When Kiriya debuted Casshern in 2004, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the film. Kiriya had made a name for himself directing music videos, the trailers looked lush, and it was Japan's first full-digital feature film, so people were expecting a smash hit. But reviews were all over the place, and it quickly became apparent that Casshern wasn't as audience-friendly as its trailers had suggested. I really liked it the first time I watched it, yet I wasn't all that confident that it would still hold up after all this time. To my own surprise though, I ended up loving it even better the second time around.
Kiriya's film is a loose adaptation of Neo-Human Casshern, a 1973 anime series. I never got to watch the original, but it's pretty clear from just looking at the two that Kiriya's vision didn't keep too closely to the source material. The original series itself was based on a manga and received an OAV treatment in the 90s. After Kiriya's Casshern the franchise was rebooted with another animated series, which in its turn spawned a new manga adaptation. Just to say that Casshern is part of a greater franchise, though separate entries can easily be enjoyed as stand-alone works as the cohesion between different entries isn't all that great.
Casshern is a stand-alone story with a clear start and ending. There's no movie franchise- type cliffhanger that suggests sequels or follow-up episodes, instead Kiriya crammed an entire story arc in one single film. 141 minutes isn't exactly short for a movie, even so the pacing is extremely high, and you've got to stay focused if you want to keep track of what is going on. It's all quite epic with lots of rises, falls and origin stories stacked on top of each other, making for a pretty dense film.
The plot revolves around a special gen exploited by doctor Azuma, a workaholic scientist, set in a retro-futuristic post-war world. The program is funded by the government in order to grant its people eternal life, but when things go wrong it yields an alternative race of neo-humans. Chaos ensues and the neo-humans plan on taking over the planet. The only one able to stop them is Casshern, the born-again son of doctor Azuma. The bottom line is a classic tale of small-scale drama with epic consequences.
Even though there's a lot of plot to wade through, Casshern never feels like an overly narrative film. Kiriya is a very visual director, and he worked on Casshern as if it was his one and only shot at film making. There's a lot of post-production work with lots of CG settings and a large arsenal of visual filters. Not all of it is up to par, in fact some CG is downright poor, but the overall effect is nothing short of impressive. The combination of bright, strong colors, superb camera work and sharp editing makes for a true visual feast and Kiriya's dedication to keep it going for the full 140 minutes is laudable.
The soundtrack is less distinctive. It's not a terrible score, but it's little more than a lot of noise, with the sole purpose of keeping the adrenaline pumping. It's a mix of rock, electronic and pop that blends into the background without much resistance. There are a few moments where it got loud enough for me to take notice (mostly during the action scenes) but even then it wasn't very memorable. It's just filler, but seeing how the visuals dominate the film I wasn't too disappointed.
The cast consists of familiar faces, with Yusuke Iseya taking up the role of Casshern, Kumiko Aso acting as his love interest and Akira Terao transforming into the (mad) doctor. With smaller parts for Hidetoshi Nishijima, Susumu Terajima and Mayumi Sada, there's no lack of star power on board. While the cast as a whole does a pretty solid job, there isn't too much room to shine for them and none of the characters are extremely memorable, then again that didn't seem to be Kiriya's main goal here.
Casshern is a film with a rigid focus on visual storytelling, while still being extremely fast-paced and upholding a dense narrative. It's too artistic to be catering to commercial audiences, at the same time it's too silly and over-the-top to please arthouse fans. That leaves genre fans, but Kiriya isn't too interested in sticking with genre clichés either and fans of the original may not be too happy with the way this update strayed from the original. That leaves the film stranded in a somewhat awkward no man's land, where it doesn't really come with a built-in audience but has to win over each fan one by one.
While Kiriya does his best to make that happen, his approach simply isn't popular enough to turn Casshern into a universally revered film. In general, film fans seem to prefer clear and expansive narrative films rather than aesthetic rollercoasters. I'm a fan of the latter though, so Casshern is right up my alley. And as time continues to mask the film's technological shortcomings, its aesthetic prowess only grows bigger. Casshern looks great, it's lots of fun, and it's fast-paced from start to finish. It's not a very easy film to recommend, but it's a film that deserves the benefit of the doubt.