Quick Man and Rush's Gnarly Postapocalyptic Adventure: Casshern Sins

Tsukasa (Staff Writer) — July 6th, 2011
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We often lament the lack of creativity in television and cinema these days, as often as producers and directors look to the past for old properties to revitalize and otherwise exploit to cover for their own lack of new ideas. Sometimes this works out well, as with the reimagined Battlestar Galactica TV series and American remake of The Office, which very much took the original works that served as their basis and turned them into something new, with their own identities. In other cases, this hasn't worked out so well, such as the Bionic Woman re-imagining, and the live-action Speed Racer movie from a few years back.

Casshern Sins revisits the Super Sentai-esque 1973 Tatsunoko classic, Neo-Human Casshern — probably best recognized in the West for the more recent live action movie in Japan, and Casshern's appearance in the Wii's recent Tatsunoko vs. Capcom fighting game. Older otaku unfamiliar with Casshern might connect him immediately with his similar design to characters in the Tatsunoko classic, Gatchaman, known as Battle of the Planets in the West. Somewhat younger otaku might think, "Hey, this guy looks kinda like a Mega Man boss!," while even younger otaku would go, "Huh?," and then watch something else.

Having grown up watching cartoons through the latter half of the '80s and into the '90s, I was no stranger to Tatsunoko productions as a kid. I never did see the 1993 Casshern reboot, Casshern: Robot Hunter, however, which began the trend of giving the original '70s series a darker tone with each new iteration. I did see the live action film from 2004 a few years back, and while the CGI, green screen, and camera-filter-heavy action was entertaining, the plot was incoherent garbage. Thankfully, Casshern Sins is better than that by miles.

How should I introduce this latest Casshern reboot? It's clear there's only one way.

Meet Casshern. He just destroyed the whole world and thanks to this wicked hangover, he doesn't remember a thing. Bummer, dude.

Every episode in the earlier half of Casshern Sins opens with our robot anti-hero reliving moments around the action he took to destroy the world: the murder of the Sun called Moon, Luna. Virtually a religious figure, Luna was central in the eternal life achieved by humans and robots alike. For some reason, Casshern dispatched to take her life. As no more than a killing machine, he had no say in the matter.

Casshern begins to awake as a more conscious, self-aware being years later — an exact number undetermined within the show itself, though it is demonstrated throughout that by then, the whole world had crumbled into an inhospitable wasteland, with few traces of human and robot civilization remaining. The atmosphere is toxic, the ground is either sandy or hard and rocky, and humans — having nearly gone extinct — are an extreme rarity, almost never appearing on-screen. Taking their place at the forefront in Casshern Sins is an assortment of robots, both humanoid and otherwise, facing their own newfound mortality, the "Ruin" consuming the world rusting and breaking their bodies beyond repair.

A rumor spreads that devouring the immortal Casshern - who himself heals from any wounds taken, however severe, and is completely immune to the Ruin - would grant immortality. The newly awakened Casshern, unsure of who he was or what had become of the world, soon finds himself the target of mobs of robots desperate to drink his blood much as they once had Luna's — robots and blood!? WHAT MADNESS IS THIS!? — as well as Lyuze, a young robot woman who sought to avenge the death of her sister, one of Luna's deceased bodyguards.

The series plays out much like Eat-Man, an old favorite of mine, with more pathos. Casshern wanders the ruined wasteland, meeting many robots and the occasional human. Most of the people he encounters don't live past the experience — whether by his hand or someone else's — as Casshern learns who he is and what it means to be an immortal killing machine while the rest of the world dies around him. You'd expect this to be incredibly melodramatic and angst-laden, and for a while, it is — oftentimes, there's no subtlety whatsoever in Casshern Sins's narrative. The show beats you over the head with its plot, in many ways echoing the writing style of older anime like the original Neo-Human Casshern. Despite this lack of subtlety, the story still works in its presentation.

About halfway through the series, the narrative reaches a turning point. Episode after episode had focused on making Casshern — and by extension, you, the viewer — want to kill himself, but the spread of a new rumor about Luna having survived acts as a panacea to that. With the emergence of this new glimmer of hope, carrying the weight of the whole world and the burden of guilt for its destruction on his shoulders, Casshern shifts his focus from beating himself up to a quest for redemption.

I won't spoil the ending, but I will say that much of the plot comes full circle by the end. The full story of Luna's death and the reasoning behind it as well as the full details of her function in the world are finally revealed. Old villains and rivals crash together with Casshern, each seeking to reckon with their respective pasts and determine a new future for the ruined Earth, while Casshern stakes his life on saving his newfound friends. These climactic twists and turns spell out a clear message summing up the entire series: those who lead eternal lives only live on for the sake of living. Those whose lives are limited lead the most meaningful existences, knowing that someday, whether they're expecting it or not — everything will come to an end.

