A correction was made to this review on May 25, 2004.
Japanimation and manga-inspired live action fuse into a new hybrid in “Casshern,” which draws on a thousand years of Asian and European culture and a hundred years of cinema in a rollercoaster ride of the imagination. Drawing on some of the key creatives behind cult classics like “Ghost in the Shell,” “Ring,” “Ichi the Killer” and “Gamera,” fashion photog/musicvid director Kazuaki Kiriya comes up with an anti-war fable set in a dystopian, retro-fitted future that takes no prisoners for two-and-a-quarter hours and largely goes the distance. Pic opened on 200 screens in Japan in late April, and looks set for beefy cult action worldwide, especially on ancillary.
It’s some time in the 21st century when, after 50 years of continuous war between Europa and the Eastern Federation, the latter has triumphed and Eurasia has been born. Unfortunately, the whole planet has been poisoned by chemical, biological and nuclear warfare, and the human race is exhausted.
However, geneticist Azuma (Akira Terao) has a possible solution — a “neo-cell” that can rejuvenate damaged human parts, with no risk of rejection. He’s snapped up by the Eastern Federation’s Defence Ministry, led by Gen. Kamijo (Hideji Otaki) and multinational exec Kaoru Naito (Mitsuhiro Oikawa). Kamijo and his aged military pals could do with a dose of neo-cells themselves, and Azuma is really only interested in finding a cure for the encroaching blindness of his wife, Midori (Kanako Higuchi).
To spite his workaholic father, Azuma’s proudly nationalistic son, Tetsuya (Yusuke Iseya), enlists to fight against some anti-Federation guerrillas in outlying Zone Seven. A year later, in horrific fighting (staged in B&W, like some WW1 nightmare), Tetsuya is killed.
During Tetsuya’s lavish, Nazi-inspired state funeral, an electrical storm hits Azuma’s lab, energizing the prof’s human-tissue culture tank and producing a new race of mutants. A few manage to escape the military’s guns, taking Midori with them to a giant castle in the mountains. There, the mutants’ self-appointed leader, Brai (Toshiaki Karasawa), creates a kind of neo-Arthurian court and dubs their species Neo-Sapiens, vowing to eliminate the human race with his army of robot warriors.
That’s just the first 40 minutes of a colossal saga. There isn’t one new element in “Casshern,” which gleefully filters everything from Biblical and Norse legend to ’30s Nazi paraphernalia and “Star Wars” hardware through a deliberately grungy manga filter. However, the sheer execution and visual inventiveness is frequently jaw-dropping, and the energy and leaps of imagination purely Asian. Though the drama is driven by the human cast, the action melds humans, CGI and a wide range of animation techniques (from simple cut-outs to claymation) in which it’s impossible to draw boundaries. “Casshern” is a movie where the viewer really does have to simply go with the flow.
After the initial powerhouse reels, pacing becomes more varied, with downtime between the setpieces. There are some signs of fatigue in the last 20 minutes, which could take trims.
Pic was meticulously storyboarded and shot on Hi-Def 24p, with every frame color-adjusted and dominant colors used for each sequence (gun-metal blues, vibrant reds, warm oranges). Performances, which have a manga-like intensity, surprisingly aren’t overwhelmed by the F/X, with Karasawa making a charismatic leader of the Neo-Sapiens and older thesps like Terao, as the prof, bringing some mellowness to the action.
Every cent of the posted $5.5 million budget is up on the screen.