Like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004 / trailer) and Immortal (Ad Vitam) (2004 / trailer), Casshern is one of the first films to be shot entirely on an empty backstage, in front of a greenscreen, upon which all backgrounds are digitally added later.* And like most such films, including the most successful ones to date, Sin City (2005 / trailer) and 300 (2006 / trailer), the results are visually stunning and often overwhelming, if not often oddly distant and impersonal.
The directorial debut of Kazuaki Kiriya, who went on to make the even more extreme ocular smorgasbord Goeman (2009 / trailer), Casshern is a live-action take on the popular 1973 anime series entitled Neo-Human Casshern. (In 1993, four episodes of the original series were edited together to create the less-than-spectacular film Robot Hunter Casshern [trailer]; the animation series has since been rebooted as Casshern Sins [2008 / trailer].) Kiriya's film – which offers an ever-so-slight salute to the original anime source in a lab scene in which the crescent helmet of the anime character is seen on a shelf – retains the basic setting of the techno-futile, war-torn future but adds a dimension of humanity to the hero and his main foes that is lacking in the animation films: in the latter, Casshern is an invincible android with a consciousness that fights robots, whereas in the 2004 live-action version he is a reanimated corpse with a soul encased in a super-warsuit (to control the uncontrollable muscle growth caused by his "neo-cell" reanimation) fighting the "neo-sapians" out to destroy humanity, the robot masses released with this aim in mind and, at times, the war-obsessed humans of the fascist world of the future. In-between, he grapples desperately with the questions of life, love and his place in humanity.
Casshern aims to be a sci-fi Shakespearean tragedy of Wagnerian proportions playing out in a war-obsessed and decadent future populated by handsome men, good-looking babes and incredible scenery but doomed by mankind's greed, desire for power and intemperance. The future presented is one following a fifty-year war between the Eastern Federation and Europe; the Federation has won, but the world is a chemically polluted ruin. The Federation funds Dr Azuma (Akira Terao of Ran [1987 / trailer]) in his research and development of "neo-cells," human cells that in theory can be used to regenerate live human tissues. Dr Azuma's blind wife Midori (Kanako Higuchi of Ashura [2005 / trailer]) is dying of a mysterious disease, and his estranged son Tetsuya (Yûsuke Iseya of Memories of Matsuko [2006 / trailer] and Sukiyaki Western Django [2007 / trailer]) leaves his hot fiancée Luna (Kumiko Asô of Pulse [2001 / trailer]) and his hated father behind to join the military, only to return a year later in a casket. Even as his casket is being carried in, a metallic bolt of lightning from heaven strikes the vats of neo-organs, causing them to join together to create the neo-sapiens, which the Federation yes-man Kaoru Naito (Mitsuhiro Oikawa of Cutie Honey [2004 / trailer]) promptly orders destroyed.
But a few survive the bloodbath and kidnap Midori while escaping, eventually taking refuge in a castle where they discover an army of robots and decide to revenge the destruction of their neo-brethren by destroying humanity. In the meantime, Azuma has rejuvenated his dead son by immersing him in the neo-cell vats, but due to Tetsuya's unstable condition and uncontrolled muscle growth, Luna's father Dr. Kozuki (Fumiyo Kohinata of Audition [2000 / trailer] and Dark Water [2002 / trailer]) takes him back to his own lab/home to put Tetsuya in a new super-battlesuit developed for the military (the suit also functions as a sort of super-girdle, adding stability to his oddly lithe supper-body). The neo-sapiens attack and end up killing Dr. Kozuki, but super-Tetsuya kills the female neo-sapien and, while escaping with Luna, obliterates an army of robots only to be knocked unconscious by the leader of the neo-sapians, Burai (Toshiaki Karasawa of the 20th Century Boys trilogy [2008-2009 / trailer])...
To tell any more of the plot, which is as convoluted and padded but nevertheless simple as any given Shakespearean tragedy, could easily take another 1000 words, so let's just say that the ingenuous story continually takes twists and turns and tangents in an attempt to convey its anti-war message, finally ending as any tragedy should even as it offers an unexpected and almost insanely Genesis-like closing curve into the left field...
To say that Casshern is a 142-minute-long mess is a bit of an understatement, but what a wonderful mess it is indeed. A visual feast of beautiful people meandering within an ennui of loss, egotism, love and war, Casshern is a continuous series of astounding pictorial scenes interspaced with explosions of aesthetic violence in which every lingering death is accompanied by a portentous monologue. An orchestra of emotions conveyed in image and sound, Casshern remains miraculously comprehensible within the overwhelming flood of images and pictures that accompany the numerous narrative contortions. As jaw-dropping as the visuals are, however, the sheer length of the never-ending story does become exhausting – Casshern may be an amazing and mesmerizing film, but it is also definitely not an ideal film for late-night viewing.
*According to Guinness, the first such feature film to be filmed entirely in this process was the low budget sci-fi flick Able Edwards (trailer), also of 2004.