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Casshern: Ultimate Edition
Film
Science fiction has always been my favourite genre of film, due to the wealth of imagination often put into the storyline. The ideas and concepts envisioned may well be our window into the future but it is astonishing to think how many of these themes run parallel with our world today. The filmmakers are given the ultimate challenge to test their creativity, by constantly pushing the boundaries of modern special effects. It is no wonder that I consider science fictions to be some of the most aesthetically wonderful films ever to be transferred on celluloid. Sadly, it is tremendously frustrating waiting for the next big sci-fi epic, as they do not appear to be overly common. However when blockbusters such as The Matrix and Minority Report eventually do make it onto the big screen, it was definitely worth the wait.

Aside from anime, Asian cinema has rarely experimented with live action science fiction. Only recently have we been treated to admirable attempts such as 2009: Lost Memories, Returner and Natural City, all of which are reasonably well recognised outside their home shores. However when the trailer for Japanese blockbuster Casshern was unveiled, the rest of the world held its breath until the eventual English subtitled DVD release.

Casshern: Ultimate Edition
The story of Casshern takes place in a complex, alternate reality, where the Eastern Federation controls the Eurasian continent after fifty years of bitter warfare with Europa’s armies. However the notion of peace is still just as distant due to the excessive pollution and radiation placing the nation’s health crisis at critical level. Furthermore, there is still a resistance group that is opposed to the oppressive new regime, resulting in even more fighting.

Dr Azuma believes that his ongoing research can put an end to this avenue of problems during the post war period. His theory of neo-cell technology is the key to regenerating missing body parts and restoring full health. However the government ridicules his ideas as mere theories and refuses to fund his project. A cunning businessman with the support of the army manages to organise a secret laboratory and funding for Dr Azuma. Reluctant to initially accept his slyly generous offer, the doctor eventually makes the deal after considering his shredded personal life. His wife is critically ill and Dr Azuma is urged to find a cure at any costs. In addition, his son Tetsuya has revealed his ignorance by fighting in the war to spite his father.

Events take a catastrophic turn due to a freak accident in Dr Azuma’s laboratory, which occurs on the day he discovers that Tetsuya died on duty. The victims of the war emerge from the dead to become mutants known as neo-sapiens. In order to stop a widespread panic, the government issues out an order to terminate Azuma’s experiments however a few neo-sapienses manage to escape and capture the doctor’s sick wife. Tormented with guilt and rage, Azuma resurrects his son as Casshern, using his neo-cell technology so that he can rescue his mother, reunite the nation and put an end to the evil tyranny caused by the neo-sapiens and their army of robots.

Casshern: Ultimate Edition
This year we have had an outbreak of movies created extensively using ‘digital backlot’, where performers act in front of a blue or green screen and the background effects are added in during post-production. Aside from Casshern, other films to utilise this process include Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Immortel, and Sin City, which is due for release next year. I still struggle to grasp this concept; the actors must find it remarkably perplexing to perform in an environment that potentially only exists in their imagination. However the final result can be breathtaking, to visualise a labyrinthine world convincingly created for a movie that would be impossible to achieve using any other method.

The universe created for Casshern is unbelievably rich with elaborate technology where mythical skyscraper cities are choking on its own fumes, hovering vehicles are used for transportation and public announcements and gigantic mechanical gears beat power into a vibrant yet depressed capital. The attention to detail is mesmerising, it is so easy to lose yourself into this artificially created world and by hypnotised by its charm. It is hardly surprising to discover the Casshern was originally a '70s anime series and even today this modern remake closely resembles a CGI animation such as Final Fantasy instead of a live action science fiction.

The striking use of amplified colours and luminous shades further exaggerate the level of an alternate reality. Each separate environment is beautifully recreated to evoke the appropriate mood from the viewer. The harsh suffocating industrial wasteland is a startling contrast to the blissfully preserved Azuma gardens, resembling peace and tranquillity in such a chaotic world. The vividness is so unlike anything I have ever witnessed, Casshern is forcefully explicit in transforming such diverse imagery into the viewer’s mind. Aside from the anime roots, there are also influences from classic early science fiction that later forged the shape of modern cinema. The scenes in Eurasian Zone 7, where the terrorist battles occur, are filmed in black and white to provide a nostalgic feel for an era of films lost in the early 20th century.

