Kick, Attack, Contemplate Your Existence: Casshern SINS

Casshern SINS is the story of an amnesiac robot named Casshern who lives in a post-apocalyptic world where even robots, once known for their ability to live forever, are now faced with the spectre of death as their bodies rot away due to a “disease” known as the Ruin. The only immortal left is Casshern himself, whose desire for pacifism runs contrary to his incredible, at times uncontrollable abilities as a literal killing machine. When Casshern discovers that he is somehow responsible for the Ruin, he sets off to find the truth, his journey taking him around the wasted planet, seeing for himself how others cope with life and death.

Casshern SINS is a remake and re-envisioning of Neo-Human Casshern, a 1970s anime about a man who is permanently transformed into a robot to fight a robot rebellion led by the evil Braiking Boss. As you might have noticed from the basic plot summary above, the two series are nothing alike, and the 1990s remake and 2000s live-action movie do not fare any better. There are very few shows, especially popular ones, that are comparable to Casshern SINS, and it leaves an important question that I’m going to try to answer: How should one approach Casshern SINS?

Casshern SINS is an intellectual anime. That is not to say that the anime requires a high level of intelligence to watch or that it’s somehow better than anime that aren’t intellectual, but the storytelling in Casshern SINS is highly unusual. Unlike most other anime, it is less about telling the emotional stories and more about conveying metaphors and allegories.

Characters in Casshern SINS are not fleshed out individuals with wide ranges of emotions who are made to feel in some sense “realistic.” Instead, the characters act as set-pieces in a greater story, like pieces of a puzzle, like the characters in a biblical parable or an old fable. While the two are nothing alike, Casshern SINS and its approach to characters is similar to that of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei in the way it boils down characters to their basic essence and then moves them forward to see where they will go. Casshern is a conflicted berserker. Ringo is an innocent young girl. Braiking Boss is an Ex-King Former Boss. Friender is a ferocious canine companion, albeit a robotic one. They do not go much beyond their basic identities in order to tell their versions of the Prodigal Son or the Tortoise and the Hare. Characters highlighted in each episode also follow a similar pattern. You have the parable of the Singer, the parable of the Painter, the parable of the Sentry. And of course, there’s a lesson included in each one, a lesson which Casshern takes to heart, similar to Tetsurou in Galaxy Express 999 or Kino in Kino’s Journey.

And also similar to 999 or Kino, Casshern SINS slowly constructs a world of its own in which to tell its stories. There’s no clear indication that the planet is even Earth, and so all you can do is follow Casshern himself along and learn about the world in which the story takes place at the same pace he does.

The visual style of Casshern SINS lends itself tremendously to the way the story is constructed, or perhaps I should say that the story and visuals go hand in hand. The artwork and character designs are very expressive and wild, but somehow it all comes together in a very subdued manner, even when Casshern is chopping some poor robot’s head clean off. In terms of animation, the show basically has two modes: talking heads and beautifully animated and choreographed fight scenes, and while it’s clear that monetary limitations necessitated this format, the animators and directors did a very good job working with it. For this reason, backgrounds and general scene design in Casshern SINS are incredible, to say the least. Almost every background can be taken by itself as a work of art, often abstract, often expressionistic, but always lending a unique flavor to the world it is meant to portray. If the characters are going to stand still and ask each other questions, they’re going to do so with plenty of visual information to go around.

Casshern SINS is clearly an ambitious work, and in being so ambitious it also may have some trouble finding its target audience. It barely resembles its source material, and while it can be very abstract it is not entirely so, which may leave those who would prefer it to be even more ambitious and daring disappointed, while those who do not take well to its fine-art approach may also reject it. Still, I feel that the way in which Casshern SINS tries to incorporate so many aspects of art and storytelling is also what makes it stand out from much of the crowd.

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Factoring Time into the Visual Aesthetics of Anime

Having spent yesterday and today hesitating on whether or not to buy the special edition Cardcaptor Sakura movies, I decided to sit down and watch some episodes of Cardcaptor Sakura, to see if it would swing my decision one way or the other. As of now, it’s still undecided, but just like every other time I’ve decided to re-watch Cardcaptor Sakura, I was reminded of how good the show looks. Years from now, the show will still look good. And this got me to thinking about the way time relates to an anime’s visuals.

In animation, there is a race to see the visual quality of animation improve over time. Though it’s not as drastic or hotly contested as the race that video games have gone through, it’s not uncommon to hear from people that a show looks outdated. This is a dangerous way of thinking, as it assumes that the shows you like today will be considered inferior in ten, twenty years. One might say then, that “timelessness” is the ideal to pursue, but at the same time I don’t think “timelessness” of visuals is necessarily a good thing. Much like how making anime for an international audience can take away some of the uniquely Japanese aspects of anime, I think a similar problem can occur when the creators of a show try to isolate it from its own time. At the same time, this isn’t an excuse for a show to look bad or have poor art direction and using either “timelessness” or “representative of its time” as an excuse.

