Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Humans once achieved immortality, only to be supplanted in rulership of the world by equally immortal robots under the leadership of Braiking Boss. . . and then the Sun who was named Moon, the giver of life to humans and robots alike, was assassinated on Braiking Boss's orders, and the Ruin came upon the world. Years later, the world is a ruined and desolate place mostly devoid of humans, one where sentient robots suffer from the rapid-decaying effects of the Ruin. A popular rumor has spread amongst robots that by devouring Casshern, the supposed killer of Luna and the rare robot to have escaped the Ruin entirely, one can overcome the Ruin, but Casshern himself wanders the wastelands devoid of memory, with only the accusations of the female robot Lyuze as proof that he was, indeed, responsible for the death of Luna and thus for the Ruin as well. Beset on all sides, Casshern must fight as he struggles to discover the truth about himself (he is apparently the one remaining immortal in a setting where everyone now dies) and rumors that Luna is still alive as well while also attempting to reconcile with his guilt. Along his journey he encounters other distinctive recurring characters, including the old man Ohji; the little girl/robot Ringo; the robotic dog Friender; Dio, a robot who shares similar abilities and body structure with Casshern and seeks only to defeat him; and Leda, a sleek female robot who seeks to use Dio as a tool to succeed Braiking Boss as ruler of the world. In his encounters with them and other groups the true depths of sin and despair, and how hope may still triumph through them all, can be found.
In revamping the classic 1973 Tatsunoko series Shinzō Ningen Casshan (probably better-known to American fans for its 1993 OVA remake Casshan: Robot Hunter), Madhouse Studios and director Shigeyasu Yamauchi (of St. Seiya fame) have done as dramatic a reinterpretation of earlier anime source material as you're ever likely to see. Some of the key character names – Casshern, Luna, Friender, Braiking Boss – and the basic concept of Cass>hern fighting robots that have taken over the world from humans remain as bones to be thrown to fans of the earlier versions of the series, as does Cass>hern's basic character design, but that's it. This is otherwise an utterly different tale in content, tone, and focus, with some characters (most notably Luna) functioning in utterly different roles. Because of that, this version is also completely accessible even to those who were never aware that previous versions of the franchise exist.
Whether or not Yamauchi and MADHOUSE's efforts here will actually resonate with viewers is another story. Their goals are certainly ambitious: they seem to create a grand allegory on various aspects of despair and guilt and the ways to combat it, and that is not something that is going to be easy for most viewers to understand or appreciate. The almost unrelenting grimness of the setting will certainly be a turn-off for some; the tale as a whole is practically a dirge for civilization, after all. The principle characters hardly do much to rectify that, either, as Cass>hern is suicidal at times, Lyuze is intent on making him suffer for what he's done, almost everyone else he meets is hostile to him, and everyone speaks in either subdued or angry tones. In fact, in its early stages the series offers little hope for anything better, including a second episode which features a gathering of robots who have all resigned themselves to dying from the Ruin (a kind of plague which makes robotic bodies crumble and fall apart) and the recurring message about how Cass>hern is supposedly responsible for all of this – and my, has a bigger guilt trip ever been laid on an anime character? One of the series' most powerful images involves Cas>shern and friends coming across a carnival of robots who have been cured of the Ruin, where a robot boy repeatedly jumps off a high platform and slams into the ground just because he can't die from it. Rarely has immortality seemed so disconcertingly devoid of life.
Two things can make this series fascinating to watch, however, and one is the hope, faint though it may be, which exists in the setting. The girl Ringo is the embodiment of it, though exactly why this is so is not clear until much later, and the songstress Cassh>ern protects in one episode is another. Flowers present in an otherwise-desolate terrain have long been symbolic of hope and they are used in this manner on several occasions here. One of the best episodes involves a crippled painter who wants to repaint an entire ruined city to leave his mark for those that follow, while another involves a female robot who strives to make a bell to ring out a beautiful sound across the land (although this one ends up being a bit twisted).
There is a certain elegance to many aspects of the series which can be captivating, too. This is actually most evident in the fight scenes, as Cass>hern's sleek form and graceful yet devastating movements are a thing of beauty, especially in one early episode where Cass>hern encounters a female warrior-robot who equates battle with life and fights as though part of a ballet. It can also be seen in the purposefully languid pacing and delicate handling of the subject matter whenever Cass>hern is not busy beating down on assorted robots and in Luna's attitudes and actions later in the series. Lyuze's struggles to change her mind about Cass>hern and come to terms with her feelings as the story progresses also speak to this.
