DreamWorks // 2004 // 117 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // November 5th, 2007
When a hero falls, a legend will rise.
Loosely adapted from an obscure manga and anime from the 1970s, Casshern is all bells and whistles; a big, loud, conceptually confusing nightmarish mish-mash of explosions, computer generated robots, Japanese superheroes, and dystopia run rampant. Something of a glorious train wreck, it is a visual cacophony unlike any other.
In the late 21st century, the Eastern Federation is in crisis, having finally put an end to a fifty-year war against Europa and its robotic armies. Desperate to rebuild, the Federation struggles with disease, corruption, and misery. But one geneticist believes he has the solution to mankind's problems, a "neo-cell" that can be used to clone virtually any body part and rejuvenate life. His invention, created to save his sick wife and benefit mankind, is soon corrupted by the government and used for its own devices, creating a horrible accident.
The doctor's experiments have inadvertently created a new race of mutants, superhuman creatures who, after escaping from the government that tried to destroy them, vow to take over the world, reviving the deactivated robots from the Fifty-Year War. All hope is lost, until a mysterious warrior named Casshern emerges from the ashes of war to face the menace.
Gloriously chaotic, incomprehensibly written, and lusciously executed with excessive flair, Casshern may not make much sense to us mere mortals, but one cannot deny its austere otherworldly beauty. A live-action anime film on hallucinogenic drugs, Casshern is a spectacular achievement of poetry of motion and design, literally leaping off the screen at viewers and assaulting their senses. This is a film where you sit back and simply enjoy the poetry of the visual aesthetics, of a fantasy world created out of metal, magic, and motion, and worry not about comprehending the plot.
Watching Casshern is like watching a movie from the future that moves too fast, its wildly stylized, dystopic future-scape like a blend of 1984 and Blade Runner with some H.R. Geiger tossed in for good measure. The film is a cornucopia of complimentary and conflicting styles, a hodge-podge of Victorian influenced steampunk, Japanese imperialist military designs, Cyrillic and Russian-influences, WWII-era technology, and gigantic robots straight out of Astro Boy. Casshern is all steam pipes and propellers and ominous Big Brother-esque floating heads, with retro-stylized Japanese robots all over the place. In short, it looks like nothing else you've ever seen.
With a running time of nearly two hours, Casshern drags somewhat in its pacing, far too interested in its own peculiar philosophies and ideologies with awkwardly long dialogue sequences between its protagonists. It might look like an action film on the surface, but with only twenty or so minutes of its total running time devoted to excitement, the film might be a hard sell to those looking for pure adrenaline. The plot, such as it is, is confusing, disjointed, and slightly obtuse, a strange mix of technological anxiety, parapsychology, death, and rebirth crammed into the body of a bad cartoon from the 1970s. Luckily, at no point does the film demand the comprehension of its audience in order to appreciate its charms. I highly suggest putting all such details out of your mind and simply enjoy the feast of the senses. I mean, the protagonist is a guy in white tights with half a motorcycle helmet on his head, beating up robots with his bare hands, literally slicing them in half with swings of his hands. Do you really need a believable plot to get behind that? Because I sure don't!
Like its technological peers, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Able Edwards, Casshern achieves its marvelous visuals by creating them entirely via computer, crafting a totally immersive environment in a green-screened room with no set pieces or location shots of any kind. Being entirely computer-generated, the film is able to pull off some truly marvelous (if not always believable) stunts and visuals. Created for a surprisingly low budget, Casshern has some special effects that overreach in terms of their scope, while others, like computer-generated cars, just look plain bad. It is hard to get a sense of acting performances in such a sterile and computer-generated environment, but it is understandably difficult for actors to emote the tragedy of a war-torn landscape standing still in a green sound room. Still, the overall effect is quite magical and unique, the most successful use of this technology I have seen thus far in a feature film.
Ultimately, Casshern is a puzzle to critique. By all normal criteria, this is a corny film, ludicrous in premise, acting, and presentation, with an over-the-top style that defies attempts to contain and quantify it. So why is it so gosh darn entertaining? This is a singularly unique cinematic vision, a melding of styles and absurdities so ridiculous that one cannot help feel overwhelmed and entertained by its excesses. Chalk it up to an exception that proves the rule, but Casshern paints over its obvious flaws with such vigorous brush strokes that one can almost forgive the film's conceptual transgressions.
A fantastic presentation, Casshern is near-reference quality in its technical presentation on DVD. The fidelity of the transfer is virtually flawless, almost frightening to behold. What visual defects are present amount to oversaturated colors and slight graininess, all deliberately stylized choice in Casshern, rendering further discussion moot. Black levels are rich and deep, whites are vibrantly glaring, and colors are saturated to the point of leaping off your screen and pounding your optic nerves. The level of detail and resolution is phenomenal. With Casshern, anyone with high-end equipment should be able to appreciate how quality good ol' fashioned DVD can look, even with high-definition formats setting the bar high.
Presented in a beefy Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation, the audio is aggressive and complex, pounding through all five surround channels with feverish intensity. The LFE jumps and shudders, giving your subwoofer a workout. The powerful volume and excellent delegation to sonic space give Casshern a mighty fine presentation, strong and immersive. There is no English dub, which is fine by me.
The only thing that stops Casshern from scoring top marks in my book are the subtitles, which are big, white and (gasp!) burned onto the image. Why a disc with such a rocking technical presentation would cheap out on the text, I have no idea. The translation is a bit suspect as well; the characters speak an awful lot of dialogue, and one cannot shake the suspicion that the translated text is truncated somehow.
Disappointingly, there is virtually nothing in the way of extras -- all the space goes to the tech presentation. We get two theatrical trailers, and not a single byte more.
Dense and nonsensical, Casshern is visual poetry -- a feast for the eyes and ears, but poison for the brain. This is the kind of DVD you rent, or keep in your collection to demo your top-of-the-line home theater and knock the socks off your friends, but will probably not partake in repeated viewings of. Watching the film a second time did not make Casshern any more comprehensible; in fact, quite the opposite, as the gigantic plot holes, confusing dialogue, and ADD-addled narrative only became all the more glaring.
This DVD has a running time of 117 minutes, which is almost thirty minutes shorter than the Japanese cut of the film. No doubt the film received some edits transition to North America, possibly to cut some sense into the thing, but purists are bound to be irked by the missing content. Unless you plan on hunting down the Japanese R2 edition (which has a rockin' 6.1 presentation, by the way) North American audiences will have to settle with this truncated version.
A rare triumph of style over substance, Casshern is an incomprehensible mess of stunning visuals and impressive design, a film made of bells and whistles, but ones impressive enough to gloss over its obvious flaws. Repeated viewings sour its charm, but the pure aesthetics and incredible flair more than make up for its lack of cohesion.
A great rental or a cautious buy for the uber-nerdy.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailers