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One of the loudest complaints voiced concerning George Lucas’ Star Wars Prequel Trilogy was in reference to the film’s sets, mainly the fact that there weren’t any. Most of the backgrounds and secondary characters were created entirely in Industrial Light and Magic’s computers. On the other hand, the recently released Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was praised for its ingenuity, when it did basically the exact same thing. There is no accounting for double standards in the wide universe of film criticism, but I digress. Japan has now supplied us with its answer to the new blue screen set school of filmmaking, Casshern.

The golden rivers of Urinasia.
Normally, I like to begin my review with a stripped down plot synopsis. It seems an organic way to bring a reader into my personal musings, and it’s the way most critics choose to begin. Who am I to deter from such a tried and true formula? Unfortunately, I cannot find an easy way to say anything about Casshern in an organic way. The film itself is very much not organic, in its storytelling, filming, direction, nor acting. Basically it is a collage of detached images and ideas, not a mainstream film. When experimental films infiltrate the mainstream in the guise of a clever ad campaign, I normally applaud it. This is why, despite what I’d heard, I was truly looking forward to seeing this movie. As I write, I feel as if I have no right to complain about lack of cohesive story or character development. My personal favourite filmmaker is probably Dario Argento, and no one ever accused him of making any narrative sense. But unlike Argento, who often ignores narrative flow and crater-sized plot holes in favour of spectacular murder set pieces, writer/director Kazuaki Kiriya has made a complex film that defies its own narrative flow, and runs an epic 142 minutes. Time is relative.

Casshern reels out almost fifty minutes of exposition before its proper storyline even begins, but I’ll do my best to sum it up in an economical fashion. Basically, a giant, intercontinental war is coming to an end. The winning nation, Eurasia (echoes of Orwell’s 1984 perhaps), is attempting to deal with the world’s brand new, post-war pollution problems. It seems the CG rats are growing CG eyeballs on their backs. Then there is the problem of mopping up the remaining insurgence, even though there has been an officially announced end to major combat (hmmm…). The government’s focus has recently been aimed at the laboratories of Dr. Azuma, who is researching cell regeneration. Azuma is interested in cell regeneration because his wife is dying. The powers that be have military uses in mind, they always do. Azuma toils away in his massive CG lab, which overlooks a massive CG pit filled with red liquid (blood?) and little CG body parts.

It is then revealed that Azuma’s son, Tetsuya, has died in combat. His death causes a quick ripple of sorrow through his loved ones. The body is placed outside Azuma’s lab. Suddenly, out of nowhere, with no explanation, there is a freak accident and all Azuma’s spare parts regenerate and become fully functional, re-animated people. These neo-sapiens scare officials and are shot on site. During the bloody chaos, only three escape. In reaction Dr. Azuma naturally takes his son’s body, which was conveniently placed outside moments before, and dips it into the red liquid. Against his ghost’s (?) wishes, Tetsuya is also re-animated, though for some reason physically weaker than the other neo-sapiens. Are you still with me? Good. Azuma hands his undead son to a friend who has been working on a kind of super-suit, which he puts Tetsuya into for (most convenient) safekeeping. The three surviving neo-sapiens wander into a giant-killer-robot factory (!), and decide they must declare war on the humans that slaughtered their kind. Then, an undisclosed amount of time passes (days, months, years, we never know).

The rest of the movie consists of Tetsuya and the neo-sapiens battling each other to no end, while discovering the meaning of life in the universe. The moral? War is pointless and bad, and nobody wins. Most people could have said that in three seconds flat, but Casshern takes its sweet time. The time issue hurts the film, but not as much as its editing issue. A timeframe is never appropriately explained. There is a lot of sloppy crosscutting between events. When Tetsuya’s death is revealed, it is unclear whether it is a flashback or a current event. The re-animation of the neo-sapiens and their subsequent destruction is positively jarring is its randomness. Quick cutting, coupled with constant timeline jumping can make for interesting work, but in this case they create more confusion in an already confusing film. It’s as if the film is improperly loaded in the projector and the soundtrack is skipping on the record needle. The editing also cripples the otherwise serviceable fight sequences. Everything is chopped into a meaningless jumble of images. There is never an appropriate establishing shot in which to gage the scale of a battle, and one confrontation is skipped all together.

