A sci-fi failure in every possible wayScience fiction is an unforgiving genre, with temptations around every corner: to be corny, to be oblique, to be melodramatic, to lean on special effects. These also happen to be the same temptations that face a music video director. Watching “Casshern,” a typical sci-fi film, collide with Kazuaki Kiriya, a typical music video director, is an unusually painful spectacle.
This is the first feature film for Kiriya, the husband of J-pop superstar Hikaru Utada. His previous work was all music videos, and it shows.
Music videos are usually excused from such concerns as ironclad plot and skillful acting ― these are meant to be interesting visuals to go along with pop songs, nothing more. If the individual shots don't quite come together into a story, at least there's the arc of the music to tie it all together.
Of course, the prototypical music video director turned feature filmmaker, Spike Jonze, is the opposite of this archetype. His refreshing minimalism (typified by the video he directed for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice”) made a medium from commercial kitsch into pop art.
But Kiriya is no Jonze, and “Casshern” is no “Being John Malkovitch.” This sci-fi flop takes all the hallmarks of a bad music video ― visual gimmickry, melodramatic romance, silly computer graphics ― and stretches them into a two-hour ordeal. And there isn't even a good song in the background.
The story of “Casshern,” if you catch enough of it between the angsty pretty boys growling at each other, is fairly standard: Scientist tries to save sick wife by experimenting on live humans, test subjects don’t take kindly to being vivisected, revolt, destruction, et cetera.
There is an interesting, almost meaningful twist about war and immigrants. But Kiriya suffocates any possibility of relevance with his overstylized visuals.
Anyone who’s been to a karaoke room knows that in the school of the music video hack, black and white means emotional flashback. A soft focus close-up means tragi-romantic moment. Action sequences always call for impractical, retro-styled mechanical armies and slow-motion explosions. And, of course, if you're looking for a way to fake sophistication, there's nothing quite like confusing your audience by leaving out vital bits of information.
The actors, Yusuke Iseya as an avenging angel and Kumiko Asa as the long-suffering damsel, are not necessarily bad at their chosen profession. It’s just that Kiriya is unable to let his actors have a quiet moment together without intervening with some kind of filter or unnatural pose.
“Casshern” was never going to be the next “Blade Runner.” But even its small potential is nowhere near realized in this bloated form.
You’d think sci-fi filmmakers would know by now not to depend on computers to tell their stories for them. One thing is clear: Kazuaki Kiriya should stick to filming pensive pop stars.
by Ben Applegate