I revisit the live action Casshern movie. How does it compare to the other entries in the franchise?
The movie version of Casshern is wildly different to what came before, however there are still many of the themes, ideas and characters to make it feel part of the franchise. It goes off very much in its own direction though; we’ll get to that later when we talk about the “origin” of Casshern and Burai (the movie’s interpretation of Braiking Boss).
The setup is similar. The world has been ravaged by decades of war between Europa and the Eastern Federation. Finally the Federation emerges victorious and the new federation of Eurasia is formed.
The story this time around is to do with Dr Azuma’s discovery of “Neo cells”: a group of cells found within the genome of a certain ethnic group that he believes can be used to regenerate human tissue. This discovery, if developed further would theoretically be able to cure fatal illnesses and produce scientific marvels as groundbreaking as restoring lost limbs or curing disfigurements. Azuma’s wife Midori is terminally ill, the film never elaborates on exactly what she is suffering from however it makes it clear that her time is running out if a cure is not found.
A big difference from the original TV anime is that Tetsuya and his Dad have a pretty frosty relationship. Dr Azuma even believes that when Tetsuya enlists in the military that he’s going off to war just to spite him. Luna (finally Tetsuya’s actual girlfriend in this version) is against him going as well, however she accepts his decision and the two of them get engaged before he leaves to fight.
However Tetsuya never comes home, at least not in the traditional sense. The next time he ends up back at the family home it’s in a coffin. Weirdly Tetsuya goes through every state from living to dead in each of the three versions discussed: he’s completely alive when his consciousness is transferred into a mechanical body in the original 1973 show, he’s dying and crawling towards the machine which makes him Casshern in the 1993 version and in this one he’s actually completely dead before his eventual resurrection as the titular hero.
Friender isn’t in the movie, though a dog called Lucky is seen briefly later in the film (the original name of Tetsuya’s dog before he was turned into a cyborg) though he belongs to someone else.
The film is surprisingly surreal in places. When I first saw it some years ago I felt a couple of scenes were out of place and had no business being In the film. The best example of this is a few scenes after Tetsuya’s death when his coffin is brought home; what seems to be his ghost wanders around the family estate and he visits his mother Midori and Luna though they can’t see him. I guess it’s supposed to be there to get the audience to invest in the emotion of the fact Tetsuya has died and those closest to him have somehow sensed his passing but it just doesn’t really fit the film for me and I found these scenes just as odd watching it again all these years later.
Azuma’s laboratory by this point in the film has managed to cultivate human body parts using the neo cell method, however a freak lightning storm triggers a bizarre metamorphosis. Fully formed adult humanoids are born from the water tanks that previously produced only limbs. No sooner are they born, naked and afraid from the birthing pool, than the military begins gunning them down causing them to flee for their lives to the sewers.
A small number of these beings escape the bloodshed (helped in part by Midori) and after struggling against the elements find shelter in an old abandoned factory. One of the group speaks out about their subjugation and their desire to fight back against their oppressors. He names himself “Burai” and christens their race the “Neoroids”.
Oppression is very much the central theme of the film. Where previously Burai/Braiking was a completely evil villain who desired the destruction of the human race for no other reason than he was totally insane, this version of the character is much more sympathetic. We’ve seen his awful treatment at the hands of humans and so we understand his hatred and desire for revenge.
The theme of what it means to be human also plays a big part. For all intents and purposes the “bad” guys of the film are no longer soulless uncaring robots but human beings in all but name with souls and hearts who love each other and bear a grudge against mankind.
In an interesting twist the robotic cannon fodder that Casshern regularly ripped apart in the original version turn up as robotic tools of war, long since abandoned and powered down after a conflict long ago. They remain in the factory gathering dust and so Burai reactivates them to be his minions to aid in the fight against humans and starts up the assembly line once again.
All of the different models of lesser robots from the original show turn up and keep the retro designs of the 1973 version but are rendered with computer graphics. It’s a cool and clever way of having something to satisfy old school fans as much of the film’s visuals are pretty far removed from the previous two versions.
When Burai makes his inspiring speech that fires up the neoroids for war against humankind he wraps himself in a red flag with an emblem on it that seems to be the military flag of whatever former nation the neoroids find themselves in. This is another nice little nod to the original: those who have seen the 73 show will recognise it as Andro Force’s original flag – this time inherited rather than created by Braiking himself.
Once they’re suited up Burai and his lieutenants with their stylised hair and unusual clothes look a bit like an early 2000s visual kei band (a very theatrical form of Japanese rock music) . The use of red in the film is very striking. Burai’s extremely red cloak/flag stands out against the often dark scenery as do the glowing lights of his robot minions.
