If Casshern Doesn’t Do It, Who Will?
Japan may produce more science fiction epic films and television shows than any other country, but except for the Godzilla franchise, nearly all of them are animated; the United States still corners the market on live-action sci-fi. The reason, obviously, is money: the two-hour-plus special-effects extravaganza is prohibitively expensive to produce. But perhaps advances in CGI could change that. Behold, Casshern: Kiriya Kazuaki’s massive, visually stunning epic. It features live actors performing in front of a green screen, with all the effects and nearly all the backgrounds added digitally. According to its IMDb entry,1 its budget was a paltry $6 million, compared to $200 million for Spider-Man 2, released the same year. With a visual aesthetic much closer to anime and Hong Kong action [End Page 323] films than tokusatsu (“special effects” films and TV shows such as Ultraman), Casshern could indicate a new direction for the genre, away from rubber-suited monsters and campy effects. But while the look is new, the story remains deeply indebted to classic 1970s anime and suggests that lingering memories of World War II have not lost their grip on the Japanese artistic psyche, even in the twenty-first century.
The film Casshern is a remake of a 1973 anime TV show called Jinzo ningen Kyasshan (Artificial human Casshern), directed by Sasagawa Hiroshi and produced by Tatsunoko, briefly revived in a straight-to-video series in 1993.2 The new film version has a shiny CGI gloss and serious tone meant to appeal to the thirtysomethings who grew up watching it. Upon its release in Japan, the film did fairly well at the box office (although it never reached number one).3 DreamWorks bought the rights soon after, but never provided a U.S. theatrical release. In October 2007, Paramount Home Entertainment released a DVD labeled a “director’s cut,” but in fact the runtime was cut by nearly thirty minutes, obscuring the political message of the film. It seems unlikely the director himself made those cuts.
Casshern offers a nightmare vision of an alternative future, in which Japan was not defeated in World War II but has colonized most of Asia and Russia, destroying both the natural environment and the native people. The visuals are lush and astonishing, packed with hulking, decaying machinery, monumental architecture, and an evocative mixture of kanji and Cyrillic text. Casshern looks like a 1930s Soviet propaganda poster come to life—with robots. It’s a golden twilight and deep red–tinted fusion of retro-fascist, goth, and steampunk aesthetics that looks refreshingly original in a sea of green-and-black-toned Matrix rip-offs (including the latest Appleseed movie). It’s probably not going too far to say that Casshern is the most visually inventive sci-fi film since the first Matrix. Casshern is not so much a live-action film as a computer-animated film with occasional closeups of live actors. Furthermore, Kiriya (the writer, director, and cinematographer) makes it work because, rather than trying to make it all look real, he revels in an anime-type fakeness appropriate to the operatic storyline. He makes the human actors move like anime characters and in the fight scenes uses quick cuts, point-of-view shots, and extreme close-ups so you never have time to wonder how it’s done. Even in the static dialog scenes, he arranges the actors in beautifully staged, CGI-embellished tableaux, like the layered panels of a manga page. Many scenes with the live actors are filmed to look deliberately blurred, distorted, or overexposed, and shot in grainy black and white for daringly long segments. It’s the only way to make this hybrid of CGI and live action work and to give the convoluted story gravitas by foreclosing any questions of logic and believability.
The Nazi- and Soviet-inspired aesthetics of the backgrounds establish the ominous tone of the story. In this alternative-future Greater East Asia, ruled by a decaying, corrupt Imperial Japan, a group of Frankenstein-like clones called the Neoroids (or Neo-Humans, depending on the translation) attempt to destroy all humans with their robot army. Humanity’s last best hope is Tetsuya (Iseya Yusuke), a reanimated corpse with posttraumatic stress disorder and a stretchy vinyl exoskeleton that prevents his superstrong body from exploding. Although Kiriya has eliminated some of the more childish aspects of the TV version (notably the robot dog Friender), the characters are mostly stock types from 1970s anime: Tatsuya’s unloving scientist father Dr. Azuma (Terao Akira); his sickly, sainted mother archetypically named Midori (Higuchi Kanako); his innocent, childlike girlfriend Luna (Aso Kumiko); and the evil council of wrinkly old politicos. The team of Neoroids is equally stereotypical: the charismatic psychopath Burai (Karasawa Toshiaki) as the leader, the bitchy fighting girl (Sada Mayumi), the vain handsome guy (Kaname Jun), and the irritating [End Page 324] hunchback (Miyasako Hiroyuki). As with so much anime, there are long soliloquies on what it means to be human, the evils of war, vague mysticism, and rampant oedipal conflict, all ending of course with the obligatory image of Tetsuya and Luna as children, running together in an idyllic green field.
