I have a film editor friend who loathes the heavy-handed application of CGI as applied in most movies lately. To him it’s less an extension of the traditional art of filmmaking and more a devolution into gaming. We’re subjected to the work of some computer graphics nerd as he picks and chooses various surface renderings and shapes from a pre-made palette and applies them piece-by-piece to create some element or effect that could have been better realized with a practical effect. All of this, he argues, conspires to suck him out of the suspension of disbelief required to stay in the moment and enjoy a movie. Myself, I wouldn’t ban the use of CGI from movies but it should be applied sparingly, to enhance a practical effect not relied upon as a creative crutch or some keen new toy that a filmmaker just can’t get enough of.
So, what if a filmmaker wishes to make a movie comprised almost entirely of CG visuals?
Then they’d better do it well.
2004 saw the release of three movies shot on “digital backlots.” Movies that required the actors to work in front of a blue screen before a digitally rendered world could be inserted in postproduction. Kerry Conran’s “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” and Erik Bilal’s “Immortel (Ad Vitum)” were two of them. 2005 will see the release of Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s digital backlot shot “Sin City” and may also be the year that Japan’s CGI heavy “Casshern” (2004) graces theaters.
Kazuaki Kiriya’s live-action “Casshern” is based on Tatsuo Yoshida’s 1973 anime “Casshan (Shinzo Ningen Kyashan)” but with some minor differences. In “Casshan (Shinzo Ningen Kyashan)” the super powered hero was out to save humanity from rebellious robots his father had built to save the Earth from environmental catastrophe.
In Kiriya’s live action “Casshern” we’re introduced to an Orwellian world where, after fifty years of war, the Eastern Federation has finally defeated Europa and conquered Eurasia though still engaged in a battle against “terrorists.” As the movie opens Professor Azuma (Akira Terao), in a bid for funding, reveals to members of the Ministry of Health his discoveries in Human Regeneration Technology utilizing the genome of a primitive ethnic group as a blank slate designer cell. Professor Azuma presents this as a means of treating an epidemic of environmental ailments and mutations, the result of industrial contamination and fifty years of warfare that included the use of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The military sees Azuma’s research as a means to creating super soldiers while certain old monsters in government recognize this advancement as a means of regenerating their aged bodies thus maintaining control forever.
Rejected as nothing more than groundless theory Azuma is denied funding until he is approached with an offer from a military industrialist representing the interests of certain military and government officials. Desperate and convinced that his Human Regeneration Technology is the only way to treat his ailing wife Azuma accepts the offer.
Meanwhile Azuma’s son, Tetsuo Azuma (Yusuke Iseya), planning to wed the daughter of family friend and fellow scientist, Professor Kozuki, is preparing to ship out for a tour of duty fighting terrorists in Zone Seven, something the elder Azuma is bitterly opposed to.
A year passes. Tetsuo is killed in combat while Professor Azuma’s experiment has yet to succeed. In the lab Azuma oversees a vat of his “neo-cell” soup where human remains, graciously supplied by the military, marinate and fail to regenerate as planned. A visit from Professor Kozuki at the lab coincides with Azuma being informed of his son’s death and the impending arrival of his body at the lab. It’s about here that all hell breaks loose.
As a military entourage arrives with Tetsuo Azuma’s casket a giant mechanical lightening bolt-like structure hurtles down from the sky, crashing through Azuma’s lab, submerging itself in his neo-cell pool. This bizarre structure then causes the neo-cells to kick into overdrive; rapidly reconstructing the disembodied remains into living, breathing and extremely freaked out humans. This development causes the military industrialist to go bugshit and order these “neo-humans” blasted back into chum before they can escape the lab. Several of the neo-humans escape as a grief stricken Professor Azuma hauls his son’s body into the neo-cell solution successfully returning the dead Tetsuo to life. Azuma then bids Professor Kozuki to take Tetsuo back to his own lab where Kozuki determines that Tetsuo’s neo-cell enhanced musculature may be too much for his body to handle thus he’d be better off wearing Kozuki’s experimental body armor.
Running on instinct the neo-humans hightail it to the embattled Zone Seven where they hole up in an abandoned fortress that conveniently comes equipped with it’s own legion of heavily armored battle robots. Here Burai (Toshiaki Karasawa), the enraged and embittered leader of the remaining neo-humans dubs his people the Neo-Sapiens and declares war on all humanity. Let the fun begin.
Kazuaki Kiriya, who directed, co-wrote and acted as cinematographer on “Casshern” is well known in Japan as a fashion photographer and music video director and as evidenced in “Casshern” these visual influences show. Beautifully framed, long, languid shots co-exist with hyper frenetically cut action sequences. The CG settings are beautiful ranging from the pastoral to a type of Stalinist era art nouveau industrialism while Shiro Sagisu and Satoshi Tomie’s score adds the right amount of additional drama to each scene. While “Casshern” is unquestionably a study in style over substance and occasionally lacking in logic it does attempt to validate itself by addressing some lofty subjects such as the environment, technology run amok, medical and scientific ethics, the relationships between fathers and sons, the nature of human conflict and the horrors of ethnic cleansing and war. Yet, beyond affirming the obvious, that war and ethnic cleansing are bad and we need to treat the environment better, it resolves very little concluding with an open and somewhat oblique denouement typical of most Japanese anime.
“Casshern” is not only a hybridization of but a natural progression of Japan’s anime and live action costumed hero genres. What differentiates “Casshern” from supposedly revolutionary examples of computerized anime like “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” or “The Animatrix: Final Flight of the Osiris” are the living, breathing actors. They drive the story by better translating the material, emotionally involving the audience in ways that computer-generated characters cannot (George Lucas take note).
Now, getting back to my editor friend with a hate on for CG I have to say that I still agree with him but to a point: it’s true any nerd can drag and drop a shape or texture rendering but it takes a true artist to bring it all together and create a unique vision that actually works. Kazuaki Kiriya is one of the first.