Kotaro Azuma (Akira Terao) is a scientist investigating the use of stem cells to grow replacement limbs and organs. Ostensibly he is searching for a way for humans to cope with the Earth’s poisonous level of industrial pollution, but in truth he is spurred on by his sick wife. No matter what he tries, Kotaro just can’t achieve the breakthrough he needs, but then a miraculous event occurs that combines his experimental organs and limbs into living, humanoid bodies. Most of these humanoids are subsequently slaughtered, but a trio manage to escape and vow to destroy humanity in revenge. The only man who can stop them is Azuma’s son, Tetsuya (Yusuke Iseya), reborn as the white-armoured, super-powered Casshern.
Based on a 1973 anime, “Shinzou Ningen Casshan” (“Newly Made Human Casshan”), the film’s setting is supposedly familiar to Japanese people; Japan is under totalitarian rule, leading the Eastern Federation in a near-constant war with the forces of Europa. It’s an interesting background, but one that is sidelined in a film that is the epitome of the big-budget, special effects blockbuster. It has style written all over it, but it’s over-ambitious to a fault. Casshern is Kazuaki Kiriya’s first film and frankly it shows.
Full of almost hallucinogenic imagery and a prodigious amount of CGI, the visual aspect of the film overwhelms to the point where all other elements become superfluous. The level of incidental detail is incredible and may well set a new standard for SF films; it’s simply impossible to absorb all that is on display in a single viewing. Casshern is on a par with Spirited Away and the Metropolis anime in terms of the intricate work behind its densely layered backgrounds, steampunk mecha and retro styling. The sensation of watching an anime is emphasised by the choppy, kinetic action sequences, which employ all manner of anime and manga tricks, such as speed lines, and moving surrounding objects around a stationary character.
The acting is decent enough, and it’s good to see some moral ambiguity in the mix, but the inter-personal relationships are weak and the characters never really grow. Any moments of contemplation or drama are submerged by the constant optical barrage, and partly by the intrusive and annoyingly grandiose soundtrack. For all its emphasis on the visual, the slightly odd thing about Casshern is that its plot cannot be accused of being vacuous. With ruminations on environmentalism, scientific ethics, the atrocity of war and the nature of human existence, the film considers some heavy-weight topics, but unfortunately a few too many for a single film, and the subsequent lack of coherency is crippling. But nevermind all that. Just switch off and gorge on the pretty eye-candy.
In spite of its narrative flaws, Casshern is an audacious feast for the eyes that has to be experienced in a proper cinema. This is the real deal, a live-action anime that is capable of competing with the visual splendour of a Miyazaki, Otomo or Oshii film, and one that suggests that the forthcoming live-action version of Neon Genesis Evangelion won’t be an unmitigated disaster. If Kiriya tones it down a little for his next film then he could have an absolute cracker on his hands, but for now, just go and watch Casshern, a film that really does have to be seen to be believed.