Casshern Ultimate Edition  (2004, 2004)

The only DVD out now is the Japanese region 2, three DVD set.  It’s from Shochiku.  I’ll tell you this much: when Japanese companies decide to make a good DVD, they don’t mess around.

disk 1:
Believe it or not, I actually knew about this movie before it hit Japanese theatres in April 2004.  I’d like to say I have connections, but I heard about it on a message board and saw the trailer.  That thing looked great.  The movie also really delivers, up to a point.  The trailer has a lot of action in it, but doesn’t say the movie is 141 minutes long.  I finally saw it in October 10th, 2004.

In my second visit to the Busan International Film Festival, I was lucky enough to see this movie.  It was in the outdoor auditorium and it was cold.  The movie started at roughly 8pm, so it was dark and the cold ocean wind was blowing in on the yacht club.  I stayed for the entire movie and although I was actually quite cold in my 3-layered get-up I’m happy I stayed.  Most people did the same as I but some actually left as late as 2 hours into the movie.  I’m glad I stayed.  The director wasn’t there, but I really enjoyed the movie.  I thought the ending was a bit out of left field (and rather pedestrian), and I’m sure many more people thought the same thing.  I have to admit the movie does get better the second time you watch it – so if you rent it, make sure you watch it twice – and the ending isn’t as bad as it first seems.

I’ll start with the bad thing.  The biggest problem I have with the movie, and it’s only reason I knock off half a star from this movie, is the ending.  Not the ending per se, but the friggin dialogue at the ending.  It doesn’t spell out everything you see in the movie in detail so that even a 4-year old (not even being able to read or even understand Japanese) could understand the message, but it does make the message blatantly understandable, taking away a bit of the movie’s mystery.  The message is rather simplistic and pretty idealistic as well.  Simplistic and idealistic messages don’t really bother me, but when they take away from the movie, it usually makes people forget the really nice movie that happened just before it (not to mention the idea that the director probably underestimates the audience’s intelligence).  Starting with ‘At last I understand’, the last few lines should’ve been kept out.  So if you’re watching this movie, and you want it to be perfect, when you see those words at the 134-minute mark or so, stop the movie.  Actually, if ‘What’s the point of my rebirth?’ would have been the last line, the movie would’ve been even better.  It would’ve made the ending quite abstract, but the logic in the movie is abstract at times to begin with, so it would’ve been in keeping with the storytelling method.

Other than that, there’s really nothing to complain about.  The action is well done, the acting is great, the message is nice and the movie is even a little touching.  You’ve even got a little symbolism for the eggheads out there.  The lightning bolt, the fact that the only good person can’t see and especially death carry a special meaning.  I don’t think it’s as complex as, say, Wong Kar-wai (here, here), but it’s a really nice thing to see in a big blockbuster movie.  You’ve even got some mystical moments with dead characters walking around, so it’s really nice to see.

This movie is even more impressive when you know that the budget for the entire movie was only about US$6 million.  Now, this isn’t so big on paper, but once you see the movie, you will be amazed.  The low budget shows once or twice to my eyes (most notably inside the train) but the zillions other times it doesn’t show far outweigh anything else.  The amount of CGI, and the sets and scale, would make it seem impossible for the flick to have such a low number attached to it, but director Kazuaki Kiriya, who was a fashion photographer and music video director, knows, I suppose, how to make a lot out of his budgetary limitations.

The style is really nice.  The rich, textured look is really nice in the movie, and the lighting and set design only add to the atmosphere.  The style, of course, makes you think of other things before it.  The reference that jumped out at me the most was ‘Metropolis’.  Those twirling needles when the emergency starts just made me think of that.  Actually, any dystopian setting will do.  The sets recall architecture of, oh, Nazis or ‘Brazil’ or even, up to a point, ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’.   Those marching robots easily remind a person of ‘Triumph of the Will’ (here).  The whole movie is grand and the visuals in the movie are stunning.  The cinematography is great, and you can really see Mr. Kiriya’s photography background in every frame of the movie.

The first time I saw the movie it took me about 25 minutes to realize it wanted to be an epic, and during my second viewing I felt silly at how long it took me to realize it the first time.  Actually, it just didn’t want to be an epic, but the epic.  The director really manages that very well.  The cityscapes and battle scenes are very big, and when you see a few hundred mechs walking down the street towards you, or bombs carpeting the landscape, you realize that the director pretty much accomplished what he wanted to do.  The music has the same epic quality to it.  When the Neo-Sapiens walk out of that goop, just listen to the music.  If that’s not striving for total epic feel, I don’t know what does.