The cast are all very good but kudos to Toshiaki Karasawa for playing Burai with such nuance. He has great range and portrays his character as much more than a one dimensional villain. After all much of the point of this version is that you sympathise with him and the other neoroids. In the original anime he had contempt for pretty much everyone and didn’t care even for his fellow robots however here he shows a great range of emotion, he has a wife of sorts in one of the other neoroids and can be capable of mercy.
Large portions of the movie have very different visual styles. For example, some scenes like Tetsuya’s war flashbacks have a grainy sepia tinged colour whereas one fight scene is filled with shining rays of light and there’s a montage showing the invasion of Burai’s robot army which has shots that are almost like a black, white and red manga that’s sprang to life. I quite enjoyed the visual diversity of the film though I’m sure some will find the different styles annoying and a bit jarring. Personally I thought the scene with the light rays was a little overdone and somewhat spoiled the action in that portion of the film but it’s not that long and there are much better action set pieces in the film anyway.
Because the movie is going for a more realistic feel and tone in addition to abandoning Friender, Midori’s swan form is gone too. However they kept the fact that Burai has a soft spot for her. Of course this time it’s because she helped the neoroids escape shortly after their birth.
Tetsuya himself is of course placed in the same neo cell pool that birthed Burai and brought back to life. His scientist colleague and father of Luna, Dr Kozuki was previously a weapons and military equipment designer and he augments the resurrected Tetsuya with specialised armour that both protects him from harm and stops the unstable neo cells from ripping his body apart. Anyone who’s seen the original will know that although Casshern could run out of solar energy and power down he was actually immortal and could never be destroyed. The fact he’s vulnerable (as well as flesh and blood) is a huge departure. Eagle eyed viewers will notice a prototype sketch on Kozuki’s desk that shows the 1973 Casshern design and the classic helmet can be seen on a shelf in another scene among some of his other creations.
The decision to make both Casshern and Burai more like human beings than robots changes so much of the story but the characters help cement it as part of the Casshern universe. The fact that the two enemies are now effectively brothers gives their rivalry an interesting dynamic not present in previous iterations.
The film is extremely dark in places; the state and military are shown to be complete bastards with no moral compass whatsoever and many of the politicians and soldiers who appear in the movie are devoid of any conscience and have no problem with killing innocents to further their goals. In one scene soldiers slaughtering innocent people are shown intercut with the nation singing the national anthem broadcast on TV with millions of people unaware what is going on.
The origin of the name “Casshern” is addressed in the movie. Previously it was just a name given to Tetsuya by his father in the original and seemingly by the general populace in the 1993 version. This time an old man tells Tetsuya a story about a legendary hero called Casshern. In the pre-war age people believed that he was a protective deity sent to them to prevent conflict. The old man after seeing him in action suggests that he might be his reincarnation.
I really like the film’s soundtrack. Burai and the neoroids have a very grandiose, epic theme that plays often in the film and is used to great effect. The score in general matches the large scope of the film very well throughout. There is an excellent use of a metal track during a massive fight between Casshern and all of Burai’s cannon fodder robots. I love this scene as it has some great visual nods to the classic Casshern including a moment where he chops a robot in two with his hand and also does the signature somersault that was such an oft-used piece of animation in the original. As he jumps into the air he is framed by the moon when he reaches the height of his jump. This kind of striking imagery is commonplace in the film and looks absolutely beautiful.
Speaking of looks the CGI is pretty good for 2004. Bear in mind that I mean that in relative terms. A lot of Japanese movies didn’t exactly have cutting edge computer effects back then. They look a bit low rent and some of the composites between real footage and CG stick out a bit but because all the effects have the same consistency it doesn’t look as bad as a lot of other movies out there.
All in all I really like the Casshern movie. It’s quite a long film but it never outstays its welcome. I’ve discussed a lot of elements of the film but I’ve stayed away from stuff like the ending because you should experience that for yourself. I’m sure it will divide people but personally I still enjoy it. You shouldn’t go into it expecting an all out action movie because although it has some action scenes it’s more of a sci-fi drama in a dystopian setting with a few action sequences inspired by the anime. Also some of the one on one fight scenes aren’t that well choreographed and are more akin to something you’d find in a Tokusastu series than a martial arts movie.
It got extremely mixed reviews upon release but to me a lot of those seem to be because people had certain expectations about what they were getting. Have an open mind and you’ll enjoy it.
In the final part of my Casshern retrospective we’ll take a look at the most recent anime version the bleak (and unique) Casshern Sins. I do hope you’ll join me.
CASSHERN (2004) is currently unavailable on Blu Ray in the UK and US however it is available on DVD. The UK version is from Momentum Asia and features a few special features such as deleted scenes and cast/crew interviews. The Transfer isn’t the best but it is in Widescreen and has decent subs and 5.1 Surround.