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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Anime Review: Tsuritama

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Tsuritama (12 episodes, 2012, Studio: A-1 Pictures, Director: Kenji Nakamura, aired on noitamina).

Tsuritama (which as far as I can tell translates roughly as “fishing ball”) is a goofy sci-fi fishing comedy from a couple of years back, which I have wanted to watch for a while but just now managed to finish (I’m not much of a video person, although that seems to be changing now that I have an iPad…). It’s available streaming on Crunchyroll (free with ads, or ad-less by subscription), and has a physical release from Sentai complete with dub (although I can’t imagine that it sold well enough to justify a dub – which is an indictment of the US anime market, not of the series).

Red-headed high school boy Yuki has had to transfer schools often due to his grandmother’s career (which is never specified but appears to involve gardening). This has left him with severe social anxiety, which he experiences as drowning in a spontaneously-generated pool of water but which everyone else sees as him making scary faces.

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As the story opens, Yuki and Grandma are in the process of moving to the small island of Enoshima. (Which is a real place; most of the landmarks featured in the series actually exist.) Also just-arrived (via train – or maybe not) is a super-genki blond cutie with a mind-control squirt gun and a talking goldfish that calls him Nii-san.* (Apparently, Haru speaks weird Japanese, but the Crunchyroll subtitles do not attempt to replicate this, which is probably for the best).

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Cutie spots Yuki’s car passing by and is instantly mesmerized; he tracks down the house they’ve moved into (by telepathy or something, since they’ve been there all of 30 minutes), adds his name to the nameplate with a magic marker, and chirpily announces that his name is Haru, he’s an alien, and he’s going to live there. (Grandma is, amazingly enough, totally cool with this.)

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Immediately afterwards, Haru shows up at Yuki’s high school with a fishing pole, insists that Yuki has to go fishing with him in order to save the world, and mind-control-squirts a grumpy classmate, Natsuki, into teaching them to fish. And there’s a turbaned guy with a pet duck and a personal SWAT team watching mysteriously from afar.

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That’s just episode 1. It gets weirder.

It’s immediately clear that one of the main plot threads of Tsuritama is going to be Yuki and Natsuki learning to unbend and make friends with the aid of their own personal magical pixie dream boy.** It is also very quickly apparent that there is going to be A LOT of detailed information about fishing, from how to tie on a lure to what to do when you’ve hooked a tuna that’s stronger than you are. And for a while, Tsuritama is indeed all about fishing and friend-making and Haru’s indomitable genki-ness, with the weird burbling along happily in the background. Around the halfway point, though, the weird takes over: mass-hysteria goofy dances, Bermuda Triangle phenomena, a shady paramilitary organization in yellow rubber bunny suits, sightseeing aliens, and, yes, saving the world (or at least Enoshima) by going fishing.

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If you prefer fiction where everything wraps up neatly and all is explained, Tsuritama is not for you. If, on the other hand, you are comfortable with a certain amount of nuttery and dream logic, it’s a fun little series. The gently absurdist humor comes with a side of adolescent male bonding, family problems, lots of fishing, and in the late episodes some fairly heavy drama, although it’s not likely that a series starring a glomp-happy fish boy is going to end in tragedy. It’s got cute boys, an ED that looks made from a calico quilt, and a well-endowed secondary character in a bikini top (in case you can’t watch an anime without boobies). The story moves along nicely in both the slice-of-life and the sci-fi drama segments, although, even allowing for the sci-fi comedy aspect, there are some obvious plot holes (the biggest of which is what is Grandma doing that lets them afford a house that nice? I want that house.).

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Visually, Tsuritama looks great, with clean lines, swirling schools of fish, and candy-colored backgrounds heavily indebted to the Photoshop posterize filter (although this style is notably more successful on cityscapes and flower gardens than on low-contrast domestic interiors). The animation is mostly smooth, although towards the middle the budget starts to run low and there’s some reused sequences and off-model moments. And the shy alien boy that shows up at the very end is super-cute.

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So if you enjoy brightly colored eccentricity and/or detailed descriptions of fishing, check out the first episode and see if its brand of genki fishy nuttery appeals to you. (And if you do watch the whole thing, make sure to watch the bit after the credits in the last episode.)

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*OK, it looks like a betta, not a goldfish, but I thought fewer people would know what a betta was, and anyway technically it’s neither of the above. Back

**Despite the fact that Haru is totally uke, there is no BL in this series. Although he does hang off of Yuki enough that there is room for rotten interpretations. (I would offer to bet my lunch money that there are doujinshi out there, but that’s a safe bet for nearly anything with more than one guy in it, so I won’t bother.) Back