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One of the most unusual aspects of the upcoming Robert Rodriguez film, Sin City—based on the Frank Miller tales and starring Mickey Rourke as the soon-to-be-one-of-the-most-famous-anti-heroes-in-the-world, Marv—is the fact that it was filmed almost entirely using a green screen. This is not the first time, given that the technique was adopted in the marginally successful if overly vapid Sky Captain, but it is one of the most notable uses of digital imagery. Sin City was inspired by graphic novels, so what better way to bring it to the big screen than a technique which allows you to basically recreate the comic’s visualisations? Casshern has similar origins, based on an anime series from 1973 called Casshern: Robot Hunter, and so it is quite fitting that it should be filmed with futuristic digital backgrounds, but the question has to be: is it more style than substance?

Casshern
Film
“After fifty years of bitter warfare the Greater Eastern Federation has defeated the European Union and taken control of almost all of the Eurasian continent. But frequent acts of terrorism have occurred in response to the all-out discrimination and oppression of the government, which espouses a policy of racial superiority. Conflict in Zone Seven has been particularly intense so the authorities decided on a major expansion in military might in order to resolve the situation. Many young men were sent again to war.”

Set in a dystopic future where the planet has been ravaged by the after-effects of a bitter Third World War, the story largely centres on the Azuma family. Doctor Azuma, the father in the family, is desperately trying to complete a breakthrough research project which may just enable him to cure his dying wife. The project involves special cells that he has created called ‘neo-cells’ that, theoretically, will bond with any normally occurring human body cell in order to facilitate replication and rejuvenation. But after a freak accident, the experiment goes out of control and the body parts that have been grown bond together to form strange mutants with superhuman strength. Although the Army are dispatched to contain and destroy them, a few of the mutants get away and create their own Kingdom, vowing to rule over the planet with the help of an army of robots.

Meanwhile, Doctor Azuma’s son, Tetsuya, returns home from war in a body bag. Distraught and confused, the Doctor decides to put his own son into the experiment in a desperate bid to bring him back to life. This works—to some extent—but the all-new Tetsuya also has superhuman strength so they decide to make special armour to contain his new power. Reinventing himself as the mystical saviour Casshern, he steps up as the only person who can stop the encroaching Neo-humans and their dastardly robots. Now all of this sounds remarkably predictable, if not downright stupid, but perhaps that is the point. I can see perfectly how the ideas behind this movie are founded almost entirely on anime, which is why some things just don’t sit right in a live-action movie. But that’s the point, it is the next level. We are not watching live action anymore; we are watching green-screen, (or blue screen!) where animated tales simply come to life. And in anime some things don’t always make sense—I mean, have you ever tried to justify some of the things that happen in Neon Genesis Evangelion? So when you see a guy in an armoured suit pelting through a legion of robots as if they were bowling pins, you know that it is not founded on real life, but you also know that if it were a cartoon you’d be sitting back and having a hoot with all of the action taking place around you. So that’s the deal with Casshern, you have to watch it as an animation rather than a movie, and that way all of the stylish shots and imagery start to make sense.

Casshern
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Casshern has received as much praise for its innovative visual techniques as it has criticism for its lack of substance, and it is difficult to disagree with either of these viewpoints. Sure it looks absolutely tremendous but, at the same time, it contains some ludicrous scenes that consist almost entirely of people ambling around in slow-motion with classical music deafening you from all around. You can see that the director worked on music videos before. And during the fight sequences—at least some of them—the blurry CGI combat is simply too much. I think CGI combat only works with acrobatic comic heroes like Spiderman. It doesn’t work with Blade and it didn’t really work in Matrix sequels, and it certainly doesn’t work here. What does work is the aforementioned robot combat. Seeing one man face off against a legion of metal machines by running up buildings, punching through them and flying through the air, truly is anime coming to life—it reminded me of Mace Windu’s battles in the excellent animated series Star Wars: Clone Wars, with a little bit of Neon Genesis thrown into the mix again. If anything, the movie needed to be more focussed on these sequences. Other great concepts include the moment when Tetsuya, now Casshern, explains to his girlfriend what he has to do and the scene is shown in several different ways to bring home the emotions that are prevailing. This is what we need more of. Unfortunately I think that for many, the style wins out over the substance, and that simply does not work. For me, I enjoyed the good bits and yawned at the long shots but tried to remember that basically I was watching a two-hours-plus anime, necessitating the suspension of all of my disbelief prior to pressing play. If you do that, you can’t go too wrong with this visually inventive movie.

