of the 1970s, the real historical context of Casshern is WWII, and the expression of collective guilt over Japanese wartime atrocities, in this case, vivisection and the slaughter of civilians. In this respect, the film touches on some deeper issues, if only very briefly. And, as in many anime films, the division between the good guys and the bad guys is blurry at best, a generic trope Hollywood would be wise to adopt, even as it copies so much else from anime.

Casshern visual

But even as the plot lurches towards its inevitable apocalyptic end, it's really not the point. The reason to see Casshern is not the rather lame story, but the lush, astonishing visuals. Casshern looks like a 1930s Soviet propaganda poster come to life, with robots. It's a golden twilight and deep red tinted fusion of retro fascist, goth and steampunk aesthetics that looks refreshingly original in a sea of green and black toned Matrix rip-offs (including the latest Appleseed movie, a sad example of anime eating its own tail). It's probably not going too far to say that Casshern is the most visually inventive SF film since the first Matrix, which seems to have been cursed by its own brilliance. Even the Wachowski Bros. have found it nearly impossible to replicate the visual surprise and pleasure of first seeing Trinity's shiny vinyl-clad ass hanging in midair. In part, the key to Casshern's success is that it is not so much a live-action film as a computer animated film with occasional close-ups of live actors. Furthermore, Kiriya (himself the writer, director and cinematographer) makes it work because rather than trying to make it all look real, he revels in an anime-type fakeness appropriate to the operatic storyline. He makes the human actors move like anime characters, and in the fight scenes uses quick cuts, point of view shots and extreme close-ups, so you never have time to wonder how it's done. Even in the static dialog scenes, he arranges the actors in beautifully staged tableaux, like the layered panels of a manga page, liberally adds CGI embellishments and layers the dialog with multiple layers of narration. Many scenes with the live actors are filmed to look deliberately blurred, distorted or over-exposed, and shot in grainy black and white for daringly long segments. It's the only way to make this hybrid of CGI and live action work and to give the rather silly story gravitas by foreclosing any questions of logic and believability.

Casshern movie poster
One of the more interesting visual tropes is the mixture of Cyrillic and kanji that appear everywhere. It's a nice touch, and a slight reference to Japan's world dominance in this alternate future, although the cast is of course all Japanese. This kind of monoculturalism would hardly be surprising in a Hollywood film but Americans sometimes have a hard time taking the same thing from other countries. If there is a Hollywood remake (which seems likely, a la Ring) it will be interesting to see how much of the Japanese context remains, and how much the mixing of Soviet and Nazi elements are played up.

As for when you might get to see the original outside Japan, don't hold your breath. So far no one has bought the rights, and it will probably be years, if ever, before this film is exported. Even in Japan, the film's almost completely unpublicized run has ended after less than a month. Lack of PR and revenue-producing merchandising is a major problem for the anime industry in general, and in this case it's really too bad such an epic film is almost ignored in favor of Hollywood films, even in its home country. The night I saw Casshern at a tiny theater in Shibuya, it was completely sold out, but the theater only holds 200 seats. A lot of my otaku friends admit they've missed it, which I think is due to lack of publicity. Meanwhile, I watched Master and Commander and Cold Mountain in cavernous theaters in Shinjuku that were nearly empty. What's going on here? There's a potentially huge market both in Japan and abroad for stylish Japanese SF films, but so far the Japanese film industry is letting the opportunity slip by, which is a shame.

Posted by Deborah Shamoon at 2004年05月19日 18:34


Spot-on review of Casshern, Deborah, although I don't know what you mean as a lack of PR. It was all over morning tv shows like Mezamashi Terebi, as well as media mags like PIA, and it is still playing in theaters all over Japan (probably in part thanks to the hit single by Utada Hikaru, which is the ending theme, I think)...

