Saturday, May 30, 2009

A real boy

Released by Manga Entertainment to capitalise on the theatrical distribution of Casshern (the live action version of the story), Casshan is a remake of the 1973 TV series of the same name, which was created in the first place to replace the hugely popular Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (a.k.a. Battle of the Planets).
The similarities are noticeable in the design of Casshan’s helmet, as well as his robot dog that also handily transforms into some sort of jet.

Though released much later than Manga’s initial flurry of self-consciously ‘adult’ releases of the early nineties (it was released in the UK on October 31st, 2005), Casshan very much fits in with the sketchy quality of those titles.
Featuring a dated art style, re-use of animation sequences (common in TV productions) and fairly generic enemy design, with robots having a biomechanical appearance similar to the enemies seen in everything from Blue Gender to Beet the Vandal Buster, Casshan is guilty of numerous anime stereotypes; there is even the obligatory shower scene for the female character. Whilst many 80s horror films utilise the shower scene in order to promise a little nudity and appeal to the target male adolescent audience further, at least the exploitation is in keeping with the theme of the films – the woman is rendered even more vulnerable when naked to whichever nasty is offing people in the film. In anime, however, the shower scene rarely benefits from even a hint of context (Vampire Hunter D is an example that springs to mind).

So far, so-so. The plot involves robots taking over and at war with the humans, Casshan being humanity’s last hope as he is able to take the robots one-on-one. You’ve got a recurring anime theme of the protagonist being created or having a companion created for them by their usually absent, genius scientist of a father – in this case the father Dr. Azuma is responsible for creating the android leader of the robot army, as well as the suit with which his son Tetsuya melds himself to become Casshan (in a scene echoing that of Cronenberg’s Fly transporter).
As Casshan is now an android, we have scenes that briefly touch on what it means to be human, particularly as Tetsuya’s old girlfriend (she of the human resistance and random shower scene) insists that he still has a human spirit. This is an idea that crops up regularly in anime, particularly in Ghost In the Shell but originally in Osamu Tezuka’s Astroboy, where Astroboy is created by Dr. Tenma to replace his son Tobio who was killed in a car crash. Tezuka (often dubbed the godfather of anime) was in turn inspired by the 1883 story of Pinocchio, where Geppetto is the character who would become the mad scientist in Shelley’s Frankenstein and then reappear over and over again within the sci-fi genre.

The standard military fatigues of the soldiers emphasise the ridiculous costume that Casshan's love interest wears.

Fascist imagery crops up throughout, from kaiser-style pointy helmets to this Nuremberg rally scene.

Despite Casshan’s mediocrity, it is worth a watch if only for the commentary by Jonathan Clements, co-author of the anime encyclopaedia and a man who knows his stuff. Not only does he touch on the themes I previously mentioned, but he sets the context of the original story – not just the desire for a Gatchaman replacement but the social and political context of an early 70s Japan. Internally the country was experiencing the terrorist attacks of the Red Army who sought to overthrow the political conventions in society, in much the same way as the Baader Meinhoff Group in Germany and the Weather Underground in the US. Externally the Cold War was at a peak but Japan was left without the benefit of identifying with either super power involved in the threat of nuclear apocalypse.
As well as this he sets the scene for the creators of the remake – not just the practical limitations of a production for TV before digital animation became widespread, but the wider circumstances of the early 90s, which led to scenes influenced by the Gulf war and the Japanese economic collapse.
Whilst the commentary doesn’t improve the anime itself, it makes for much more interesting viewing and helps give further grounding in the history of anime itself – any Clements commentary is worth a listen and it is genuinely worthwhile seeking out the Manga releases on which his commentary tracks feature, regardless of the quality of the particular title.

The use of Christian imagery for aesthetic purposes in early 90s anime (see Judge and more famously, Neon Genesis Evangelion) is touched on by Clements.

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