Casshern Sins
by Polly



WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW

As I've likely already mentioned in the past, good ol' SMPS.Net pal, Rhete's one of those fellas that'll bug you and bug you and bug you and cry until you finally give in and do something he asks you to do (and he watches girly cartoons lol!). Unlucky for him, I'm a cold-hearted bitch, and when people especially want me to do something, I'm more than happy to not do it to elicit the kind of reactions people like him exhibit. It's probably also that last bit of "rebellious teenager twat" left in me that the prunes still can't quite seem to flush out. Too much information? Good!

I really had no interest in ever checking out Casshern Sins. It really just didn't look up my alley, and initial reactions to it from other people I'd talked to and posts I'd read around the interbutts just really didn't do a great job of selling it as something I should devote my precious prune-eating time to. But, as time does march on, so too does the world of Japanese Cartoons get suckier and suckier with every new season that rolls around, and by the Fall/Winter of 2010, I found myself with relatively no interest in anything that was currently airing (Other than Panty & Stocking). Not wanting my interest in Japanese Cartoons to die out once again, under a barrage of daily, maybe even hourly pleas from Rhete once again to give Casshern Sins a go, I broke down and purchased the first collection of the series on Blu-ray (my first Blu-ray Japanese cartoon, mind you) instead of doing the sensible thing and just downloading a few episodes to see if I'd like it. I sure do love throwing money around! Hear that, Funimation? NOW GIVE ME FREE SHIT!

Rhete had won this round and he didn't even have to yell or cry all that much, unlike the protagonist featured in today's review. We'll get to that a little later though.

Casshern Sins is an almost head-scratching reboot of the superhero Japanese Cartoon series from 1973, Neo-Human Casshern, or as it has been romanized primarly throughout the years in other parts of the world, "Casshan." In the interest of full-disclosure, I've never actually seen the original TV series, and most likely a lot of you haven't either. It's more likely that a lot of people recently became aware of Casshern (or Casshan) in the recently released Tatsunoko vs Capcom on the Nintendo Wii.

The original TV series seems to have more in common with cheesy/feel-good superhero comic books and manga of the time and had a clearly defined good vs evil storyline in which Casshern fought to save the world from menacing robots. Of course, fans of Mega Man are likely to notice quickly that not only are the ideas behind Casshern sprinkled quite liberally throughout the videogame series, Casshern's overall look has heavily influenced the Blue Bomber and various Robot Masters throughout the years, even more so when you move on to the Mega Man X/Zero and later series.

Anyway, Casshern Sins turns everything about the original series on its ear, taking the characters, art style, mood, and storyline, and dropping them into a great big post-apocalyptic blender. The resulting concoction created when firing the blender up full-blast without the lid on is a more contemporary piece where characters and alliances are sprayed all about here and there, and good vs evil moves more into the morally ambiguous territory, challenging the viewer to form their own opinions.

The basic outline of Casshern Sins' plot goes like so: In some unknown future, robots rose to power and subjugated the human race under a leader known as Braiking Boss. In their peril, the humans somehow summoned a "saviour" named Luna to free them from their oppression. Braiking Boss, being none too happy with Luna's apparent "saving humans" schtick, sent three assassins to eliminate her. The strongest (actually, I'd say probably the luckiest) warrior of the bunch, Casshern, was able to successfully assassinate her, an act which somehow brings about the apocalypse.

After Luna's death, the world fell into what is referred to as "The Ruin", a sort of apocalypse after the apocalypse if you will, since things didn't sound too great before her death, either. In the world of Casshern Sins, humans are an almost extinct species, and robots aren't doing quite so hot either. What few humans there are scavenge a land almost barren of resources in order to try and stay alive, while all robots have begun to rust and wither away like flowers (a very important symbol to the series as a whole), eventually completely breaking down into piles of dust and bits of scrap metal.