Casshern inevitably relies on heavy CGI to enhance the prestigious environment created. The digital effects are fantastically integrated into the film, blurring the line between real actors and computerised objects. Even the smallest item has been provided with elegant, fluid animation and the character interaction is virtually seamless. First time director Kazuaki Kiriya is a famous music video director in Japan and his styles are blatantly obvious with Casshern. Aside from the over amplified colours, Kiriya experiments with bold use of photography, music and editing to not only capture a raw, desolate landscape but perhaps even develop a signature style that can be adapted into future projects. The tension mounts during conversation stand-offs, with facial close ups against a hazy background and classical ballads accompanying the character’s thoughts. Conversely, the battle scenes feature fast erratic edits that capture the rush of the situation with metal and techno beats pumping adrenaline into the fighters.

Casshern: Ultimate Edition
Of course it would be travesty if there was no mention of the infamous Casshern costume. A quick search revealed that the white suit is quite an accurate representation of the original anime; however it is not nearly as cute. The mask applies a certain cold edge to the character that was omitted from the look of the ‘70s cartoon. Even though at times, Tetsuya looks comical in his costume, the wardrobe team have done a good job to give his overall appearance a certain level of seriousness and flagrancy.

Retrospectively, Casshern is an audio/visual treat that has been heavily stylised for the 21st century generation. However, as we all know, a film can be the most glorious visual spectacle ever but a solid storyline is paramount—it forms the backbone of a decent movie and without an acceptable premise, the film is just a beautiful piece of useless trash.

Herein lies the problem with Casshern, the storyline is so undeniably weak that it is a mockery to stretch it out to the butt numbing 141 minute mark. The film primarily tries to stress the atrocity and absurdness of war, making countless parallels with devastating global battles that shaped our world during the 20th century. Aside from mirroring both World Wars, Vietnam War, perhaps even to a lesser extent the recent Iraq War, the transparencies reveal how these instances begin with corrupt political movement. The Eastern Federation is portrayed rather explicitly as the ultimate deceiving and sinister government, executing large scale genocide and hoping to fabricate it to the media and public. The director clearly has his own opinions on major past and current events but these are not what he is intending to deliver. Instead, what is conclusively being deduced is that mankind will be responsible for their destruction and hurt everyone by simply existing, due to their immense hatred and lack of forgiveness—a point that was emphasised during the first fifteen minutes and is tiresomely dragged along during the remainder of the film.

The war montages are placed everywhere, with even unimportant subplots receiving annoying cues about the futility of constant fighting. The issue is a powerful one but the morals do not need to be consistently spoon fed to the viewer. During areas of slow progression, there are further themes explored such as life, death and rebirth, even ideas of fate and destiny are examined, providing a hint of spirituality to the overall premise. Also sub-issues such as how mass industrialisation can bring immense pollution, corruption and greed are also touched upon. The director deemed it necessary to expand on the characterisation but even this was executed in a clumsy and overly complex manner. The romance between Tetsuya and Luna attempts to stretch the boundaries of the human mind and emotion by illustrating the pains and aches of each character. Sadly, the chemistry was incredibly diluted and tasteless, making it rather difficult for the viewer to empathise with the two leading stars. Perhaps the most confusing relationship portrayed is the one between Tetsuya and his father, where the director fails to explore the roots of their anger and any advancement just fails to take shape.

Casshern: Ultimate Edition
As mentioned, director Kiriya has a talent for stylish vibrant imagery that may be appropriate for a music video but to span it over a feature length production is pushing it. The same technique was used to hide the frankly awful fight choreography, where brief abstract shots are used to convince the viewer that the characters are world class fighters. The film is filled with shots that barely last a few seconds, making it irritating to comprehend what is going on exactly. The performances from the actors are considerably over-the-top, particularly during the melodramatic moments but strangely suited a film of this magnitude.