2- Deborah

Yes, Kiriya Kazuaki is perhaps better known as Mr. Utada Hikaru, hence the use of her songs. And while there has been some PR, it just doesn't compare to the media blitz we see for nearly every big-budget Hollywood movie. Like that giant Trojan Horse in Kabuki-cho, yeesh. But you're right, it is still playing in theaters in Japan, my mistake.

Wow, I can't believe I missed it. Is ia already out of the theaters in Tokyo? I was at the opening night of both Innocense AND Appleseed... bad PR- make that NO PR.

4- Mimi

There was a fair amount of buzz around USC about this film a few months ago when the trailer was being passed around the net. Sorry to hear that there are no plans for US release yet and am very surprised that it has had such limited release in Japan. Any news from other parts of the world?

My next trip to Tokyo might be in September. I hope the Casshern DVD is out then; I can buy a few copies and bring them back for my friends. They'll have to have region 2 players, I guess. And there won't be any English subtitles. Oh well.

Also, an April 28th <a href="http://www.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/getarticle.pl5?ff20040428a2.htm">here's Casshern review from the Japan Times</a>: "It's back to the future in style" by Mark Schilling.

7- antonio

i wish i knew what they were saying... i dled the movie but can only guess about the dialogue

Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.<a href="http://click.ovvirqsxlr.com/">.</a>.

Hi! abechan living in Japan.
I think that civilization of Japan has been built by the ethical view that human nature is basically evil like France.

10- Brian

Well, I didnt see the movie in Japan, for I live in Southern California, but I did see it. It was amazing. I had no idea what they are saying (thats why im reading this page, so i could get a little more of the plot), but being a CGI man myself, I fell in love with the movie. It was amazing! Also, i love apocolyptic movies and stories (therefore being a Fallout fan). anywho, you all need to see it. and for "abechan". france... dood, dont hate man. ya dick.

11- Seen it

I had subtitles, knew what the plot was and this movie still sucked major ass. What a horrible pile of crap, the only thing that made it worth while in any way was the rediculous over the top action (when there was any) and the fact that they seemed to be taking themselves seriously made it almost a laugh. Avoid if you like good asian film making.

12- emina

I absolutely love it. The plot was interesting and it feels somewhat of how the end of the world will come about. I don't know anything about the anime or tv show the movie was based on, and perhaps I'm just taking a philosphical view on the movie, but I'd recommend it to those who likes to ponder about the interesting characters in a story.

13- Louis

I bought the subtitled dvd movie and I loved it. The trailer made it look like an action movie when it is really a drama about phylosiphy and how war isn't a good thing. I recommend seeing this movie. It should be coming into the states soon since Dreamworks had just bought the rights. People who don't like this movie probably don't like thinking and are too used to watching movies that barely have a story line. I only like to watch good movies and Casshern is a great one.

14- David

I saw this at Comic-con International in San Diego. Picked it up and didnt realize it was based on the anime that I saw when I was 12. Bought and watched it, parts are like most movies in this genre, convoluted, confusing references that most japanese would only understand. This synopsis helped me understand it better though. Also found out that DreamWorks picked up the movie and should be releasing it stateside within the next 12 months, proabably within the first 6 months of 2006.

15- Seth

Awesome review man, I couldn't agree with you more.

16- Robert McAuley

Great review, although I love the story. The Mvie has been release on DVD in the UK for some time now :D

17- Todd

well i know this article is old, but ah well :)

I saw this in HMV (a uk store) and it imediately intruiged me. The film was amazing, the visuals are superb. Some parts of the plot annoyed me though, like that giant lightening bolt, who made it, where did it come from? just seemed a bit wierd.

might try and find the anime, and i heard there are a few novels as well.

Good review :o)

18- Wybe

MTV actually broadcasted it earlier this week, the film is absolutely awesome.

19- beatdragon

I have seen Casshern 2 times in germany,bease I live in Germany.well,Casshern is a very great film.Now Im a Casshern fanatic...^^
and because I have sawn Casshern,Im getting japan-crazy...^^that mean Im a Nippon-Otaku hihi...

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