Likely though I am to be crucified by the true faithful for this review, I have to admit that I was decidedly unimpressed with Casshan (or, more fully, Shinzo Ningen Casshan, here rendered as Casshan: Robot Hunter). I do realise that as a card-carrying 'geek grrl' I should be all over this thing… I mean, here surely is recursive retro-chic animé at its finest: a DVD release a dozen years on of a 1993 remake/sequel of a beloved 1973 TV series which itself was more or less commissioned solely to ride piggyback on the popularity of a previous show called Gatchaman. Honestly, the only way to get more 'back to roots' than this would be to break out the Speed Racer and Astro Boy vids and be done with it.
Oh, certainly, I got that warm, fuzzy glow of childhood nostalgia when the disc whirred to life in my DVD player and I had my first glimpse of Casshan. Like so many of my generation, I recall those garishly-coloured days of Battle of the Planets fun… as Gatchaman was cheerfully reworked (read: 'mercilessly hacked') for a Western audience at the end of the 70s. (Those of you who are slightly younger may recall the mid-80s G-Force, which basically took all the previously cut material and put it back in.) Regardless, this harks back to a more innocent time when all an animé series really needed to succeed was a plucky hero and his faithful sidekick(s), silly costumes which make modern superhero gear look positively restrained, some dubious plot touching upon science fiction (preferably featuring technology run amok, with evil robots being a huge bonus), an entire planet in need of defence, and a cheesy voiceover to remind viewers just how epic the conflict really is. In short, just the sort of show that would be impossible to produce nowadays without first taking the audience aside for a moment and reassuring them that this was all meant in the spirit of an amusing meta-genre parody.
So in some ways, the bizarre aspect of this 1993 version of Casshan is that it doesn't take the opportunity to make any apologies for its dated source material. Despite the fact that many years earlier shows like Otaku no Video and Project A-ko were already mercilessly taking the mick out of precisely this sort of old-school fluff, here we are presented with a 4-part OAV which goes to some lengths to retain the precise flavour of the original TV series. (In fact, about the only thing the production team had the temerity to tweak was the character design… and even that only slightly.)
Here we have that creaky old SF standby, the 'robots have rebelled against humanity' premise. The stereotypically brilliant-yet-misguided Dr Azuma creates an extremely advanced model of AI robot (OK, technically an android/cyborg of some sort referred to in the show's lingo as a 'neoroid') named BK-1 and charges it with the task of protecting the Earth's environment at all costs. Despite a vague nod in the direction of Asimov's Laws of Robotics, BK-1 naturally exploits a technological loophole and comes to the (again, clichéd) conclusion that the largest threat to the planet's ecosystem is Mankind itself. Taking up the new moniker of 'the Black King', BK-1 sets about to overthrow, enslave, and exterminate humanity for the good of Mother Nature. Three years and a few thousand fully-automated neoroid factories later, and - despite the best efforts of the human resistance movement - civilisation has all but crumbled under the iron boots of the Black King.
However, a gleam of hope still remains for the human race. After BK-1 broke his programming and went off on his global rampage, Dr Azuma had enough time before meeting his demise to design an even more advanced neoroid design… and hey, because there was nothing on the telly that night, he built a robotic wonderdog to go with it too. Which is how his son Tetsuya ends up sacrificing his own humanity in order to merge his body with this gleaming, solar-powered neoroid shell and create… Casshan! [cue acoustic reverb] Whilst remaining a myth to most people, Casshan seems to spend his time wandering aimlessly from place to place with his fire-breathing, jetplane-transforming robo-mutt Friender, laying waste to any of the Black King's minions he encounters on his way. In fact, as the OVAs begin, the only other human on the planet who is positive she knows Casshan's identity is Tetsuya's ex-girlfriend Luna. Her dad (one of Dr Azuma's colleagues and clearly no scientific slouch either) has invented a new type of weapon called the MF gun that is effective against even the high-end neoroid defences… so naturally he hands the prototype over to her and off she goes on her merry way.
