Can They Turn Into Jets?

In mixing my recent streak of Megaman posts with my persisting fondness for anime, here’s a Megaman AND anime-related post.

I recently obtained the “Rockman 20th Anniversary Design Book” (or whatever its official title is), and in it I found out that the big blue dogs from Woodman’s stage in Megaman 2, called “Hot Dogs” In English, have a different name in Japan.

In the world of Rockman, this dog is called “Friender,” which is a very obvious reference to another blue, fire-spitting robot dog, only this one isn’t from the wrong side of the tracks from the series Neo-Human Casshern and its remakes.

It’s kind of funny realizing just how many of those games from childhood before you discovered anime turn out to have taken inspiration from anime.

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A, Er, It’s the 90s: Casshern OVA aka Casshan Robot Hunter

Immortality has been a dream of man for as long as he has walked the Earth. For some, immortality means having an indestructible, ageless body. For others, it means living through the memories of others, or having their exploits retold in song and splendor. In the case of a robot with a penchant for chopping other robots in half named Casshern, all three apply, though he might not always like the result, especially when it’s in the form of a 1990s OVA.

In the 90s, the animation studio Tatsunoko Pro went about reviving some of its most popular franchises from its early years. Without a doubt the most well-known remake among English-speaking fans was Tekkaman Blade, a TV series based loosely on the classic series Tekkaman the Space Knight, as it managed to find its way into syndication under the name Teknoman. The second most famous remake however was an OVA based on another classic,  Neo-Human Casshern, about a man who is transformed permanently into an android in order to stop a massive robot revolt from conquering the world. Called simply Casshern, this update would be released in English as Casshan: Robot Hunter, and would air on the Sci-Fi Channel’s anime block, alongside movies and other anime such as Akira and Project A-Ko.

There are two things I want to make clear at this point. First, while I gave that nice history lesson there, I did not grow up with Cable and thus was not a part of that segment of anime fans who grew up on the Sci-Fi Network’s anime showings. Second, at the time the OVA came out there was no official romanized spelling for “Kyashaan,” and so they decided to go with “Casshan” at the time. Nowadays however, it’s officially spelled as “Casshern,” and in conforming with this standardization and for consistency’s sake, I am going to refer to the OVA in this review as Casshern OVA or Robot Hunter.

What is immediately apparent about Casshern OVA is that it is all flash and little to no substance. The story is there, and just like its source material it’s about a human robot fighting against the odds and punching holes in bigger, burlier robots, but it lacks sufficient amounts of connective tissue between scenes and between individual episodes which results in a bare sense of story coherency at best. Its purpose and goal is to look nice and pretty, and it succeeds in that regard, but only if you like the character designs, animation styles, pacing, and direction that embodies 90s anime aesthetics to the fullest extent. Even the fanservice is distinctly 90s-style! Not only can you can instantly tell when it was made, but the extent to which Casshern OVA is a product of its time is made all the more evident when you compare it to the ultra-stylized 2009 remake, Casshern SINS.

To those fans who grew up with 90s anime, it may just be “the way anime looks,” but for younger fans the look of Robot Hunter can be very, very different from today’s action series such as Black Lagoon. To sum up the 90s “serious action” aesthetic, it’s comprised of this exaggerated realism which permeates everything, but especially the male characters and their angular musculature, as well as the female characters and their sculpted curves. It’s the direct descendant of the 80s OVA aesthetic, which sought to give a sense of three-dimensionality to character designs.

I can only picture the staff responsible for Casshern OVA getting all excited and going, “The old Casshern is a classic, but it’s kind of dated now. That’s why we gotta make it right! We gotta make this thing timeless!” Despite (or perhaps because of) their best efforts, Casshern OVA ends up being more dated than even its 70s predecessor and its child-like sense of drama and wonder.

At the very least, it has the awesome Casshern Introduction Speech.

Throwing away his only life,
Reborn in an invincible body,
Here to obliterate the Demons of Iron,
If Casshern won’t do it, who will?

Bonus Assignment: Compare and contrast all three Casshern Openings and tell me what you think of each one.

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.

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.”