Within Casshern Sins's drama is a heavy amount of violence. Most of it isn't valiant or heroic, unlike what you'd expect from a series with a Super Sentai-esque design aesthetic for its lead. Most of the "bad guys" are more or less big ugly bandit robots, desperately struggling to survive, terrified of falling apart. The violence can be fairly disturbing, too. Between the fragility of most of the robots and Casshern's incredible strength, Casshern is seen smashing robots apart in nearly every episode with incredible ease. As the story progresses, main characters you sympathize with begin to visibly rust, crack, and fall apart. And the most shockingly violent scene occurs in the first episode, in which Casshern outright disembowels a robot, tearing its mechanical guts out while blood pours out and it screams at the top of its lungs. It would have qualified as extreme horror had his victim been human, and it's deeply unsettling, if not even nauseating, in how shocking it is, simply because the robots in the Casshern Sins world still communicate and feel pain just like humans. Thankfully, after hitting you with such an intense shock early on, the rest of the violence feels comparatively tamer, as intense as it can still be. To say the least, if strong violence is your thing, Casshern Sins does not disappoint.

Like the aforementioned Eat-Man, Casshern Sins also benefits from a strong soundtrack, notably including some recurring acoustic guitar themes that bring a subtle emotional undercurrent to the desolate condition of the world. The show's opening ("Aoi Hana" by Color Bottle) is a bouncy, addictive rock song that fits the show well, though the fairly spare opening sequence feels like it could have used a bit more motion. The first ending ("Reason" by K?N?) is a gentle pop tune, which accompanies similarly gentle images of Lyuze and the young robot girl, Ringo, by the seashore. After how dark and tense the actual content of the show is, the ending provides a bit of relief and lets you unwind a bit, as you'd want to, afterward. Halfway through the series, as the theme shifts from guilt to redemption, the second ending ("Hikari to Kage" (Light and Darkness) by Shinji Kuno) takes over, a touching piano ballad in which the singer laments his past and sings out about the contradictions of being human: wanting to be happy, unhappy, to not be alone, to be alone, wanting to be himself and not to be himself all at once. A perfect song to use for the latter half of the series, accompanied by images of the whole cast in resigned repose — possibly sleeping, possibly dead.

Over the course of Casshern's travels, many small, personal stories play out. A dying man shows Casshern that he isn't necessarily going to kill everyone he meets, a crumbling artist denies the world's death by painting a city's walls with his color, a woman tries to create a bell to remind everyone that the world was still a beautiful place, and a beautiful singer defies the Ruin and gives the world hope through the power of her songs. These are but a few of the people Casshern meets and connects with as he begins to realize his own humanity. That itself is essentially the heart of the show: Casshern's transformation from a self-hating killing machine who doesn't understand himself or anything else in the world to a fully self-actualized individual, capable of realizing what he is and taking responsibility for the apocalypse he had brought upon the world. After they throw you into the plot headfirst — much like in Eat-Man and Gasaraki — Casshern's journey is an enriching one, as you come to discover him and the story of the world just as he does. Piecing the story together is a satisfying experience.

Watching the supporting cast grow is similarly satisfying. Lyuze goes through a believable transformation, as she goes from hating Casshern to pitying him and eventually loving him, in a world where love is an obscure concept at best, to most robots. Little Ringo is there to lighten the mood whenever things get too heavy, and provide the vital perspective of a complete innocent in the midst of all the death and destruction that constantly hangs over everything. She gives you plenty of scary moments when her life is at risk, and plays a crucial role in the ending. Old Ohji fills the role of another redemptive figure on the plot, as Ringo's adoptive father. Friender the robot dog is just as much a loyal sidekick as he was in the original Neo-Human Casshern, though much more complex this time around, for a main character that obviously can't even speak. Luna and Braiking Boss are interesting characters for what little screen time they get. Luna's last surviving bodyguard, Dune, labors more to survive than anyone else in the series. And both of the central villains are compelling for who they are, too — Dio's motivations, as long as they take to be fully revealed, are not too complex, but you have to feel sorry for him by the end. And Leda has one of the worst cases of postpartum depression portrayed in anime in recent years. And she isn't even human, either. Watching a show so dominated by humanlike robots like this reminded me of my childhood and earliest days watching anime movies like Robot Carnival, and the sort of retro aesthetic behind the character designs only strengthened that sense of nostalgia. I'm very glad they didn't try to "modernize" the show by using a more current, or god forbid, moé, style of character design.

Relatively equal parts modern and classic, Casshern Sins is a tale of tragedy and redemption that anime fans both new and old can enjoy, though it'll probably be a richer experience for those in my generation, who grew up with English-dubbed Tatsunoko shows on TV. The storytelling isn't so subtle as to be alienating, but also the narrative isn't insulting and doesn't dumb down the messages and themes it's trying to convey to the audience. Equal parts childhood nostalgia and grim, adult brutality. At its core, Casshern Sins is a modern classic in an era of anime that's running short of those. A fresh break from the endless flood of cutesy moé, nerd pander, and mindless shonen action series — it has no shortage of heart or substance. I highly recommend this series — even if the first episode's shocking violence is off-putting, I urge anyone interested to keep going. It only gets better from there.