What do you mean by 'Nazi imagry'?
Casshern rich with beautiful imagery, and is a very visually striking work. In the opening sequence the camera floats down from the sky, through a sort of two-dimensional montage of the city creates an intriguingly artificial atmosphere and conjures comparisons to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Other images in Casshern recall other Metropolis inspired films like Alex Proyas’ Dark City, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and Jeunet and Caro’s City of Lost Children. There are hints at World War II era Soviet and Nazi propaganda and the Art Deco movement. This places the film in an alternate reality where the old is once again the new. Then Kiriya employs the officially overused multiple film styles technique and screws it all up. Every trick in the digital-post-production handbook is smeared across the screen and it all makes for a very pretty mess. The abrupt changes in style could arguably be attributed to the personal growth and emotions of the characters, but really come across as a lazy excuses to look ‘cool’. One of the things I personally respected about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was that it had an overall consistency.

I have to admit, however, that this DVD will find its way back into my player someday. There is too much thrill in watching what is essentially a live action Anime film (the story is based on a Japanese animated series), complete with giant robots, atomic bombs, and overtly powerful humans destroying everything in their path. The good bits tend to be too few and too far between, but all together worth the effort. And boy, oh boy is it a pretty movie. Next time, I will employ the services of the ‘skip’ and ‘fast forward’ buttons on my remote, and do a little editing of my own.

Mmmph! Mmph Mmph MMMPHH!
Casshern is a movie that is hard to gage in its actual video quality. How much post-production work was done by the filmmakers? There is an insane amount of grain in some scenes, and virtually none in others. This grain often appears purposeful, but occasionally looks like a transfer issue. Some backgrounds and some of the obviously computer generated characters can be on the muddy side. Whether this is because of inaccurate DVD authoring, or because of sub-par digital effects is a mystery to me. There is a problem with general digital noise throughout the film, which I’m pretty sure is a compression issue. I’m going to guess that most of these issues are truly problems, and if I’m wrong, then I suppose poor filmmaking can affect a DVD’s video score.

Casshern is presented in its original Japanese language on two tracks, one Dolby Digital 5.1, the other DTS. Again, I am mostly referencing the Dolby Digital track (I have my reasons), but will say the DTS track is slightly cleaner. In any case, Casshern sounds wonderful. Everything is well spaced, the dialogue is clear, the bass throbs, and when necessary everything becomes quite subtle and elegant. During one sequence, the front channels focus almost entirely on an important conversation, while the rear channels successfully convey the oodles of destruction happening just off-screen, behind the viewer. Casshern utilizes the rear channels more effectively than most DVDs on the market.

There are plenty of films that I have personally struggled to understand, whether it be interpretive reasons, or because I just couldn’t follow the plot. One of the great things about DVD is the possibility of an explanatory audio track. Artsmagic regularly employs the encyclopaedic knowledge of Tom Mes to help explain Japanese films to a receptive Western audience. Criterion often supplies a track with an intelligent critic or historian, and I’ve utilized them several times to help me through some of their more ‘challenging’ releases. I really could have used one of these ‘help tracks’ for Casshern. Unfortunately, this is a really barebones release. There is a photo gallery (really just a small collection of still frames from the movie) and some sparse filmographies of a few of the major actors.

Mmph, mmph mmph.
Casshern is like Monty Python’s Flying Circus Some people will get it, some people will not. Some will call it brilliant, others will call it daft. Some will probably even develop an unhealthy obsession with it, while others will turn it off before it ends. How can I truly despise that which creates such opposition? This is what art, and filmmaking should be about. Unfortunately, in the end Casshern is both overlong and a missed opportunity. Bottom line: if you’re still curious, give it a rent.

You can buy this title for HK $93.00 from top retailer DDDHouse.