The congested styles, themes and morals that embarrassingly fail to consume even a fraction of the overall runtime are the tragic downfall of Casshern. The same anti-war message is forced upon the viewer from start to finish, leaving very little room to concentrate on alternative ideas. In my opinion, the filmmakers have picked the wrong angle to tell the story, resulting in terrible execution and an uncoordinated plot outline. Had I not been drawn by the hypnotic visuals emitted from the trailer then I would have easily ignored Casshern and moved onto something else.

Video
Casshern is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format, maintaining an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. As previously mentioned, Casshern is a strikingly colourful film that utilises a vast spectrum of amplified shades. Likewise the colour reproduction is strong and beautiful with primary tones receiving a colossal treatment. Even the colour transition and mixing is executed at an immaculately high level, with smooth tones all round. The diverse pallet is best highlighted during the Azuma garden scenes, where the greens from the plants and the blood red petals are absolutely radiant and leap out of the picture. Similarly during the various action chapters, the screen is crammed with luminous oranges and blues. At times it is like viewing an acrylic painting, with careful attention to the landscape’s texture and finish.

Sadly however, the transfer often struggles to prevent certain shades from spilling, resulting in evident colour bleeding. The contrast level also appears to be comparatively strong but this varies from time to time. Generally due to the exaggerated lighting scheme, the characters; faces provide an unnatural gleam with oversaturated skin tones. Although due to the nature of this film, the characters rarely appear to look natural anyway—more like glossy CG characters from a video game cut scene. The blacks are undeniably bold and distinguishable, separating out from the multiple surrounding shades. Conversely, the transfer is unusually dark throughout the film, greatly losing in the shadow detail department. Considering that a lot of the settings occur inside laboratories and similar buildings, much of the lovely background items are lost this way.

Casshern: Ultimate Edition
I also noticed a ridiculous amount of grain, initially only during the monochrome chapters but later it became more evident during additional scenes. The black and white instances are perhaps purposefully filmed this way, to provide a blurry image that represents the uncertainty of the situation. Generally with Japanese DVDs, the distributors put great care into achieving the sharpest image imaginable. Now whilst the details are still perceptible enough in Casshern, I was still somewhat disappointed especially considering that it is a recent production. The image appears slightly softer than I had initially anticipated and I felt that there is definite room for improvement.

Other digital misrepresentations such as shimmering, edge enhancement and interlacing are omitted from the transfer—even motion blurring is non existent, which is surprising considering the amount of fast heavy actions that occur throughout the film. Body movements are fluid and visible, with no evident jerking or interference. The transfer is also clean of any dirt or speckles, making it acceptable but overall far from perfect considering just how recent this film is.

Audio
Casshern has two Japanese tracks in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and DTS ES 6.1. Now if there is anything positive to gain from watching this movie, it is the soundtrack. Just as Casshern uses sophisticated video effects, likewise the film contains a luxurious amount of audio techniques to greatly enhance the cinematic experience. Firstly, considering the film’s extensive dialogue, the conversations flow loud and clear with no interference from additional noise sources. Surround effects are plentiful and the rears never receive a moment’s peace, always noticing the slightest audio details and presenting them with extreme clarity. A great example is during the war scene in Eurasian Zone 7, where the soldiers’ footsteps can be heard all over the place as they frantically storm into battle. Similarly with the air raids, although they cannot be seen, they can still distinctly be heard in the background—creating a worryingly authentic war zone in your own living room.

The instances where objects fly past the camera are especially nicely encoded, the viewer can almost wind in their face as they pass the item—the desired audio effect is that realistic. The opening sequence will provide a good indication of the delights of the DVD soundtrack, as it shows the viewer floating through an immensely industrial city operated by large mechanical cogs and motors. The prestigious amounts of richly detailed sounds involved to operate such an environment are all encoded to an incredibly advanced level—right down to the balance and location of each individual source.

Casshern: Ultimate Edition
It is quite strange for a film that I felt was quite weak to contain one of the greatest musical scores I have ever heard. I love the music to such an extent that I will most likely import the soundtrack CD from Japan. The composer chose the right blend of orchestral scores, chorus hymns, electronic rhythms and head-banging guitar riffs to accompany the film’s onscreen action. On a surround sound setup, I cannot even begin to describe the wonderful sensation of listening to Casshern’s score resonating to every corner of the room. The resultant effect also maintains a healthy balance between the music and action noises so that the two never interfere.

