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Casshern

Director: Kazuaki Kiriya
Cast: Yusuke Iseya, Kumiko Aso, Akira Terao, Kanako Higuchi

(Shochiku & Casshern Partners; US DVD: 16 Oct 2007; UK DVD: 10 Apr 2007)

Casshern is a re-imaging of the 1970s Japanese anime TV series Shinzo Ningen Casshern. Back in the day, this series was released in the US as Casshen, featuring a slightly different spelling due to an awkward translation made by the American distributors. In this TV show, Casshen is a teenager who is transformed by his father into an advanced cybernetic organism. Casshen’s mission is simple, to fight the hordes of deadly robots that have taken over the world. Featuring a rather unusual ecological subtext for this type of narrative, the series reveals that the androids rebelled against mankind when they figured out that humans were responsible for the irreparable destruction of Earth’s environment and ecosystem.


Considering that our present concerns about the man-made destruction of the environment due to global warming and pollution are at an all time high, it is perplexing that the creators of Casshern decided to completely drop the ecological background of the original series. Instead, they substitute a convoluted storyline that explores fascism, imperialism, social Darwinism, racism, and other nefarious political machinations. Indeed, in the Orwellian world of Casshern the vicious robots are European-made combat machines dating from a decades-long world war fought between Europe and Asia.


Recently released on a barebones DVD without a single extra feature, Casshern presents the story of the life, death, resurrection, and re-resurrection of Tetsuya (Yusuke Iseya). When Tetsuya dies on the battlefield, his father, Doctor Azuma (Akira Terao), brings him back to life using his latest biotechnological discovery. As a prominent government scientist working for the fascist Asian Empire, Doctor Azuma invented the “neo-cells”, a powerful cellular compound that can be used to heal, rejuvenate, and even resurrect the recently dead. Things go to hell when a mysterious force from outer space uses his chemical pool to generate a breed of “neo-humans”. Subsequently, the megalomaniac neo-human leader gets hold of the abandoned robotic army and promises first to destroy the Asian Empire, and then to annihilate all of mankind. Thus, Tetsuya has to learn to use his new bio-enhanced strength to fight the evildoer and his mechanical minions.


Few would disagree that the convoluted plot for Casshern feels as if the filmmakers placed George Orwell’s 1984, The Matrix flicks, all entries from the Robocop franchise, a couple of Michael Crichton books, and a big dose of World War II documentaries inside a high speed blender. Furthermore, it is worth noticing that the version found on this DVD, which is advertised to be the director’s cut of the film, is actually 25 minutes shorter than the original cut. However, truth be told, even the missing footage found in the Thai 2-DVD set does not help much to clarify the intricate plot.  Thus, in both versions Casshern appears to be a truly incomprehensible movie that paradoxically mixes bio-technophobia with fetishism for cybernetic implants, advanced technology with ancestral mysticism, and believe it or not, Hitlerism with Buddhism.


Indeed, the futuristic world of Casshern can be best described as the type of empire Hitler would have built if he had been Japanese and he had won World War II. The city is full of cyclopean buildings and domes, which brings to mind the architectural revamping that Hitler had envisioned for Berlin. Also, the flags and national symbols have a red background, with a white inlay and a geometric structure in black, clearly reminiscent of the Nazi paraphernalia. In addition, the soldiers wear combat fatigues and helmets that resemble WWII German uniforms and the armored vehicles look like WWI German tanks. And more dramatically, the leaders of the Asian Empire base their political ideology on racism and social Darwinism, proclaiming themselves as members of a superior species. Rather obviously, a great deal of conscious effort went into envisioning this Nazi dystopia.


At the same time, Casshern, in a manner typical of many Japanese cultural products, features enigmatic spiritual and numinous subtexts. In the case of Casshern, it is eventually revealed that the bio-powered Tetsuya is the “Casshern”, a mystical entity that supposedly protects planet Earth. The inhabitants of a town who are oppressed and massacred by both, the Asian Empire and the neo-humans dearly embrace such a belief. It is interesting to note that these groups of people are the only ones that appear to hold traditional Japanese cultural values.


All these nuances make the political discourse of Casshern quite straightforward to appreciate. Both, the vicious neo-humans and the fascist Asian Empire, have clear western traits. Furthermore, during one of their confrontations, they detonate what appears to be a high yield nuclear weapon. Thus, Casshern appears to criticize and demonize the foreign influence in Japanese culture, while defending traditional values as universal truths.


At this point it is important to note that Casshern was made by a one-man army that brings to mind the similar efforts done by Robert Rodriguez. Indeed, former music video director Kazuaki Kiriya was in charge of the direction, editing, cinematography, and writing of the flick. Strikingly similar to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Kerry Conran, 2004), which was released in the same year, Casshern was shot using extensive computer graphics and actors performing in the so-called “digital backlot”. That is, instead of using sets or locations, the actors worked in front of a green screen that eventually incorporated a sophisticated artificial environment. Thus, most of the production design for this flick was created during the post-production process using sophisticated computer graphics techniques. Casshern showcases truly stunning visuals, needless to say.


Thus, it is quite disappointing that Casshern ultimately appears to be unable to take full advantage of its outstanding visual assets to provide a satisfactory viewing experience. Indeed, while the production design and special effects are top-notch, the narrative feels too illogical and convoluted. But perhaps more dramatic, the political subtext of the film appears to be firmly grounded on the cultural guilt, shame, and recrimination that spawned Godzilla during the 1950s. As such, from an ideological and cultural context, Casshern feels dated and irrelevant.

Rating:

Marco Lanzagorta received a PhD in physics from Oxford University and has worked at prestigious research institutions in England, Italy, Switzerland, Mexico and the US. During the past 25 years, he has conducted research in physics, computer science, and neuroscience. Currently, Marco is a research physicist at a major defense research laboratory in Washington DC, and an affiliate associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.


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