It is rumoured that all may find salvation from The Ruin by defeating and devouring the robot named Casshern ('sup, Mega Man fans!), who just so happens to be not all that hard to find due to being the REALLY PRETTY ONE THAT ISN'T RUSTING AND HAS A BIG ASS RED "C" emblazoned on his chest. With everyone in the land gunning for his head, ol' Casshy's got his work cut out for him, and certainly he'll have no shortage of things to punch the fuck out of for this show's 24-episode run.

Casshern himself is obviously the main character of this story. As is typical in almost every story coming out of Japan since forever, he's an amnesiac. (Amnesiacs are also popular because Amnesiac is the best Radiohead album, EAT IT AGAIN, RHETE!) Though he's the one that brought about The Ruin by killing Luna, he has no idea who he is, that he's the one that did it, or why only he is immune to the effects of The Ruin. Fear not, though, because early in the first episode he'll be filled in on most of the details of why he's the prettiest scum of the earth that caused The Ruin, and that his being devoured is the only thing that can stop it. The series will then continue to pound you over the head with those details for its remaining episodes no less than two or three times every episode. I like a show with such a simple premise that just assumes I'm going to forget it at some point and just keeps reminding me. I was born in West Virginia, after all!

Anyway, Casshern spends most of his days travelling the land punching motherfuckers' faces and being unsure of what he should do, where he should go, who he is, and why he's the cause of the world's end. He spends all the other days huddled into a little ball shaking, crying, yelling toward the sky, and looking at his own hands in absolute terror. He never reaches Renton from Eureka Seven or Raki from Claymore levels of intolerable, but on more than one occasion, you'll be yelling at the screen for the poor guy to just suck it up and pull it together.

Casshern does slowly grow throughout the course of the show, but it takes fucking forever for him to find some kind of resolve and get over the pity party stages of his development. You want to like the main character of a show or at least connect with them on some level, and he ends up shutting the viewer out as much as he does other characters he meets. The amnesiac thing really plays against the writers and viewers here, because in a wasteland like the one Casshern wanders while trying to find answers, it's hard to place anybody in there with answers to help move him along instead of him asking the dirt "Who am I?" so many damn times.

Thankfully, there are more than a few characters that help move Casshern along his path toward the truth and any kind of personal salvation he hopes to find. The first he meets early in the first episode, Ringo, is a little girl who at first is indistinguishable as a human or a robot, and may end up feeling like that token loli every show needs to succeed. She actually ends up playing a fairly significant role in Casshern's overall character development. She's just a little girl, as innocent as they come, who, even in a world of constant decay where horrible things happen on a constant basis, only sees the good in people. Even in a supposed monster like Casshern. In a very unique way, she helps to humanize Casshern to other characters, but most importantly, the audience, finally bridging a gap that the show could have fallen into and never came out of. She makes him endearing, as well as helps him to start trying to see the good that still remains in the world, and also within himself. She and her guardian disappear early on in the series and don't make a return until much later. It's during this time that the show can suffer and feel like it's dragging itself along a little too much.

Another character vital to Casshern's growth is Lyuze, a beautiful female-type cyborg who seeks Casshern out of revenge for killing her sister. She's one of the few who actually has a lot of the answers Casshern so desires, as her sister was one of Luna's protectors. Knowing full well that Casshern is an unstoppable and unkillable force to be reckoned with (and that he really won't fight her seriously anyway), she instead taunts him to a degree, forcing him to suffer and remember what he's done as punishment for killing her sister, as well as bringing about The Ruin. She too, unfortunately disappears early on in the series, only popping up here and there to poke at Casshern some more, but once the full party is assembled with Casshern, Lyuze, Ringo, and their robo pup wonder, Friender, the show begins to feel less sparse, opening up to a much better story progression. Though answers are still slow coming out, having a few more people on screen certainly helps bring a little more variety to what's going on.

The show's primary "villians" (I use quotations, because as I've mentioned before, I don't really see a good and evil side to this show, just varied ideals) Leda and Dio were the two other assassins sent by Braiking Boss to assassinate Luna. They failed to reach her before Casshern and it's a grudge they've never quite let go of. They too, though built by the same creator and evenly spec'd with Casshern, are now suffering the effects of The Ruin, and are on the hunt for him as well as making a power grab for absolute control of the land.

