Rusted metal flakes tumble across a desolate plain. In the distance, vast shelfs of sand and stone stand like communal grave markers, the last enduring remnants of a lost civilization. What few creatures endure in this landscape are frayed themselves, joints creaking, eyes red with soot and sand. On the shores of a great sea, unnatural shapes rise like great gears or fossils, either truth telling of vitality long past. And in this strange place, a child’s laughter, echoing through brownish dunes before drifting away on the wind.
Casshern Sins takes place in a dying world. The title itself reflects the damned nature of this place – Casshern has sinned, and now all of human and robot kind must pay for his transgression. There was once a woman named Luna, a figure who could halt death, and who may well have represented life itself. The Sun Called Moon, the hope of this world. But Casshern killed Luna, and brought the Ruin. In the land afflicted by the Ruin, few plants grow. Robots decay, having no good metal left to repair themselves. Creatures fight over the scraps and then crumble, their strength expended in their final, futile pursuits.
Casshern’s titular sin replays over and over throughout Casshern Sins, that moment of Luna’s death gaining more texture with each extended episode opening. The repetition reflects both how that event provoked the world as it is, as well as its eternal presence in Casshern’s mind. Casshern does not remember his own nature, or even the crime he allegedly committed. He does not know why Luna had to die, or why he himself seems impervious to the Ruin’s decay. Through long episodes of wandering, he seeks answers or purpose, meeting the last few who struggle against Ruin’s end.
The world of Casshern Sins is Shigeyasu Yamauchi’s endlessly intriguing tapestry. Renowned for his episodic work on shows like Penguindrum and Shinsekai Yori, Casshern Sins is his only original work as director, and its unique qualities reflect his own striking visual sensibilities. Yamauchi makes a foreign landscape not just of Casshern Sins’ actual backgrounds, but of the characters themselves, framing them in extreme closeups that emphasize their inhuman nature. Emotional struggles become clear through jagged visual geometry, and fights are conducted like sad, inevitable waltzes. Intimacy and melancholy intertwine, each new robot’s final moments offering a visual celebration of their unimpeachable dignity.
In this world, Casshern walks, finding no respite from his sins. Though an underlying narrative eventually develops, the greater portion of Casshern Sins simply involves him wandering across this world, witnessing great natural beauty and consistent personal tragedy. Casshern comes across a variety of characters who are all seeking some fragment of solace, some meaning in the darkness. Some believe they must fulfill their original robotic purpose, and so fight for the sake of fighting. Others think they might still be saved by Luna, and so seek her guidance. Still others find new meaning in this world, constructing towers in their own image or performing rituals of their own design.
Meaning is critical in Casshern Sins. As the Ruin brings destruction to all but the undying Casshern, those who consign themselves to a meaningless death crumble faster than the rest. Meaning does not need to be a positive thing – Casshern’s eventual companion Lyuze finds meaning in avenging her sister’s death, an oath sworn to kill Casshern himself. Meaning does not even need to be attainable; after all, merely the hope of Luna’s survival seems to keep many stragglers on their feet. Hope is its own reward; those who still see a future endure, while those who give up seeking are gathered in the Ruin’s embrace.
That dichotomy of hope and destruction is summed up in Luna’s allure. Even Luna’s potential existence is better than grappling with the meaninglessness of living and dying in her absence. Other characters see Luna as a threat, like Casshern’s seeming brother, Dio. Dio finds hope in the possibility of surpassing Casshern, while his companion Leda sees a future in the potential of a robot to bear a child. Though Leda turns her hope to awful violence, the idea of overcoming death through inheritance is inescapable in Casshern Sins, reflected as well in the child Ringo. If Casshern’s sin banished humans and robots alike from paradise, Ringo seems to represent a hopeful future, where knowledge of our fragile nature does not curse us to a meaningless life. Literally rescued from the womb of a dead robot, Ringo is a light in the dark, a flower in a broken field.
Casshern Sin’s storytelling often plays out on the level of myth-making, and so it’s appropriate that a great deal of its narrative is told through visual metaphor and dramatic allegory. The flower in the field is one of Casshern Sins’ most enduring images, a symbol of hope that implies even in the darkest times, the most fragile sign of living beauty might still endure. The ocean’s waters reoccur as well, alternately reflecting joyous rebirth and the danger of rusting away. The blue of the ocean is contrasted against the red of blood, an icon of sacrifice and living tissue that’s splashed like an unhealing scar across Casshern’s chest. When Luna finally appears, these colors twist and flip, reflecting the unbreakable cycle of death and renewal.
Casshern’s quest for purpose and self-knowledge eventually bears fruit, as he learns of the experiments that led to his own creation, and the mission that prompted him to kill the sun called moon. Humans and robots alike sought to tame death, and though Luna was a kind of success, her reign was not the natural state of things. Casshern Sins’ secrets unspool with the same ponderous weight as all its other stories, sending Casshern and his eventual companions through ominous caves and over lofty peaks, to the place he was conceived and to Luna’s new shrine. There he challenges Luna once again, and is turned away. Casshern, the bringer of death, is unsightly to Luna. The stink of death she swore to purge from the world hangs heavy on his shoulders.
Though Casshern spends much of his purgatory pursuing Luna, he ultimately manages to escape her shadow. Though the characters he meets often lament their fate, he sees a vitality in their struggle that supersedes his own immortality. The flowers that cling to the cliff shine brighter for their struggles, ephemeral though they may be. In the blood of renewal and the water of decay, Casshern sees a cycle that should not be broken, a dignity he can never possess. Luna will preach life and Casshern will herald death, and those in between will live and die with greater brilliance for it.
In the end, Casshern Sins belongs to its fragile, ephemeral heroes. The woman who just wanted to ring a beautiful bell. The girl who faithfully brought flowers to her absent retainer. The painter who wished to paint a city in his own color. The man who sought justice for his people, robot and human alike. The singer who bequeathed one final song to this world’s huddled masses. None of these figures escape the cycle of life and death, but they do not need to. Their significance is clear in their trials, in their dreams, in the flickering flame Casshern saw so clearly. They may not live forever, but they live lives well worth remembering.
And ultimately, remembering those lives may grant Casshern the purpose he sought. He is the bringer of death, yes – but by the end, Casshern has come to believe it is death that sanctifies these figures, and he himself who is fated to witness them. In searching for purpose, Casshern crafts a new purpose, lending his ear and his memory to the striving and the dead. In all its bleak eternity, Casshern Sins finds a beauty that endures past the death of its individual actors. In the harshest of conditions, its heroes live and die and live again, their stories made sacred by the man who acknowledged their struggles. The flower resides still on the cliff’s edge, its petals dancing in the harsh wind.
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