The Mike Toole Show Casshern In: Anime Remakes
by Michael Toole, Sep 26th 2010
Been to the movies lately? Maybe you whiled away the spring doldrums checking out Clash of the Titans and Nightmare on Elm Street, or beat the summer heat by enjoying The Karate Kid, The A-Team, or The Last Airbender. Well okay, you probably didn't enjoy The Last Airbender, but still. Just think, autumn is here, so in due time we'll have fresh new fare like Let Me In and Yogi Bear to chew on. Okay, I'm trying to think of some clever Yogi Bear-related joke to crack, but really, just seeing the trailer for that thing fills me with revulsion. Have you seen the poster? "Good things come in bears?" Really, Hollywood?!
If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm talking remakes this time. Remakes are nothing new, of course - Shakespeare's plays have been made and remade endlessly for film and TV (you can count Gonzo's Romeo x Juliet amongst the many, many versions), and MGM's famous Ben Hur film from 1925, which was remade even more famously with Charlton Heston in 1960, was itself a remake of an earlier single-reel featurette. Anime got into that racket quickly - not only has Journey to the West gotten retold every which way you can tell it, starting with 1960's Alakazam the Great and more recently with fare like Monkey Typhoon, new versions of seminal TV cartoons like 1968's GeGeGe no Kitaro have cropped up with surprising regularity. In fact, Kitaro itself is an interesting example of the remake phenomenon, because the franchise has gotten a new version every single decade since its debut, with 2008's Hakaba Kitaro being the most recent iteration.
In fact, an awful lot of 60s anime has been retold at one point or another. The obvious example is Astro Boy, which received TV facelifts in 1980 and 2003, before exploding to life on the big screen last year in a smash CG feature film that nobody saw. But the pint-sized robot hero is in good company - Gigantor, nee Tetsujin 28, has received no less than three remakes, starting with 1980's New Tetsujin 28. This series was essentially a more modern take on the original stories, not so different from the 1980 Astro Boy cartoon; it was dubbed by Gigantor localization whiz Fred Ladd as The New Adventures of Gigantor. That remake got a sequel series of its own, and the franchise would spring back to life once again with 2004's Tetsujin 28. This is an interesting one; directed by the great Yasuhiro Imagawa, it takes the original manga's 1950s setting but steers the story in a grittier direction. Two years later anime's original giant robot would move to the big screen in a live-action film, also titled Tetsujin 28. Imagi, the same studio behind the earnest but unsuccessful Astro Boy film, have released teasers and concept art for a Tetsujin 28 film of their own, but that one's still up in the air.
The anime business would continue to mine the 60s with fare like 1993's 8 Man After, based on Jiro Kuwata and Kazumasa Hirai's famous cyborg crimefighter. Okay, this one bills itself as a sequel, but with its new protagonist and radically different style and tone, it's easier to let it stand alone. Original producers Eiken have indicated that they're in pre-production for 8 Man Infinity, another new version of the superhero story, but that's another one with no clear release date on the horizon. Probably the most enduringly successful of the retellings of 60s fare, aside from Astro Boy, is Cyborg 009. If you think hard, you'll probably remember the Toonami broadcast of Avex's superb 2001 TV series - maybe you'll even remember that it was unceremoniously dumped on the 1am slot, not actually finished, and never rebroadcast or fully released on DVD THANKS A LOT JERKBAGS - er, anyway, it was a good series. But that version is preceded not just by the 1968 original, but by a 1979 TV series that was immensely popular all over Asia and Europe, and its 1980 feature film sequel, Legend of the Super Galaxy. Cyborg 009 is awesome for all kinds of reasons, which I'll explore in another column.
The list is a hell of a lot longer than just the 60s - subsequent decades would see revisits of Sally the Witch, Moomin, and the various iterations of Captain Harlock. More recently, we've had new versions of classics like Glass Mask, Yattaman, Toward the Terra, Ah! My Goddess, and Guyver, with decidedly mixed results. Super robot shows have had their own little renaissance, with facelifts given to old favorites like Dancougar, Daikumaryu (a.k.a. Gaiking, which may be getting a Hollywood film down the line - look at this proof of concept!, Steel Jeeg, and Giant Robo. Some of these remakes are awesome - I'm particularly partial to To Terra, the TV series redux of the 1980 feature film, itself based on Keiko Takemiya's exceptional manga. Others, like GR: Giant Robo, which hews closer to Mitsuteru Yokoyama's original manga than the aforementioned Yasuhiro Imagawa's spectacular 1990s OVA series, sank without a trace, and rightly so. Finally, anime studio Tatsunoko seem to have a particular yen for remaking their shit. A huge portion of their catalog, from Speed Racer to Tekkaman to Gatchaman to Hurricane Polymar to Hutch the Honeybee, have ended up with new installments years or decades after the original. One particularly high profile do-over would be 2008's Casshern Sins.
