“Casshern” – A.J. Hakari

I’ve bemoaned in the past that just because a story can be told through animation, that doesn’t mean it necessarily should be. But rarely is the case ever vice versa, a live-action picture whose great potential would be best seized in cartoon form. Sure enough, though, this is how it is with Japan’s Casshern, a sci-fi epic that actually did begin life as an anime series in the ’70s. The only downside is that instead of delivering a tale to appeal to the tastes of cinephiles in this day and age, all Casshern does is make you wonder if the show was any better.


Untold ages into the future, a 50-year war between Asia’s forces and the massive robot armies of Europa has come to a close. There’s still work to be done in mending soldiers and helping the devastated population, and thus Dr. Azuma (Akira Terao) enters the picture with a sure-fire means of doing just that. He’s recently discovered the presence of “Neo-Cells,” building blocks of life that have come courtesy of the ancestry of Earth’s first occupants. Unfortunately, Dr. Azuma’s experiments give rise to the Neo-Sapiens, a race of superhumans who promptly flee into the country and start using a huge stash of Europa’s robotic warriors to wage a whole new war on mankind. But the human race’s future may just end up in the hands of one individual: Tetsuya (Yusuke Iseya), Dr. Azuma’s son, who, having recently been resurrected from the dead after being placed in a Neo-Cell bath, now finds himself endowed with enhanced abilities similar to the malevolent supermen (and woman). Taking the name of a long-dead warrior, Casshern, Tetsuya sets about taking on the Neo-Sapiens as a one-man army, stopping at nothing to save his loved ones and the world as well from imminent destruction.


The most distinctive aspect of Casshern is its visual sense, although in this case, that’s not necessarily a good thing. This film uses similar digital technology to that of what Sin City and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow used to create sets, backgrounds, and entire characters out of thin air. But the difference is that while the latter two films used this technology to further immerse viewers in their respective worlds, Casshern only ends up distancing them instead. You believed that Sky Captain felt like the colorized version of some old-timey adventure, and you were damn sure that the eponymous metropolis of Sin City was the birthplace of every film noir known to man. But although it’s undoubtedly striking at times, the visual style dances not so much on the stylish side as it does on the phony side. Everything about Casshern indicates that it should be dazzling the senses with a hyperactive sense of adventure and imagination, but instead, it’s something of a stodgy affair that’s just flat-out unpleasant to look at sometimes.


Writer/director Kazuaki Kiriya keeps jostling viewers around, luring them in with the promise of a sequence that’s jaw-droppingly beautiful or incredibly rousing (especially Tetsuya’s first big fight against countless robot warriors), only to smack them in a face with something that looks like fake-on-a-stick. The trouble is that the amount of the latter outweighs that of the former, the audience spending more time removed from the action than desiring to be dropped right in the thick of it. It also doesn’t help that the story is a bit of a mess, although I suspect the editing for the stateside cut I saw (which took a sizable chunk from the original picture) was the culprit behind this. Action sequences are often incomprehensible, characters literally teleport out of nowhere, and you get an all-around sense that you’re missing something. On top of all that, Casshern seems to be in suspiciously low spirits; this is a story that’s begging to break out into mile-a-minute, geektastic glee, but from how the footage comes across onscreen, you’d think that Kiriya was threatened with physical violence if he showed that he was having the slightest bit of fun.


But this isn’t all to say that Casshern is a wholly lost cause. The core elements of the story (futzing around in God’s domain) provide much to chew on in terms of issues involving morals and ethics in the world of science, and the film does manage to sneak in a couple of groovy little moments throughout the running time. Still, Casshern finds itself woefully understocked in this department, its glossy exterior only serving as a well-polished window looking into an empty house.


Rating: ★★☆☆


-A.J. Hakari


Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, Terror Tube, and Screen Spotlight.

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