Critics of Kazuaki Kiriya’s Casshern generally fall into two recognisable groups. Those who level the complaint that Japanese fantastical film plots are invariably obtuse, and those who see this digital phantasmagoria as an exercise in style over substance. There are some elements of truth in both these appraisals. But to tar this remarkable film with such heavy and broad brush strokes would be to miss its many subtleties.

      The plot, as an opening example of hidden depth, is a multi-layered almost Shakespearean affair. In an alternate, steampunk near future the Azuma family struggles with the reality of war. Son, Tetsuya, is currently having his upper class values brutally reworked on the front line, while his scientist father, Kotaro, desperately seeks funding to grow replacement body parts for a depleted army. As for Tetsuya’s mother, well she’s gradually fading away at the hands of a rare terminal illness. All of which makes the boy’s home coming party a cheery affair – especially when he decides to turn up in a coffin.

      With a dead son and a dying wife, Kotaro does the only decent thing and takes a long step off the edge of sanity. Luckily for him the intervention of an extraterrestrial entity ensures that his Frankenstein-esque body bank suddenly becomes a primordial hot tub for new life. The only problem is that said ‘new life’, the Neo-Sapiens, are a) superhuman and b) intent on making us lowly ape-men pay for our infractions against nature. All it then takes is one cognitive leap for Kotaro, a quick plunge in the life giving liquids for the corpse of Tetsuya and badabum – enter the warrior spirit Casshern to do battle with these abominations.

      Okay, so you could be forgiven for thinking that we’re already buttock deep within the realms of the obtuse. However, each jink and twist in this top-heavy plot is executed with enough skill to ensure that you’re never really at a complete loss. There are a few points where a basic knowledge of the 1973 cartoon this film is based upon might help. But, thankfully, they are few in number. For the most part this is a refreshingly complex narrative told well. And, in a world where the likes of Paycheck can make it to general distribution, such flexing of the ol’ grey matter makes a welcome change from Hollywood’s more trite sci-fi offerings.

      Plenty to sink your teeth into then. Plus, when not mulling over the antiwar sentiments or pondering the consequences of humanity’s misguided hubris, there are always the exquisite visuals to get completely lost in.

      There’s no question that this film practically drips from the screen. From the Soviet influenced architecture and Manga-styled speed lines that accompany the action sequences, to the Arcadian wonder of the Azuma’s garden. Everything here has been buffed and touched to a hyper-real sheen of otherworldliness. The overall effect of this, regardless of whether you enjoy the plot or not, is riveting. The only shame is the fact that Casshern’s excellent digital special effects were passed over by many in favour of the lesser Sky Captain, which was also released in 2004.

      So, stunning vistas and set pieces combined with a detailed and engaging plot. Surely then, Casshern must be one of the best sci-fi action movies ever to emerge from Japan? Well, regrettably, no. Despite all the goodly elements that bless this project at a high concept level, there is one much more prosaic flaw that blots its copybook.

      While the action sequences are suitably over-the-top in true Anime fashion, they lack a certain polish audiences have come to expect post wirefoo and The Matrix. For instance, in the battle between Tetsuya/Casshern and the Neo-Sapien, Sagure, there’s a whole lot of comic-book love splashed about on screen. Epic explosions, superhuman agility and all-action grimaces of total commitment. But, the choreography is messy and the actual climax – ie, the inevitable hero victorious – is confusing. Does Sagure accidentally fall upon her sword? Or is it that Casshern has successfully pulled off some kind of ‘invisible to the naked eye’ move against her?

      Elsewhere moments of biblical confrontation seem perpetually curtailed, which is possibly the result of Kiriya’s anti war theme. But, even taking western preconceptions regarding cinematic combat into account, the action scenes still remain more ponderous than might be realised from the blisteringly slick trailer.

      This, ultimately, isn’t a sci-fi action flick in the traditional sense and those looking for extended thrills will come away disappointed. If, however, you’re after something visually stunning and thought provoking, then the 141 minutes you’ll invest in watching Casshern will be a segment of your life well spent.