I don’t know if “live-action anime sci-fi operatic drama” can be considered a genre of its own, but assuming it is a thing, then 2004’s Casshern could well be considered the Citizen Kane of films bearing the same aesthetics and sensibilities. Whether or not that has any meaning whatsoever is up to you, but what’s undeniable is that Casshern today remains a potent cocktail comprised of equal parts melodrama, CGI backdrops, and cartoon action and logic that stands on its own regardless of how one personally reacts to it; it’s an uneven film, for certain, top-heavy and melodramatic all the way to the core, but full of imagination and sharp, evocative set and costume design befitting the story’s heightened theatricality. No classic for certain, Casshern still remains the sort of film that absolutely deserves to be seen at least once.
Oh, did I forgot to mention that it’s incredibly convoluted? In a future Earth coated by pollution, the Eastern Federation wars against a rebellious contingent of resistance fighters in Eurasia’s Zone 7; as conflict rages, Dr. Azuma (Akira Terao) struggles to gain funding for his Neo Cell research, which can restore human tissue and which he hopes can cure his ailing wife (Kanako Higuchi). A freak lightning strike ends up reanimating the Neo Cells as Neo Humans, who are summarily slaughtered save for the strongest few who kidnap Mrs. Azuma in their escape and vow vengeance; it also brings Tetsuya (Yusuke Iseya), a deceased soldier as well as the doctor’s only son, back to life and bestowed with superhuman strength, speed, and agility. He’s immediately outfitted with prototype power armor to keep his unstable form from destroying itself, and thus the stage is set for conflict between the young man and the angry Neo Humans.
Calling the above “bare bones” would be generous, though. The whole of Casshern is much greater than a mere plot summary can encapsulate properly, which I mean as both a compliment and a criticism of sorts– more of a warning, really. Casshern is a huge film, over-stuffed to the point of bloat so great it threatens to topple over in a glorious collapse of failure. Yet somehow, through sheer will or some other machination, Casshern remains on its feet through sheer force of will and style. Substance notwithstanding, Casshern‘s the kind of picture that sticks with viewers by virtue of dazzling stylization instead of the precise telling of an evocative story. There’s certainly plot and narrative on display here, but Casshern is a tale best told through its visual sensibilities and flair. Cinema, after all, is a visual medium, but director Kazuaki Kiriya knows that there needs to be something adequately substantive supporting his jaw-dropping imagery in order for it to resonate instead of just provide flash in the pan spectacle.
But the truth is that one doesn’t sit down to watch Casshern— and remain seated until the credits start rolling– for classic storytelling. No, you’re watching Casshern because Kiriya has style in spades.
Casshern wields a vast, expansive color palette ranging from muted to lush and exquisite, which Kiriya employs liberally to imbue a sense of individual identity in every detail of every frame. No scene is left underdone; each feels distinct and unique from the others, ensuring that no two scenes ever look the same way. Part of that also comes down to the film’s visual skeleton in the sets and costumes, which blend retro-sensibilities with a future-forward vision that I can only accurately describe as “edgy”. I don’t know if I ever expected to call upon fashion industry lingo to write a review, but if truth be told then Casshern at times feels like a futuristic fashion show interspersed with massive robot armies and totally unreal (in the best way possible) action sequences. Part of that comes down to the cinematography, which on a few occasions allows various actors to strike a pose before the camera– it might sound ridiculous on paper, but that attitude somehow totally works with the aesthetic of the film.
Amidst the film’s chromatic and variegated veneer of coolness, there in fact is a story being told about prejudice breeding vengeful retribution. The remaining Neo Humans– Burai (Toshiaki Karasawa), Saguree (Mayumi Sada), Barashin (Jun Kaname), and Sakamoto (Susumu Terajima*)– take it on themselves to punish humanity for the slaughter of their race, and by happy chance come into possession of a disused castle in which a giant robot factory constitutes a prime selling point. Manufacturing a mech army, the Neo Humans eagerly ignite war on humanity while coming into repeated conflict with Tetsuya as he struggles to come to terms with his resurrection and his scattered memories of the atrocities he witnessed and committed at war.
Again, that description hardly scratches the surface; Casshern is gargantuan in the themes it touches upon, from issues of classism to the senselessness of war to humanity’s drive to destroy itself. It’s a wonder that Casshern is able to touch on them all, but Kiriya is so adept in the ways of visual storytelling that the rich, vivid tapestry he weaves through his aesthetic relays more of the narrative than many of the film’s spoken lines could ever hope to. “Show don’t tell” is practically the film’s mantra; so much is left under-explained through dialogue** that Casshern would make no sense if lacked in visual mastery. However flawed and overloaded the film may be, all of the ideas and sentiments essential to making it palatable translate thoroughly through that attribute; obtuse as it is, Casshern still proves to be a totally bonkers triumph of style becoming the substance.
*Full disclosure: I may have the character’s name, and thus the actor’s, way wrong.
**Arguably the fault here can be placed at the doorstep of subtitles.