Lessons From Casshern Sins
When you watch enough animation, you start to obsess over form and detail. You know the mechanical processes that go into producing an image, if not firsthand than through other sources, and so you begin to notice the difference between good animation and its disheartening opposite. Most of this time, this acquired eye for detail will be a blessing to you, since it will help you make better and more cogent critical statements about works of art. Sometimes, however, a piece of animation will come along that has an irresistible pull on your eye, and it will haul you by your retinas through hell and back just because it looks pretty.
Casshern Sins does not inflict real pain on the viewer. Not this viewer, at any rate. I can say this about it, though: the experience of looking at it was nothing short of a delight. Listening and watching attentively, on the other hand, were significant contributors to dull but grinding headaches. I didn’t even know tigers could get headaches, and I am one.
Populated by decaying robots, a remnant of marginalized humanity, and more dust mites than you could shake a Hoover at, the world of the show is a wonderfully evocative emptiness. Its vistas embody bleakness, and the few remaining structures look frail and unsound. Casshern Sins fleshes out this environment with a palpable sense of history, mostly through visuals. Amidst the wasteland, a grand tale is playing out. The story concerns a being named Casshern, who looks like a robot but exhibits characteristics of a living organism as well, including a starfish-like ability to regenerate his body. Other robots believe that by ingesting Casshern they can regain their immortality. At least, they think, they can escape the ravages of the Ruin, a blight that is gradually driving robots to extinction. It emanates from the environment and seems to have been unleashed by Casshern himself when he killed a young girl-like being named Luna.
I learned a few things from the show despite my difficulties with it. These will hopefully prove to be valuable insights with some applicability outside this particular situation.
Lesson 1: Amnesia Is Overplayed
Part of the problem with the show is that its central character is an amnesiac. Other than this fact, Casshern is a perfectly acceptable protagonist in my mind. He’s certainly guilty of inhabiting a particular type–resentful antihero who is obsessed with his past and possesses strange abilities–but his unique character design and the particulars of the plot join forces to rescue him from convention. Unfortunately, he has amnesia.
Amnesia is rarely well-used as a character trait. It tends to justify excessive adolescent brooding (“I don’t even remember the horrible things that you tell me I did! Woe is me!), tedious exposition that could have been excluded or integrated more elegantly (“Horrors! Please tell me more about what horrible thing I have done, and more broadly about the situation of the world as it is now!”), or both. You can probably guess that Casshern Sins is guilty of both.
Amnesia can be effectively and intelligently used as a part of a coherent narrative whole. I think back on Dark City, the 1997 Alex Proyas sci-fi film that has an amnesiac protagonist. There are specific reasons for his being an amnesiac, and the fact that he is disoriented fits the grim noir feel of the film as well as the overall aims of the plot. Now, I have not seen all of Casshern Sins, so its main character’s amnesia might have been put to good use in later episodes. If so, tell me, since I would very much like to give the show another chance someday if I have a good enough reason. That disclaimer aside, I think that Casshern’s amnesia is purely an excuse for lazy writing.
His character, and indeed the broader story, would have been far more interesting had he remembered and internalized his failures, soldiering on without any meaning in his life, full of regret but unable to die. There might have been more time for reflection on the actual themes of the show. Corruption, death, existential angst, guilt, etc. Those are powerful issues and a leaner, more focused show might have had something to say about those issues.
Lesson 2: Sometimes Taking Your Time Is a Bad Thing
I have an unabashed love of so-called “slow cinema.” Tarkovsky, Tarr, and the whole crew of filmmakers who can work with time without compressing or being overly hyperbolic tend to be my favorite directors. Given that, I was anticipating finding the slow pace of Casshern Sins a refreshing change of pace. I did. Not enough.
Writing problems abound in this show. It’s not that the show progresses at a more contemplative pace, it’s that it wastes its contemplation. Clumsy dialogues, insufferable angst-ridden monologues, characters who are clearly designed as mouthpieces for particular views–the show quickly mire itself in the molasses of trivialities, ignoring the deep questions we were supposed to be here to discuss. This is not always the case, as there are a few episodes that have a discernible point of view on a particular matter. In the main, however, the show tended to waste its time. Look, if you’re going to be trivial, at least be zippy and exciting. Put on a happy face.
Drama is less difficult than comedy, but dangers still beset writers who want to deal with Big Questions. Here’s the thing: you have to deal with those questions. Casshern Sins largely does not do that.
Lesson 3: Even Shows That Aren’t Bad Can Be Unwatchable
I’ll close this by defending several aspects of the show. Voice work did transcend the problems of the writing, though not as much as I would have hoped. Sound design in general was a plus, with the hushed vibe drawing my eyes and ears more closely to the show’s atmosphere. Visuals were excellent, as I have mentioned. The experience of watching the show was rarely overtly unpleasant. However, it was almost relentlessly trivial and mediocre, to the point where I had a difficult time paying attention even to parts where characters weren’t spouting vague and headache-inducing dialogue.
It’s a wash. I hope to return to the series eventually, but for now the roof is collapsing on me, and I cannot justify watching a show that leaves me with a dull ache behind my eyes.
I’ll be watching Welcome to the NHK as the world comes down around me.