If I seem to be slagging it off a bit, I apologise. I'll fess up and admit that mecha has always been one of my least fave animé genres. This whole business with robots and peeps in powersuits (or, in this case, a cybernetic hybrid of man and mechanical exoskeleton) duking it out for supremacy generally puts me to sleep within minutes, so you can imagine that it took some effort to watch the entire two-hour runtime of this production not once, but twice through. On the plus side, this really is a great period piece for anyone looking to wax nostalgic, and it's unintentionally cheesy in all the right ways, so there's plenty to giggle at. On the minus side, however, there's a whole pile of stuff… starting with the show's hackneyed plot, working through the terribly static (and, frankly, uninteresting) characters, moving on to the preposterous deus ex machina devices needed to bail out the writing on a regular basis, and probably finishing with the silliness of the core concepts. (Honestly, why would robots, even AI-enabled ones, have precisely the same emotions and foibles as humans? If their goal was to protect the environment, why blow up manmade structures and wage warfare that will only increase pollution and damage to the ecosphere? And if the idea is to get rid of humanity, then why bother to enslave people and assign them manual labour which robots can do faster and better? Etc. ad nauseam.)
Still, it's not as if Casshan is bereft of entertainment value, if you can just get past the cringeworthy bits. Furthermore, this 2-DVD release presents it in the best possible light, which is always a plus with material this old. In something that was rather the opposite of what I had expected, the original Japanese episodes are relegated to the second disc, whereas place-of-pride on disc 1 is given to the only-slightly-worrying Carl Macek (Streamline) dub version, which has been edited together to form one 'seamless' feature-length film that excises several of the intervening intro/ending segments from each of the four OVAs. (The obvious problem with this is that the breaks between each episode are painfully easy to spot, because it's clear that a fair whack of time has passed in between each, even if in the 'film' the transition between such scenes lasts but a moment.) Below I have listed the titles of the OVA episodes as they appear on disc 2.
1: 'Dark Ages'
Having learned of the near-hopeless situation of humanity in the face of Black King's onslaught, we run across Luna trying to sneak into his compound on a sabotage mission. Of course, she's not allowed to be the hero, so we can expect that sooner or later she'll need Casshan to turn up and rescue her from certain death.
2: 'Journey to the Past'
Just like it says on the tin. Although ostensibly this episode chronicles Casshan's battles against two 'ultimate' killing machines the Black King has created specifically to take him down, the real thrust takes the form of a lot of flashbacks and somewhat tedious exposition which shows just how Tetsuya came to be our eponymous hero. Oh, and as a bonus we get a robotic swan named, erm, Swanee. (No, I'm not making this up. But if I told you any more, it would constitute a spoiler.)
3: 'Blitz on the Bridge'
In a segment which may as well be called 'Casshan vs. Bridge on the River Kwai' we learn that the Black King (for reasons which actually are addressed by the end of the episode, but which even then make no sense at all) has prioritised the taking of a small, isolated village reachable only by a single rail line… and one that passes over a ravine whose bridge was blown out during the war.
4: 'The Reviver'
Onwards to the exciting finish. The Black King's hidden motivations are revealed at last, and he and Casshan have their final confrontation. Oh, and naturally the writers saved the biggest 'get out' clause in the series for this moment, too. (Also nice to see that humanity, despite clinging precariously onto existence and having to fight for its very survival, can still rely upon satellite TV broadcasts of the News at Eleven. But now I'm just grousing.)
The picture here is presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio, and to be honest seems quite clean for its age; I didn't notice any scratches or dust in the print whatsoever. Not only that, but these are dual-layer DVDs which leave sufficient elbow room for a good encode, so you needn't worry about rainbowing or macroblocking rearing their ugly heads. Mostly the only (minor) problems to look out for have to do with the style and period of the animation itself. For instance, the palette here is fairly broad because in order to depict all the night-time / indoor scenes the animators needed many different shades of blue/grey/etc. in order to make foreground and background objects stand out from one another… and this unrestricted colour scheme extends into the daytime / outdoor segments as well, sometimes with mixed results. It's also clear that the production team spent many scenes 'saving their pennies' for the big action segments, and as a result there are quite a few static pans and cost-cutting measures visible in the bulk of the animation. While that's certainly true of many shows of this era, it has the unfortunate side effect of adding to the jagginess of various camera pans. Overall, however, really good work on the video end of these DVDs.
