by Deborah Shamoon
Japan may lead the world in animation, but it's not generally known for live action sci fi films, or at least serious ones for adults (Godzilla notwithstanding). Budgetary restraints are probably one reason, but advances in computer animation could change that. Behold, Casshern, Kiriya Kasuaki's massive, visually stunning new epic. It's probably the best SF film this year that you won't see.
Casshern is actually based on a relatively unknown 1970s anime TV show of the same name, given a shiny new CGI gloss and serious tone, meant to appeal to the 30 somethings who grew up watching it. In spite of its attempted seriousness, however, the plot is silly even by anime standards. Set in an alternate future in which Japan has conquered the world, the story concerns a group of Frankenstein-like clones intent on destroying all humans with their robot army. Humanity's last best hope is Tatsuya (Iseya Yusuke), a reanimated corpse with post-traumatic stress disorder and a stretchy vinyl exoskeleton that gives him superhuman strength and the ability to fly. All the stock characters of 70s anime are here: Tatsuya's unloving scientist father Dr. Azuma (Terao Akira), his sickly, sainted mother archetypically named Midori (Higuchi Kanako), his innocent, child-like girlfriend Luna (Aso Kumiko), the evil council of wrinkly old politicos, and in the team of bad guys (headed by Karasawa Toshiaki), the charismatic psychopath, the bitchy fighting girl, the vain handsome guy and the irritating hunchback. If you have seen even one of these shows, you know already exactly what is going to happen and in what order everyone will die. As with so many anime movies, you can expect to hear long soliloquies on what it means to be human, the evils of war, vague mysticism, mushy-headed philosophizing, rampant oedipal conflict and of course the obligatory flashback to Tatsuya and Luna as children, running together in an idyllic green field.
Of course, the SF anime genre still has its strong points, even after 30 years. Don't be fooled by the occasional mentions of cloning and terrorism inserted to give the plot a veneer of currency. Like many shonen manga of the 1970s, the real historical context of Casshern is WWII, and the expression of collective guilt over Japanese wartime atrocities, in this case, vivisection and the slaughter of civilians. In this respect, the film touches on some deeper issues, if only very briefly. And, as in many anime films, the division between the good guys and the bad guys is blurry at best, a generic trope Hollywood would be wise to adopt, even as it copies so much else from anime.
But even as the plot lurches towards its inevitable apocalyptic end, it's really not the point. The reason to see Casshern is not the rather lame story, but the lush, astonishing visuals. Casshern looks like a 1930s Soviet propaganda poster come to life, with robots. It's a golden twilight and deep red tinted fusion of retro fascist, goth and steampunk aesthetics that looks refreshingly original in a sea of green and black toned Matrix rip-offs (including the latest Appleseed movie, a sad example of anime eating its own tail). It's probably not going too far to say that Casshern is the most visually inventive SF film since the first Matrix, which seems to have been cursed by its own brilliance. Even the Wachowski Bros. have found it nearly impossible to replicate the visual surprise and pleasure of first seeing Trinity's shiny vinyl-clad ass hanging in midair. In part, the key to Casshern's success is that it is not so much a live-action film as a computer animated film with occasional close-ups of live actors. Furthermore, Kiriya (himself the writer, director and cinematographer) makes it work because rather than trying to make it all look real, he revels in an anime-type fakeness appropriate to the operatic storyline. He makes the human actors move like anime characters, and in the fight scenes uses quick cuts, point of view shots and extreme close-ups, so you never have time to wonder how it's done. Even in the static dialog scenes, he arranges the actors in beautifully staged tableaux, like the layered panels of a manga page, liberally adds CGI embellishments and layers the dialog with multiple layers of narration. Many scenes with the live actors are filmed to look deliberately blurred, distorted or over-exposed, and shot in grainy black and white for daringly long segments. It's the only way to make this hybrid of CGI and live action work and to give the rather silly story gravitas by foreclosing any questions of logic and believability.
One of the more interesting visual tropes is the mixture of Cyrillic and kanji that appear everywhere. It's a nice touch, and a slight reference to Japan's world dominance in this alternate future, although the cast is of course all Japanese. This kind of monoculturalism would hardly be surprising in a Hollywood film but Americans sometimes have a hard time taking the same thing from other countries. If there is a Hollywood remake (which seems likely, a la Ring) it will be interesting to see how much of the Japanese context remains, and how much the mixing of Soviet and Nazi elements are played up.
As for when you might get to see the original outside Japan, don't hold your breath. So far no one has bought the rights, and it will probably be years, if ever, before this film is exported. Even in Japan, the film's almost completely unpublicized run has ended after less than a month. Lack of PR and revenue-producing merchandising is a major problem for the anime industry in general, and in this case it's really too bad such an epic film is almost ignored in favor of Hollywood films, even in its home country. The night I saw Casshern at a tiny theater in Shibuya, it was completely sold out, but the theater only holds 200 seats. A lot of my otaku friends admit they've missed it, which I think is due to lack of publicity. Meanwhile, I watched Master and Commander and Cold Mountain in cavernous theaters in Shinjuku that were nearly empty. What's going on here? There's a potentially huge market both in Japan and abroad for stylish Japanese SF films, but so far the Japanese film industry is letting the opportunity slip by, which is a shame.
Posted by Deborah Shamoon at 2004年05月19日 18:34