The scale of the action scenes is great, but if you’re expecting 2 hours of action, then go look at ‘Armageddon’ or something.  This movie has a story to tell, and it tells it well.  Like I read somewhere else, this movie essentially says that war isn’t all that good, so having endless violence would be slightly on the hypocritical side.  What action there is starts pretty much 53 or so minutes in.  It’s really well done.  It really looks like an anime.  The fights may seem a bit fragmented at times, but they’re still intense.  The mech fight is barely 3 minutes long but it makes the entire movie worth watching.  It’s probably one of the best action sequences I’ve seen.  Watching one guy fight a hundred or so mechs has never looked so great.  The final climactic fight is also great, although the focus of the movie at that point is not on the war, but on the characters, so the fighting is only incidental.

The ending might turn some people off, but it has a point.  Like I said a few paragraphs ago, the last few lines, in my mind, should be in the director’s head, not in the movie.  The drama, though is very nice.  The director starts the movie with impending doom and it does downhill from there.  He spends a lot of time on the build-up, which just makes your anticipation rise.  The payoff is nice and the actors handle everything well.  The movie has Yusuke Iseya playing the all-important role of Casshern, Akira Terao (‘Aegis’, Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’ and ‘Dreams’) playing his father and Kumiko Aso (‘Red Shadow’, ‘Zebraman’) playing his girlfriend among others.  They do their job well, bringing depth to a movie already seeped in mood.

I really want to see what Mr. Kiriya will do next.  He’s got talent, and he can now pretty much choose whatever he wants.  This is an astounding debut, and although the action is very well done and terribly exciting, those scenes are short and few.  That ties in to the message, however, which is a rather simplistic one.  The movie is overall a lot of fun and much better with many viewings.  You can catch more of what the director wants to say because you have your own ideas mingled with the ideas of the movie.  This is one hell of an epic.

Commentary by writer/director/director of photography/editor Kazuaki Kiriya, actor Mituhiro Oikawa, actress Mayumi Sada and co-writer Dai Sato
I’m actually really proud of myself for finding these names.  My kanji is completely horrible but I was able to find the names of the four people.  These are the four participants of the track.  This track is actually a nice surprise because it wasn’t advertised on the websites I saw, so it’s really nice to see it here.  On the other hand, it provides me no additional enjoyment because my Japanese comprehension is worse than my kanji.

disk 2:
Making of ‘Casshern’
Logically enough, the making-of pretty much starts with Yusuke Iseya in April 2003 getting a body cast for the costume he’ll wear.  The body cast, as May 2003 shows us, is for a costume that had yet to be conceptualized.  The old animated TV show costume just didn’t do it for Mr. Kiriya, so it has to be redone. The doc then follows the production week by week (and sometimes day by day), showing you everything they did through the production.  It’s really interesting to see what parts of production overlap with what other part of production.  At one point, in the middle the shooting schedule, the actors took some time off for some promo still shooting.  Quite interesting.  The doc continues, and you see cast members leave the shoot in August.  Then, principle photography ends and the CG work, editing and scoring begin.  The doc finishes April 19, 2004, at the movie’s premiere.  Everybody in the cast and crew give their input in short interviews to the camera.  Even the TV show’s creators talk a little, and during the shoot people say funny things to the camera.  Even if you don’t understand Japanese, this is an incredible documentary because, well, it’s just that, a documentary.  There’s no fluffy stuff going on.  It’s basically 2 hours of behind-the-scenes footage, following the director through the entire production, with no detail left unshot.  This isn’t a short piece either.  At 2 hours and 13 minutes long, this is longer than most feature movies, and is just about as interesting as many of them also.

Making dir.
I think this is the director’s note, but I’m not sure.  Just two lines of stuff, with ‘Red Hot, Chili Peppers’ and ‘Glay’ written in English.  Presumably, the director worked with them.