Casshern Sins is quality stuff. Tatsunoko actually passed the franchise to Madhouse for this affair, who re-imagines the colorful android superhero as a dour, amnesiac antihero struggling to survive in a shockingly bleak, deteriorated world. It's extremely interesting to me to examine the differences between earlier versions of the story and this new one. The original Casshern, aka Neo-Human Casshan, was a 1973 TV series that was part of Tatsunoko's long boom of fantastic, action-packed hero stories, which included fare like Tekkaman and Polymar. Casshan was a bit similar to contemporaries such as 1972's Kikaider, with its cyborg hero struggling with what it means to be human while battling legions of the Andro Army's less scrupulous robots and cyborgs. But what Casshan really excelled at was awesomely exciting battles with robots. Big robots, little robots, humanoid robots, robots of all shapes and sizes - inevitably, the heroic Casshan (who had the same chiseled features and steely stare of most 70s Tatsunoko heroes, from Kurenai Sanshiro to Muteking) would put his war face on and go to town with crazy high-powered martial arts attacks, literally tearing enemy robots to shreds like so much tin foil. Casshan was assisted by his robot dog pal, Friender, who could transform into a variety of vehicles, and his hot girlfriend Luna, who used a special magnetic anti-robot gun to great effect and even got her own theme song.
Casshan was revisited in 1993, with the 4-part OVA series Casshan: Robot Hunter, a title which evokes the awesome (and somewhat similar) 60s comic book series
Magnus: Robot Fighter. This one was essentially a condensed version of the original story - young Tetsuya Azuma sacrifices his humanity to become the neoroid Casshan, waging a harsh war on the very robots his scientist dad helped create. It all leads up to a teamup with Luna and a final fight against the evil Black King - I can't decide if his name is better or worse than the dude's original name, Braiking Boss. The affair is highlighted by Yasuomi Umetsu's distinctive, hyper-realistic character designs and by a completely superfluous Luna topless scene that was required by Japanese law to be in every single OVA until about 2000 or so; beyond that, it's a so-so affair that I look back at and think, "Well, this used to be good enough." This Casshan installment was dubbed by Carl Macek (peace be upon him) for Harmony Gold, and eventually found its way to DVD courtesy of ADV Films. If you look carefully, it should still be easy to find.
What came next was something of a surprise - a slick, inventive live-action movie directed by Kazuaki Kiriya, 2005's Casshern. Say, when did Casshan become Casshern, anyway? I bet it happened at about the same time Captain Harlock suddenly became Captain Herlock, and Alucard became Arucard. I wish I could lavish praise on this movie, but the fact is, it's a bunch of tedious, beautifully photographed but barely coherent crap jealously surrounding what is probably the greatest goddamn fight sequence of the past decade, both eye-poppingly fresh and intensely evocative of the original anime. It's one of those movies with a strong enough concept and just enough good stuff that you'll find yourself doing mental cartwheels to justify watching it before throwing your hands up at its haltingly stupid ending. Despite its flaws, Casshern injected some life into the franchise, and three years later, we got Casshern Sins.
Casshern Sins is pretty damn retro, but not in a way that evokes the original TV series, which is a very interesting approach. Tatsunoko definitely had a 'house style' for their 70s action shows, but Sins ignores that aesthetic in favor of a wide-eyed, spike-haired vibe that brings to mind, say, Masami Kurumada (or Shingo Araki, if you please) rather than Ippei Kuri and Yoshitaka Amano. Different also are the title character's very nature and motivations - rather than the well-intentioned son of a scientist who seeks to undo his father's misguided work, here Casshern is a paranoid amnesiac, a cipher prone to fits of uncontrollable rage who only discovers after several episodes of crazy, explosive robot fights and monotonous repeating of the same existential questions (seriously, it made me wish he'd just start singing "Same as It Ever Was" just to lighten the mood) that in his old life, he was merely a pawn in the larger scheme of things. He awakens in a ruined world, a world where the human-robot war was lost centuries ago - most of the humans are dead, the remaining robots left in Braiking's glorious machine empire are rotting and corroding, and every sentient thing seems to hate the hell out of Casshern himself.
