Review for Casshern Sins - Part 1 (2 Discs)
Following my previous encounter with Casshern, I didn't think that I'd be revisiting the property quite this soon, After all, I wasn't overly impressed with the CGI eye-candy overload of the Casshern live action feature. But like most superhero properties these days, Casshern refuses to die. It could be that the movie was an aberration. I haven't seen the original series or the early nineties OVA to compare, but one thing I am pretty sure of; of all the various superhero franchises that have found longevity over the decades, Casshern has to be by far the most bleak and depressing. It was created in the early seventies by Tatsuya Yoshida, the man behind Gatchaman and Speed Racer, a tale of humanity doomed when machines gain intelligence, and the scientist who brings hope to the world by resurrecting his dead son in the form of a cyborg, Casshern. The 38 episode original series aired in 1973, and as far as I can tell, has never had an official release in English speaking territories. The OVA was made in 1993, revisiting the tale in four episodes, re-edited into a movie by a bright spark at Streamline Pictures. Stuart McLean reviewed the Casshan Robot Hunter OVA when Manga Entertainment released it here. I took a look at the 2004 Casshern feature film released here by Momentum Asia, a hyper-real reinvention that I found to be more polemic than entertainment.
As the recent Star Trek movie, the forthcoming X-Men: First Class, as well as the recent announcement of the Spiderman reboot have shown, creators and producers aren't apt to let successful franchises lie fallow, even after a less than impressive instalment. There is after all gold in them thar hills, and it really shouldn't have been a surprise when a new Casshern anime series was announced following the feature film. And this time, it would be Studio Madhouse handling the animation duties. That's already enough to wash the taste of the film out of my mouth. The question was, how do you tell a story that's already been told three times? With Casshern Sins, the answer was that you'd approach it from the other direction. With such an iconic title, and with Madhouse behind the anime, you'd hope for a worthy presentation for the show. Manga Entertainment have pulled out all the stops and are releasing this 24 episode series on Blu-ray as well as DVD. Just a reminder for all who may hesitate, unlike a certain US distributor, Manga Entertainment don't do SD upscales. The anime that they release in high definition have been animated in high definition.
The world is dying. Society has crumbled, humans are an endangered species, and the robots that once ruled the world are now falling to ruin. That should be Ruin with a capital 'R', as a plague of rust and decay now condemns robots to a rapid death, and they are left to prey on one another for spare parts in desperate attempts to prolong their existences. It all began a hundred years previously, when Casshern murdered the sun that was the moon, Luna, an act that unleashed the death and decay that now pollutes the world. It's into this world that Casshern has now awakened, but he has no memory of his past, no inkling that this affliction is his fault. At the same time, a rumour spreads through the surviving machines; that robot which kills and devours Casshern will gain immortality and immunity from the Ruin. As Casshern travels the land, he battles to stay alive, and fights to regain his memory. The more he learns, the more his sin bears down upon him, and the more he realises that he has to atone.
Manga Entertainment release the first part of Casshern Sins on two Blu-ray discs. The first dual layer disc houses nine episodes, while the second, single layer disc has three episodes and a smattering of extras.
01. At The End Of The World
02. A World Replete With Death Throes
03. To The Ends Of Agony
04. The Angel Of Ruin
05. The Man Who Killed The Sun Named Moon
06. Reunited With Fate
07. The Woman Of The Tall Tower
08. A Hymn Of Hope
09. The Flower That Blooms In The Valley Of Ruin
10. The Man Entrapped By The Past
11. By One's Calling
12. Turn The Time Lived To Colour
The 1.78:1 widescreen transfer on this Blu-ray is stunning. Casshern Sins is a complex, visual accomplishment, a veritable moving work of art. There is an old school aesthetic to the character designs, no doubt paying homage to the original series, and you wouldn't think that such simplicity, delineated by stark bold lines would particularly need the added clarity of high definition. But add to that Madhouse's superb animation, energetic, vigorous and rich in motion, then it becomes more important than ever to get the image pixel perfect. But topping it all off is the visual aesthetic, the complex colour design, and the rich background art. Casshern Sins is a dark, atmospheric, moody and very stylish anime. Its use of colour is bold, dramatic, yet strictly controlled and carefully considered. You could say in a way that it is a monochrome anime, as themes and emotions determine the predominant colour in a scene, and everything becomes tinted by that colour. There are strong reds, yellows, blues, all hitting the screen like emotional bombshells. It's also a show that relies heavily on darkness, on shadow detail and keeping things cloaked. But this isn't a simple use of colour, this is rich, varied and gradual, with each scene exploring every possible variation of a shade, rather than sticking to a single tone. Like I said, a work of art.