Cast and Staff
Unless you can actually read or understand Japanese, this will be aesthetically pleasing and nothing much else.  This has brief biographies and short interviews with the cast and crew.  The times in parentheses are the interview times.  On the cast side, you can be enlightened on the careers of Yusuke Iseya (1:39), Kumiko Aso (2:11), Akira Terao (3:11), Kanako Higuchi (4:00), Fumiyo Kohinata (1:38), Hiroyuki Miyasako (2:37) Mayumi Sada (3:10), Jun Kaname (4:37), Hidetoshi Hishijima (1:14), Mituhiro Oikawa (2:06), Susumu Terajima (1:16), Hideji Otaki (0:46), Tatsuya Mihashi (0:52) and Toshiaki Karasawa (3:50), while on the staff side, director/co-writer/editor/cinematographer Kazuaki Kiriya, co-writers Shotaro Suga and Dai Sato, conceptual designer/production designer Yuji Hayashida, conceptual designer/VFX supervisor Toshiyuki Kimura, VFX supervisor Koji Nozaki, conceptual designer/CG supervisor Haruhiko Shono, conceptual designer D.K., costume designer Michiko Kitamura, hair/makeup designer Ryoji Inagaki, set decorator/art producer Yoshihito Akatsuka, the lighting director, sound mixer Masato Yano, a continuity guy (it says, I think ‘battle scene conti’, so I may be wrong (like I said my kanji is horrible)), the action director, composer Shiro Sagisu and producers Hideji Miyajima, Toshiharu Ozawa and Toshiaki Wakabayashi are the people you can read about.  After all that, you get a nice little video (a bit less than 11 minutes) with some credits.  Now, I don’t know if they’re the DVD credits, but I’m pretty sure they’re the movie credits.  Again, I’m really proud of myself because I found the names.  It took me about 2 hours but I was able to find all the actors’ names (pretty easy) and all the 19 staff members’ names.

TV Spot/Trailers
You’ve got 4 trailers, (roughly 30, 70, 60 and 120 seconds long) and 4 TV spots (three being roughly 15 seconds and one 30 seconds long.  Well, the first two trailers are really teasers.  The four theatrical teasers/trailers are really good.  The longest one is the one you can find on the Internet if you look for it.  It’s really nice and sells the movie well.  They all sell the movie well, come to think of it.  You’ve got a lot of action in them and some nice exposition scenes, without giving away too many important plot points.  Look, I saw the trailer and I really wanted to see the movie, so that should say something.  The four TV spots are also good, although they have this love song playing over them, which is a strange combination with the pictures being shown.

disk 3:
As much as I admire this being a 3-disk set, they could easily have shoved the third disk onto the second disk.  For the packaging, though, a 3-disk set is better, so that’s why I’m not too angry about it.

EPK Book, maybe
This looks like an EPK booklet.  It has picture of pages from something.  You can see pictures and writing.  I’m not sure what the writing says, but there’re pictures of some of the characters, a brief biography of the director and some of the other crewmembers.

Animated Art Galleries
Characters (3:50), Sets/Conceptual Art (11:20), Ships/Props (12:08), Banners/Writings/Blueprints (10:33) and Maps/Banners/Writing (9:30) are the five animated galleries you can wade through, and I must tell you they’re great.  The world in the movie is complete and immersive, so it’s no surprise the picture was thoroughly planned out before starting.  I mean, the last gallery even has the nutrition content of some foods.  The character designs are detailed, the sets and conceptual art are the same.  You get a very good idea of what you’re going to see.  The same goes for the ships.  Everything in that gallery is thought down to the last detail.  The writings and banners in the last two galleries are pretty extensive.  You even get ID badges and clock designs.  There are so many things in these galleries that you don’t even see/notice in the movie.  Great bunch of galleries.

