Since I started my blog a short time ago I promised to focus on things that are a bit more “old school” (hence the blog’s title) so here’s a little piece about a series I’ve been wanting to talk about for some time.
This will be the first of four articles in which I discuss and give my opinions on the various different iterations of the anime franchise Casshern. If it inspires only a few more people to see this enduring classic then it’ll be worth it.
The 70’s were a big time for Studio Tatsunoko. Though they had already had success with the likes of Mach Go Go Go among others it was their superhero shows that turned them into a force to be reckoned with, so much so that many of those works are still fondly remembered and merchandised frequently today in Japan. Even non-otaku will know Gatchaman (perhaps by the name of the westernised version Battle Of The Planets) but there were others: Time Bokan, Yatterman, Hurricane Polymar and Neo Human Casshern are just some of their iconic back catalogue. The first I heard about Casshern was in an old American anime magazine in an article about studio Tatsunoko. It showed a picture of a guy in white with a C on his chest and a robot dog. The plot synopsis sounded interesting and I thought to myself I would need to check out Casshern if it ever got translated, however I think it was about ten years after that article that I finally got the chance.
Although the most recent series in the franchise (Casshern Sins) has its fans in the US and Europe I’ve never had a conversation with a single anime fan who has seen the original 1973 TV show or its 1993 OVA remake. Granted the original series hasn’t been available in English for very long, and of course the show’s age is no doubt going to put a lot of people off who are used to the slickness of more modern animation, but I feel Casshern’s journey is quite a unique one that many fans of anime and sci-fi should experience.
Casshern’s post apocalyptic future setting may not seem so original now (bear in mind it was created almost five decades ago) but it tells a very mature and dark story in what is essentially a show aimed at the younger generation. When watching it and taking in some of the weighty themes the show deals with, compare it with western animation in 1973 and you’ll appreciate just how ahead of its time it truly was. Though it isn’t perhaps as adult as shows that came later such as Space Battleship Yamato (1978) and the original Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) it really shows the gulf between our culture and Japan at that time as to how children were trusted to be able to deal with more mature stories than the west.
So what’s it about then? In the first episode we are introduced to to the brilliant scientist Dr Azuma who is trying desperately to come up with a way to solve the world’s resource problems. He has created an android to help him in his efforts called BK-001. A freak accident gives self awareness to the robot who comes to the realisation that he is superior to humans and decides to rebel against his creator. He creates robot underlings to serve at his side and gives himself the name “Braiking Boss”. Soon he has a factory mass producing mechanical monstrosities that he intends to use to enslave humanity and christens his army “Andro Force”.
Dr Azuma’s son Tetsuya offers to help his father create a newer, stronger android but Azuma explains they couldn’t build something superior using the method he used to create BK-001. However he has a theory about something called a “Neo Human” a kind of fusion between man and machine and Tetsuya volunteers to be a test subject despite his mother pleading with him not to. The plan? To transfer Tetsuya’s consciousness into a super-strong robot body.
However there’s only one problem, even if they succeed in eliminating Braiking there’s no way for him to go back to his original body. So in order to be a hero he basically has to give up his humanity. He isn’t alone in his journey however, his dog who was recently murdered in an attack by Andro Force (rather brutally I may add, I’m sure this scene traumatised a lot of Japanese kids at the time) is resurrected as the helpful robot companion “Friender”. Also joining him is his childhood friend, a girl called Luna Kozuki who wields a powerful robot destroying gun created by her scientist father.
Soon Tetsuya (newly christened Casshern) is butting heads with Andro Force and finds he can kick, punch and tear his enemies to pieces. However his father Dr Azuma is taken prisoner and in order to save his wife Midori, the doc transfers her consciousness into their mechanical robot pet Swan (fittingly named “Swannee”). Andro Force take over Azuma’s castle and make it their new headquarters.
If some of this sounds a little cheesy it’s because aspects of it are (at least to a modern audience today) but what they do with the concept is memorable in all the right ways.