Unfortunately, they don't get introduced quite as early in the series as I feel they should have been. They almost pop up out of nowhere and their motives are honestly kinda confusing and don't really go that far in convincing the viewer that they're really antagonists beyond being a pesky thorn in Casshern's side as he continues his journey across the land. Dio just wants to defeat Casshern so he can call himself NUMBER ONE DA BEST, and Leda wants to amass an army to take power, which makes no sense since the entire world and all the robots under her and Dio's command are rickety and falling to pieces. They're also just really bad at getting anything done. Casshern whoops up on Dio on a number of occasions and Leda ends up swooping in and saving his ass. They're sorta like Team Rocket With A Plan, I guess. Both Dio and Leda's respective stories do pan out eventually and come to a highly satisfying conclusion before all the big questions get answered. I just really feel they should have done more and not seemed so inept.

Casshern Sins' story unfolds at a pace just under that of a snail who is already very tired. This really is attributed largely to there being so few elements that make up the story as a whole and trying to stretch all that over the course of twenty-four episodes. To make up for time that's not spent unfolding the story, there are a number of stand-alone stories that take up individual episodes whose sole purpose is to sell you on the world, the concept, and Casshern as a character. This part of the show ends up feeling more like "Kino's Journey done right," even though it's still quite flawed.

While I think these stories do a really bad job of trying to make Casshern himself relatable, most of them (not all, there are some real stinkers) function amazingly well at pulling the viewer into the show's world and making it believable, and some are flat-out beautiful. There's very little happiness to be found in Casshern Sins' world, and the stand-alone stories do a great job of selling that without ever feeling like it's wallowing in it in the way SaiKano could feel at times. Many of these stories are touching and work surprisingly well on selling the themes the show is based upon. Even though the world is primarily full of robots, the stand-alone episodes reek of humanity, and the better ones will certainly pull out an emotional response or two. They're just dragged out a bit too long for their own good, and as mentioned, some of them really just aren't strong enough to carry the series' weight.

As the series unfolds, the cards of Luna and Braiking Boss re-enter the stage unexpectedly and throw a wrench into all the works. Why on earth would Braiking Boss still be tailing Casshern all this time, and what are his motives? Is the Luna everyone's so ecstatic about real or just an impostor? The world is soon split into those travelling in hopes of finding Luna, so that she may bless them by stopping The Ruin, while others are less convinced and still out to grab a piece of Casshern's pretty hide for dinner. This is really when the series picks up and continues moving at a pretty decent pace for the remainder, but it starts to feel a bit at odds with itself.

It's during this time that Casshern finally finds his resolve and decides that he wants to find the answers he's looking for without killing anymore. Unfortunately, this just doesn't happen, because the show is far too formulaic for its own good.

It seems the animators were hell-bent on making sure that there was at least one big action scene in every episode, and bless them for wanting to be so gung-ho about it, but it often interferes with the subtle commentary they wanted to get across or the neat little story they were trying to tell. Without missing a beat, every episode will feature a crazy group of "bandits," random robots that want to devour Casshern, gettin' all up in his grill, only to get a fist or foot through their torsos a few moments later. The writers write Casshern as if he doesn't want to kill anymore, yet that's all they make him do. I couldn't help but feel really jerked around as he constantly got swept back and forth. They could have found better ways to write him out of these situations instead of going berzerk and murderating everything in his path, even maybe tying it to the theme of the episode, but they chose spectacle over grace and it really can wear a little thin.