Although there are occasional mentions of cloning and terrorism inserted to give the plot a veneer of currency, like many anime of the 1970s the real context of Casshern is World War II and the expression of collective guilt over Japanese wartime atrocities, in this case, vivisection and the slaughter of civilians. When the film begins, Dr. Azuma receives funding from a smarmy government lackey named Naito (Oikawa Mitsuhiro) to grow spare body parts in a lab. While the government hopes to extend the life of its aging leader General Kamijo (Nishijima Hidetoshi), Dr. Azuma primarily wants to cure his wife, who has gone blind from exposure to environmental pollution. A mysterious accident in the lab causes the parts to assemble into full bodies. Thus the Neoroids are born, and Azuma is able to revive his dead son Tetsuya. But the secret truth of Azuma’s lab, revealed at the end of the film, is that the body parts were harvested from an ethnic group in a colonized region of central Asia called Zone 7. This population, called Original Humans, have cells that are capable of regeneration; they have been systematically slaughtered and harvested by Japanese soldiers, of whom Tetsuya was one. The name Zone 7 is a reference to the notorious Unit 731 in Manchuria, where during the war Japanese scientists carried out vivisection and other experiments on thousands of men, women, and children. Among the experiments were attempts to amputate and reattach limbs and internal organs.4 The name of the official who funds Azuma’s lab, Naito, is also a reference to the second-in-command at Unit 731, Lieutenant Colonel Naito Ryoichi, who after the war testified to the Americans and later went on to found the controversial Green Cross blood bank, accused of unethical practices in the late 1980s.5 The Original Humans literally embody the lands and cultures of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which Imperial Japan intended to use as raw materials to sustain itself.
Both the Neoroids and Tetsuya are haunted by the violence of their shared past, which in the trauma of being revived they have repressed and partially forgotten. Throughout the film, Tetsuya suffers disturbing flashbacks to his time as a soldier in Zone 7 when he shot a civilian, but the full significance of this murder comes at the end of the film, when the Neoroids’ identity as the Original Humans of Zone 7 is revealed. Burai and Tetsuya share several moments of intense recognition but, tragically, are unable to realize their shared humanity and work together to end the war, and so the film lurches toward its inevitable apocalyptic end.
Tetsuya as Casshern is in the end not much of a hero, but there aren’t really any “good guys” in the film, only more-or-less sympathetic bad guys, reflecting Japan’s own wartime past. Tetsuya’s personal war crime, half repressed, has left him spiritually dead, even after his body is reanimated, and only complete destruction of the world can offer him the slightest hope of redemption. This is a sober reflection on the lingering effects of the war on the Japanese spirit. In Bodies of Memory, Igarashi Yoshikuni writes that the repressed memories of World War II return in Japanese popular culture in monstrous, horrifying form.6 The monstrous bodies of Casshern are a reminder of Japanese war crimes, both individual and national, which have still not been adequately examined or atoned for.
As the war between the humans and the Neoroids escalates, Tetsuya’s mother begs him to stop it. But as he fails to prevent Burai from detonating an enormous bomb, I am reminded of the tagline of the original TV show: “Kyasshan ga yaraneba, dare ga yaru?” (“If Casshern doesn’t do it, who will?”). When it comes to transcending human nature and ending warfare, perhaps no one. This is a bleak ending indeed, but as [End Page 325] Japan begins to flirt with a return to militarism, it is one that is still relevant.
Deborah Shamoon is assistant professor of Japanese literature and popular culture at the University of Notre Dame.
2. Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy, The Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917, revised and expanded edition (Berkeley, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 2006), 90.
4. Peter Williams and David Wallace, Unit 731: Japan’s Secret Biological Warfare in World War II (New York: The Free Press, 1989), 48–49; Sheldon Harris, Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932–1945, and the American Cover-Up (New York: Routledge, 2005), 81–82.
5. Williams and Wallace, Unit 731, 241.
6. Igarashi Yoshikuni, Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945–1970 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000).