Sunday, May 07, 2006

In Soviet Russia, Robot Hunts You!

After waxing poetic about the various versions of Casshern: The Robot Hunter last time, it might do some good to actually talk about the movie, wouldn't it?

Released in 2004, Casshern was one of three 1970's manga titles to get a brand new live action adaptation. Unlike the fun kitsch that was Cutie Honey or the overwhelming suck fest that was Devilman, Casshern sits somewhere apart from the other two in a sort of limbo that can be described best by not being a great film, but being excellent entertainment.

My knowledge of the originl Casshern anime from the early 70's extends to... the title and the fact that it exists. And apparently he had a robot dog and a bird. Or, something. What, I'm an otaku so I've seen every obscure anime in the world? There was also a late 1980's OVA with character designs by Umetsu Yasuomi, of which I've seen only the first episode. It's not bad, but walks a fine line between being a goofy kiddie series and a serious post apocalyptic drama about the frailty of human life. It also has boobies, but... no blood. So apart from updating the concept fans of the original Casshern, I'm not quite sure what the OVA's were driving at. The 80's were a magical time for cinema, particularly in Japan. But that has little to do with the film at hand, and there will be plenty of time to wank to the awesome cracked out animation made in the 80's later.

The plot of Casshern is something like this: In the far off future, Eurasia and the Western Nations are fighting in the place known as Zone 7, an aincent and religiously guarded land filled with desert terrorirst. While the world at large lives in sprawling monotone cities that look like a fantastic mix of Russian architecture and Chinese post modern design. A scientist of this brave new world, Prof. Azuma, has perfected a way to clone usable human parts from data found in the war zone, and struggles to perfect the bio-weapon in time to save his ailing wife Midori. While his son Tetsuya goes off to war, and the youth's girlfriend Luna waits for his safe return, things go horribly wrong and the cloning vat produces a race of super humans which, after being hunted down by The Mans' army, swear vengance against the human race. When Tetsuya returns in a coffin, and Midori taken as a hostage by the Neo-Sapien mutants, Azuma injects his son with the Neo-Cels, and outfits him with the cybernetics needed to survive the transformation...

First off, let's get a few things out of the way. Casshern is not a good movie, at least not in the traditional sense. Character development is basically limited to a person either being a sant or a demon (in stylish clothes either way), dramatic scenes are handled so akwardly that there are times where I honestly didn't have a clue what was supposed to be going on - such as the scene where Tetsuya and Luna have a conversation, both in the present and in the past... with the EXACT same dialogue... and while I can suspend disbelief for a lot of things, this film asks more than I can even fathom with the scene of Tetsuya's soul just kinda' hanging around his corpse. Why did they pull this stunt? So that he and the villain can recognize each other a half hour later. This isn't just contrived. This is retarded. The other major problem with the film is it's descision to try reeeeally hard and have a serious message about war. War is Hell. We know. We have a thousand movies from Saving Private Ryan to Man Behind the Sun to tell us this. That Casshern uses it's final 15 minutes (in it's overlong 142 minute runtime) to pound the moral in to our head with a blinted emo spear that doesn't kill, but really, really hurts.

It probably sounds like I'm trashing on the film at this point. I'm not really. I just need to get the bad out of the way before I discuss the good. Stylistically the film is literally the shounen anime equivalent to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: a basically pure CGI film which uses actors faces more as a hook to pull audiences in rather than because the film is focused on them. (Or so was the case in Sky Captain: here the film tries in vain to make the character drama work, but mercifully only for moments at a time.) The star here is really the non-stop photo realistic CGI, which even during quiet scenes is stunning and immersive. The real reason to see the film, however, are the - sadly all to limited - action sequences. At about the 60 minute mark Tetsuya, donning his Casshern armor, is up against the leader of the Neo-Sapiens who marches with an army of Evil Commie Robots. Did I mention that the visual aesthetic makes the Neo-Sapiens out to be commies and the Eurasian Empire much like the Russian Imperial State? Making Tetsuya out to be some sort of bastard cyber Anastasia? But yeah, the scene in which Tetsuya trashes at least 50 massive clumky WWII modeled mobile tin soldiers is literally the stuff that wet manly dreams are made of. Catching tank shells, tearing off robot heads, running up walls, all in amazingly fluid CGI that while show enough to show all the cool robot-gore details to the human eye, isn't the typically slow bullet time nonsense that post-Matrix cinema has grown to love. The three action sequences in the film... yes, only 3 through 142 minutes, that actually involve Casshern, with a few (minor in comparison) sequences not featuring the title character... are worth seeing, even if you can't stand a second of the rest of it.

And what of the rest of the film? As I've said, the film is immersive as hell, and apart from a few super 8 flashback sequences there aren't any actual sets or locations. The entire film is a greenscreen industrial nightmare of epic proportions, and being directed by Kazuaki Kiriya - husband of Hikaru Utada, a fashion photographer and music video director, the film is never without a healthy injection of crack infused style. You could easily argue that the grubby Neo-Sapiens shrug off their rags for "Uniforms" pulled right out of the latest lame J-Rock video, or that Casshern's suprisingly retro outfit (a white uniform with a silver mask, all that's missing is the helmet which is teasingly shown through the film) could only exist in the current state of Japanese pop culture. But that's just the thing. This movie is, first and foremost, the product of modern Japan: obscenely expensive, needlessly flashy, full of inevitably homoerotic bishounen and adorable so-not-legal ladies, giant robots, sentai outfits and long dialogues about the frailty and preciousness of life. Despite being saturated in foreign and exotic aesthetic - taking revolutionary Russia of all things - the movie is the sort of film that, though clearly vying for international scratch, could only actually be made by Japan.

