Previous Retro Reviews...
- MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO *** KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE *** PRINCESS MONONOKE
- HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE *** NAUSICAA *** CASTLE IN THE SKY *** PORCO ROSSO
- AKIRA Vol. 1 *** Vol. 2 *** Vol. 3 *** Vol. 4 *** Vol. 5 *** Vol. 6 *** TRIGUN Vol. 1
- LITTLE NORSE PRINCE VALIANT *** DRAGONBALL Vol. 1 *** GHOST IN THE SHELL
- MACROSS II *** LUPIN III: THE SECRET OF MAMO *** SPACE ADVENTURE COBRA
- BAKUMAN Vol. 1 *** MONSTER Vol. 1 *** DEAD LEAVES *** 20th CENTURY BOYS Vol. 1
- LONE WOLF & CUB Vol. 1 *** Tezuka's BUDDHA Vol. 1 *** BLACK JACK Vol. 1-2
Well, this absolutely felt like a foreign movie with over 25 minutes of omissions and an over-simplified subtitle track. No doubt, at all. And a little online snooping reveals that this particular DVD edition has received much derision from more discriminating cinephiles over exactly that. Though, to be honest, a full restoration probably wouldn’t remedy all of the flick’s issues. As Casshern’s pristine armor got increasingly bloodied and dirtied as the movie progressed, I couldn’t help but see a useful metaphor for the clarity of the plot laying somewhere in the condition of that signature suit.
There’s plenty to like about this iteration of CASSHERN, but it fumbles its good qualities like an otherwise suitable bachelor blowing a prom proposal because he asked too eagerly, or neglected to trim his nose hairs, or wore some garish jacket. None of those details take much coaching to remedy, but they’re sure to sink a promising prospect if they’re still around when it’s time to step up - - much like a superhero flick that can’t quite tie its kickass action set-pieces, stunning abstract sets and strong emotional oomph into something satisfyingly cohesive.
Watching this movie brings me full-circle on at least one chain in the larger mail of the CASSHERN franchise. Long before I ever started covering SINS for Watch & Learn, I was wowed by the trailer for this when it managed to cross over into the hype circles of online movie mags like Joblo, CHUD and Ain’t It Cool.
The first selling point was that it was supposed to be a cooler, foreign alternative to the MATRIX Trilogy. Indeed, a pull quote on the cover still confrontationally proclaims it “better than both of the MATRIX sequels put together!” Watching CASSHERN, it’s clear that boast’s on the level of recommendations from a kooky tape store clerk who just loves to pull out intentionally-obscure titles “you probably haven’t heard of.”
CASSHERN’s other selling point back then was that it was supposed to be the story of Hamlet retold through the kinetic language of butt-kicking robots (because… because the Japanese are just weird, right?) Aside from there being plenty of angst, dramatic hesitation and a father-son conflict (that doesn’t resemble Hamlet and Claudius’ relationship at all, mind you), there isn’t much connecting CASSHERN to anything rotten in the state of Denmark on even a thematic level. Truthfully, it would've benefited from being more like HAMLET - - if only to gain a little more clarity and focus.
The story rolls out sensibly for the first half, setting up what’s looking to be a sci-fantasy tragedy with impressively mythic sweep. Not long after marrying the very radiant Luna, the medical empire heir Tatsuya conscientiously enlists in what look to be the final battles of a 50-year-long world war. When the do-gooder returns from battle in a coffin after facing a fair amount of ethical compromise, his creepiy visionary father, Prof. Azuma, madly defies fate and revives his son in a Lazarus Pit-like pool of “Neo Cells” he’s been cooking in hopes of producing new limbs for war amputees.
Only it’s not as simple and sensible as that, of course. Not at all…
The resurrection of Tatsuya (renamed as “Casshern”) coincides with the freak emergence of “Neo-Sapiens” from that same grotesque pool. Seeming like something between clones and androids, this cadre of super-beings promptly absconds to contested territory with Casshern’s mother, seizes control of an robot army and declares vengeful war on all their human “fathers.”
After donning a protective suit designed by his fiancé’s father (who’s also a science genius), Casshern reluctantly gets involved in a crusade against these Neo-Sapiens. He tries to rescue his mother (and, later, his girlfriend), he frets about wrongs he committed during the war and, most importantly, he smashes hundreds of clunky robots into red-hot scrap with his powerful hands.
Again, if CASSHERN had left it there, we might have had a powerful post-human myth here. Instead, the obfuscating complications and convoluted surprises keep knotting together until it all starts sounding like mumbo jumbo that nobody should be taking seriously - - even in a world that’s already favoring the most outlandish style of Soviet kitsch.
Actually, invoking the ol’ Union probably works to CASSHERN’s benefit; because if you look at it as being something like the 21st century digital back-lot equivalent of ambitious abstract cinema from pre-war Europe, then it does down a bit easier. Instead of rolling your eyes over the dated CGI, you'll be hypnotized by the intentional surrealism of the retro-futurist backdrops. Instead of furrowing your brow over how the rusted pieces of the plot's cast iron puzzle aren't fitting together, you'll be swept up in the melancholy of Casshern's assorted lost loves.
Indeed, when our white knight in blood-caked armor pours his regretful heart out to his fiancé toward the end, and the wistful choral music reaches a simpatico with some inexplicable home movie clips of the characters, one would truly need a hardened steel heart to not be moved.
Still, to elaborate on that old robot story aphorism about the heart needing to be the mediator between the head and the hand, this CASSHERN is an incomplete cybernetic creation. It's got a strongly pumping heart but is still frustratingly in need of a more cogent head and a steadier hand, and neither of those seem to lay anywhere in that pool of Neo-Cells.