Casshern was one of the new blend of fantastic films that came out in 2004-6, all of which experimented with new forms of filmmaking technology to fall halfway between live-action and animation. These include works like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), Sin City (2005) and Ultraviolet (2006) that use the digital backlot technique where sets exist inside the computer and actors are filmed in front of a blue or green screens; Immortal (ad vitam) (2004) and its blend of live-action and animated characters; and The Polar Express (2004), which began the art of performance capture animation rendered from digitally captured actors and/or rotoscoping techniques over live-action footage. In the case of Casshern, director Kazuaki Kiriya made a conscious attempt to blend digital backlot technology to craft a film that resembles anime rendered in live-action.
This results in a film that drips with gorgeously over-ornamented visuals and background texture. The opening takes us on a dazzling tour of the futuristic retro-world that the film exists in where the background technology is all pistons and clockwork machinery, where giant Albert Robida-styled helicopter vehicles drift through the city skies and massive trains move through dense industrial cityscapes, where giant sculpted faces loom from the sides of skyscrapers and signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet. The sets are ornately dressed Kumiko Asos bedroom, for instance, seems to be a single pew sitting in the middle of a mausoleum; Kanako Higuchi is held prisoner in a bedroom with a bed that is designed like a blue velvet swan; the lab complex is like an old 1950s nuclear reactor with massive clunky dials and looming black industrial machinery; at a banquet table for the political leaders, classical works of art are projected on the wall behind huge colonnades. The vehicles throughout the film are stunning giant robots, flying machines that are like boxes with propellers attached along the outside, squadrons of bombers that look like inverted U-boats or have faces on the front of the planes and Burais ultimate giant killer robot, which looks somewhat like the ambulatory castle out of the same years anime Howls Moving Castle (2004).
There are some amazing action set-pieces, especially the sequence where Tetsuya goes into action against the killer robots where the Moon occupies three-quarters of the sky and with Tetsuya running up the sides of buildings, catching missiles in his hands, karate chopping robots in half, firing ray blasts from his hips that go through dozens of robots, cutting them up with a sword pulled from one robots guts, grabbing a robot with a gun turret mounted on it to mow the robots down en masse. This is all capped by the wonderfully stylised images of Tetsuya going to confront Burai, he all in white with Burai in a rippling scarlet red cape. There is also a fabulous climax on the battlefield with Tetsuya racing through the robots to zoom up the face of Burais uber-robot and turn back the hands of its giant clock-face to blow it up.
Kazuaki Kiriya crafts the action into impeccably iconic shots like one with Toshiaki Karasawa clambering up a tower, Mitsuhiro Oikawa cruising by overhead in the battlement prow of a helicopter ship as Karasawa rips the flag off and whips it around his shoulder like a cape and stands against a massive full moon that seems with astronomic improbability to fill the whole sky. Other times, Kiriyas direction topples over into the corny especially the scenes of the neo-sapiens sloughing through the mountains where they top a mountain peak and at the moment of total physical exhaustion, their anguish and woe is transformed by a seemingly divine rise of sunlight and the appearance of a mediaeval castle abandoned in the middle of nowhere. It is a scene where Kazuaki Kiriyas desire for the epical topples over into something that has the corniness of a 1950s Biblical epic. Elsewhere with the lightning bolt that animates the neo-sapiens, some of the swordfight sequences the action is overlaid by strange cabbalistic symbols, an effect that seems pretentious. Kiriya aims for Akira Kurosawa-esque extruded drama much suffering and despairing, oaths of vengeance, speeches about being human, nationhood and love. The film reaches a sentimental ending where Tetsuya and Luna reunite on the battlefield, fireworks rise from the ground and detonate in the sky as they embrace, before a beam of light travels through the Solar System and we then get flashbacks to most of the characters in the film in what seems like alternate settings of domesticity the old man in a wheelchair, the chief villain with a wife and family as the voiceover tells us that we hurt others by our existence, that we need to learn to forgive one another and that in doing so there lies hope.
At its heart, Casshern is nothing more than a Frankenstein film fed through the fad for Japanese power-suit superheroes a la Ultraman (1966-7) and the giant killer robot genre. The film goes on too long and often feels that in between all the artistically overdressed scenography that Kazuaki Kiriya is just pumping a cartoon story up with pretensions to the dramatically monumental and artistically meaningful. That Casshern is a triumph of artwork and scenography there is no doubt; that it has anything to say outside of simply being an anime pulp adventure is another question. In terms of intellectual content, Casshern never seems to rise to the level of the artistic dressing that Kazuaki Kiriya presses on it all.
Kazuaki Kiriya next went on to direct the historical epic Goemon (2009) in a similar visually florid and over-ornamented style, followed by the English-language historical fantasy epic Last Knights (2015).
(Nominee for Best Production Design at this sites Best of 2004 Awards).