Anime Review | Project Itoh: The Empire of Corpses (Lights, Camera, Action!)

By Drew Hurley 24.09.2016

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Project Itoh: The Empire of Corpses (UK Rating: 15)

Project Itoh was the pen name of Satoshi Ito, an acclaimed science fiction writer in Japan who won numerous awards for his novels and short stories. Project Itoh produced three novels in his lifetime and now all three are being adapted into animated movies, each with a different director and anime studio. The Empire of Corpses is the first in that series, released in Japan in October 2015. Arriving in America in April this year, it is now hitting the UK on 26th September from Anime Limited and All the Anime.

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Ask any sci-fi fan out there how they feel about the current state of sci-fi in mainstream media and you will be inviting a tirade on the poor state of the genre's representation. When it comes to TV shows and movies there are few produced, and those that are then are often disappointing. It's even worse for the "Hard Sci-Fi" and "Space Opera" lovers. One medium that has never suffered in sci-fi is anime, though, yet that may be due to the relatively easier method of depicting the designs and ideas than in live action. From the many mecha series like Gundam and Macross, to cyberpunk classics like CyberCity Oedo 808 and Ghost in the Shell, and space Westerns and Steampunk, anime has it all. This first story from Project Itoh has quite a unique setting: set 100 years after Victor Frankenstein managed to give life to his creation, there have been changes in the world, revolving around the art of resurrecting the undead. Frankenstein's original method has been lost and his creation, known as "The One," is the only resurrected to regain its soul. Now a technology known as Necroware is used to revive corpses as almost automatons, programmable with commands but with no personality or consciousness.

This breakthrough completely altered the pursuit of technological advancement, with all world governments scrambling to master this art. Corpses became the centre of the world economy, working in every service industry - factory workers, butlers, doormen and personal servants - while also forever changing the landscape of war as each country filled the ranks of its military with the trained undead. Not all were happy to see the undead as mindless servants, though; in particular, the protagonist in this tale - a young man named John Watson. John and his dear friend had been working to prove the existence of the 21-gram soul. The famous theory popularised by Duncan McDougall in the real world, which proposes that the human soul has mass, and weighs 21 grams. They believe if they can track down this missing mass, they would be able to return souls to the departed, transforming them from the mindless automatons to their old selves. When his dear friend dies, John becomes obsessed with this quest, exhuming the body of his friend and setting to work on restoring his consciousness.


 
Experimenting with this is treason, and Watson is soon discovered by the mysterious "M." What follows is a classic adventure as Watson is sent around the world on a mission to find and destroy the original notes of Victor Frankenstein, taking him through Europe, Afghanistan, England, and Japan. He's joined by the corpse of his friend - now dubbed "Friday" - and a special assigned bodyguard, one Frederick Burnaby. There are plenty of other familiar faces that both history and literary buffs will enjoy, but to even mention them would spoil some great moments. Each of the major characters is fantastic; Frederick Burnaby is an old fashioned globe-trotting adventurer - big, brash, and loud-mouthed, the perfect counterpoint to the reserved, thoughtful, and emotional Watson. Friday may be without thought or emotion, but his automoton-esque reactions and ability to be programmed with special skills make for an interesting plot device. The party is also joined by Hadaly Lilith, secretary to ex-President Ulysses S. Grant. Hadaly is much more than she seems; she's obsessed with Watson's quest to find the soul, and with good reason. There are plenty of extra characters and a big villain revealed towards the third act, but it begins to feel jumbled and the character development outside of this core group is quite disappointing.

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The world created here is a fantastic one; the mixing of the steampunk and undead is simply superb. The Necroware technology used to programme the recently deceased is a combination of punch cards and a huge pair of needles that require insertion into the spinal cord via the nape of the neck. There are also huge "Analytical Engines" around the world used to help control the corpses on a mass scale. The English one is known as "Charles Babbage" and seems to be controlled from a brain in a jar. The premise of using these mindless drones as slaves to run countries is genius and is portrayed well, showing how they basically become the backbone of the economy around the world, not to mention the innovative methods of turning them into weapons. There is somewhat of a fatal flaw in filling all of the manual labour of the world with the undead, however, and that is when someone appears who can control the undead, humanity is quickly outnumbered.

Every aspect of the film looks fantastic; the backgrounds are beautiful and truly look alive at points, the depiction of the Necroware technology is superb and an innovative new twist on steampunk, and the colour palette really helps establish the aesthetic of a period adventure movie. It's not surprising to see how good it looks since, after all, it's from the studio that put out Attack on Titan (reviews of the movie version are here: Part 1 and Part 2) and the recent Kabanari of the Iron Fortress.

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While the film crafts a universe and a premise that is fascinating and filled with promise, it somewhat collapses in its finale. This may be the result of the death of Itoh himself. Sadly Itoh died while the book was still in its infancy and afterwards his friend, and fellow author, Toh EnJoe took on finishing the novel. Allegiances are suddenly altered, deus-ex machina appear and bewildering twists appear as if from nowhere. Thankfully Itoh has two other novels that were completely finished that are still to be adapted. The second in the series, Harmony, was released in November 2015 and the final, Genocidal Organ, was due to be released December 2015, but due to the anime studio handling the adaptation going bankrupt, it was severely delayed, now being planned for Winter 2017.

7/10
Rated 7 out of 10

Very Good - Bronze Award

Rated 7 out of 10
Even with the lacklustre conclusion to the film, The Empire of Corpses is still a superbly original adventure movie that builds into something that feels like a genuine blockbuster. This would honestly be one of the best anime movies in recent memory if it had lived up to the premise established in its opening act.

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