ANIME REVIEW: “The Empire of Corpses” – Animation Scoop

ANIME REVIEW: “The Empire of Corpses”

The first feature based on a novel by Project Itoh (the nom de plume of Satoshi Ito), The Empire of Corpses (2015) is a striking, if often baroque, zombie adventure. The plot seems far more complicated than it needs to be, but the cyberpunk designs, which bolster the film’s curious premise, are stunning.

The Empire of Corpses takes place in a world where re-animated cadavers perform manual labor and provide cannon fodder for imperial armies, making them both useful servants and a major financial resource. But the zombie-laborers lack consciousness. They run on “necroware,” complex programs written on punch cards, based on the ones introduced to automate looms in early 19th century Europe.

John H. Watson (effectively underplayed by Jason Liebrecht)—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved and often borrowed doctor—is still a medical student when the film opens in 1878 London. He has been violating the law by investigating the possibility of restoring souls to the dead. He desperately wants to bring his closest friend back to life, and has re-animated him as Friday, a.k.a. Noble Savage 007 (Todd Haberkorn).

This line of research was inspired by the work of Victor Frankenstein, and Watson dreams of finding the lost notes that would explain how the legendary doctor gave a re-animated corpse a soul, which enabled it to think, desire and speak. (Viewers who’ve seen Young Frankenstein recently may find themselves adding “sing ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’” to the list.) Speech, Watson believes, is the key, as it requires consciousness.

Watson’s work with Friday is interrupted by the arrival of Frederick Barnaby (J. Michael Tatum), a flamboyant adventurer. The British government knows about Watson’s illegal experiments in “corpse technology.” To stay out of prison, he must find “Victor’s Notes” before anyone else can exploit them. There’s already evidence the Russians are using them to create zombie revolts that could effect the ongoing struggle for dominance in Central Asia—the so-called “Great Game.”

Watson and Barnaby set out on a picaresque adventure that takes them to India, Afghanistan, Japan, San Francisco and back to London. Along the way, they fight not only the Russians, but Frankenstein’s original monster “Number One,” who possesses his creator’s preserved brain. They also encounter several historical figures, notably Ulysses S. Grant and Thomas Edison. They gain a useful ally in the grotesquely pneumatic Hadalay Lilith (Morgan Garrett), an automaton created by Edison. She has access to lots of Edison’s inventions and commands singular powers, which help Watson and Barnaby defeat the hordes of hostile zombies they find wherever they go.

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Director Ryoutarou Makihara builds everything to an over-the-top showdown in Victorian London as sinister government agents and Number One attempt to eliminate free will and reduce humans to the decerebrated inhabitants of an Eden of utter passivity, attended by animated corpse-servants. This climatic battle is a fantastic one, even by anime standards. Watson, Barnaby and Hadaly take on armies of zombies amid fantastically complex machines and brilliantly colored explosions.

Zombie adventures are currently quite popular in anime, although Empire of Corpses ranks are the most literary example of the genre. Ito was an award-winning writer, critic and essayist; sadly, “The Empire of Corpses” (Shisha no teikoku, 2012) which he co-wrote with Toh Enjoe, has only been partially translated. The take-no-prisoners final battle is set in a gargantuan calculating center named for the 19th century polymath Charles Babbage. (His inventions range from the cowcatcher on the front of an old locomotive to calculating machines that rank among the key ancestors of modern computers. He’s also sometimes credited with inventing the early animation toy, the thaumatrope.)

But what sets The Empire of Corpses apart is not its overwrought plot but the glorious cyberpunk designs of art director Yusuke Takeda and his crew. The artists brilliantly capture the gritty, industrial feel of 19th century London, and the devices they invent look at home there. By combining combine CG and drawn animation, they create some striking and original effects. Streams of punch cards pass through elaborate readers that output the “necroware” through typewriter-like keyboards. These fantastic machines suggest the past not as it was, but the past as would have been if things were a whole lot cooler. The Empire of Corpses boasts more visual imagination per frame than many big-budget Hollywood adventures.

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The Empire of Corpses
Funimation: $34.95 (2 discs, Blu-ray and DVD)

Charles Solomon

Charles Solomon

Internationally known animation historian and critic, Charles Solomon has written over 15 books books including Enchanted Drawings: The History Of Animation, The Art of Disney's Frozen, and The Making of Peanuts Animation. Solomon's "The Art of Toy Story 3" will be published by Chronicle this spring.
Charles Solomon
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