Casshern, Kazuaki Kiriya

One of the side benefits of having a T1 connection at work means that it’s very easy to download the latest movie trailers when they hit the web. As a result, a number of movie trailers have wowed and stunned my co-workers and I, including trailers for the Lord of the Rings, The Matrix sequels, Spiderman 2, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and Immortel, to name a few. However, I think it’s pretty safe to say that few trailers were as impressive as the trailer for Casshern.

I was wholly unfamiliar with the classic animé series on which the movie was (loosely) based, but no matter. Just the single shot of the hero slicing a giant robot in half with his bare hands was enough to get me hooked — and of course, the visuals looked absolutely stunning, even moreso than those of Sky Captain (easily one of the most visually impressive film in recent memory). But as it turns out, the movie is even far more ambitious than its trailer ever suggested.

Set at some point in the distant future, Casshern begins after the end of a 50-year war between two great nations, Europa and the Greater Eastern Federation. The Greater Eastern Federation has emerged the victor, but at a terrible cost. Radioactivity, pollution, and chemical warfare — not to mention the staggering number of casualties — have all taken their toll on the populace, leaving the nation on the verge of collapse.

Then Dr. Azuma (Akira Terao) appears, claiming to have developed a revolutionary medical process utilizing so-called ​“neo-cells.” Neo-cells can be used to create any human limb and organ, without fear of rejection, which makes them the perfect tool for rebuilding the human race. Although rejected by his colleagues, the military expresses interest in funding his research. Despite being reluctant to accept the military’s offer, Azuma has no choice. The nation is dying and needs the technology in order to survive. And on a more personal level, Azuma’s wife, Midori (Kanako Higuchi), is going blind and needs the neo-cells to regain her sight.

A year goes by, and Azuma’s lab is up and running. However, Azuma is far from excited. Midori’s condition has worsened and his son Tetsuya (Yusuke Iseya), tired of staying home while his friends fight, has enlisted in the army against Azuma’s wishes, leaving behind his lovely fiancé Luna (Kumiko Aso).

After a year of fighting, Tetsuya is now a shell of his former self, having been overwhelmed by the horrors of war. While on patrol, he’s killed by an enemy trap and shipped back home for burial, right when Azuma’s lab undergoes a bizarre malfunction. A bolt of lightning strikes the facility and energizes the neo-cells, which begin forming a bizarre race of human-like creatures. The military moves in to contain the lab, killing all but a few of the creatures in a bloody massacre. In a desperate act, Azuma immerses Tetsuya’s corpse in the energized neo-cell tank, which miraculously brings him back to life.

However, Tetsuya’s body has been changed by the neo-cells, and he must be encased within a special suit of armor lest his body tear itself apart — which proves quite fortunate. The surviving neo-cell humanoids, who have taken Midori captive and dubbed themselves ​“Neo-Sapiens,” have declared war on humanity. Possessing superhuman powers, and backed by a robotic armada that they discovered in an abandoned castle, the Neo-Sapiens are laying waste throughout the land.

At this point, you might expect me to go on and on about how Casshern piles on the robot-fighting action as the reborn Tetsuya tears his way through the Neo-Sapiens’ army to save mankind and rescue his mother. True, that sort of stuff does occur in the film — there are tremendous action sequences, as can be seen in the trailer, where Tetsuya tears through enemy robots like a warm knife through butter — but it represents only a small portion of what takes place within Casshern. As the film progresses, it quickly becomes apparent that director Kazuaki Kiriya is going for something far more ambitious than a mere action movie or animé remake.

At its core, Casshern is a meditation on the futility of war and the darker sides of mankind’s ambition, albeit one adorned with cool-looking robots, generous amounts of CGI, and lots of explosions. Much of the film centers on the characters of Tetsuya and Luna, the Neo-Sapiens, and Azuma and Midori, as they wrestle with the things they have done, the battles they must wage, and the prices they must pay. Those expecting a non-stop action-fest will be sorely disappointed, as Kiriya puts much of the film in a far more contemplative mode.