Let’s start with the characters. Casshern himself is a great protagonist with some considerable depth. Though Tetsuya is forced to give up his human body he is anything but lacking in humanity. He cares just as deeply as he did when he was mortal and takes each tragedy and loss he experiences in his fight to heart (and he experiences a lot let me tell you). His character design (co-created by Yoshitaka Amano of Final Fantasy and Vampire Hunter D cover art fame) gives him soft features and soulful effeminate eyes (in fact he looks a lot like Ken from Gatchaman which is not surprising considering he also designed the characters for that too). Despite his big heart and heroic nature he’s also a flawed character, he can be quite impulsive and prone to anger. Also he has a rather vital physical weakness: his robot body is recharged by the sun’s rays. This causes more than a few problems throughout the course of the show putting him in harm’s way regularly and keeping the audience rooting for him because we know that he isn’t completely unbeatable. He often has to keep the fact he’s not entirely human to himself for fear of being turned on (robots are destroying the world after all). This creates some interesting plots about trust and prejudice that mean he isn’t always looked upon as a hero. It isn’t even just his cybernetic nature that’s an issue for some, in one episode he clashes with a pacifist mayor who will not condone violence, despite the fact his city is suffering as a result. Because of these moral themes and the focus on Casshern dealing with them based on his own beliefs it’s hard to think of it as an anime solely for kids.
Luna isn’t the most layered character in the show but kudos to the creators for making her strong willed and not a damsel in distress. Although there are scenes where Tetsuya must save her she is never portrayed as being totally helpless, she knows how to use her gun too, disintegrating robots left and right with regularity. Early in the series she makes a vow to fight and die alongside Tetsuya and alarmingly she sounds very prepared for it as if it’s inevitable rather than a possibility.
Now if the sound of a robot dog doesn’t scare you off the show you may be delighted to hear Friender is a quite good character in his own right. His design is excellent when compared to some of the other mechanical design in the show which can vary quite a bit in quality. He’s loyal to Casshern (he is the reincarnation of his actual pet dog after all) and helps him out of more than a few life or death situations (particularly when he loses energy as the sun goes down and starts to get beaten up by Andro Force). He’s also incredibly tough, in his first fight against Braiking boss he tears the evil android’s arm off! Not only is he a loyal companion and fierce but he’s a useful mutt too, he has keen senses and tracking abilities, an extendable winch-like tale, the ability to turn enemies into slag with fire breath and he can also transform into four different vehicles which Casshern can ride. If you’re a gamer and this all sounds kind of familiar you might be interested to learn that Mega Man/Rockman and Rush from the Mega Man series are based on Casshern and Friender respectively. Check out these images for an obvious homage.
Braiking Boss is an incredibly ruthless villain. He has no compassion whatsoever even for his fellow robots and often threatens his subordinates with being smashed to pieces if they don’t comply with his commands. One particularly over the top moment showing his utter contempt for humanity comes in an early episode where he gets a captured scientist to create a machine that produces a new energy source for him that will increase his strength dramatically. He uses the machine, makes sure he understands how it works and then grabs the scientist and sends so much electricity coursing through his body he burns him to a pile of ash! Then he nonchalantly summons a hoover robot to sweep up his remains and smugly remarks about how stupid the guy was to trust him in the first place! Though he’s heartless it’s important to note that like Casshern and also his own lieutenants he does have emotions though. He gets angry frequently and there’s more than one scene where he shows obvious concern over a turn of events that could potentially thwart his plans. His closest companion (although it’s quite one sided) is Swannee, Dr Azuma’s former pet robot swan (Braiking is unaware that Midori’s consciousness was hidden inside it).
The key art and animation are pretty well done for a show made in 1973. People who only watch modern anime or haven’t been used to watching “vintage” animation of any sort may struggle with the art style or the quality of animation. Being accustomed to older stuff I think it’s actually pretty fluid looking for its time, particularly in some of the action scenes. Occasionally some scenes use stills with shaky camera movement but they’re not overused. Eagle eyed viewers will notice the use of some stock animation in fight scenes where Casshern is ripping a robot in two, chopping its head etc but again it’s not used too frequently. Even the most unobservant person will notice his signature somersault is re-used a lot though, it’s in the opening sequence of the show and it pops up quite often as the show goes on. It looks pretty cool for the time though so that’s fine by me. Friender’s transformations always use the same piece of animation but that doesn’t really detract from the show because it’s rarely seen (sometimes it’ll cut to a scene where Friender has already transformed) and it’s no different from the likes of a super robot show that shows you the same transformation sequence repeatedly. Similar to Gatchaman‘s “Bird Go!” transformation scene they have a super-psychedelic background to boot.
