Eschewing rampaging mechanoids and ninja assassins, writer/director Greg Pak’s debut feature length is a delightful film that uses robots to explore aspects of the human condition. Ranging across the four ages of man, Robot Stories delves into deep waters but ultimately it is all about love.
The opening credits are conveyed by a short and quirky animation which sets the tone for the rest of the film, and then Robot Stories launches straight into the first of its four tales: “My Robot Baby”. A young couple, Marsha and Roy, plan to adopt a child and are given an egg-shaped robot to care for in order to judge their suitability. When Roy is called away on a business trip, Marsha tries to cheat her responsibilities and finds out that parenthood isnt as easy as she had expected.
“The Robot Fixer” tells of a mothers attempt to reconcile herself with her wayward son after a car accident leaves him in a coma. The only link to his past is his childhood collection of robot toys, and so she embarks on a quest to fix all of his robot toys in the hope that they will bring him back to her.
In “Machine Love”, the year is 2007 and intelligent androids are available for purchase as skilled workers. Archie is one such android, a Sprout G9 iPerson, and he can learn how to integrate himself into the workplace by observing the behaviour of his human colleagues. When his supervisor forgets to turn Archie off one evening, Archie explores the office and begins to question his purpose in life.
“Clay” is the final piece, and is set in 2027 when technological advances have led to the digitisation of human consciousness. When an elderly man is diagnosed with a terminal illness, an appointment is made for him to have his mind scanned and then uploaded into a virtual reality. However, despite the prospect of being reunited with his deceased wife, he is plagued with doubts about spending eternity in a state that he does not consider to be real.
Robot Stories stands out from the majority of its SF contemporaries because it doesn’t leave characterisation by the wayside in favour of jaw-dropping CGI or a complex plot. All of the lead actors give excellent performances, and this is complimented by a good balance between serious drama and moments of absolute hilarity.
“The Robot Fixer” is the most accomplished of the set; a poignant tragedy with a spot-on depiction of the dynamic between the first and second generations of Asian-Americans; closely followed by the touching “My Robot Baby”. Unfortunately, the second half of Robot Stories is noticeably weaker than the first, though for two different reasons: “Machine Love” is let down by a hollow execution, and “Clay” is over-ambitious. There is simply not enough time to convey a sense of the repercussions that would result from such a profound concept as digitised consciousness. When questioned about Robot Stories, Greg Pak has said that “Clay” is the one story that he would choose to expand into a full length film, as there were many ideas that he could not explore in the time available.
Despite these flaws, the format in which Robot Stories is presented creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, and it is a whole that richly deserves attention.
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.