Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The Empire of Corpses
In an alternate London in 1878, young medical student John Watson seeks to replicate the only successful resurrection of a corpse, Victor Frankenstein's eighteenth century creation of his “monster.” Many have tried to follow in Frankenstein's footsteps but have not been able to replace a corpse's soul, leading to the rise of shambling, animated corpses as the new slave labor. When Watson's experiments are discovered by the British government, he is given a choice: go to Afghanistan under the guise of an army doctor to find the Russian Karamazov who may have Frankenstein's original notes or die. Watson thus embarks on a quest to find Dr. Frankenstein's memorandum, but ultimately he must decide the ultimate question posed by Frankenstein's research: will he be a monster? Or will he be a man? And where is the line between them?
When Mary Shelley published her novel Frankenstein in 1818, I wonder if she had any idea how enduring it would become. The tale of Dr. Victor Frankenstein's efforts to create life from dead bodies has inspired countless pieces of both pop culture and literary criticism, and Project Itoh's novel-turned-film The Empire of Corpses is but one of hundreds of reworkings of Shelley's original text. But it is also one of the few that appears to have read Shelley's work and taken the entirety of the original into consideration, making this worth seeing for that reason alone. The story, set in 1878 and spanning London, Bombay, Afghanistan, and California, assumes that Victor Frankenstein actually existed and was successful, although no one who came after him and attempted to replicate his work was. This lead to the development of “necroware,” early computer (or analytical engine) software that could reanimate the dead but left them unable to think, feel, or speak. Young medical student John Watson (yes, Sherlock Holmes' partner) believes that this is due to the loss of the soul, citing with historical improbability the findings of Massachusetts doctor Duncan McDougall. (McDougall's research was published in 1907.) He and his deceased friend sought to replicate the soul as Victor Frankenstein had, and when Watson's friend died, he reanimated him using his own necroware in an attempt to bring him back.
Duncan McDougall's research aside, the fidelity to literary accuracy is impressive. Mention is made of Frankenstein's notes being found in the Arctic, which lines up with Shelley's novel, and great care is taken to show how Watson receives the wounds he mentions having in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. The use of the Brothers Karamazov as fellow corpse engineers (the film's term for what some other stories call “reanimators”) is in line with Dostoyevsky's novel's themes of free will and the nature of God and morality, and the U.S.S. Richmond was right where the film places it in 1879. One of the most interesting touches is the use of real-life British Army Intelligence Officer Frederick Burnaby, who was a figure of popular culture as well as a decorated colonel. Burnaby in the film owes perhaps more to Victorian pop cultural portrayals than history, and he comes off as the larger-than-life figure media of the day made him. (The film also very carefully ends before his death in 1885.) More interesting in terms of literary references is the way that Watson has his reanimated friend, called Friday in a reference to Robinson Crusoe's companion, record all of his adventures – something that Watson himself will later do for his adventures with Sherlock Holmes. (This also provides an interesting potential clue to Friday's real, or at least later, identity.)
The film itself is gorgeous. Backgrounds are lush and faithful to the time period and with the exception of Hadaly, the lone female protagonist, everything is accurate. Hadaly's clothes are completely anachronistic (as is one random fist bump between Watson and Burnaby) and as such are distracting, as if she were an attempt to shoehorn in some unneeded fanservice. The animation is exquisitely rendered with deep colors and small details nicely depicted. The corpses move with a jerky lurch that calls to mind older, less faithful works based on Shelley's book, as does one scene of a man in a “Frankenstein” mask. While there is blood and violence, it doesn't feel excessive. This is much more a work of terror than horror, meaning that it preys upon you psychologically rather than trying to scare you with grossness. The result is that the film haunts you, creeping into your thoughts unexpectedly days after you've seen it.
Funimation's release has both the dub and sub tracks, both of which are strong. The dub uses British (and Russian) accents, which do not sound terrible to my ears, but bear in mind that I'm not English and may not be the best judge there. Both casts are strong, with my favorites in each track being Houko Kuwashima's Hadaly and Jason Liebrecht's Watson; special mention should be made of both Todd Haberkorn and Ayumu Murase's strangled noises as Friday; those cannot have been easy and are impressive. The extras aren't hugely different from any other Funimation release, but it does come with three copies of the film: Blu Ray, DVD, and a digital download.
Ultimately The Empire of Corpses continues what Mary Shelley's novel began – a search for humanity when the world (or death) takes it away. Victor Frankenstein feared his “monster,” and that fear and his inability to give him love and someone to love drove the book and in essence drives the film as well. Frankenstein's monster, called The One in the movie, is still looking for humanity in other people, and that is what John Watson and the other corpse engineers need to understand. Whether or not they do by the end is still a bit up in the air, as Watson is so focused on Friday that he has a hard time seeing anything else. But if you watch through the credits (which I absolutely encourage you to do), you might be able to come to a conclusion. The Empire of Corpses doesn't hand you anything on a platter, but it is a film worth thinking about after it is over – both for the way it answers (or doesn't) Mary Shelley's initial question of monster or man and for its take on British and Russian literature.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Exquisite visuals, well-constructed production, interesting and well-researched take on its literary influences, good use of terror vs horror, ending theme has a fun James Bond feel
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