Both Dolby and DTS tracks are absolutely wonderful but I feel sorry for those who do not have the sixth speaker (centre-rear) to fully take advantage of the DTS ES 6.1. The Dolby tends to focus the conversations more towards the centre channel, where as the DTS spreads it out more. The sixth speaker is always busy, providing additional control and dynamism to the extensive surround instances. Furthermore there is comparatively more aggression during the explosion scenes due to a stronger LFE channel, the difference can not just be heard but can be felt as well. Having said that, the Dolby track is still a nice peace of work and the neighbours will inevitably complain but the DTS mix will send the police round to confiscate your setup.

Extras
Casshern is wonderfully presented in a massive three DVD set, each disc housed in a slim digipack that arrives with a sturdy slipcase. On the first disc is an audio commentary from the cast and director, which appears to be fairly informative. Everybody seems to be contributing evenly but it is difficult for me to judge without the aid of English subtitles.

On the second disc, there is a mammoth making of documentary that lasts 2hrs13m, which is almost as long as the main film. This begins with footage of the voice actor providing Casshern’s opening monologue, as he puffs away at his cigarette. It then provides begins the long and perilous journey of Casshern’s entire production process. There are plenty of interviews with everyone involved and discussions about the film’s roots and its connections with the ‘70s anime. The make up work, principal character design and storyboards all get illustrated here, with everyone concentrating very hard on how to present this film. Experimental footage and costumes, such as the mutant sprouting scene are quite humorous to watch. The action choreography practise looks ropey; it is evident that these performers are not overly experienced in combat scenes. Unless I am mistaken, I believe that the action director is Yuta Morokaji, who worked on Ryuhei Kitamura’s Azumi. This documentary is probably the most detailed extra I have seen on any DVD, it provides more than enough information to the viewer and covers all the vital scenes thoroughly, finishing off with traditional premier footage and plenty of tears.

Casshern: Ultimate Edition
Finishing off the second disc are cast and crew information (in Japanese) and a selection of trailers and TV spots.

The third DVD consists primarily of galleries and montages. The first gallery is of characters and locations with brief text description. Next there are five montages (plus a sixth hidden one), which present random images, conceptual designs and texts from the film with the excellent music playing over the background. I could watch these montages all day, they are so incredibly relaxing and it is easy to lose yourself amongst all the background images.

There are twenty-two deleted scenes, which are split into two sections. The first set is primarily B-roll footage, where the green screen (used for digital back lot) can still be seen in the background. There are a few additional scenes as well, which were quite rightly deleted since the film is overly long already. The second half contains unedited footage of the characters during the ending montage. Every single deleted scene contains an audio commentary from the director.

On the main menu, there is one last photo montage of the actors in their costumes, with a metal track being played over the background. Lastly, DVD credits are available for anyone interested. The English subtitles used for the film are excellent, nicely paced and I did not notice any significant spelling or grammatical errors. The DVD menus are mainly in English, thus making it quite easy to navigate for western viewers. Please note that none of the supplementary materials contain English subtitles and are in Japanese only.

Overall
Casshern paints a canvas full of furious colours, images and sounds but is very little else. Of course it looks and sounds beautiful thanks to some ambitious styles and techniques introduced by the filmmakers, making Casshern a wonderful music video but a lousy film. The director was invariably persistent with his recurring anti-war message and forgot to divert his concentration towards other aspects of the film. Minor themes were touched upon but struggled to make an impact on the ridiculously overly long runtime. Along with clumsy editing and pacing, it seems a tragic waste that a film with so much imagination is destroyed by such diluted storyline.

The Japanese DVD has received a phenomenal treatment, which is rich in content and is aesthetically beautiful. Sadly, importing the set can be quite costly, so there is a tremendous risk for a film that is not guaranteed to please everyone. Having said that, I believe DreamWorks have western distribution rights so my advice would be to wait to see what they do with the DVD before shelling out your hard earned cash.


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