Video
Casshern is presented in a magnificently broad 2.35:1 aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer. The picture is generally good quality, but you have to appreciate that at times it almost looks too good, and this is mainly due to the digital work done to it. At the same time, there are scenes—notably the black and white sequences—which are just abysmal in quality, and I have to assume that this was entirely intentional. So, overall the detail is fantastic and the clarity is good, with softness and digital artefacting at times, but very little grain (apart from in said black and white sequences) and the film comes across as looking superb. Since it was such a visual movie, I had no problems appreciating it fully with this transfer, even if it wasn’t the blemish-free reference-quality video that you would expect for a movie like this.

Casshern
Audio
We get just one audio track, in Dolby Digital 5.1 Japanese, but to be honest it is an awesome mix that will—if nothing else does—really engulf you in the sentiment of the movie itself. Right from the moment when Tetsuya first dons his special armour, and throughout all of the battle sequences, kick-ass music plays that will have you cheering at the screen. Conversely, during some of the more long-winded, one-minute-to-show-what-could-have-been-summed-up-in-ten-seconds sequences, classical music pours out of the rears and into your living room. The dialogue is never less than clear, even with some of the cast called upon to whisper and murmur at times, and the effects are simply phenomenal—with great directionality right around you. There is even some significant bass thrown into the mix. Perhaps the DTS track on other releases might be marginally better, but this track has no complaints from me—it is one of the best Dolby 5.1 tracks I have come across.

Extras
First up we get thirty minutes of interviews. Firstly we get the lead actor (Yusuke Iseya) who talks in subtitled Japanese about how he had never seen any of the original Casshern show but that he was told that he did not need to. We also get the girl who plays the girlfriend (Kumiko Aso) talking about working in front of a green screen, Akira Terao, who plays the dad, discussing his involvement in the production and Kanako Higuchi, who plays the wife, talking about her character. To be honest, just about everybody you could think of pops up here and all of them have interview footage both behind the scenes as well as in front of an audience and it is truly nice to see so many important members of the cast appear.

Casshern
There are also several deleted scenes, each with non-optional subtitled commentary by the director, explaining why they were excised. Although they are interesting to look at, the fixed commentary means that you cannot hear the scene unmolested. To add to that, some of them have not had their effects finalised, so they are all green-screen jobs. Basically, this potentially wonderful source of hidden gems turns out to be a bit of a watch-once-if-you-really-want-to job.

There is yet more deleted footage, although shot using an 8mm camera and largely featuring clips of Tetsuya as a child, growing up with other kids under his mother’s watchful eye. It eventually progresses onto his adult life and his relationship with his girlfriend, also briefly showing us some of the neo-humans pre-mutation. This was a little disappointing, with fixed commentary and no option to listen to the production audio. To be honest, I’m not sure you would want to anyway and reiterate my view that the director should have chosen instead to record a commentary over the main feature itself.

Finally we get two trailers for Casshern, the first running at barely a minute in length and not giving much away at all, and the second all not giving away too much even at twice the length. There are, however, a few neat glimpses of some of the fight scenes, which are quite nice to see for the first time in the film. If in doubt about the movie, the trailer does give some idea of what to expect.

I would also like to point out how cool the menus were, with their lock-and-load sliding options. The only one trouble with doing them this way was that you had to wait for the correct option to cycle round before you could select it, which can get a bit irritating.

Casshern
Overall
Casshern has been much-hyped and often criticised, but the end result is a perfectly enjoyable visually opulent ride if you’re prepared to leave your brain—and your clock—at the door. It is yet another step towards fully-functioning live action anime, closing the gap fast between on-screen reality and complete fantasy. Whilst some may cringe at the adoption of style-over-substance, fans of animated series’ like Ghost in the Shell and Neon Genesis Evangelion are unlikely to be disappointed. The presentation is pretty damn good, with a decent transfer and solid audio track, and the only minor let-down is in the special features department, but even then it is still nice to see Momentum Asia pull out such a decent two-disc release. If you like your Japanese Anime, or just like your films to look damn good, you’re probably going to be pretty enticed by this, and it is worth a rental at the very least.


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