The Empire Of Corpses (Shisha no Teikoku)
Japan (2015) Dir. Ryoutarou Makihara
No, this isn’t a film about the House of Lords, rather a fanciful journey to prevent a global catastrophe with a cast of literary characters re-imagined for this ambitious and quite overloaded adventure romp.
In an alternate version of London in the late 19th century, following Victor Frankenstein’s achievement of reanimating a corpse with a soul, and the ability to think and feel, the practice of Corpse Engineering is now commonplace. However, instead of a human soul, the corpses are given an artificial soul called Necroware, which can be upgraded but the corpses cannot talk or think for themselves.
Corpse engineer, John Watson, uses his own illegal version of Necroware to bring his old friend back to life, renaming him Friday, but is caught by British Service agent M. To spare Watson jail, he is offered the chance to work for the British Empire to help track down Russian corpse engineer Alexei Karamazov, who stole Dr. Frankenstein’s original research notes for reanimating a corpse with a soul known as The Memorandum.
With its outlandish premise, globetrotting journey, and a cast of well-known names used liberally to appear cultured, one would be forgiven for thinking this is an instalment of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, since this all fits that show’s zany profile. Alas, The Empire Of Corpses is in fact an adaptation of the final novel from sci-fi writer Project Itoh, as part of a series of films based on Itoh’s works.
Real name Satoshi Itoh, Empire was completed posthumously by fellow writer Toh EnJoe and published in 2012, three years after Itoh passed away from cancer aged just 34. I’m not familiar with his work but given he was a recipient of the Philip K. Dick award in 2010 indicates Itoh’s style is very esoteric and philosophically involved, bared out in the story for this film, although it does only contain some of Itoh’s original ideas.
The first thing that will stand out for viewers are the character names which are either a tribute to classic literature or tongue-in-cheek creative licence – regardless, eyes will roll as they keep on coming, depending on how deep your knowledge is of such things. John Watson and Victor Frankenstein are as flagrant as they get, and that is before Friday is named and “M” shows up. Oh, and Friday’s official corpse code ID ends in 007…
For the more cultured among you, Charles Babbage (who did exist) is responsible for building the machine to help corpse engineers upgrade their work, yet is treated more as a mythical figure than the fictional ones. Russian engineer Alexei is from The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky; Watson gains an ally in Hadaly Lilith, the obligatory booby female, originally appearing in the 1898 French symbolist sci-fi novel The Future Eve, whose story here is actually part canon!
More real life names cropping up include Watson’s assigned bodyguard Captain Frederick Burnaby, former US President Ulysses S. Grant (who employs Hadaly), and Japanese Imperial general Yamazawa Seigo, sporting THE largest eyebrows ever seen, taking up most of his forehead. If you thought I was being flippant about the JoJo comparison, the big fight between Seigo and Burnaby against two armoured samurai corpses validates this and then some.
Back to the plot, which is a tad confusing because everything is revealed in stages, with each new character having their own purpose for finding The Momentum. The conceit of this is the presence of The One, the original corpse Frankenstein created which was thought destroyed, but in fact is still alive and is as sentient as ever. He too has a use for The Momentum which may be one recycled plot point too far, unless you are not aware of the various interpretations of the Frankenstein legend from yesteryear.
Anyway, to find Alexei, Watson and co. travel to Kabul where he was hiding, resulting in a zombie re-enactment of Carry On Up The Khyber sans the kilt bit. This is where Hadaly is introduced, blasting the zombies away with a huge flame thrower on the back of a steampunk car. From there they head to Japan before moving onto the US and finally back to the UK, with not one single stop at passport control, oddly enough one of the few modern things not inventive in this alternate universe!
Japanese sci-fi is noted for its refusal to adhere to boundaries and logic, driven mostly by an inherent philosophical pursuit to determine what makes a person human. Empire is another example, with one of the protagonists team, Friday, being a corpse yet is Watson’s best friend, showing more humanity than humans do, despite not having a soul, although this leads to a climax of psychobabble and Freudian musings in between the explosive of bombastic madness.
Getting the audience to care about the characters is a little hard when there are so many moving parts to the story to convolute the purpose of this epic journey. Not only do the motives change, some cast members last longer than others, leaving us to wonder if they were that expendable, whey make them a focus in the first place. And this is with a near 2-hour runtime (note – there is a coda after the end credits) to play with.
Having made their name with the epic Attack On Titan, Wit Studio were keen to prove themselves as more than a one hit wonder, and this top notch presentation does just that. The animation is smooth with an old school feel to it, whilst the backgrounds, scenery, and architectural artwork are simply stunning, rich in detail and character, and there are notable visual nods to Ghost In The Shell in the corpses’ reanimation.
The Empire Of Corpses is a wonderful looking film with an intriguing premise, interesting ideas and strong action, but being cheeky with the literary references and the rambling plotting brings it down a notch from being a great film. A competent and entertaining if over ambitious outing.