Casshern Sins is a weird one. Coming out in 2008, it got in at the front end of our recent “heavier reinterpretation of classic cartoon” trend, which has more recently given us Gatchaman Crowds and Yatterman Night. Casshern Sins takes off a ‘70s anime about the android Casshern, who fights evil robots; this new version seems more focused on ambiguity and melancholy than justice. The writer, Yasuko Kobayashi, has a resume that mixes a bunch of tokusatsu shows and recent hits like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and Attack on Titan (as well as 2014’s Garo, which splits the difference). The director Shigeyasu Yamauchi’s credits are more scattered – he’s handled a number of DBZ and Saint Seiya movies, but beyond that it’s mostly episodic directorial work, including the, er, Ami/Mami Detectives episode of Idolmaster. Perhaps his most notable credits I’m familiar with are two of the most visually compelling episodes of Shinsekai Yori – the controversial fifth episode, where people originally complained about the divergent visual style, and the transcendent tenth, where his evocative interpretation of Saki and Shun’s conversation represented one of the clear highlights of the series overall.
That episode of Shinsekai Yori provides a bit of a tonal clue as to what to expect here. The show stakes out its atmospheric intentions very quickly – this first episode starts with the man we assume to be Casshern standing in a desolate wasteland, pursued by creaking robots that curse his name. Casshern dips and weaves and crushes his opponents, offering plenty of opportunities for the show to mess around with very dynamic animation and direction. Fights here aren’t designed to be a parsable series of blows and ripostes – they emphasize impact, with quick cuts and sharp closeups lending weight to every kick and crash. Robots shatter into greying dust, and Casshern is presented as a frightening, unforgiving figure. The deaths of robots are made as visceral as possible, with the episode’s final, “is Casshern a monster”-implying fight ending with him drawing tubes like entrails from the chest of a pleading opponent. Loose, wild animation present Casshern as a figure brimming with controlled rage.
There’s also a beauty in this episode’s squalor. Part of that comes through in the music, which is alternately gentle and dramatic array of orchestral tracks. But most of it comes down to the backgrounds, which lend a certain majesty to the show’s decaying world. Rock formations like great pillars blow dust across uneven grey slopes, and ridged formations evoking a great clock’s gears lie half-submerged in water and dunes. As the small robot girl Ringo plays along a beach, we see her gather shining shells, and her delight at this small beauty in destruction acts as a microcosm of the greater beauty found in Casshern’s empires of sands.
Casshern Sins’ storytelling so far matches the broad and almost myth-making strokes of its execution. Casshern wanders a decaying world where the vague “Ruin” approaches, and is told that it was his killing of “Luna” that brought on this tragedy. But Casshern only calls himself that because that is what he’s called by his enemies – he has no knowledge of his own. Casshern runs into Ringo halfway through this episode, and the scenes with her are a classic cavalcade of “look at this girl, look at how innocent she is, see how she sees something beautiful in Casshern.” And then a robot attacks, and you can probably fill in the rest – Ringo is hurt, Casshern steps in to save her, Ringo is ultimately terrified by Casshern’s violent nature. And so Casshern remains the solitary wanderer as a new potential foe approaches.
The storytelling is so archetypal it seems intentional – like these are the outline beats of a narrative, because we’re creating myth and speaking through theme, not actually establishing a fully realized world. That can be a narrative copout, but it can also work – it’s just a very specific style of storytelling that will only work for some people. And it’s a difficult balance, as well; the show is already hinting at a variety of mysteries regarding Casshern’s true nature, but if this place feels more like the idea of a world than an actual one, why should we care? Hints abound as to where the story may be going, from the subtitle (“Ruin is the Salvation of Man and Machine,” implying this destruction as a possibly necessary rebirth) to the way the show emphasizes machines as things that decay, versus humans which maintain their beauty. But worldbuilding and theming do not a narrative make.
There was a great deal to enjoy in Casshern Sins’ first episode. I like the apocalyptic mythology this story is creating, which seems like a very natural way to simultaneously embrace and challenge the larger-than-life designs and archetypes of a classic ‘70s show. I like the ambiguity of the narrative variables, and I really like the show’s strange but confident execution, from its willfully slow pacing to its beautifully decaying backgrounds. But I’m guessing it will be how this show navigates the intersection of archetypal myth and individual, resonant narrative that ultimately determines whether Casshern Sins succeeds or fails.
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