I had hoped after the debacle that was Battle Royale II: Requiem we would not see something of a similar ilk for quite some time. Alas no more than a year later we would be subjected once again to a mess of a film that tries to capitalise on the futilities of war and ends up making itself look like a moralistic tale in how to go about making bad movies.
Based upon Tatsuo Yoshida’s (Gatchaman) 1973 anime, “Shinzo Ningen Kyashan”, Casshern tells the tale of a man, once felled who has risen from death and is the key to the world’s survival. To save typing too much boring storyline I shall provide the basic synopsis that comes from the films’ opening narration:
“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. The authorities decided on a major expansion in military might to resolve the situation and many young men were sent again to war.”
Throw in some scientist trying to save his wife, his dead son who comes back to life, a super-suit that enables the wearer to kick serious robot ass and a bunch of stereotypical characters and you got yourself the basic set up.
So it becomes apparent quite early on that what we’re about to see is a rehash of things past, a piece of work masking itself with a common theme to carry the weight of its over the top aesthetics. When a film sets out to deliver a message it’s usually a lot more successful when subtly executed - take the wonderful eco-film, Silent Running for example. Casshern cripples itself from the get go due to its offending in-your-face delivery, waxing lyrical about how bad war really is. No shit, Sherlock but do we need it rammed down our necks until we resent the fact that this film is moralistically dull? Evidently so but there’s only so much the viewer will gain from this life lesson and then where does that leave the rest? Casshern just cannot sustain itself for such a long period without testing our very patience. When it’s not trying to highlight the atrocities of war it’s making very home grown statements about the state of Japan’s current government; an old-school regime long overdue some fresh blood. It’s as if Casshern is at war with itself - a self study on the instability of a Japanese government and a nation fearing another war in a time that sees it still trying to recover from its mental scars, and let it not end without manipulatively placing stock footage of dead bodies in an attempt to tug our heart strings. That card might have played well had it not been so forced.
Casshern seems to be receiving quite a mixed response but one thing it is generally praised for is its visual style. My eyes must be failing me because this film is really a let down for the most part; a mishmash of CG and blown out lighting coupled with some of the worst editing I’ve seen in recent years. As an action film it’s practically non-existent and what’s there is so quick-fire that it becomes impossible to follow or appreciate. It doesn’t help when the film originally marketed itself as some kind of whiz-bang sci-fi epic with a healthy amount of action (the trailer), only for it to deliver sod all in the end. The fact is that clearly director, Kazuaki Kiriya is not the right man for the job. A well established fashion photographer, his input might initially sound good on paper but in reality he brings us little more than visually off putting scenes that are bathed in yellow, red and orange hues, later filtered into becoming bright, hazy eyesores, in addition to an abundance of quasi-metallic lighting effects that become more frustrating as the film progresses. Granted he manages to achieve some great shots throughout, the final 2-minutes or so are beautifully composed and had his debut been a more down to earth character drama then I don’t doubt that he could have delivered a beautiful movie, there is hope yet that one day he might. But this just isn’t good enough for a film that runs for nearly two and a half hours and relies heavily on its computer generated backdrops, of which some come across quite poorly indeed. Casshern's budget was small and a lot of the time it shows.
In accompaniment to the often absurd visual styling is a soundtrack equally as misguided. A selection of classical, guitar based anthems, ballads and even techno grace the films’ exterior in what can only be likened to some kind of meeting where a bunch of artists got into a big fight and fought with their instruments in vane attempts to outdo each other (except for Beethoven of course who‘s dead), resulting in a ramshackle sound that strips the film even more of its supposed poignancy. It’s not that the artists assembled are particularly bad, in fact two of them are personal favourites of mine but the clashing over different styles just places the film into disarray. Where Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” might work in some areas others became far too grandiose on an almost biblical sense, with regards to its operatic leaning at times. To counteract we have guitar fuelled fight sequences that do little to enhance and more to offend the senses, overshadowing what little worth there actually is strung throughout.
