Anime Review: The Empire of Corpses

"The Empire of Corpses" Funimation poster

The Empire of Corpses (Film, 2015, Studio: Wit Studio, Director: Ryoutarou Makihara, based on a novel by Project Itoh & Toh Enjoe, US release: Funimation).

I took a break from Urgent Grant Deadlines to catch a screening of the Project Itoh “Victorian pulp with added zombies” novel adaptation The Empire of Corpses. (This was the first time I’d seen a movie in an actual theater for years, and the “Coming Soon” previews reassured me I had been missing nothing by ignoring Hollywood’s output during that time. Are all movies grey-brown-and-red nowadays?)

I had missed the fact that the screening was of the dubbed version; the dub was so-so (no-one was fully up to the required fake English accents), and the script seemed to be overly concerned with matching the lip-flaps rather than having dialog appropriate to the characters or the era. On the upside, I guess not having to read subtitles made it easier to look at the pretty pictures?

And looking at the pretty pictures is important, because The Empire of Corpses looks terrific; a lushly-illustrated exercise in steampunk Victoriana with a passel of pretty boys (most of whom unfortunately end up as shambling corpses) along with the requisite raw-boned adventurer and improbably-bosomed lady (the neckline on that dress would never pass as 1870’s daywear). The animation is very nice, especially the lavishly detailed settings, and the mass scenes of zombies make good use of CGI; it is stylistically well integrated with the hand-drawn animation, and the remaining bits of incongruousness work well with the fact that the zombies are supposed to look strange and move oddly. (They are mostly of the shuffling-automaton variety, with one important exception.) And there’s lots of splashy action scenes, if that’s the sort of thing you like.

Aside from the pretty, pretty pictures, the main reason to watch this thing (aside from the zombie-killing and stuff-blowing-up, which I personally don’t care about) is the overwrought emotions, in particular those of the main character, a handsome young medical student by the name of James Watson, and his all-consuming obsession with returning life and consciousness to the reanimated corpse of his dead friend, posthumously codenamed Friday (AKA “Noble Savage 007”. No, I’m not kidding). In the tail end of the movie, there is a slight suggestion of romance between Watson and the film’s one significant female character, but that is completely steamrollered by the intense BL overtones of Watson’s devotion to his friend (one-sided, as Friday spends most of the movie as little more than an ambulatory stenographic device); I kept expecting that the words that Friday is so desperately implored to speak would involve “I love you” (they don’t). You can also have fun name-checking historical characters and references to Victorian pulp fiction, from Thomas Edison to The Future Eve, although don’t expect them to correspond much to their originals.

The plot, on the other hand, is a trainwreck; the first half of the movie is mainly a series of excuses to whisk the characters to various exotic locales for lavish action setpieces, while the second half conjures out of the thin air innumerable startling revelations, magic powers, and evil schemes in service of a massively overwrought climax that seems to be channeling every B-movie mad-scientist flick ever (to the point that the dialog, or at least the English script, flirts with being intentionally campy at points). The story leans heavily on snippets of exposition to explain the characters’ current goals and never takes great pains to establish why their actions are necessary, while scattering plot holes you could drive a convoy of troop carriers through. (Suspension of disbelief overload point: after all that, Watson still had that one pen? And during all those weeks of travel, Friday had never been able to get his hands on the pen until then? I mean, yes, the pen is thematically important because Friday=writing and writing=speech, but the timing seems very awkward.)

And as a card-carrying dork, I was excessively annoyed that the parameters of the steampunk magitech change freely according to the requirements of the current action scene; the zombies in particular are animated by your choice of implanted neural controllers, Frankensteinian electricity, some kind of bite-transmitted infection, or glowing particles of the collective consciousness. I am somewhat motivated to check out the novel, if it ever gets translated, to see if it makes any better sense, although I doubt it; the fact that the author died in medias res and the ending was penned by someone else is probably a factor in the lack of cohesion.

The ending involves a lot of portentous monologuing about Language as the seat of consciousness, which I think is supposed to tie into the Victorian-literature-in-a-blender theme, and does fit with Watson’s obsession with getting his deceased-and-reanimated friend to speak; unfortunately reifying “language” as floating green sparks and glowing liquid is not a particularly compelling conceit. The film’s main themes, however, are: life, and why you shouldn’t mess with it; consciousness, and why you shouldn’t mess with it; and that being really, really, obsessionally over-attached to someone who is dead is not the greatest thing for your sanity or (if you happen to be a mad scientist type) other people’s well-being.

The film is a poster child for why you should never leave the theater before the credits have stopped rolling; a post-credits monologue addresses Watson’s most desperately-sought question (although it appears he doesn’t get to know the answer), followed by an update on the characters’ later lives. If I am interpreting this scene correctly, it explains why Moriarty had such a down on Holmes: dude stole his boyfriend. Not cool.

My final verdict: do see this thing, on a large screen if possible, so you can wallow in the pretty pictures and the feeeeelings, but don’t expect it to actually make any sense. If you see it, please come back to explain to me why, if Frankenstein was British, Frankenstein’s Monster is Russian?

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