SAVES THE DAY : a feature on Kazuaki Kiriya’s ‘Casshern’

Never mind Lee Majors, Japanese director Kazuaki Kiriya is a real "six million dollar man" : that's the total budget of his eyepopping debut feature Casshern, which finally arrives in British cinemas this month after more than a year travelling around the world's film-festival circuit. This opulent Japanese superhero epic – which looks like it could easily have cost $100m plus – hasn't been received with unanimous approval by the critics and audiences so far. Though mostly bowled over by the spectacular CGI visuals, Casshern's viewers have mostly been less than impressed by its script – which the charitable might describe as "ambitious", and the less charitable as "woefully pretentious." "It's like something a 12-year-old might write!" one Dutch critic was heard to snort following the film's Netherlands premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival in late January: an event which has long showcased all kinds of wild and wonderful far-eastern fare.

Then again, there's something appropriate about Casshern being linked with a pre-teen mindset: it's an adaptation of a half-forgotten children's anime which first aired on Japanese TV over 26 episodes from October 1973 to June 1974 under the title Jinzou Ningen Kiyashan. When exported abroad, the hero's name Kiyashan became variously Kyashan, Cashan, Cassharn or Casshern – this being the nom de guerre of the individual formerly known as Tetsuya Higashi. Tetsuya was the son of experimental scientist Higashi, whose dream of creating the ultimate humanity-serving android went horribly wrong when a lightning bolt transformed his prototype BK-1 into  'Burai King Boss'. Swearing to wipe out humanity, Burai King Boss raised an army of robots to conquer the world – in response, Tetsuya voluntarily had his "life data" transferred into a super-powerful android (or rather  'neo-roid') body. And thus Casshan was born, fighting evil with robo-dog Friender at his side.

The decision to use Jinzou Ningen Kiyashan as the basis for such a big-screen extravaganza as Casshern ("the name has absolutely no meaning," says Kiriya in a hostage-to-fortune comment if ever there was one) raised eyebrows in many expert quarters. Writing for the excellent – but occasionally slightly po-faced – website Midnight Eye (www.midnighteye.com), Don Brown didn't bother to hide his bemusement at the project. "This exhausting superhero morality play is an almost unrecognizable update of a minor animated series…" he sniffed. "Only superficial traces of Casshern's original form remain in the new version. What was once a simple tale of a selfless hero taking on a clearly malevolent villain has been transmogrified into a grandiose and convoluted statement on the destructive nature of humanity, embellished by a heavyweight cast of morally ambiguous characters and an all-consuming visual aesthetic that permeates every frame."

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with elevating "minor" material to a "major" key, of course: to take just one example, Michael Mann's superb Heat is an extended, expanded, embellished remake of his own barely-known TV movie LA Takedown. But  Casshern the movie was made by completely different personnel from Kiyashan the cartoon: Kiriya is a 36-year-old who would have been around five or six when the programme was first transmitted. Over the intervening decades Kiriya – based in the US since 1993 – established an international reputation as a director of pop-videos and as an in-demand photographer: Robbie Williams is among the many big names who's called on his services for album-covers.

He collaborated with Suga Shotaro and Sato Dai on Casshern's script and with Morishita Shozo on the cinematography, but handled the editing and direction on his own. And he falls into many of the traps that lie in wait for hotshot video directors who turn their hand to feature-film work: Casshern is packed full of startling sequences, almost all of them edited to poundingly loud rock music. But these aren't really assembled into a coherent whole – and with a daunting running-time of 142 minutes (including about five minutes of credits) that's no small problem to overcome.

The story is significantly different from the original – whereas Kiyashan foregrounded a (then) very topical interest in pollution, Casshern ("you might be disappointed if you are expecting a feel-good action movie," warns the director) relegates this issue to the background. The main consideration is war, and the way war illuminates man's ongoing inhumanity to man. The film takes place at an unspecified point in the near future. After a cataclysmic war, far-eastern powers now rule the whole of Eurasia – but are beset by on ongoing skirmishes against regional "insurgents": this "war on terror" being, of course, as topical today as the pollution subplot three decades ago.

