Casshern (2004)

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Casshern is a sci-fi action film with some great ideas, but which sadly get lost amongst an overly convoluted plot. The film is set in a future world where the countries of Asia have merged into a huge empire which has crushed the European Union. This totalitarian superstate is engaged in a war with outlying rebels. A young man, Tetsuya, disobeys his family’s wishes and goes off to fight. Meanwhile his father, Dr. Azuma, is working on developing ‘new cells’ which mean that limbs can be regrown and the dead brought back to life. When Kazuma’s experiment results in an army of undead breaking out from the laboratory, being violently gunned down and vowing revenge it sparks a war between the recently re-animated corpses and the government forces.

The film has a number of problems, but first I’ll list a few positives. This is a science-fiction film which does bring up some interesting ideas, with the new lifeforms wishing for acceptance from their creators, before turning on them because of their violent ways. It also has a strong anti-war message and there are some moving scenes towards the end when the na├»ve young soldier realises he was misguided in believing that joining the war would end it. On the downside many of these ideas and philosophies are lost amongst the myriad competing plots and subplots, some of which are mentioned once and never again, others only skimmed over. Often plots are re-introduced which you have forgotten about and have no interest in. It would have been better to focus on one story, either the ‘new human”s or Tetsuya’s fall and redemption.

The film is based on an anime series from 1973 and it certainly felt at points as though it rushed parts of the story or didn’t explain them. It seemed like there was too much story to tell. An example of this is the fifteen minutes in which the new lifeforms escape, flee to a mountain castle, build a robot army and attack the city again. The film changes tracks between story arcs with no attempt to tie them together until the final scenes, by which time you are not sure what film you are watching.

The set design and some of the effects work is impressive on what is evidently a limited budget. There is a steampunk feel to the visuals, and as with many Japanese films heavy metaphorical hints with sunsets and flowering gardens indicating the fall of empire or the flourishing or dying of family ties. There is an odd mix of black and white photography, pure CG and more natural shots which don’t really blend well. I think the film would have benefited from being less ambitious, focussing on fewer characters and telling the story through action without long exposition scenes, or scenes laying out the themes of the film.

Honestly, when I think back on the movie I’m inclined to forgive its sins as a noble effort at a thoughtful science-fiction epic, but I feel that the script and some of the directing decisions killed off what chances this had of being a great film. There were a few scenes where it was not clear whether this was a comedy or drama and more than one occasion when I hoped that it would soon be over.

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Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

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Based on the best-selling novel, the manga follows the story of a Shiro Iwa Junior High School Class as they are selected to take part in ‘The Program’, which involves them being shipped to an island and forced to fight until only one survives. Most people will be familiar with the plot from the cult film that came out in 2000 (the same year the manga began publication). Due to the form the manga is able to follow the novel much more closely, includes more details, both on the world that the story takes place in, and spends more time with each of the characters. There are a huge cast of characters, with 42 students in the class, plus the instructor and various side characters who we see in flashback (such as friends and family) and the manga does a great job of making all of these children instantly identifiable, through their appearance or character quirks. The manga is far more grotesque and sexually explicit, including scenes of rape and graphic scenes of shootings, stabbings and all manner of other deaths. Some of this is due to the events being depicted visually (as opposed to the book), and being able to have the 15 years old protagonists shown engaging in sex and violent scenes (not possible with the young actors in the film). I found that my reaction to the manga was different from both book and film. In the book, there is the sense of a puzzle that needs to be solved (how will they escape from the island?); the film is more like an action script (being thrilled at every narrow escape, or shocked at every death); while the manga really brings home a sense of futility, and revulsion at the acts of the government. Things really do seem hopeless at times, and each death is made to hurt.

The story moves seamlessly from one character or group to another, and with flash-backs throughout to show their motivations, or further emphasize something about their character. The art style is very detailed, especially on the characters faces and scenes of blood spattering or gore. There are many scenes of characters bawling, or screaming, with snot and tears flowing freely. One of the things I liked about this version of the story was the ability to include dream sequences (not present in the other versions). One such stand out moment sees Shuuya envisioning his classmates as monsters, with sharp teeth and claws coming to get him. If you are a fan of the film and want to find out more about the characters, or like the book and want to see it represented visually, this is a great read.

The Chasing World (2008)

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People with the surname “Sato” are unexpectedly dying across Japan. Student Tsubasa Sato is transported suddenly to a parallel world where “Satos” are being chased by masked figures by order of a malevolent king. When caught they are killed, their deaths correlating with a death in the first world. Ai Sato, Tsubasa’s comatose sister, and his alcoholic father are represented by doppelgangers in this new world, where they must run while Tsubasa attempts to discover the reason for the King’s contempt of that family name.

The film is low budget, and many of the special effects are noticeably so, however the design of the masks is original and the direction competent. While the story is weak, veering away from the source material excessively, there are a number of jump scares and creepy instances making it a decent action film. It feels, for the most part, like a cross between “The Twilight Zone” and “Doctor Who”, with the concept perhaps stretched at feature length. The acting is of varying quality, but passable for the most part as the story is largely action- rather than emotionally driven.

The film hints at ideas of duality and totalitarianism without making any definitive or stunningly revelatory point. Concepts such as the parallel worlds were interesting, though a number of plot-holes were occasionally distracting. A wasted concept, but shallow fun nonetheless.

Based on a novel by Yusuke Yamada.