While the spectacle does grow old story-wise, Casshern Sins never fails to impress visually. Other than Texhnolyze, I can't think of another show right off the top of my head that has presented such a dark, bleak, and oppressive world so amazingly well. It's all done with very simple painted backgrounds, which employ an equally simple "grit" effect thrown over top of them, but the effect adequately presents a world of despair, rust, and decay so well, that I can't fault the artists for using such simple techniques. (Also, I am not an artist and am probably wrong about all this. HOORAY FOR IGNORANCE!) There are also quite a few bright and beautiful spots to be found in the world, overflowing with color, and they befuddle the characters in the story just as they do the viewer. It makes you want to stop and savor them just as the characters do before being thrown back into cold and dark world that's surely on the other side.

Character designs present a bit of a contrast that can be somewhat inconsistent and jarring at times. Casshern, as well as a lot of those he encounters on his journey and those that eventually join him, are all cut from the same "pretty boy/pretty girl" mould. They're very slick, lithe, and attractive, with extremely sharp and attractive designs that could easily fool the viewer into believing they're human. Other than Casshern himself, who has a reason for remaining flawless, a lot of other characters feel a bit out of place in a world that's rotting to pieces. Then there are, what I refer to as, the "robot-robots" as well. Big hulking metal-framed buckets of bolts that in no way would ever be confused for a human being. These designs look great too, but for other reasons such as being well-animated and having a nice amount of detail. Again, the contrast just feels off sometimes, but methinks it was handled this way in order to make the show more marketable. I mean, come on, the fact that it isn't a moe show is already a nail in its coffin to some people, so an entire cast of unseemly "real robots" that aren't TransFormers probably wouldn't do so hot. There are odd moments, mostly distant shots, where characters don't quite look right, but this isn't seen very often at all, and is fairly common in most Japanese Cartoons, so I can't bust Casshern's balls too much for it.

Overall, Casshern Sins' animation is also fairly top-notch. With as much as I've griped about the action sorta killing the story at points, at the very least it's damn pretty to look at. All of the fight scenes are nicely choreographed, with characters pulling off all sorts of crazy combat maneuvers, and since all the combatants are robots, the animators got to go crazy over the top with how bad these characters can get busted up. You'll see robots being torn limb from limb and having their heads punched the fuck off on a regular basis, all while maintaining a solid frame rate with realistic-looking reaction shots of the devastation as well as the actual maneuvers themselves. I think Casshern Sins presents some of the finest action scenes we've seen from a TV series in the last few years, so Madhouse deserves props for putting their money where their mouth is and going all out with spectacular fights.

Casshern Sins' audio is just as impressive as its visuals. It makes great use of the sound stage, presenting a great deal of ambient effects which further bring its decaying world to life, as well as a carefully composed soundtrack which is almost entirely composed of approriately cued symphonic pieces that I can only describe as "really damn good." (I'm a riter!) There are also a few insert songs that get dropped in every now and then that always add just the right amount of emotional impact to a scene. The main insert song "A Path" gets used on more than a few occasions, and though one may expect it to get old and predictable, it never once failed to beautifully punctuate each and every scene it's used in. The opener feels strangely out of step with the show itself, being a typical pop rocky number (the animation for this piece doesn't even seem like it got finished), however all of the closers with audio and imagery together, close out the show rather nicely, like a silky smooth warm icing on top of a bittersweet cake.

With its bleak and dreary world, lacking in hope and rife with misfortune, Casshern Sins actually ends up delivering a very positive message about the importance of living life to its fullest as well as the acceptance of death. It's not anything like I expected going in, and coming out of it I wasn't immediately impressed. It took a few days for it all to sink in and rewatching key points in the series for it all to finally click and fall into place. But in the end, this show, though flawed with a little too much piddling around and sticking to a set formula, cashes in with a more than fitting conclusion to Casshern's journey that will leave the attentive viewer feeling something, and that's what's most important.

Madhouse and Tatsunoko deserve a bit of a pat on the back here as well for making a show that in all likelihood didn't quite live up to expectations, given the current trends of the Japanese Cartoon market. They went with their gut, made the show they wanted to make, turned an old franchise into something completely different, and though it's by no means flawless, it's still highly enjoyable and most definitely worth your time.






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