Despite the radical shift in tone, Casshern is still Casshan - er, Casshern. He's still got the distinctive white jumpsuit with the retractable faceplate, Friender still shows up (although with more sad backstory and fewer awesome vehicle transformations), and Luna is in the mix - she's first described only in past tense, regarded as something of a messianic figure by both good and bad guys, but it seems inevitable that she'll show up eventually - making the series without her would be like making Speed Racer without Trixie. Like the original, Casshan Sins really shines when it's time for our hero to throw down with wave after wave of hulking, menacing robots. When this happens, Casshern's white-clad figure darts and dodges and distorts amazingly to suit his gravity-defying attacks. Casshern Sins is an excellent example of re-imagining a beloved old favorite comprehensively without disregarding the original material - and furthermore, if you can shrug off its brutal milieu, it's a kick-ass action show, probably one of the better ones of the last five years.
We're not quite done yet. 2008 also brought us another remake in the form of Birdy the Mighty: Decode. The persistence of Birdy the Mighty is really kind of amazing. Originally a creation of Patlabor master Masami Yuki, the manga series appeared only intermittently in the pages of Shonen Sunday before being collected into a single volume in 1988. There are thousands and thousands of manga that suffer this fate; they make a splash, lose their momentum, and quietly disappear, and that's exactly what Birdy the Mighty did. Until 1996, that is, when Madhouse inexplicably decided to turn the story into a 4-part OVA series. These OVAs are how I was introduced to Birdy - I saw them fansubtitled in '96, before U.S. Manga Corps. grabbed the series and released it on video.
I was a fan of the OVA from the beginning. It's got Madhouse trademarks like high detail and fluid animation, it's got good action scenes, and it's directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, an extremely successful and interesting director. But the real hook of Birdy the Mighty is the title character herself. On the surface, she appears to be a lithe, muscular girl of perhaps twenty, with a ready grin and eye-catching two-tone hair. But Birdy hails from the Altair system; she's a biologically engineered space cop who uses her enhanced strength and reflexes to catch intergalactic bad guys. One such mission leads her to earth, where a run-in with a confused schoolboy leaves Birdy with a fresh corpse and a howlingly mad commanding officer. As punishment, Birdy must absorb the consciousness of the dead kid while his body is shipped back to Altair and repaired. (Yes, "repaired," like she's mailing back a coffee maker for warranty service.) The only thing to do is lead a dual life; Birdy has to keep up the hunt for fugitives on earth, but the high schooler, one Tsutomu Senkawa, has to get back to school and act normal. But it's hard to act normal when you're sharing a body with what amounts to Space Wonder Woman.
The 4-part OVA, which is still fairly easy to find on DVD, wraps up satisfactorily after Birdy takes out the bad guy. So one manga volume, one OVA series - that's it, right? No, actually! Birdy's resurgence was actually engineered by Masami Yuki himself, who revived the character in manga form in 2003. Consequently, we got a new TV series, Decode, in 2008. You know what? It's pretty good! It avoids falling into the trap of covering the exact same ground as the OVAs only less adeptly (see also: Guyver), and director Kazuki Akane (yep, the Escaflowne guy) doesn't try too hard to soften Birdy up or dress her up as a maid every five minutes.
The new series is also wise enough to bring a few new foibles to the table, namely that Birdy is compelled to start a cover identity as an idol singer - shades of the 80s. Also, while Tsutomu and Birdy develop this weird, nebulous fondness for each other, Tsutomu already has another girl on his mind, a situation that is complicated when she gets caught up with the gang of bad guys that Birdy is hunting down. The action scenes aren't really plentiful enough for my liking and the story has some weird moments when things shift off-world, but given that it's based on a high-toned OVA directed by one of the best action guys in the business, expectations should be managed accordingly. What keeps me interested in the series is Birdy herself - upbeat, athletic, assertive, and sometimes outrageously reckless, she's my kind of anime heroine.
It's easy to dismiss remakes as dull shortcuts, as ways for producers to avoid having to come up with fresh storytelling concepts. A disappointing majority of Hollywood remakes are like this - witness Clash of the Titans' dull roar (tagline: TITANS WILL CLASH. Really, Hollywood?) or the terrifying spectacle of Yogi Bear. The thing is, it doesn't have to be this way. The proof is in the pudding, and in this case the pudding comes in two flavors: Casshern Sins and Birdy the Mighty: Decode. Dig in!
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