It becomes all the more important to get the transfer right, which is why this Blu-ray is the logical choice. I haven't seen the DVD transfer for Casshern Sins, but I can anticipate some of the issues. Australia is now providing the UK with native PAL transfers, so standards conversion artefacts like ghosting and lower resolution are a thing of the past, but the fast-paced and complex animation as in Casshern Sins is liable to induce compression artefacts when it comes to DVD. Similarly, the complex colour design as used in Casshern Sins will most likely lead to colour banding. Even the bold outlines used to delineate the characters can on occasion lead to aliasing. None of these issues apply to the Blu-ray (except for one scene with minor colour banding in episode 09) Or to put it another way, Casshern Sins on Blu-ray is the most beautiful television animation I have ever seen.
The sound comes in Dolby True HD form, 2.0 Stereo for the Japanese, and 5.1 Surround for the English, with optional translated subtitles and signs. Somewhat counterintuitive to expectations, you have to turn the subtitles off to select the signs only track to go with the English dub. As I always do, I opted for the original language track, and found it to be acceptable enough, the dialogue clear, the music expressive, and the action represented well. The 5.1 Surround does establish more of a dynamic presence though, particularly during the action sequences, and it's a far more solid and vibrant an experience. If you can tolerate the English dub, that is the option to go for, and from what I sampled, Casshern Sins gets one of the good dubs from Funimation, cast appropriately and suited to the tone of the show.
Now that I have a dumber than my DVD Blu-ray player that forgets the disc as soon as it's ejected, I've remembered how much I loathe unskippable logos on discs. I'm just grateful there are no unskippable trailers, or worse, piracy warnings. The logos lead to some very nicely animated menus.
Other than the textless credits, the sole extra on disc 2 is the Pre-Air Event, and unfortunately for non-Japanese speakers, it's buggered. It lasts 12 minutes, and is presented in high definition, as the cast and crew gather on stage to promote the new series, and answer a few questions about the show and their characters. The problem is with the subtitle stream, which starts off correctly enough. It's when the captions appear that things go wrong. Whenever there is an onscreen Japanese text caption, the protocol is to throw up an English language translation of that text. This should happen independently of the subtitles for the speakers on screen. This featurette inserts those captions into the subtitle stream, taking the place of the next translated line. This has the effect of pushing the actual dialogue back in sequence. As soon as the first text caption appears, the subtitles are out of sync with the dialogue. By the end of the featurette, the subtitles are over a minute out of sync, and you'll never know what the closing statement of the director was, unless you speak Japanese.
I don't know. It's a little rich of a reviewer to say so, but having seen half of Casshern Sins; nearly five hours worth, I really haven't developed a concrete opinion yet. It's an unmitigated triumph of style, of a singular vision, of breathtaking stark, downbeat beauty, and if ever there was justification for investing in an anime simply for its looks, that would be enough. There's a reason that Le Portrait de Petite Cossette has pride of place in my collection, and that has nothing to do with character or narrative. But Cossette is a one shot, an OVA, comes on one disc, and can be watched in one sitting. Ten hours worth of Casshern Sins is a completely different animal, it's more of an investment of time, and indeed of money, more so when it comes to Blu-ray, so there has to be something more than just looks to make it worthwhile. It needs a story, it needs character, it needs something more to hook the viewer than just how pretty it looks. I did find an inkling of that, a hint that slowly began to solidify and coalesce the further I got through the episodes.
Just in case the synopsis wasn't enough of a hint, Casshern Sins is not the series that you want to watch if you need a little boost to lighten the mood. It is perhaps the bleakest show that I have seen since Texhnolyze, actually exceeding that for post-apocalyptic doom and gloom, at least at first, but not quite matching it when it comes to the cold sterility of the visuals. Casshern Sins' visual warmth is more of a counterpoint to its subject matter, one that works exceedingly well. Robust narrative isn't its strong suit though, throwing us into the deep end of the story, just as nonplussed as the amnesiac central character, and holding on to its secrets with the tenacity of a limpet on a rock. The pace of the show is glacial as well, it takes its time exploring this rundown existence, and savours every minute of depressed character introspection, relishing in dishing out the torment, as Casshern learns of the fate of the world, and the guilt that blossoms as he realises that he is the one responsible for it.