Furthermore, a heavy undercurrent of tragedy flows throughout the movie. In Casshern, noone is truly good or heroic, with the possible exceptions of Midori and Luna (both of whom spend the movie bathed in luminous light and looking angelic while the world goes mad around them). Everyone else, however, has skeletons in their closet, even relatively minor characters in the background. Tetsuya is haunted by the deeds he’s committed as a soldier and tortured by his current state of existence; Azuma must wrestle with his creation, originally planned for good, having run amok; the Neo-Sapiens are consumed by their hatred for humanity; all of the human officials are thoroughly corrupt and devious; and the list goes on and on.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Casshern weaves in some pretty fantastical, even spiritual and mythological imagery, weaving in notions about guardian spirits, the inter-connectedness of everyone, etc. This is doubly so in the film’s final act, when mankind mounts a final, apocalyptic assault on the Neo-Sapiens, and the characters’ actions grow more and more desperate. Certain events, which primarily revolve around Tetsuya’s evolution, occur that make sense only if they’re viewed with this mind, but Kiriya doesn’t make the transition to the more fantasy-based aspects all that smoothly. Which means the movie can feel a bit disjointed and overwhelmed at times, as Kiriya piles onto the film every single idea he’s got.

Even if you find yourself wondering just where in the heck Kiriya is going sometimes, or what he meant by that particular image or scene, it’s almost impossible to not get caught up in the movie’s lavish visuals. The trailer hints at that, but it’s truly amazing to see the visual palette Kiriya works with. Sure, there’s a tons of incredible CGI (like Sky Captain, Casshern was shot almost entirely on blue screen), but Kiriya uses it in a very artistic fashion (not surprising given that Kiriya also works as a fashion photographer).

The range of visual styles can be a bit mindboggling at times, as Kiriya shifts from heavily CGI’d environments to more fantastical settings, from really gritty battle scenes to more nostalgic, home movie-esque footage. And he even throws in what appears to be some pseudo-claymation for good measure.

The battles are appropriately intense and reach a very animé-esque pitch (hampered only slightly by the actors themselves), complete with retro sound effects that I imagine were lifted from the original series. The backdrops and vistas are quite hellish, again appropriate for a land that has been ravaged by decades of war. And the city scenes perfectly project the totalitarian state in which the characters live, borrowing heavily from Russian, Nazi Germany, and Roman imagery.

As much as I love the big, epic scenes, it’s not uncommon for the actors (who all give solid performances) to get swallowed up by the scenery. Don’t get me wrong… I love it when Tetsuya takes on thousands of CGI robots, or when the film takes us through cityscapes that owe as much to Gilliam as they do to Orwell, but my favorite scenes in the movie are the more contemplative, surreal, and imaginary ones. Like when the Neo-Sapiens’ exile is turned into something resembling a religious pilgrimage, or when the film throws in flashbacks to a more peaceful time.

One of my favorite scenes takes place between Luna and Tetsuya shortly after they escape from the Neo-Sapiens army. As the two embrace and argue over whether or not Luna should leave, the film layers on several different ​“versions” of the couple — them as embracing lovers, as terrified refugees, as young children — and intercuts between them. The result is somewhere between a flashback, a dream sequence, and an internal monologue. It sounds confusing on paper, and it is initially confusing onscreen, but as it unfolds, it proves rather haunting, presenting us multiple facets of the characters all at once.

So does Casshern live up to hype? I’d be lying if I said that it doesn’t stumble disappointingly in places, usually when Kiriya attempts to push his pacifist message to near-mythical heights. But I count it to Kiriya’s credit that Casshern actually does pack an emotional punch by its end, concluding things with a very melodramatic, yet quite touching dénouement — especially given the film’s traumatic and über-apocalyptic climax.

I once read a review of Donnie Darko (itself another stunning debut) in which the reviewer remarked that the film ​“may be too ambitious for a debut feature, but ambition and imagination still trump mediocrity any day of the week.” That easily sums up my opinion with Casshern. Any way you look at it, there’s no denying that Casshern is an extremely ambitious film, probably one of the most ambitious I’ve seen in a long time. And the fact that this was Kiriya’s first film (not only did he direct, he also wrote the screenplay, edited the film, and was the cinematographer), and that he made it with only $6 million, only adds to that impression.