The show’s structure after the first few episodes that deal with the origin and setup tend to tell a different personal story featuring one off characters every week that somehow get embroiled in Braiking’s latest plan (often when their town or city is invaded) and the trio’s efforts to help them. As you’ll learn pretty early on, a great percentage of these poor souls won’t make it to the credits. Ultimately Casshern often ends an episode witnessing a tragedy with his heart filled with sorrow, regret or sometimes renewed hope as he wanders off into the sunset, at times it can be quite powerful stuff. There’s only a bit of hand holding narration and the occasional robot dog transformation to remind you you’re watching a kid friendly show.
Another oft repeated event is intel about Braiking’s plan coming from Swannee who can project a hologram-like form of Casshern’s mother Midori to warn him (but only at night, she can’t communicate at all during the day). Perhaps they use this plot device a bit too much but honestly it never bothered me a great deal all things considered. As the show reaches the middle it becomes more about Casshern’s attempts to get his father back and then there’s mostly one off plots and a little ongoing story leading up to the final confrontation between Casshern and Braiking Boss. I won’t say a thing about the final episode except that it was worth waiting for and ends the series on a perfect note. Overall it’s easy to see why it’s fondly remembered by Japanese fans.
There isn’t a great deal of humour in Casshern. There are a few cute visual gags including Braiking Boss having a variety of interesting mechanical servants who might bring a smile to your face. These include a telephone robot whose receiver makes up part of his head and a tiny little lighter robot who lights cigars for him. Occasionally Braiking’s Lieutenants act a bit bumbling and buffoonish much like many of the more comedic villains of American cartoon shows but other than that it’s pretty serious indeed. Braiking himself has a few funny moments (including a rather interesting new take on how to wear a Sombrero) but overall they’re quite rare.
So enough blabbing I hear you cry. Where can i get this retro goodness? Sentai Filmworks released the anime on Blu Ray and DVD in North America and though I’m glad to have it in an official release as a big fan of the show the end product was a little underwhelming. I expected a lack of special features for a show made in the 70’s however the localisation leaves a little to be desired. Some of the translations are a little too literal and aren’t exactly very imaginative plus there is some extremely awkward phrasing as well as a few errors here and there. Fansubs of the original show and official releases of the OVA from 1994 use the term “Neo human” for the Japanese words shinzo ningen however Sentai’s sub uses the rather awkward sounding “newly made man”. Neo human just sounds a lot cooler and is how the full title of the show has been referred to by fans for years . To be clear the subs aren’t terrible, just not to my taste, I wish they’d kept the same translation to keep it in line with other iterations of the franchise but that’s just my OCD nerdy self. Because of its age I’m guessing the master copies of the show weren’t in great condition as both formats show degradation or perhaps damage to the actual animation cels. You can see this in the second screenshot in this review, the top or bottom of the screen occasionally has a bit of white fuzz for a split second but it doesn’t detract from the viewing experience too much.
In summary Neo Human Casshern holds up much better than many anime of the era and it has a unique feel to it all of its own. It’s as much about the relentlessness of the human spirit as it is about a badass hero smashing robots to pieces with his fists and feet and for that it will always have a special place in my heart.
Join me again in the near future when I explore the remake: 1993’s Casshern: Robot Hunter an OVA with updated animation and character design. Casshern Sins, the aforementioned reboot from 2008 and also the live action movie Casshern from 2004.
Note on character’s name spellings: “Casshern” can also be spelled in English as “Casshan” and “Friender” as “Flender”. Sentai Filmworks opted to use the “Casshan” and “Flender” spellings for the DVD release. The 1993 show uses “Casshan” in the romanised English title that appears on screen however the character/show has more commonly been associated with the “ern” spelling in English in the past which is why I use it here. This is the spelling used for both the English language movie DVDs and the later series “Sins”. I have kept it here merely for continuity as it would be confusing to change the spelling across all of my articles.