Review: Empire of Corpses (2015)

copyright Madman Entertainment

So, I’ve discovered a concept more disturbing than a zombie apocalypse, and of course it’s all thanks to anime. Well, anime and maybe Mary Shelley, and at a guess, cancer. Empire of Corpses was science and speculative fiction author Project Itoh’s (aka Satoshi Itoh) last, unfinished novel. He died of cancer in 2009 at the very young age of 34, and it’s perhaps no surprise that what he was writing immediately before his death was a somewhat hauntingly desperate, slightly macabre story of which the main themes revolved around the definitions of life, death, resurrection, and the soul.

Using Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a launch pad, Itoh conceived not of a world where the mad doctor’s creation roamed the earth searching for meaning, but of a turn-of-the-century society which, inspired by the results of Frankenstein’s experiment, came up with a far more practical application – corpse labour. The Victorian age was a hive of invention, of industry and automation, of discoveries and the end of old ideas. Mary Shelley’s famous horror novel was itself a reflection of this period, playing upon the battleground between what was sacred and what was science. Empire of Corpses serves up this same confrontation in a completely social context. After all, surely dead bodies aren’t really doing anything, right? Why not get them up and put them to work? Then all the privileged living can just sit back, kick up their heels and not have to deal with all the unpleasant jobs in life.

Doctor John Watson (yes, that John Watson) is experimenting on corpses. He’s not interested in anything so mundane as a newly deceased valet though; what he’s trying to resurrect in the corpse of his best friend, Friday, is the element of the soul. Supposedly the body upon death is a little light on in the weight department, and current speculation over the one experiment that did work concludes that the missing grams must be the absence of the soul.

There's no overly developed sense of drama here, no sir.

There’s no overly developed sense of drama here, no sir. Friday meets his maker, sort of.

He probably could have asked Edward Elric and saved himself the trouble, but, surprise, it doesn’t work. And then the government arrives to shut down his illegal experiments and offer him a get-out-of-jail card. Being the only doctor obsessed enough to be trying to achieve what Frankenstein achieved apparently places him perfectly as the man to go after Victor’s lost notes and bring them back to England. And so starts a journey which spans the globe – from India to Afghanistan to Japan – with plenty of chase scenes, fight scenes, beautiful mysterious women and manly yelling.

It’s quite the ambitious and epic feature; a little bit pre-war spy-craft, a little bit serial adventure, a little bit zombie apocalypse mayhem, a little bit Victorian horror. There’s a distinct steam-punkian tone, as in the use of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, and a touch of cyberpunk too, with all the talk of “necroware” and Friday being ordered to plug himself into computers left and right in order to analyse their contents. Never mind pragmatic issues like how do they slow tissue necrosis and what’s their power source; clearly these things aren’t meant to be important. What’s important is that it’s a bit of a who’s who of Victorian history. You’re probably going to want Wikipedia handy every time a new character appears.

Alas, poor Yorick- Oh, wait. Wrong literary classic. The mysterious M gets down to business.

Alas, poor Yorick- Oh, wait. Wrong literary classic. The mysterious M gets down to business.

With all these elements, things get a bit out of hand towards the end and the initially strong narrative, i.e. the obsessions driving Watson, lose focus with the introduction of a few other narrative threads. It’s hard to tell, without reading the novel finished by Itoh’s friend and fellow speculative fiction writer Toh Enjoe, whether the way in which the story proceeds is directly a result of the original source or a product of popular entertainment conventions.

Animation and the score however are top notch, and considering Wit Studios are a Production IG offshoot that is as it should be. Wit are working on other Project Itoh titles, and it will be interesting to see if their themes relate. As it is, providing you’re okay with the macabre, Victorian overtones, Empire of Corpses is fast paced and thought-provoking, and despite its narrative flaws well worth the time it takes to sit through it, even if it can’t really make up its mind between high adventure serial and heavy psychological examination of life, death, and meaning.

7.5 Signs of sentience out of 10.
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