If ever an animé DVD has spoiled viewers for choice in the audio department, this would be the one. As mentioned earlier, disc 1 is dedicated to the English dub produced by Streamline, whilst disc 2 graces us with the original Japanese OVAs… but on both discs, you can choose what flavour of soundtrack you prefer, be it DD 2.0, DD 5.1, or full-on DTS (yes, both in English and in Japanese… a very rare treat in a market where many animé DVDs are still being released with at most a DD 5.1 track available on the English dub). And if 6 audio tracks aren't enough for you, then you could always go for lucky number 7: the superb commentary included on disc 1.
If I'm all fired up about the audio options, then why didn't I score it a 10? Well, this is where reality kicks in. Whilst Manga certainly deserves kudos for the effort of providing all these soundtracks, there's only so good you can make the original source material sound, no matter how many bells and whistles you pile on. The truth is, the DD 2.0 is sufficient for Casshan, and even trying to do random spot-checks between the stereo and 5.1 surround audio I wasn't able to detect a whole lot of difference. There may have been some left/right directionality, but it's subtle; as for bass effects, don't get your hopes up… and the rear soundstage doesn't get a huge workout as far as I can tell. I wish I could report on the DTS tracks, but my speaker setup doesn't include a DTS decoder.
The good news is that both the original Japanese dialogue and the subsequent English dub are both perfectly serviceable. If you, like me, wince at hearing that Carl Macek supervised a particular ADR project, you'll be happy to know that this dub won't make you run for cover. It is unintentionally amusing at points, but bless the crew for trying to stay true to that 1970s disco-era campiness.
It's been a little while since I last reviewed an animé DVD that saw this much effort put into the disc menus, and I applaud that. Every single screen is fully-animated with nice transitions between sub-menus and a good choice of sound clips layered underneath each. The theme is simultaneously retro and funky-futuristic, and menu navigation is fast and elegant.
That's all fine and well, I hear you say, but what of the extras? Well, there's good news and there's bad news. The bad news is, there's only one bona fide special feature on this DVD release. The good news is that it's an absolutely fantastic one. Provided on disc 1 is a full feature-length commentary by Jonathan Clements, co-author of the Animé Encyclopaedia. Recorded quite recently (July 2005) in London, it's a witty, funny, and very informative accompaniment to Casshan. I've never considered myself anything like an expert on animé (more like a casual fan who got suckered in), but this man scares me with his prodigious knowledge of the subject. And no, it isn't a dry track filled with awkward silences and boring minutiae. In fact, the only (very mild) complaint that could be levelled at Mr Clements is that he does pause occasionally to take a sip of water, and every last gulp is clearly picked up by his microphone.
Unfortunately, there is another problem with the commentary which is not his fault at all… the DVD production team seems to have flubbed the synch between the commentary audio track and the actual video, such that the audio lags the video by between 30-40 seconds. There are many, many examples of this peppered throughout the running time, where Jonathan points out something that is 'about to happen', when in fact that bit of the video played almost a minute before he started warning us of its impending arrival on screen. (For a prime example of this, check around the 29 minute mark.) Anyway, even this audio sync issue isn't big enough to prevent you from enjoying his observations, historical background, and random anecdotes concerning Casshan, so please don't be daunted. The truth is, it was his commentary that made rewatching the entire show again not merely a bearable prospect for me but a highly entertaining one as well, and I think even if you're a dyed-in-the-wool Casshan fan, you'll still learn a lot from listening to his spiel.
Rounding out the disc content are the obligatory trailers for other DVDs. This section consists of four entries, but the first two consist each of an apparently-random 2-minute montage of brief cuts from a spew of other animé productions, so I wouldn't recommend them. The last two are far more intriguing… one for Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and the other for Millennium Actress Theatrical, both of which look like strong films.
Casshan will appeal to fans of seriously old-school animé or the mecha genre in general. Whilst I personally wouldn't recommend it to my friends, that's not because the show's awful, but merely because it feels incredibly dated compared to the more modern and sophisticated productions I could share with them instead. (And let's face it, it's hard enough getting the non-initiated to sit still for even 1 animé DVD, so when I get the chance I'm not going to risk it on a hit-or-miss proposition like Casshan.) Although there's not all that much to the story - or at least, not that much that hasn't been done better before and/or since - and the characters don't actually evolve over the course of the show, this 2-DVD special edition gives you the best possible version currently available, with respectable video, a wealth of soundtrack options, and an audio commentary that's worth the rental price alone.