With the only other films in recent memory trying their best to create a living breathing world being the aforementioned Sky Captain, and the immensely creative but under-funded British fantasy Mirror Mask, Casshern takes the unmistakable feeling of the almost now-dead manly shounen TV shows of years gone by, in which manly men would speak of doing manly things whilst manly tears flowed down their face and they beat the manly hell out of their manly opponents. It's so manly that it gives guys with black handle moustaches leather hats and suspenders wood. Japanese boys still wearing micro shorts are exposed to such manly shows in middle school so that their pants don't destroy their genitalia totally. Or such is my unfounded theory. Dragonball Z, Fist of the North Star, Saint Seiya, sCRYed, Naturo, and yes, Casshern, it's all the same thing. In a world where women are either an excuse to defend honor to seek revenge, there's absolutely nothing remotely heterosexual to be found, but that's OK. If straight men kicked each others' asses it wouldn't be half naked sweaty brawling with falling sakura petals and admissions of love with final breaths, and where would the fun be in that?

I've heard plenty of complaints. That the film is style over substance. Duh. That the film has no character development and is ludicrous. See previous answer. That the film has about 3 good scenes admist 2 hours and change of nothing. Anyone who's watched a lot of shounen anime with horrid scheduling and no budget is used to slogging through 15 minutes for 1's worth of ass kicking. It's a genre convention, for better or worse, and viewing Casshern in that light makes it perfectly acceptable as an action vehicle. And if the fashion photo look of the movie is a bit too gay for you... my advice is to give up Japanese cinema entirely.

There are some things that merrit further mention though. The soundtrack ranges from pieces of classical music to generic numetal to techno which may or may not be good. I don't know what does and doesn't define "good" techno, but it's neither Rammstein nor Prodigy so I don't really care. The score isn't brilliant, but I'm also not watching bloody gun battles set to English love songs as did the 2004 CGI Appleseed flick. *Shudder* What the hell were they thinking... so as unassuming as the soundtrack may be, it's not bad. It could have been better if it focused on any one of these genres, but as it stands it works. The acting is also suprisingly good. Sort of. As I've said before, the characters here are basically set pieces. Screw that. They're glorified character designs for the CGI action scenes, no more. Which is a shame. They actually do a fairly decent job with their cut-out characters when they're given a half a chance, particularly Jun Kaname as the villainous Barashin, who plays his deep voiced pretty boy bad guy routine to the hilt, and some mention should definately go to Yusuke Iseya, Tetsuya/Casshern, who actually manages to do the whole limping-with-one-eye-closed-gripping-your-wounds thing that's been used since at least Dragonball Z in 1989. It's not Shakespeare. It's not Jidai Geki. It's not even Pinky Violence. But it's got enough snap and likability that we almost give a damn about these cheesy characters and their cheesy hopes and dreams, which is all the investment we really needed.

And then... there's the ending. Up until the final battle between good and evil the film was inevitably builting towards, the movie didn't take itself seriously enough to really get weepy and sappy. Apart from the badly edited scene in which Tetsuya tries in vain to explain to Luna that war makes you less than human, which when intercut with the same dialogue once Tetsuya becomes Casshern becomes... downright confusing rather than stunning and dramatic. But this misstep is pretty minor. The overwhelmingly contrived ending which pulls twist and emo love out of it's robot ass for the last 15 minutes feels tacked on at best, and horrendously manipulative at worst, using footage of actual war victims to make it's point. When the films victims were mostly CGI robots suddenly assaulting the viewer with authentic (or at least authentic looking) footage of dead kids is just... cheap. I'm all for manipulating audiences in bad taste, but there's a time and a place. This is so not it. And the only thing about the film that genuinely makes me angry is the aforementioned scene of Tetsuya's soul just chillin' before he's brought back. If the film went on to perhaps question what a soul was, to use this image as a stepping stone for some philosiphy or even as a factor in the plot that would be fine. But as it stands it's just another moment to confuse the living hell out of the viewer with no other excuse other than to make a moment in the film later more convienant. Ugh. It should be noted that director Kiriya also co-wrote the screenplay. I have a feeling that, much like Paul Anderson, he'd be better off creating the visual aspect of cinema rather than the storytelling end.

But at the end of the day, this is setpiece after glorious setpiece with long scenes of inane dialogue in between that you can pretty much just skip if you so choose. And after having the acrid taste of Devilman scratching the back of my throat this was like a delicious kool-aid splattering against my tongue. It doesn't have any vitamins or minerals, and you know you're just going to have to pee in half an hour, but that fruity red flavor is worth it and you know it.

P.S. - Apparently Hiroyuki Nasu, director of the wretched soul rape that was Devilman (2004), died of liver cancer last year. While it's not nice to kick a director when he's down... and dead... I stand by my review, apart from saying I hope he improves in the future. So, rest his soul and all that.

Man. This is almost as akward as everyone loving Allyah in Queen of the Damned despite the fact that she was more a Count Chocula type than a Lady Dracula. And the fact that with or without her the film sucked mouldy condom lube.

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