It’s the geek’s version of a Cinderella story: from lowly fanboy, to befriending and collaborating with your idol, to becoming a creative force in your own right. Such was the case for Japanese author Satoshi Ito aka Project Itoh, his idol being video game demigod Hideo Kojima. From Metal Gear Solid fanfiction that so impressed Kojima that he got to work on official MG novelisations, to award-winning novels like Genocidal Organ and Harmony, Itoh lived the dream before he sadly lost his battle with cancer in 2009 at just age 34.
To honour his memory, a trilogy of anime films were created, based on his three books: Organ, Harmony and his unfinished steampunk zombie-fest, The Empire of Corpses. The 2012 novel, completed posthumously by Tou Enjoe, presented a Victorian world where the dead have been successfully reanimated, derived from the experiments of Victor Frankenstein, and are used as a cheap labour force. The tale’s obvious affection for British literature doesn’t stop there, as who else should take an interest in Frankenstein’s work but a young John Watson. Yes, THAT Watson, whose recently deceased best friend is called Friday (code name Noble Savage 007) and is what spurs on his illegal research into understanding the human soul.
The film sees Watson gets embroiled in an international conspiracy as, on commission from the British Government, he races to find Frankenstein’s notes while trying to find the key to returning the soul back to reanimated bodies, specifically Friday’s. Along the way, he encounters characters from works like James Bond, Frankenstein, Crime and Punishment and even a few real historical figures for good measure like Thomas Edison and President Ulysses S. Grant.
Make no mistake, however; past what seems to be the ultimate Brito/literature-phile fanfiction lies a story very heavily rooted in themes of death, existence, technological evolution, morality and the very tenants of what it is to be human. Watson is less some swanky super agent, and more a young man trying to find the answer to one of life’s ultimate mysteries in order to find his friend. For all the zombie hordes, gore and action, the narrative very heavily centres on his quest as well as the relationship between him and Friday.
The film is at its most effective, not when zombies are being sliced and shot up left, right and centre (though you’ll not want for that), but in its quieter moments when we dwell on Watson’s ordeal and his ties to Friday. Whether its conducting reanimation experiments or simply talking to the mute corpse of his friend, you get a strong sense of tragic affection between them, and simultaneously not only feel for Watson’s frustrations but also the horrific reality of what he has done in using his friend, though willing, as a test subject. It adds a layer of humanity to our lead and gives the film an emotional core.
Where problems start to come up, however, is more with what the film is trying to say amidst the sheer multitude of its high concepts. Trying to juggle introspective drama with an adventure thriller is no easy task, and it’s painfully obvious how much more there is to explore than the two-hour runtime permits. We have, in no particular order, the debate of post-life rights, questions about the soul, do the dead still count as people, what does it mean to be human, political intrigue between empires, dangers of science pursued down morally ambiguous paths, a story about a man grieving his dead friend, a globetrotting adventure yarn and a very, very loose prequel to the Conan Doyle Holmes stories. Do you see the problem yet?
What is much easier to comment on are the visuals, be it the animation or the backgrounds. They are nothing short of stellar, brimming with colour and detail, capturing a combination of Victorian Gothic and 19th-century oil paintings. The action front offers a nice mix up of brawls, chases and zombie mowdowns, spanning from the cobblestones of London to the sunny streets of India and the forbidding mountains of Afghanistan. However, one battle does suffer from repeatedly breaking the 180-degree rule, confusingly having consecutive shots on the same side so you lose a sense of where the opposing armies are on the battlefield. Yoshihiro Ike’s score is also pretty strong, being somewhere between the melodic passion and atmosphere of Patrick Doyle’s grossly overlooked score for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with the bombast and excitement of a Hans Zimmer Holmes score.
The voice acting is also top-notch in English or Japanese, with props to Jason Liebrecht as Watson, who may be giving the best performance of his dubbing career. He conveys a brimming intelligence yet also a naive youthful quality that suits the medical student perfectly, and he’s well backed up by the likes of Todd Haberkorn (in a limited but perfectly understated role as Friday), Morgan Garrett, Micah Soulsod, Mike McFarland and a very commanding R. Bruce Elliott as Frankenstein’s original creation. A favourite of mine was J. Michael Tatum as Frederick Barnaby, who provides a terrific bombast and confidence as the lovably macho and gruff adventurer, allowing for some genuinely fun banter between him and the more novice Watson.
When all is said and done, though, writing a conclusion for this film is no easy task. On the one hand, it’s overstuffed, unwieldy and makes a couple of odd choices with regards to its plot construction. But on the other, it’s very well produced, performed and has got five times the ambitions many comparable genre hybrids both in Japan and Hollywood wish they had. If you’ve felt your Victoriana or zombie media has been a little lacking in the cerebral sense, give Empire of Corpses a shot. It should at least wet your appetite until the original novel finally gets translated.
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