It’s a shame then that Casshern can only provide some fine prolific actors doing what they can to elevate the storyline. The film places at its front some of Japan’s upcoming young stars such as Yusuke Iseya and Kumiko Aso (who has quite a list of films behind her already but is sorely underused here as love interest, Luna) but its veterans, Akira Terao and Kanako Higuchi walk away with top honours. The pair have a fine onscreen chemistry and this goes back to their partnership in Takashi Koizumi’s wonderful little film, Letter from the Mountain [Amida-do dayori] from 2002. In addition we have the familiar face of Tatsuya Mihashi, last seen in Takeshi Kitano‘s Dolls, in his final onscreen performance that he never lived to see. The trouble with many of the characters however is that a lot of them are largely glossed over, resulting in a lack of empathy and sympathy for several parties. Despite their best efforts the casts’ emotional output never reaches a high enough intensity, or rather their performances are stilted by some poor editing, extremely wide shots in some cases that don’t allow us closer in or simply a lack of understanding about what is going on around them. As the film is largely built upon slow burning drama this only becomes a disappointment as even with an exceedingly long run time we never get wrapped up in their sorrow.
Momentum Asia have released Casshern as a two-disc special edition in limited edition packaging. For review purposes we only received the discs, so I cannot pass judgement on the case design.
As for menus, these are some of the worst I’ve ever seen. Inserting disc one brings up a cloudy background where the play and chapter options float past the screen. The annoying part is how slowly they move and in order to select play or chapter select you have to press the button at the right time, before it scrolls off screen. Disc 2 is very similar with features rotating which you have to click on time to select.
View the film’s trailer: click here
Casshern is presented in an anamorphic aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The interlaced transfer is very crisp and replicates the crazy assortment of colours splendidly. Detail is almost pin-sharp although there’s an obvious amount of Edge Enhancement present. The film carries with it a constant grainy look which becomes more apparent during night shots and shows up like blotches for some interior scenes, notably on red backgrounds which tend to bleed. Black levels are mostly superb and contrast is also perfectly fine. The film also has very intense moments of light which makes everything appear somewhat angelic, which although a deliberate stylistic choice can become overpowering to the eyes, due to the extent of its brightness.
Casshern is at times an aggressive sounding film and through the Japanese DD5.1 surround track makes full use of the rear speakers. Gun shots, soldiers running and robots crashing all carry a huge amount of weight; this is indeed a fully immersive track though undoubtedly fans of the film will be disappointed by the lack of DTS. The music whether you like it or not is handled considerably well also, subdued during lengthier, dramatic moments and fully sweeping for others; the more operatic sequences are well channelled also, with their hymns coming from all sides as the bad guys set up shop.
Optional English subtitles have been provided. These are well placed with no noticeable grammatical errors by my eyes. They come in white with a black border and are timed perfectly.
Deleted Scenes with Director‘s Commentary
There are eleven deleted scenes with commentary only. These are time coded and unfinished, some with green screen backdrops. Kiriya explains some of the reasons as to why these were excised, mainly because they hindered the flow of the movie and some were merely repetitive of later events. It’s interesting to see some of the sets before CG enhanced colouring were applied as it shows just how excessive the film ended up being.
8mm Footage with Director’s Commentary (11:41)
The director shows us some 8mm footage, of which a small part features at the end of the film. Here he wants to establish what the characters are about by showing us their backgrounds from as early on as childhood. He talks about how he wants to get this all across in the film but in reality he doesn’t. These parts were meant to be featured throughout the film before the decision was made to pull them, but they are nice moments with a great sense of realism, as if the actors were not acting. All of the poignancy here is inevitably lost on the viewer by the end but it’s good to see it included.
Cast and Crew Interviews (33:39)
This is quite an in-depth piece, featuring interviews from the main cast, including press conference footage. The actors talk about working hard, under physical pressure and dealing with the green screen shooting process. A lot of these interviews were done during the making of the film or prior to its screening, when the actors remind us to look out for the great special effects and meaningful messages, as well as praise their director no end. Liking this feature depends on how much of this you can stand.
Here we have two theatrical trailers - Trailer 01 and Trailer 02 with run times of 1:01 and 2:02 minutes.
Casshern should have worked well but it takes itself far too seriously, resulting in "up its own arse syndrome". Devoid of humour, real poignancy and spectacle it has little to stand on beside a glimmer of hope for Kazuaki Kiriya, before falling on its ugly face and being sung out by pop sensation Utada Hikaru - incidentally the wife of Mr. Director. Casshern is a miserable failure in most respects, a garish bore-fest, complete with poorly delivered anti-war sentiments that somehow through fan-circles became one of the most talked about films of 2004.