Understanding Despair: Starring Casshern Sins

So in this post about Shingeki no Kyojin, I said the main thing that made the show a success was its understanding and use of psychological horror, particularly with regards to crippling fear and powerlessness.  In this post I’m going to revisit how powerlessness is showcased in anime, but from a very different angle using a very different show.  From here on out there will be some Casshern Sins spoilers, you have been warned.

In Casshern Sins the narrative is almost in the reverse of Shingeki no Kyojin.  Casshern is functionally immortal, immune to the Ruin, a strange disease-like force that causes the robots of the world, who vastly outnumber the humans at this point, to rust until they fall apart and “die”.  He’s also leagues stronger than almost every opponent who dares to face him.  If you were to write this story in Shingeki no Kyojin terms, Casshern would be a single titan, and a really powerful one at that, in a world full of humans who are also dealing with the plague.  As far as the story is concerned, Casshern is one of, if not the most powerful figure in the story.  Only the elusive Luna, whom Casshern is said to have killed at the beginning of the story has power to rival his.  But if that’s the case how is Casshern powerless in any way?

Keep in mind this is a story about world where everyone except Casshern is dying.  There’s always the unspoken assumption that he may end up being forced to wander the planet alone for all eternity after the rest of the world dies out.  It doesn’t help that Casshern has no memories either.  A lot of fantasy and fiction is about someone trying to obtain immortality, but rarely do we see an immortal walking around totally out of place in a world that is rotting around him.  The situation only gets worse from there, many of the rusting robots frequently attack Casshern because they believe if they eat him, they will be able to halt the effects of the Ruin.  But none of them are a match for him, they die in droves trying vainly to defeat an opponent leagues beyond them.  And there’s nothing Casshern can do about any of it.  His only recourse is to wander the desolate, dying world in search of answers.  Where Shingeki no Kyojin was a show about powerlessness by way of horror, Casshern Sins is a show about powerlessness by way of futility.  It appears as though the remaining inhabitants of the world are being warped by fatalism, they fight and fight and a few more inspired souls try to achieve something in their dying days but in the end it always appears as though everyone’s, including Casshern’s, actions are ultimately meaningless.

The kind of psychological damage the titans can inflict on humans is unnerving and uncomfortable because it shows how fragile humans can be and we don’t like to accept such notions.  By contrast in Casshern the psychology is aimed towards despair.  It showcases a dim view of our existence and how little we mean both as individuals and as a collective whole.  That’s unnerving too, perhaps even more so than the kind of unnerving Shingeki no Kyojin was going for.  People want to matter in some way and when you’re presented with a story where no one matters and everyone is dying it can be more than just a bit depressing or at bare minimum sobering in dark way.  This is not to say Casshern Sins is bad, quite the opposite I really liked it, but maybe stay away from this one if you’re feeling emotionally unstable.  But how does Casshern Sin’s make itself so depressing?  How does it showcase despair?

For starters it looks the part.  Many robots are falling apart.  The world looks barren and desolate.  This world could easily pass for a post nuclear apocalypse setting.  But it’s also in the art and character designs.  Most of the “people” are robots, and the majority of them look similar, the majority of are also violent and cruel.  This dehumanizes most of the population, reducing them to wandering lumps of instinct and desire until they die.  The story never says it’s an allegory for humanity but I think the dark message is pretty clear all the same.  Likewise the colors are muted, it’s like the light is gone from this world and they are stuck in a murky twilight.  Or perhaps everything looks like it’s covered in a film of dust or ash.  The setting and characters look very much like they are living out the dying days of civilization.  The actions complement this.  There is plenty of violence but it all appears aimless and pointless in the face of the Ruin.  Any violence aimed towards Casshern comes off as futile because he’s more or less invincible.  We also see on several occasions ordinary, civil robots going almost rabic when confronted by Casshern’s apparent immunity to the Ruin.  It showcases how ugly people can get when they get desperate to survive or feel like they matter.  And then it shows them fail because they don’t matter.

And that about wraps this up.  Hopefully you guys enjoyed this and I’ll see you in the next one.

P.S.  Casshern Sins does have some light at the end of the tunnel so if you feel like you want a dark story but my description above sounded a bit too depressing, just know I was talking about a lot of the overall tone and atmosphere and skipped over some of the intermittent moments of good and hope in the story.  If you feel up to it, I encourage you to try Casshern Sins.

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