When stripped of the above considerations, the storytelling in the series falls into a more or less episodic structure with a vague underlying plot for much of its run. It is, essentially, a man's search for purpose and identity and an examination of the power that sin can have on the sinner, and that requires a lot of exploring, after all. The plot tightens up in the second half as Cas>shern eventually unites with other recurring characters in a quest to find the apparently-still-alive Luna, reconcile a gross misconception about what Luna is and does, and then decide how to move forward after that. Meanwhile, in a parallel plot, Leda schemes for power and tries to manipulate Dio to that end, while Dio only seeks to absolve his long-standing inferiority complex towards Cas>shern. Some details almost cry out for a better definition than they ever get along the way, such as what exactly Ringo is, how some robots seem capable of human functions like growth and shedding tears and blood, and how robots power themselves, and sorting out the particulars of Luna is an exercise in piecing together vague statements. The end of the series is bittersweet and open-ended, though it does wrap up the most important plot elements and is truly the exact kind of ending this series had to have. Still, it may leave some viewers disappointed.
The artistry of the series is an interesting mix between late '60s/early '70s stylistic elements (especially in the robot designs) and modern technical wizardry. Casshern's design takes the color scheme and essential elements of the original and puts them on a sleeker frame, creating such a contrast to the drab, boxier look of most of the robots that he does, indeed, look as beautiful as many characters claim he is. In fact, with the exception of the more voluptuous Le>da and the thuggish-looking Braiking Boss, all of the top-grade robots have lithe, humanlike forms vaguely (and likely purposely) reminiscent of ballet dancers. Even Luna conforms to this, although her short, ultra-petite form, distinctive headgear (which looks kinda like a motorcycle helmet), and weird eyes give her an alien look, and so does Friender. Contrasting this is the toddler-like pudginess that Ringo has for most of the series. The character rendering varies in style a lot, making it hard to determine what visual discrepancies are deliberate and which ones aren't, though the generally bleak and wasted landscape weighted down with a depressing color scheme and constantly-blowing flakes remains a constant. The animation shines in the fight scenes, which mix the graceful spins and flips of a dancer with devastating strikes, and generally looks good elsewhere, too.
Music director Kaoru Wada (3x3 Eyes, Ninja Scroll, Princess Tutu) lends his considerable talent to this series, with impressive results. Some of the musical themes seem more than a bit derivative of InuYasha (not surprising, since he also scored that whole franchise), but they do an excellent job of setting tone and mood for the series and appropriately dramatizing certain scenes. The insert song which appears in an early episode, and pops up occasionally as a theme in later episodes, suits the series well in both composition and music, although its sung-in-English vocals do not impress. (And yes, it was sung in English in the Japanese dub, too.) Opener “Aoi Hana” is a suitable but unremarkable pop-rock number. Original closer “Reason” gets replaced by new closer “Hikari to Kage” with episode 14; both are equally pleasant songs that are both gentler and lower-key.
The roles for the series require most characters who aren't robots chanting “kill Cass>hern” to speak in subdued tones, so the material gives little room for the English dub to shine. Eric Vale does a fine job as Cass>hern, as do Trina Nishimura as Luna and Jerry Russell as Ohji, while Shelley Calene-Black is perhaps a little too subdued as Lyuze and Jerry Jewell never sounds quite comfortable as Dio. Contrarily, Monica Rial is such an ideal fit for Ringo that not hearing her voice this role would have been a shock. The roster of guest appearances throughout the series constitute a Who's Who for 2000s English dubbing; see how many you can identify without looking, and almost none disappoint. The script is not one of the more verbose ones out there, so the adjustments Funimation makes are not major ones. On the Japanese side, the dub cast is stocked with venerable veterans including Tohru “Tuxedo Mask” Furuya and 71-year-old Kenji Utsumi, who in voicing Braiking Boss reprises a role he first performed in the original TV series 35 years earlier.
Funimation took the rather unusual move of simultaneously releasing on Blu-Ray both 12-episode halves of the series, though the included trailers suggest that this may not be the last time they make such a move for a first-run release. Their Blu-Ray disks use an AVC MPEG-4 codec at 1080p, and while the video quality is quite sharp, it does also feature some minor flaws that could, in many cases, be interpreted as deliberate stylistic intent. The audio is superb on the English track, good but less impressive on the Japanese track, with the series' strong use of song effects coming through exceptionally well. The episodes in each half are spread across two disks in a 9-3 count, with Extras on Part One's second disk including clean opener, the clean version of the first closer, and a 12 minute “Pre-Air Event” video featuring Yamauchi and most of the principal Japanese vocal cast. Extras on Part Two's second disk include clean opener, the clean version of the second regular closer, TV commercials, and a music video featuring a live performance of the long version of “Aoi Hana.”
Casshern Sins is one of those series which will either quickly fascinate you or quickly turn you off. It sacrifices the brashness and energy one would normally expect from a robot-focused anime title for a story rich in style and symbolism, one which concentrates on individual vignettes early on before shifting to a more plot-heavy focus in its later stages. The story falters a bit in how smoothly it carries out some of its character development and the way it stretches out an overall plot that is not especially meaty to being with; the series probably could have been finished in 20 episodes without feeling like it was missing anything. Ultimately the series is, for better or worse, a prime example of what can happen when a studio and director are given free reign to dramatically reinterpret source material.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Very sleek and stylish, laden with symbolism and allegory, superb sound effects.
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