Reluctantly parting from his doe-eyed fiancée Luna (Kumiko Aso) Tetsuya (Yuyuke Iseyua) patriotically volunteers to be sent on a deadly front-line mission – and witnesses brutal atrocities which shake him to the core of his being. Soon after, he's "killed" by an enemy grenade – only to be reborn thanks to the life-restoring fluid accidentally created by his scientist father. The villainous Burai King Boss is back – here known as Brai (Toshiaki Karasawa) – complete with his marching armies of giant robots…

Hold on – marching armies of giant robots? Sound familiar? Yep, anyone familiar with Kerry Conran's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow will find many sections of Casshern inspiring strong feelings of déjí  vu. Such correspondences and similarities are, of course, accidental – the two projects were both in development for several years before reaching the cinema screen – but it's striking that these two directors, both of them hailed for their visionary originality, should produce such unmistakeably similar visual images.

Perhaps it's something to do with the similarity of techniques deployed: Casshern managed to come in at a "mere" six million dollars because Kiriya created most of the amazingly detailed and impressive backgrounds ("we didn't want anything slick") via  'green screen' computer technology of the sort used by Conran (not to mention Graham Robertson, whose relatively little-hyped Able Edwards exceeds both Kiriya and Conran's movies both in terms of ambition and achievement). And it's clear that every last cent of that six million is up there on the screen: when Kiriya throws himself into a scene – like the first showdown between Casshern and Brai in, on and over a wartorn city – the audience can only sit agog in bedazzled wonder. Some of Kiriya's apocalyptic images suggest a Brueghel for the digital age – but then he'll come crashing down to earth with some ill-judged edit, some crass use of real atrocity footage, some unfortunate attempt at comic relief (via Brai's mute, goggle-eyed sidekick).

Casshern is a film of wild tonal shifts: propulsively kinetic one sequence, ponderous and windily philosophical the next. The best scenes are, almost without exception, those with least dialogue: the actors fare competently in their roles but, apart from Toshiaki Karasawa – who seems to be think he's the villain in one of those Akira Kurosawa transliterations of Shakespeare – don't make an especially incendiary impact. Speaking of The Bard, incidentally, it may surprise those who've seen Casshern to find that, according to Kiriya, the plot is "loosely based on Hamlet." Kiriya must be using "loosely" very loosely indeed, as it's very hard to discern any Elsinore angles within Casshern's sprawling convolutions – apart from the fact that Tetsuya's mother Midori (Kanako Higuchi) is a rather foxy fortysomething.

But Midori is hardly any kind of pivotal Gertrude figure: blind and ailing, then kidnapped by the nefarious Brai, she gets somewhat overlooked as event hurtle towards their chaotic climax, one of countless loose ends in a script that, for all its weighty wrestling with the Grand Themes, does feel as though it's being cobbled together on a scene-to-scene basis. Plot holes abound – Brai and his fellow neoroids just happen to handily stumble across a vast dormant army of giant robots when they get lost in a beautiful but harsh arctic landscape (which resembles, pace Mark E Smith, a "1973 Genesis or Marillion LP cover.")

And the late-in-the-day "explanation" of Brai's tragic past – and how it ties in with Tetsuya's bloodspattered tour of duty – makes very little sense. Such carelessness is pretty much unforgiveable in a movie that presumptuously yawns beyond the two-hour mark: Kiriya made himself a sufficiently large canvas that it's not really acceptable that so much feels rushed and lackadaisical. According to the director, "the story is a little complex and heavy for little kids" – but even much older heads will surely find themselves being frenziedly scratched at various stages over Casshern's 140-odd (very odd on occasion) beautiful, crazy minutes. 

Neil Young
1st February, 2005