Kazuaki Kiriya

Directing 'live action anime': Casshern

Acclaimed fashion photographer and music video director turned film director, Kazuaki Kiriya took on the ambitious and risky task of adapting popular 70s anime series Casshan: Robot Hunter into a live action feature film. The result is a spectacular, brain scrambling assault on the senses that puts an SF epic that looks like $25m onto the screen for just $6m. DSO caught up with the inventive Japanese director and began by asking him to unravel Casshern's complex plot...

[Casshern poster]DSO: How would you explain the film to somebody who hasn't seen it?

Kazuaki Kiriya: That's hard. Chaos. I tried so hard not to fall into some category or genre. It's sci-fi, but it's not. It's a superhero story, but it's not. Basically, for me, it's Hamlet. It's about moral ambiguity. Everything is ambiguous and it results in huge chaos. It's intentionally thrown into that chaos. It's somebody's nightmare. You know when you dream and it doesn't make sense? It makes total sense when you are dreaming, but when you wake up it doesn't make sense. Am I making sense? [Laughs] That's the realm I really wanted to go to. It's the realm of music. When you listen to music, there is no logic. Of course there are chords and things like that, but it produces a feeling that goes under your skin rather than to your head. That was very important for me with this movie.

How faithful were you to the original 1970s animated series of Casshan?

Not very faithful at all. I was crucified in Japan. I just took the idea of a human creation going wrong. It's about this evil robot turning into the king of the world. It's very much like The Terminator. They [the robots] are created for something but they turn on the humans. In the original story, Brai says, "Well, you used me as a slave, therefore, I am going to use you as slaves now." That's the basic premise of the original 1970s animated version. It was very ahead of its time, before The Matrix, before The Terminator, maybe even before Philip K. Dick and Blade Runner. I just took that idea and turned it. It also goes with the current political situation in Iraq and all those places where the US financed their arms and now they are turning on them. It's a very subtle insinuation.[Casshern]

How does the technology you used to make the film compare to that being used in Hollywood at the moment?

The cameras were 24p HD [high definition digital] cameras; the same that were used for Star Wars [Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith]. Everything was done digitally. We never even touched film from start to finish. Of course, we had to transfer to film because nobody has digital projectors yet. That was the funny thing. We used all the latest digital technology to just put it on to film at the end. All the special effects were done with a team that was specifically created for this project. It was, like, 30 kids, basically out of school. We actually went into - do you know Akihabara in Japan? It's a very Blade Runner-ish computer town. We just bought all the cheapest parts we could find to build computers to do the special effects because we didn't have money to buy the computers. It was basically done with PCs running on Windows and we just bunched them together, maybe 30 computers, to do the special effects. It cost six million dollars for everything, from start to finish. We didn't even have a sound stage. It was all shot in a warehouse. Certain shots, if you listen very carefully, you can hear bird cries and singing. It's weird.

[Casshern]What percentage of the film was shot using green-screens?

You know, the funny thing is, it has been compared very much to Sky Captain. I still haven't watched that, but supposedly that's almost 100 percent green screen. I'd say Casshern is maybe fifty to sixty percent green-screen. We tried really hard to build sets to have a certain tangibility, something that the actors could relate to, and we tried really hard not to have total greenbacks. Even if we were using greenbacks we tried to build the set, maybe past the windows are greenbacks, that sort of thing. It was very important for us. It's closer to The Matrix than to Sky Captain in terms of how it was made.

The images in the film are very striking. As a photographer, were the images more important to you than the narrative?

No, I don't think so and I shot the whole thing myself. Ninety percent of the shots were done by me. I operated the camera because of the time and money restrictions. I was really aiming towards something in between the image and the narrative. I love movies like Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. I love 2001: A Space Odyssey, the films of David Lynch and Peter Greenaway - the sort of things that don't really make sense until much later. I'd like to say both, but I'm sure it comes across as though the image is more important than the story [Laughing]. Originally there was a much more comprehensive script for Casshern. I don't know why, but it just turned into this very strange child. It's as if I gave birth to this really strange kid and I don't know why or how he came about. I'm still trying to figure out what happened, actually [Laughing].

[Casshern]You already mentioned some of your influences, but what influenced you specifically on this film?

When I was in high school I watched so many strange movies like strange high school kids do. Obviously, things like Blade Runner and 1984, all the Gilliam films and even Lars Von Trier's The Element of Crime. That one I saw when I was in high school in London. I'm sure I'm one of the few people that actually saw that at the cinema. Those movies really touched me. Also David Lynch's Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, Russian avant-garde, Damien Hirst and, of course, Japanese animation and that sort of thing.

Dreamworks has picked up the distribution for Casshern in the US. Do you have a release date yet?

No, we're editing it. We're going to make it more comprehensive.

[Casshern]Will it be a shorter version than the UK release?

Yes, shorter, but we are going to add deleted scenes and we might add some new scenes to it. That's what we're discussing right now. I don't want it to be a diluted American version and they don't want that either. It's a very difficult film and if you take something away, somebody's going to get upset. Also, if you add something, somebody's going to be upset. These things are very difficult.

The reviews of Casshern are very split over there as well, right?

Well, some people can't grasp what it's about.

They try to focus too much on what's going on, rather than letting the whole thing wash over them.

Yeah, it's a very interesting phenomenon, because all the men and the sci-fi oriented geeks, they don't like it. Women like it. It's a very strange phenomenon. I hope you watch the DVD version, it's a better edit, I think - a little different from the theatrical version and the sound is better with the DVD. I'd really like to know what the reaction is like in Europe, because people who are cynical about things don't like this movie. I was a fashion photographer for a long time and was the king of cynicism. However, for this I just threw that away and thought, I will be na´ve. It's a very na´ve vision of the world and that doesn't sit well with many people.

See also:

Casshern review

Search the A-Z Film Review Index for all reviews