Different shows seem to approach this issue of time and its relation to the animation quality. In Cardcaptor Sakura, it’s the well-thought-out “camera” angles, transitions, and just the way the show flows naturally from scene to scene and action to action that makes it stand the oft-mentioned “test of time.” Koutetsushin Jeeg and Re:Cutie Honey, both updates of 70s Nagai Go works, merge the visual cues of 70s anime with a modern sense of perspective and consistency towards animation. Casshern SINS, a current show, takes an interesting approach. Its main character is said to be immortal, and to show this the design of Casshern references anime throughout the decades. Casshern himself is a 70s anime character, while his hair and musculature are similar to 80s characters, his figure and facial features are reminiscent of 90s bishounen, and the overall aesthetic of the show is very modern. Anne of Green Gables, a 1979 anime series directed by Grave of the Fireflies director Takahata Isao (with Miyazaki on staff as well), is an adaptation of an already well-known novel, and though there wasn’t a lot of resources in animation at that time, they worked with what they had to make the show very engaging.

“Working with what you have” may not always produce the best or most well-remembered shows, but I think it’s an important step in making a show whose visuals will be well-remembered years down the line when what was once cutting-edge will become as old-hat as wearing a skinned sabretooth tiger. One thing that Cardcaptor Sakura, Koutetsushin Jeeg, Re:Cutie Honey, Casshern SINS, and Anne of Green Gables have in common is that you can see the sheer amount of effort put into these shows. Judging “effort” is tricky business, and might even be scoffed at as impossible or even arbitrary, but when there’s this much effort involved I think you can’t help but notice. And when people, year after year notice this, that’s when a show’s visuals can be called “timeless.”

Though if you don’t aim for “timeless” art direction, that still doesn’t mean your show cannot be great.

頭文字 Impressions Fall 2008

The new season is finally under full swing, and I’ve been looking forward to it for quite a while. As of now, it really doesn’t disappoint.

The new Hokuto no Ken anime tv series, the first in about two decades not counting Souten no Ken, is Raoh Gaiden: Ten no Haoh. The series is a prequel to the Hokuto no Ken anime showing a younger Raoh and his rise to power along with those two characters they introduced in the new movies, one of which is a woman who is not Completely Useless but still is clearly not there to be the main character.

The entire episode is spent with anticipation, just waiting for that moment where the calm Raoh encounters a bunch of thugs who think they own the post-apocalyptic place, and having Raoh deliver a king-sized fist to their face worthy of a fist king. And in this regard the first episode delivers. But unlike Kenshiro, Raoh has little mercy for anyone, though he’s not as quite as big of an asshole as when he first appeared in the manga. The originally manga slowly retconned Raoh from just a Jerk who Conquers to Guy Who is Trying to Save the World By Taking it Over, and this new anime reflects the latter concept.

Toradora! focuses on the relationship between Ryuuji, a guy who much to his own chagrin has inherited his puppy-killing facial features from his departed Yakuza father, and Taiga, a tiny girl whose small size belies her fierce and eccentric personality. Hence the name Tora (tiger = taiga) Dora (doragon = dragon = ryuuji). It sounds typical, but the first episode took me by surprise, and this is from someone who’s read the first novel. A lot of other bloggers will talk about how good the voice acting is and how different (and better) Kugimiya Rie is in this role versus her previous tsundere characters, but the real star of this show isn’t the voices, as good as they may be, but the pacing and atmosphere.

Whereas most shows with a similar premise would try to be more frenetic, more extreme, Toradora is surprisingly slow and subtle, even during gag scenes. The pacing actually reminds me a bit of Cosmic Baton Girl Comet-San, which I had reviewed previously.

The trailer alone made me a fan of Casshern SINS, and the first episode does not disappoint. This is Casshern for a new era, with a style darker and very different from the 70s or even 90s version, and Casshern is much more of a bishounen than in the past, but not in the way the disappointing live action movie turned out. The first episode looks like a marriage between Tatsunoko Pro and Studio Madhouse, which it is, and that’s all I really need to say.

Casshern is voiced by Furuya Tohru, so with this and Gundam 00 we’re getting double the dose of Amuro Ray.

Neo Humans and Steel Cyborgs

Tatsunoko Pro’s latest adaptation of Shinzo Ningen Casshern, Casshern Sins, has Furuya Tohru playing the titular character. Furuya is not the original actor form the 70s despite his long history in anime, but luckily,he has experience playing the role of a man turned into a cyborg to fight an evil force: Koutetsu Jeeg.

The similarities don’t end there! Each show poses a vital question during its opening.

Casshern: “If Casshern won’t do it, who will?”

Jeeg: “If I stop (BAN BABAN) , then who will do it? (BAN BABAN)”

Clearly this role was made for the man.

Just like “fat guy in Paprika.”