If you watch Casshern, you'll hate it. That's almost guaranteed. I'd never heard of anyone who hadn't. This and Devilman
are the two legendarily terrible Japanese films of 2004. My wife jumped ship after its first hour and upon learning that's what I watched this morning, she explained to me that I'm broken in the taste buds, that I have "Japanese films are all great" blind goggles and that Casshern's surprisingly famous cast should choose their jobs more carefully.
I liked it. I'd even watch it again. I liked Devilman
Firstly, the background. Casshern started life as a manga and a 1973 anime series, in which a bionic boy and his cybernetic dog fight killer robots. It sounds pretty bog-standard. Not bad, not brilliant. Other anime include a 1993 OVA and a 2008 reboot series called Casshern Sins.
This live-action version, on the other hand, is mental. It has a storyline, but you've got to be paying attention to keep track of it. What's almost more important are: (a) the staggering visual style, and (b) the themes. Specifically it's a 142-minute art movie inspired by the Russian avant-garde movement (1890-1930) that's using the loose framework of a superhero movie to tell a steampunk neo-fascist anti-war fable. It's incredible. Your attention will wander from time to time, but the whole thing's so rich and layered that I was fascinated by all the levels of meaning and metaphor it was bringing together.
The visuals blew me away. What's more, this was achieved on a budget of less than six million dollars. The secret is that this was among that 2004-5 wave of "digital backlot" movies, along with Immortel (ad vitam), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Sin City. The actors never saw a real set. They worked in front of blue or green screens and everything else was added in post-production. The results... wow. The obvious point of comparison is with the 1930s, since that's the earliest era of cinema as we know it (i.e. with sound), but go further back and you'll find echoes of Sergei Eisenstein or Fritz Lang's Metropolis. However that's only the start of the influences. You've got black-and-white hand-held war footage that's all mud, brutality and deliberately rough framing. You've got fascist luxury. You've got claymation. You've got steampunk war machines that outdo Star Wars for battlefield spectacle.
Sometimes my brain would melt and I'd find myself being reminded of Dick Tracy or Tron, but that's my problem.
Occasionally this goes overboard. The Neo-Sapiens villains who turn up around the hour mark are the film's big aesthetic misstep, with their platinum blonde wigs and feather boas. (They're male, by the way.) They're unintentionally hilarious and they turn the film into a rock music video. You might also snigger at the fairy grove that looks like a shampoo commercial. However I can accept these as one of those things that happen when you're pushing yourself this far without a safety net. If nothing else, it shows they weren't playing safe.
As for the story, it's big. You've got a military-industrial complex that's waging vaguely defined, almost Orwellian war against possibly arbitrary antagonists. There will be revelations about this and they'll hurt. However the war is real and horrible, with mud-covered soldiers executing women and perpetrating ethnic cleansing. These are the black-and-white scenes and the film's best sequence comes when Casshern finds himself in a black-and-white village and the film gets handed over to a kind-hearted doctor who'd love to be able to trust people and is prepared to shout down his fellow villagers when they show up with guns. This is where Casshern finds his name, incidentally. It's the name of the village's guardian spirit. "I guess Casshern gave up on us."
The film's about war. We see the maneuverings and coup d'etats of those in power, which of course are as pointless and bloody as always. However at the heart of the film is a family of four. Akira Terao is a geneticist with a dying wife (Kanako Higuchi) and a son (Yusuke Iseya) who hates him, plus the latter's beautiful fiancee (Kumiko Aso). So far, so unexceptional. What makes this powerful is the war setting, with Terao taking the shilling of a corporation that's up to its elbows in the war effort, because he hopes that the ensuing research might save his wife. Meanwhile, almost to spite his father, Iseya signs up for the front line. Not a smart move.
Commercially, I think the film's mistake is that it's not idiot-friendly. It doesn't have a tight narrative. You could cut an hour from the running time just by holding focus on those main characters. If you're stupid or else watching casually, you'll get lost and possibly conclude that it has no story at all. This isn't true, as dramatic decisions are being taken, but the film could obviously have had clearer storytelling and more emotional weight.
It's also humourless. In fact it's taking its themes so seriously that the finale includes a montage of real life war footage, which feels fitting and correct for the movie's message. Furthermore all the characters are morally compromised and the film is bleak and offering little light or hope.
The few superhero bits are cool, though. Casshern is roughly on a par with the X-Men in power levels. Like, all of them put together.
This was Kazuaki Kiriya's first film and five years later he came back and did it all again with Goemon (2009), except that that was an Asian box office hit. Casshern is hated. If you want to cite a bad Japanese film, you name-drop this. However personally I think it's a Rorschach movie, reflecting what you're putting into it. There's so much there that someone looking for depth could find themselves coming back for multiple viewings, but it's also really slow and a plot synopsis might make it sound silly and cliched. It's hard work. It's not much fun. I'm really glad I've watched it.