When it comes to the world of anime, I often find that the movies, the medium that is free of the restrictions typically associated with televised series, tell the greatest stories. I don’t know much about Project Itoh, but from watching just this one film based on his works, I am left to wonder what could have been, and to wish there was more.
The Empire of Corpses is set in 1878 and acts as an unofficial and obviously non-canon sequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and strangely, as a prequel to Sherlock Holmes. Since it isn’t official, it plays around with the setting a bit, creating a steampunk-esque future where Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s research into the reanimation of corpses and creation of the creature, known here as “The One”, led to governments around the world performing their own research into the creation of reanimated corpses, leading to the development of technology known as Necroware. While the reanimated corpses they created did not possess souls, the ability to speak, or anything that The One possessed, they became ubiquitous in 1800's society, acting as undead soldiers, the crewmen of ships, waiters, you name it corpses performed it.
This of course brings us to the beginning of the story where a young medical student named John Watson has a knack for the technology associated with reanimating the dead and reanimates his deceased friends body with no indication that his friends soul is present in the body. As he expected, his illegal reanimation was discovered, but rather than be sent to prison he is tasked by the government to locate a Russian defector and obtain Victor Frankenstein’s notes which are in his possession. And so he sets out on a quest to obtain the notes.
I’ll admit, I went into this movie expecting just a nice movie, but what I found was more of a philosophical debate about the nature of souls and humanity. It’s hard for me to put it all into words because I feel like quite a bit of it went over my head, and towards the end I felt like the story was starting to get out of hand. One second I was considering showing this movie to my stepfather who is really big into older stuff like Dracula and Frankenstein, but then all of a sudden it took a turn for the weird and I began to backpedal on that because I felt like the movie began to stray from what, at its core, felt like a true sequel to Frankenstein. I remember watching a film adaptation of Frankenstein and revealing a novelization of it in either my 10th or 11th grade English class and the feelings I got from the original story were nearly identical to what I felt while watching this film. It felt like the original author of The Empire of Corpses understand the essence of Frankenstein. I may be completely wrong, but that’s how I felt after watching this film.
Of course, this film would be nothing without the characters. The main protagonist, John Watson, is an intriguing character. He’s so driven by his goal that no matter how much he sees the necessity of stopping, he continues pressing forward even when it threatens to alienate him to everyone around him. He obsesses over it and it makes him compelling and it makes it all the more believable when he finally understands. Frederick Burnaby acts as the comedic edge of the film, the more lighthearted member of the main cast who takes the edge off of what is really a dark film. And of course there are other characters, but that dives into spoiler territory.
Visually speaking, The Empire of Corpses is a breathtaking film. Everything is animated fluidly and the art is as good as it gets. It really is hard to understate how beautiful and sometimes lifelike it looks. If there’s one thing that seems consistent between the three Project Itoh films, it’s that the visual fidelity of them is astounding. Finding the proper screenshots to convey this is difficult, so I simply chose the one above that shows the immense amount of detail in the work.
As far as sound design goes, it matches the beauty of the visuals beat for beat. It’s breathtaking, beautiful, and comes with a mixed bag of emotions to help your viewing experience along. The English dub also fits the film quite well. At first I wasn’t too sure because the British accents sounded a bit forced, which makes sense because the actors performing them, just as J. Michael Tatum, are not native British, but their grasp of the accent at least makes it believable and the Russian accents aren’t bad either. The Japanese accents I found a bit more questionable, but since it was very brief I’ll give it a pass because it’s hard to understand something when it’s only there for a few minutes. If I may be so bold, this is the part where I say that the English dub shows the inherent superior versatility over Japanese. While many anime fans prefer the original Japanese dubs with English subtitles to “bad” English dubs, you can’t deny that convincing accents make for a more believable experience that supposedly native English speakers pronouncing everything in Engrish or really stilted English while everyone else is speaking Japanese in what is not a Japanese country. Of course you could say that everyone speaking English in Japan doesn’t make sense either, but my point still stands. There is an authenticity in this English dub that makes it better than the original Japanese dub(Which I admittedly have not listened to, but because I am not a native Japanese speak it is impossible for me to tell a good Japanese dub from a bad one.).
After all is said and done, The Empire of Corpses is a fascinating film, at least to me. From what I’ve read many others thought the story was confusing, half-assed, mediocre, just plain bad, etc. And I guess in a way that’s a fair consensus because even I had trouble understanding it at times, but I also had a hard time understanding Garden of Sinners, as did many others, but that series is still heralded as one of the greatest. My point being that there is more to The Empire of Corpses than just a flashy coat of paint. To some it reads like fan fiction, but to me it feels like its own story. I may be alone in this, but I’ll stick to it and I fully intend to get the blu-ray of this film very soon because I just have to have it in my collection.