It's a depressing vision of the end of the world, a world dying with a whimper not a bang, as a rust like affliction known as the Ruin simply causes anything artificial to crumble to dust. It's doomed the robots, and with the world's infrastructure falling apart, it's doomed humanity as well. It's a barren, dusty wasteland, with little signs of life anywhere. The few humans remaining keep low, while the robots that thought they would be immortal, now face their imminent demise in whatever way they can. Ironically, they are the most human of all, some accepting the inevitable, some railing against the injustice of it all, and many preying on each other to take the spare parts that may keep them alive a little longer. From somewhere the rumour foments that if they devour Casshern, they will be cured of the Ruin, and regain immortality. From the moment Casshern re-awakes in this world, he is constantly attacked. The irony of it is that as his guilt grows, the realisation that he is responsible for the Ruin, the more he starts to long for death. But, the desire to fight, the need to defend himself, and the ruthlessness with which he destroys his attackers, is hardwired into him, so he can't even let himself be killed.
It proves detrimental in the first few episodes, when he's trying to find his bearings. His instinctive and lethal reactions alienate the few amenable characters that he does encounter. Every morsel of hope that he finds is cruelly snatched away. A pink-haired robot named Lyuze wants to kill him, but the fact that he can't even remember why she wants him dead stays her hand, and there is a certain degree of satisfaction for her as he slowly learns how history holds Casshern. He connects early on with a childlike robot named Ringo, only to terrify her when he rescues her from some more robots looking to feast on him. He finds a community of decaying robots, a likeable group who have decided to accept the inevitability of Ruin with almost religious conviction, except they know about the rumour, and when they learn of his identity their convictions waver and then vanish. And then little pieces of his memory are put back together, adding to the burden. He learns why Lyuze wants him dead, that he is responsible for killing someone of high regard named Luna, and that by doing so the Ruin was unleashed. He meets a figure similar to him named Dio, who calmly informs him that Casshern is neither human nor robot, and that he was created for one purpose only, to destroy all life on the planet.
It's not all death and destruction though, and it would be a depressing show if that were all it was. There are little starbursts of hope, interesting characters, and intriguing ideas explored in some of these episodes. In the first episode we meet Ringo and her guardian Ohji, and a perkier likeable character you won't find in this reality. It turns out that her encounter with Casshern wasn't permanently scarring, and she and Ohji do show up on occasion, acting as observers to whatever may be happening in each episode. The relationship between Casshern and Lyuze begins to moderate as well, as she learns more about the tormented soul that she initially wants so desperately to destroy, to the point where she even stays her hand when he's defenceless. He even picks up a faithful companion in Friender, the robot dog. There are certain episodes as Casshern explores this world that add to these glimmers of hope, individuals that haven't given up on life, and neither have they succumbed to cynical acts to survive. There's one woman who is obsessed with building a bell tower to remind people that there is still beauty in the world, another episode introduces a young deranged robot girl who steadfastly looks after a ragged doll in a chair, and spends her time growing flowers, and cares for all who cross her path without discrimination. There's also one robot that insists on painting the walls of the city where he lives, his way of keeping history alive.
It's around six episodes in that some form of narrative does begin to come together. It's when Casshern first meets Dio that we really begin to learn about this world. Dio understands the meaning behind the rumour, that it isn't literally required to devour Casshern, but that Casshern is immune to the Ruin, and whoever can defeat and destroy Casshern, can dismantle him and learn the secret of that immunity. Soon he and his ally Leda are raising an army of robots against Casshern, promising the return of a robot empire, the likes of which hasn't been seen since the Braiking Boss. The mention of the Braiking Boss casts a shadow over these episodes, and it's apparent (confirmed with the extras), that he will play a part in later episodes. It also transpires that there is another rumour circulating, that Luna is still alive, and that she can cure the Ruin, bring life to robot and human alike. With this rumour, it offers Casshern a chance for redemption, and the search for Luna motivates him for the final episodes in this collection.
My opinion on Casshern Sins will only crystallise once I've seen the second half, to see how this tantalising set-up is resolved. Depending on the conclusion, it may be the series of the year, or it may be a total disappointment. Like any work of art, it needs to be appreciated in totality. That said, I did find my appreciation shifting during this half. I was initially overawed by how beautiful the animation looks, it's stunningly well animated, with a style that makes a breathtaking statement. But as the episodes continued, I found myself drawn into the story as well, the glacially paced narrative, the achingly spare drip feed of random exposition, the unconventional at times structure, and some of the individual episodes. There are hints of Texhnolyze in there, moments reminiscent of Kino's Journey and Mushi-shi, and of course a whole lot that is unique to Casshern Sins as well. As I said, it all depends on the second half of the show, but it's enough for me to give it the benefit of the doubt. Besides, the Blu-ray is just so beautiful.