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Body count: 6+massive robot carnage
Entertainment value: 4/5
Eek factor: 1/5
Ooh factor: 5/5
Ouch factor: 3/5
Film Elements
  • dystopia
  • futuristic technology
  • gravity-defying martial arts
What happens when you turn something animated into a live-action? Sometimes you have Azumi, and sometimes you have Casshern. Many, many animated shows have been turned into live-actions, with varying degrees of success. Casshern surpassed all my expectations for a live-action anime.

It’s the future, likely not too distant since nobody’s using lasers. Eurasia (probably the combined forces of Europe and west-Asia) has been at war with Asia (probably Japan and the far east) for fifty-five years. Weapons of mass destruction have infected the world with massive radioactivity, causing genetic mutations in anyone who ventures to the countryside without a gas mask. The government, full of old men on life-support machines, controls everything. Below cloud level, the world is a wreck-a classic dystopia, albeit a well-CGed one.
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Thankfully, the war is almost over, if only Asia could take care of those pesky terrorists in Zone Seven. (Somewhere around the border between Europe and Asia.) Dr. Azuma Kotarou has a solution: Don’t equip Asia’s army better! Just find better ways to repair their broken bodies–namely, via “Neo-Cells”, which are more or less super-powered stem cells. Too bad the only place to find Neo-Cells is in the people of Zone Seven, who are descendents of the first humans. Azuma can’t get the government interested in his project, but Lieutenant Colonel Kamijo and his enigmatic assistant Naito Kaoru are interested, and the military is ready to cough up whatever Azuma needs to continue his research. To make matters worse, his only son Tetsuya has gone off to war to spite his father, leaving behind his dying mother and patient girlfriend.
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A year passes. Azuma has progress, but no usable results. In Zone Seven, Tetsuya commits a few conscience-haunting acts, then falls prey to a booby-trapped baby and gets his rebellious self blown up. The army sends his corpse home on ice, with his ghost following behind. In a scene that very much resembles a full-immersion baptism, Dr. Azuma dunks Tetsuya in the red liquid until he comes back to life--he is reborn, but he is not Casshern yet. Thanks to the Neo-Cells, Tetsuya’s muscles have become extremely powerful, so powerful that he might rip himself into shreds if he moves. To protect Tetsuya from himself, Dr. Kozuki puts him in a prototype suit of armour. He floats in a tank of water, connected to the outside world only by his breathing apparatus, until the Neo-Sapiens come to town.
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Ah, yes, the Neo-Sapiens. Just before Dr. Azuma learns of Tetsuya’s death, a stone lightning bolt strikes his laboratory, jabbing all the way down into Dr. Azuma’s vats of grown body parts--which knit together to make full humans. Zombielike, they lurch from the water; Naito loses his cool and calls in security, who slaughter whole lot of the new creations. Or so they think--four escape with Midori (Azuma’s wife) as a captive. In the snowy mountains of what looks much like Siberia, they discover Europa’s abandoned castle full of shiny robots, just waiting for someone to activate them. Who could resist? Not Burai, who took command from the very beginning and now declares war on all the rest of mankind.

It’s superhuman against superhuman as the characters try to figure out just what being human really means.
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Kiriya Kazuaki did a great job making Casshern not look like its seventies anime original-in some aspects. (It doesn’t help that whenever someone says “Azuma”, one naturally wants to finish the sentence with “–Kazuma, of Pantasia!”) Casshern’s original heritage does work in certain ways. A helmet like the one the original Casshern wore sits on a shelf in Dr. Kozuki’s home. Oikawa Mitsuhiro plays a rather animated Naito, evoking the mannerisms of anime characters in an amusing, endearing way. Casshern’s remorseful stoicism gets old after awhile, but frankly, Iseya Yuusuke is so darn good-looking, especially in the suit’s mask, that I found I didn’t really care. The suit could have been a disaster, but the spine details make sure that Casshern looks dangerous instead of looking like a Power Ranger.
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When the characters stand still and talk, the plot moves along splendidly. When they fight, it degenerates into a live-action anime. Minutes after being unable to walk on his own, Casshern runs through a group of robots, and they all explode. Casshern karate-chops a robot in half with his gloved hand. Casshern grabs a robot by its leg, swings it around to knock out other robots, and hurls it away. (You want massive robot carnage? Watch this movie.) All things considered, it could have been worse–-he doesn’t fly with his arms out in front of him. Nobody was actually piloting the giant robot at the end like a mech. Casshern could have been either an extremely good serious dystopia movie or an extremely good exaggerated action movie. Unfortunately, Kiriya went for both, and the two just don’t combine well. (You have to give the guy a break, though--he must be a genius if he can pull off something like this for his first film.)
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If you’re looking for great martial arts, don’t look to Casshern. The fight scenes consist mainly of flourishes, poses, and dramatic camera angles. Yes, it looks cool (Karasawa Toshiaki as Burai knows how to work that cape), but there’s nothing martial about it. The audience must assume that with Neo-Cells automatically come the ability to wield a katana without accidentally slicing off one’s own limbs. (Anyone who has ever used a katana knows the amount of practice this takes.) And the ability to coordinate an army. And lots of other things--despite their initial zombielike mannerisms, the Neo-Sapiens quickly progress to superhuman status-but do they learn quickly, or did they already know language/motor coordination/etc. when they were created?
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If you’re looking for great CG, look no further. Nearly all of the backgrounds for Casshern are computer-generated, and it shows; the scenery and effects are fantastic. Some scenes are so well-staged that one must wonder if they have not actually been ripped out of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (and if that style of movie might not have worked better for Casshern than a live-action/CG fusion). Like a human in Melniboné, you may find that the sights dazzle you to the point of distraction. I gave up on the plot after the first fight scene, spending the rest of the movie alternatively oohing and laughing/pointing. The fantastic visuals keep the sketchy storyline from dragging the whole movie down. Every scene is spot-on solid; literally nothing looks out of place, unless you count lines of dialogue.
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With the exception of one track that I would swear I’ve heard before looped in Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040, the music fits the story quite well-–soft flutes for the exposition, electric guitars for the battles. Nothing fits a sword fight quite like an electric guitar, even if it’s not much of a sword fight.

Casshern doesn’t have many creepy elements, though the sight of the Neo-Sapiens pulling themselves together may put off a few of the more skittish or zombie-phobic. Viewers will probably find more squirm time as various characters get impaled upon and pulled off of various bladed weapons.
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I would have liked to see more action from the ladies–Sagure dies in her first battle with Casshern, Midori spends most of the movie somehow incapacitated, and Luna mainly sits around looking attractive. I tend to want to take a blunt object to thwack those semi-heroines across the room, but Aso Kumiko manages to pull off a likable Luna.

Perhaps those who have seen the original Casshern anime will appreciate this movie more. It is not the very best movie I have ever seen, but I really did enjoy it quite a bit, and I enjoy it more and more every time I watch it. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a dystopia/science-fiction/action movie.