Saturday, July 10, 2010

“We are the Neo-Humans. Bow down before us.”

I’m…not entirely sure what I just watched.

Wait, let’s break it down a bit. Earlier this year a game called Tatsunoko vs. Capcom came out for the Wii that in addition to including characters from Mega Man, Street Fighter and other Capcom franchises, also included a large number of characters owned by Tatsunoko, a company with a long history of anime. Stateside, probably their most recognizable series, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, was adapted into Battle of the Planets. Anyway, the Tatsunoko characters are all pretty much unknown over here, but in the game they kick ass, so naturally I looked them up and learned that several of these venerable series have been both updated/rebooted or made into live action films. One of the more popular series, Shinzō Ningen Kyashān, (Neo-Human Casshern) is about a badass cyborg who fights legions of robots with his bare hands, so I guess it’s kind of like Magnus Robot Fighter, only with a robot dog ally and without a tiny skirt. In 2004, a live action movie, simply titled Casshern came out and, um, it’s really weird.

So, we’ve got the aftermath of some kind of war with the Eastern Federation on top, but still on a heavy military footing because of a large resistance movement. Heavy industrialization and all kinds of fallout has led to widespread urban creep and pollution and things kind of suck. However, one scientist discovers things called “Neo Cells” that work pretty much like ‘roided up stem cells and this means great things for the organ transplant field. Anyway, this scientist’s son enlists in the army and ends up getting killed by a booby-trapped baby (which is a pretty crappy way to go). Now, before we get to the obvious destination of this plot point, there’s a lot of moody dramatic scenes of the son’s ghost kind of hanging around the city and seeing his family members react to the news that he’s a corpse.

Regardless, a mysterious lightning bolt strikes the Doc’s lab and turns to stone (don’t look at me). This somehow causes all the body parts swimming in a Neo Cell bath to get active and start bonding together, creating a large number of now-alive-and-covered-in-muck people that then get mostly gunned down by the military since the government are assholes. A few manage to escape the troops and head into the mountains where they find a house/mansion/castle filled with inactive robots. Back in the city, the Doc finally puts his son’s corpse into the bath and brings him back to life.

So our resurrected hero gets a containment suit because his body is highly powerful but unstable and this happens in the nick of time, since the Neo-Humans come back with their robot horde to wreck shit up.

And that’s only what happens up to the halfway point. It’s a loooong movie.

Tetsuya Azuma/Casshern: Yûsuke Iseya plays our Hero. He starts off as a nice young guy, got a fiancée that he loves very much, a prominent scientist father and then he heads off to war where he participates in some very, very bad things and dies. But he gets better. Better than better, even! He gets super powers, like the ability to move hella fast and punch through robots! And brood! Yeah, there’s a lot of brooding and navel gazing in between punching the hell out of robots. And he spends some time as a ghost, which is never really explained.

Dr. Kotaro Azuma: Akira Terao plays Tetsuya’s caring but rather grim father. He’s the leading expert on Neo Cells and despite that strained relationship with his son, still loves him enough to bring him back from the dead. Gets some interesting plot twists down the line.

Midori Azuma: Kanako Higuchi plays Tetsuya’s mom. A gentle, kind woman who’s going blind (I think), she gets caught up in the craziness of the power struggles.

Luna Kozuki: Kumiko Asô plays Tetsuya’s beautiful, kind girlfriend. She figures prominently in a large number of scenes and gets some nice development. Her father is a robotics scientist and he is the one who actually builds the badass containment suit for Tetsuya.

Burai: Toshiaki Karasawa plays the Antagonist of the film. He’s a Neo-Human, recombined from body parts in a vat, he’s also really, really pissed about the Eurasian government being colossal jerks and gunning down helpless Neo-Humans. He upgrades to the leader of the robot legions, gets a badass red cape and becomes one hell of a complicated and sympathetic main villain. And certainly the film’s biggest badass.

Barashin: Jun Kaname plays a tall Neo-Human who gets into a killer swordfight with Casshern.

Sagurê: Mayumi Sada plays the hot Neo-Human working with Burai. She’s got a temper, that one.

Akubon: Hiroyuki Miyasako (at least, I hope I’ve got the credit right for this) plays the most interesting Neo-Human henchman. A hunchbacked mute who’s actually just a gentle guy with really crazy eyes, he’s very protective of Luna.

Kazuaki Kiriya was director, director of photography and lead editor (damn!) and it was part of that wave of films that heavily used chromakey, like Sky Captain, 300 and Sin City. And like those films, you can definitely tell that most of the movie was filmed on a set. HOWEVER, what Casshern does differently is that it does an incredible job of translating anime visual tricks to live action. That means we get crazy camera angles, we get sudden art shifts where things just switch to black & white for various scenes and yes, we get live action speed lines, which is both silly and awesome at the same time. The visual design is sort of like V for Vendetta meets Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, meets Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with a hefty dose of gloomy Russian industrial architecture and a whole lot of Nazi symbolism in the military’s uniforms.

Really though, what the movie does best are high intensity and very, very insane action sequences. However, for the running length (142 minutes for the original cut), it could’ve definitely benefited from at least one more action scene to help break up the melodrama.

Characters created by Tatsuo Yoshida, writing by Dai Sato & Shotaro Suga & screenplay by Kazuaki Kiriya (man, he’s all over the place). Anyway, the story is a fairly grim and serious affair that doesn’t really seem to follow the original premise very much. Here, Casshern isn’t a cyborg per-se, and he doesn’t have his trademark helmet or sidekick dog Friender that can turn into a jet or whatever (though both of the latter do get continuity nods). Characters are fairly standard and while there are a fair number of interesting plot twists, they do kind of venture into plot hole territory from time to time (like where the hell do those stone lightning bolts come from?). You also get the anime standard themes of War = Bad. Nuclear War = Worse. War with Giant Robots = F’ing Awesome (okay, so that last one is an unintentional side effect)

But there is a problem with the story. Tonally, this is a very dark, grim, brooding and serious film. Perhaps too serious for a movie based on a 70s cartoon about a guy having ADVENTURES! where he karate chopped robots in half. There is a lot of fantastical imagery on the screen, but outside of the action scenes, there is no sense of wonder to go along with it. Well, see for yourself:

Dig that crazy 70's collar.

Original music by Shirô Sagisu (who did the music for the anime classic/notorious mindfuck Neon Genesis Evangelion) and during the action sequences, the music really kicks into gear. Outside of that, Ludwig Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” permeates the film’s quieter moments. And the movie’s theme song “Dareka no Negai ga Kanau Koro” is by Hikaru Utada.

Casshern is a very, very interesting movie to watch. Very well made and visually incredible in many ways, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it because it does tend to move too slowly in a large number of places when it really should'nt have to. There’s also the ending which is really, really weird (even compared to the rest of the movie). Still, I did like it quite a bit despite the flaws, so…sort of recommended for the adventurous out there.

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