Have you ever felt regret? The sort of regret that leaves an ache in your heart that feels like it would never go away? Now imagine you had that feeling but remember nothing about why you feel that way. This is the dilemma faced by the titular character in Casshern Sins. As the series opens we find the immortal Casshern fighting for his life against hordes of faceless robots.
We soon see that Casshern is a reluctant fighter, only doing so when his survival is threatened. We also see that when fighting he has little self-control, initially only able to stop when the last moving body in the area is destroyed. Why does he fight? Again, at the beginning it’s a mystery to Casshern himself. The robots who constantly attack him provide some clues. First they are inspired by a rumor that if they eat him, they too will become immortal. For they are all, unlike Casshern, slowly rusting away from what they call the Ruin. And that is all evidently Casshern’s fault.
Luckily as an audience we get a few more clues than Casshern himself. It seems that long ago, back before he can remember, he was a cybernetic assassin for an evil robot named Braiking Boss. And in the course of his career he was tasked with killing Luna, known as “the Sun Who is the Moon.” It’s this act that brings on the Ruin and leaves the world in the wasted, post-apocalyptic state we see throughout the series. The details of this history are slowly revealed throughout the series, and we catch about a thirty-second glimpse of the conversation between Casshern and Luna during their confrontation in artful little prologues than begin each episode.
Casshern is a figure of pathos, and his supporting cast fares little better. First there is Lyuze, whose sister was killed by Casshern on his way to Luna. She starts out as wanting revenge only to find Casshern is not the mindless killer he was, and has no memory of the incident. Simple revenge is no longer simple. The main antagonists, Dio and Leda, both want to end Casshern’s immortality and possess it at the same time, eventually to create an undying robot utopia. And running hidden through the background are the rumors and whispers of Luna and Braiking Boss, who possibly aren’t as dead as they seem. The only true bright spot in the series is the character of Ringo, an innocent child whose wide-eyed wonder at everything surrounding her is constantly endearing and engaging. Luckily for her, this innocence is jealously guarded by her keeper and guardian Ohji, even after she befriends Casshern.
Throughout the series there are quite a few unexplained inconsistencies. All of the above characters are robots, not human. In fact, humans are on the verge of extinction. And yet most main characters appear human, certainly much more so than most of Casshern’s opponents. They need sleep, have skin, have family, are able to bleed, and (evidently in Ringo’s case) are able to age. True, only Casshern is immortal, and all the others show evidence at times of the Ruin, but how this situation has come about is a mystery. Likewise there is no explanation of how the death of one person (robot, whatever…) could have such a drastic effect on the world and leave it in such a state, nor why or how a robot eating Casshern would make any difference. (As a friend once laconically said to me when watching another anime, “It’s Japanese. It’s not supposed to make sense.”)
The animation is handled with typical verve and style by the studio Madhouse, who have brought us in the past such varied titles as Death Note, Metropolis, Ninja Scroll, and Trigun. The design of the main characters brings a grace to them, somehow conveying an ethereal quality in their slim forms, which only contrasts them all the more with the blocky, rusting hulks of the other robots. Watching Casshern fight is akin to watching some sort of brutal ballet. He does none of the muscle-flexing and posturing we see in other titles. Instead, when he commits to a fight his reaction is near-instantaneous. He becomes a whirling, slicing blur of motion, using not brute force but precision strikes to quickly incapacitate his opponents. It’s a refreshing change from some other series where the fight seems to take up most of the episode. Just as much detail is paid to the background color and music, each able to set the mood. And except for the occasional field of flowers that mood is often depressing. One place where I felt this mood was destroyed was in a typical main-title theme by the J-pop group Color Bottle. While the translated lyrics are suitably angst-ridden, the jangly, upbeat music had me hitting the ‘next scene’ button as soon as possible.
Casshern Sins is rated TV-MA, mainly for battles that can show some blood as well as a few on-screen brutal mechanical deaths. There is no nudity. It could be shelved either in the teen area or the adult shelves, depending on your community’s standards, and most likely will appeal to older teens. (Try the emo crowd!)
From beginning to end Casshern Sins is not an easy view. It works like a visual form of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, where layer upon layer is added until the ache is almost palpable. There are no simple victories waiting at the end of each episode and often no victories at all. Casshern, the ultimate fighter, is no longer just a mindless killing machine and constantly questions the value of his combat victories when they seem to serve no purpose. In his search for meaning his emotional landscape is echoed by the physical where devastation is the norm, and the unexpected flower of hope is always tinged with bitterness and regret for what could have – should have – been.
Casshern Sins: the complete series
directed by Shigeyasu Yamauchi, Yasuko Kobayashi
600 minutes, Number of Discs: 7
Company Age Rating: TV-MA