The great age of the megalomaniac director, who dreamt of making big, visionary, no-expenses-spared movies, ended with the silents. D.W. Griffith and “Intolerance” (the set for Babylon!), Eric Von Stroheim and “Greed” (the 9 1/2-hour first cut!), Fritz Lang and “Metropolis” (the Tower of Babel!), Abel Gance and “Napoleon” (the title says it all). The studios tired of backing geniuses who wasted millions, while the sound era required new talents, who were better with intimate glamour shots and witty repartee than crowd scenes. Only Lang, whose first talkie, “M,” became an international hit, had a real career after 1928. (He also later disowned “Metropolis,” which he told interviewer Peter Bogdanovich was a “patchwork” that he “detested after it was finished.”)
Today, with digital technology, it is possible to create big, visionary movies without breaking budgets — even those of the Japanese film industry. The result has been a spate of Japanese films, both animated and live-action, that take up where Lang and company left off in the delusions-of-grandeur department.
Mamoru Oshii’s “Innocence,” Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Steam Boy” and Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” are hardly likely to trash their makers’ careers — quite the opposite. All three auteurs have large fan bases who not only tolerate their excesses, but delight in them. Even Oshii’s “Innocence” — an essay on human identity that is to most animation what Kant is to “Chicken Soup for the Soul” — is doing decent business.
But what to make of “Casshern,” the first feature film by Kazuaki Kiriya, a fashion photographer, music-clip director, and husband of pop diva Hikaru Utada? Beginning directors, even wunderkinds like Shunji Iwai (“Hana & Alice”) and Ryuhei Kitamura (“Azumi”), usually make their critical and commercial bones on small indie films before moving to the big time (or what passes for it in Japan).
But Kiriya, who is also “Casshern’s” scriptwriter and cinematographer, is starting at the top in terms of budget, tools and staff. It’s as if, instead of shooting all those one-reelers for Biograph, Griffith had made his debut with “Birth of a Nation.” Like that 1915 Civil War epic, “Casshern” is madly ambitious, visually stunning. Though based on a mid-’70s manga and TV anime set in a postapocalyptic world, the film has the same relation to most SF animation that Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” had to “September Morn.” It redefines its genre.
Why all the early 20th century references? Because the look of “Casshern” — its cities, robots and weaponry — draws heavily from the period, from World War I newsreels to Futurist art. Instead of giving this look a nostalgic spin, like modern knock-offs of Showa Era robots and spaceships, Kiriya takes his vision of a future society seriously, much as the Futurists did themselves. (Most ended up supporting various forms of utopian totalitarianism, from Mussolini’s Fascism to Lenin’s Communism.) There is a power to this world, with its robot armies of thousands marching in terrifying lockstep, but a nightmarish beauty as well.
If only the story matched the astonishing totality of this vision, but Kiriya falls into an operatic grandiosity and prolixity that makes “Intolerance,” with its four parallel story lines, a model of simplicity by comparison. At the end, I felt as battered as if I had gone through the film’s 50-year war, battle by titanic battle.
It begins with Dr. Azuma (Akira Terao), a brilliant-if-obsessed genetic scientist, explaining his research to the leaders of the Greater Eastern Federation. Following the aforementioned war, which ravaged the planet with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, the Federation has wrested control of the Eurasian continent. The survivors have rebuilt using Machine Age technology, but the long struggle has left them physically and spiritually spent. Azuma proposes developing a revolutionary “neo-cell” treatment to repair the bodies of the afflicted. He also has a more personal reason for his research: his wife Midori (Kanako Higuchi), a botanist, has been blinded by a pollution-caused disease.
His request for funding is rejected by Health Ministry bureaucrats, however. Then, with a slithery businessman (Mitsuhiro Oikawa) acting as go-between, he receives backing from a high source, General Kamijo (Hideji Otaki), the Federation’s elderly dictator, who is in declining health and in desperate need of Azuma’s genetic miracles. Before he can deliver them, a mishap in the lab gives birth to a new race of mutants. Though most are slaughtered by security forces, a few escape to build an underground movement against their human persecutors, led by Brai (Toshiaki Karasawa), a supermutant with a mad vision for a peaceful world.
Meanwhile, Azuma’s son Tetsuya (Yusuke Iseya) has joined the army, over the objections of his father and fiancee, the gentle-spirited Luna (Kumiko Aso). On the battlefield he encounters horrors that shake him to his core. Is his father right in wanting to save humanity? Where do his loyalties lie? What is his true identity?
Kiriya and his collaborators, including CG supervisor Haruhiko Shono, visual effects supervisor Toshiyuki Kimura and production designer Yuji Hayashida, take the film’s B-movie premise — eccentric scientist unleashes mutant hordes! — as the merest starting point. Their real interest lies in, not astonishing the audience with CG marvels, but seeding its consciousness with a vision so richly imagined, so grounded in past dark dreams of the future that it exists in a universe of its own. It’s hard to dislodge from your head, because in a sense it’s always been there — a world we never made, but some of us saw long ago: Jules Verne, Albert Robida and H.G. Wells, to name a few.
Kiriya, though, is the one who realized it on the screen, and deserves to join the ranks of his silent era senpai. How can he top this folie de grandeur? Lang wisely never tried, but then he never had Kiriya’s CG tools, which make the impossible possible at a keystroke (OK, thousands of keystrokes). So the real question, I suppose, is “why not?”