Like “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”, and before that, Mamoru Oshii’s “Avalon”, the Japanese sci-fi film “Casshern” seems to have been built on a foundation of, “It’d be really cool if we did this, and then follow it up with this!” ideas. Which is to say the film is mostly incoherent, muddled to the point of being overly pretentious, although it certainly delivers on the idea of a live action manga, complete with armored superhero, super tough bad guys, fighting robots, and enough special effects to drown your average Hollywood Summer event film in popcorn butter.
“Casshern” follows the misadventures of Tetsuya (Yusuke Iseya, recently in “Dead End Run”), a young man about to be married to the pretty Luna (Kumiko Aso, fresh from Takashi Miike’s “Zebraman”). But before he can get hitched, Tetsuya enters the armed forces determined to serve God and country like a good citizen. Tetsuya’s experiences in the battlefields prove traumatic, and soon he gets himself killed by an enemy booby trap. Meanwhile, back home, Tetsuya’s father Azuma (Akira Terao) is trying desperately to perfect his new “neo-cell” research, which he hopes will restore his beloved wife’s eyesight.
Since “Casshern” is a Superhero Origins Story, in short succession a freak accident creates mutated humans out of Azuma’s experiment. Before the mutants can be completely wiped out by the military, a few escape, taking Tetsuya’s mother with them. The leader of the mutants, justifiably soured by his experiences with his creators, decides to wipe them out. Luckily for the mutants, they stumble across an old castle in the snow-capped mountains that just happens to be filled with giant robots and a factory that can make even more robots. Unleashing his killer droids on the world, the mutants seem unstoppable. Of course, a resurrected Tetsuya, now wielding an experimental armor, might have something to say about that. That is, if he still cares to try.
If you have questions about the film’s plot from the synopsis I’ve provided above, don’t be alarmed. The film is convoluted to the point of being incomprehensible. As mentioned, it’s basically a series of, “It’d be really cool if this happened! And then this happened next!” ideas piled on top of one another, with the hopes that all the visual wizardly will save the day. Coherent plotting? Don’t be silly. From its anachronistic look to its obvious Nazi and Red Soviet inspirations, this is one of those movies that were created for the purpose of showing off an eclectic series of visuals.
Oh sure, the filmmakers get ambitious and start introducing serious themes of war and peace and what it means to march to war on the foolhardy ideals of nationalism, but all that gets lost in the bright colors, CGI, and green screen action. Like “Sky Captain”, this is a movie that will revolutionize the way films are made, similar to the way “The Matrix” gave birth to its imitators. The film mixes and merges cel animation, CGI, and live-action in color and grainy black and white with glee. It’s certainly a visually impressive film, even if it not much of it has any weight or gravitas to them, especially during the lengthy conclusion where armies of CGI robots battle armies of CGI soldiers. In fact, it reminds this reviewer of the CGI overload in “The Matrix: Revolutions” just a bit too much.
“Casshern’s” biggest influence is Oshii’s “Avalon”, from which it borrows the look, texture, and feel of. “Casshern” is, for all intents and purposes, a Japanese manga come to life; and like all Japanese manga, the less you try to make sense of it, the better off your movie viewing experience. At over two hours and change, “Casshern” is bloated and feels every bit like a movie trying to cram in too many subplots. Some of these subplots fail to interest, including the umpteenth attempt at Nazi parallels, as well as trying to tie the film into the current “war on terrorism”. Like “Battle Royale 2”, there’s something grossly ridiculous about how simplistic the Japanese views the current battle against worldwide terrorism. From their cinematic interpretations of current world events, you’d almost think the Japanese considers terrorism to be super duper great fun, and that if you try to stamp it out, you’re actually the real villain.
The action in “Casshern” ranges from decent to spectacular to wildly confusing. Casshern’s first battle, with a female mutant, is almost completely lost in erratic direction and editing. The second battle, featuring Casshern against an army of robots, is equally diluted by erratic camerawork and editing, but there were some logical flow to the action, and the alternative metal soundtrack made it worthwhile. In truth, it’s when people shut up and fight that “Casshern” manages to be entertaining. It’s when the film indulges in yet another long, tedious monologue that makes the pseudo philosophy gibberish of “The Matrix” films seem meaningful by comparison that the film drags mightily.
As purely a visual piece, “Casshern” earns points for originality (no matter how jumbled), and taking what Oshii did with “Avalon” and advancing it at least a couple of steps further. It’s entertaining to a point, and ex-music video director Kazuaki Kiriya certainly has an eye for details. Alas, the screenplay is not very inspiring, filled with gaping plot holes, nonsensical plotting, and relying on the usual sci-fi tropes of fascist society and “war is bad” themes that have been beaten to a pulp by other, better (and dare I say it? — more serious) films.
To wit: when your hero suits up in a form-fitting uniform that has hidden jetpacks and groovy lasers, trying to express serious themes with all the subtlety of a Nazi propaganda film by Leni Riefenstahl is a bit going against the grain. In any case, the movie lost all pretenses of intelligence when its mutant characters serendipitously stumbles across a castle full of killer robots. Any movie that dares to tackle such serious issues as war and peace should not have a plot hole this gargantuan.
My advice is to turn off the sound and just watch the pretty pictures. Your viewing experience will be about the same — give or take 50 or so pointless monologues about morality and humankind and why, gosh darn it, war is bad.
Kazuaki Kiriya (director) / Kazuaki Kiriya (screenplay), Dai Sato, Shotaro Suga, Tatsuo Yoshida (characters)
CAST: Yusuke Iseya …. Casshern/Tetsuya Azuma
Kumiko Aso …. Luna Kozuki
Akira Terao …. Kotaro Azuma
Kanako Higuchi …. Midori Azuma
Fumiyo Kohinata …. Kozuki
Hiroyuki Miyasako …. Akubon
Jun Kaname …. Barashin