Deleted Scenes
There are a total of twenty-two (22!) scenes here.  To be honest, only eleven actually add to the movie, and the other eleven are flashback bits that aren’t used in the movie.  Even if you can understand Japanese, good luck hearing them because there’s a running commentary over them.  You can’t change audio options, so you have to listen to the guy (director, probably) talk.  The scenes don’t seem to add much to the movie other than running time.  They’re mostly little extensions that lead into what’s in the movie.  Taking them out or leaving them in doesn’t change the movie much.  Even if I wanted to translate the names of the scenes, I’d be at a loss because the scenes have no names.  So, I didn’t put any names.  You can choose to play them all (well, play the first 11 together on one page and the last 11 together on the next page).  The scenes add up to around 23 minutes and 48 seconds or so.
-1:31 – Luna (Tetsuya’s girlfriend) and Tetsuya (before he becomes Casshern) when Tetsuya is dead.
-0:34 – Professor Azuma (Tetsuya’s father)) and Burai (the Neo-Sapien leader) having a staring contest.
-0:31 – Luna’s mother’s funeral.
-1:14 – Luna and her father waiting on Tetsuya/Casshern.
-2:01 – Luna and her father, in the room with the mother’s painting.
-2:41 – with Burai and Midori (Tetsuya’s mom), who’s playing a piano that sounds like a harpsichord.  This is a scene I really wish I could understand.
-0:39 – Luna in the train, before the thing leaves, yelling something at Tetsuya/Casshern.
-0:58 – Again, Luna in the train, but a different part.
-0:45 – some sort of mystical moment with Professor Azuma and a character killed earlier in the movie.
-0:21 – Luna in the research place.
-1:20 – another mystical moment with the character killed earlier and the character just killed.
-0:48 – flashbacks of young Tetsuya.
-0:53 – more flashbacks, this time with Tetsuya and Luna.
-1:13 – yet more flashbacks, now with Midori and Tetsuya.
-1:01 – even more flashbacks, now with Tetsuya and both his parents.
-1:09 – these guys shot a lot of flashback footage.  This time it’s with both families (Tetsuya’s and Luna’s) at a party of some sort.
-0:56 – wow, what a surprise.  More flashbacks.  This time it looks like teen Luna and Tetsuya.
-1:03 – Luna’s father in… you guessed it, a flashback sequence!
-1:02 – this seems to be completely forgotten in the movie.  It’s one of the more evil characters in a flashback that doesn’t really have a point.
-1:04 – this is with the bad guy doing the coup d’état and his father.  Another flashback.
-0:55 – with a little girl with her father.  That guy is one of the soldiers fighting alongside Tetsuya in the war.  Flashback.
-1:00 – the not-so-sharp Neo-Sapien playing the accordion in a flashback.

Promo Stills
This is an animated gallery, about 3 ½ minutes long.  One good thing about being a fashion photographer is that the director took all these pictures himself.  They all have a certain look about them, and they remind me of the movie a little.  You get a nice piece of score playing over the gallery.  The pictures are very nice, by the way.  Very stylish in their own way.

Easter Egg
I’ll put this here because, even though it’s easy to find, it doesn’t have a name.  It’s only about 50 seconds long and it’s an animated gallery of a newspaper article from the movie.  I can’t read anything because it’s in Russian and Japanese (the two languages spoken in the future, I suppose, according to the movie).

Watching this in the outdoor theatre, I told myself the DTS-ES track should be nice.  I never expected it to be this nice.  The full bitrate track is lush, rich and deep.  The environment is completely enveloping and the extra speaker at the back comes in really handy.  The dialogue is never blurry or muffled.  The score comes out very well through all speakers and the action bits will make you wish this movie didn’t have the message it has.  During that neato fight with the mechs, or that climactic war sequence, you’ll think you couch is a battle zone.  Your subwoofer will make your house rumble.  Your walls will be riddled with bullets, missiles and bombs.  The surrounds are used to incredible effect throughout the movie.  The positions are accurate (to say the least) and the dynamic range is rather nice.  The DTS-ES track squeezes every little sound from the 1536kbps rate is has and it does a terrific job.  You can also choose a Dolby Digital EX track.

2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen.  With the amount of digital grading and effects work done on the movie, if this picture weren’t perfect, I’d throw my DVD out the window.  The entire movie went through a computer, and it shows.  Don’t even try to think about print imperfections.  The colours are reproduced perfectly, without bleeding, or fluctuations.  The contrast is perfect almost throughout the movie.  There are one or two scenes where the contrast is a bit low, but that’s thanks to the overabundance of mist blocking a barely-seen CG background (the helicopter scene after the Neo-Sapien escape, if you want to know what I’m talking about).  For the most part, the picture is perfect.  The detail is incredible.  I’ve never seen a picture like this before.  It clear and crisp, except where the grain is part of the style.  There’s no pixelation, no edge enhancement, no artifacting of any kind.  Although it may seem there’s a little edge enhancement, I actually think it a result of the special effects lighting and not the authoring.  I’m thoroughly impressed by the picture.  I really have nothing bad to say.  When I said Japanese companies don’t mess around, the sound and picture is what I was thinking of.