Title: The Empire Of Corpses
Production: Wit Studio
Distributor: Anime Limited
Platform(s): DVD, Blu-ray
Version Reviewed: Blu-ray
Released: 26th September 2016
I was first given the chance to watch The Empire of Corpses at the Leeds International Film Festival’s anime day last November; it was the final movie of the day and I’d stayed to check it out purely because I had heard so many mixed impressions of it. I wasn’t disappointed and the movie became a firm favourite of mine, but how well has it held up for a second viewing?
The Empire of Corpses is set in an alternate version of 19th Century England where corpses have been brought to life through the use of Necroware, which replaces their soul and leaves them with the ability to take orders and perform day to day labour and simple tasks. It is said that scientist Victor Frankenstein once discovered how to reanimate a corpse with a soul, this corpse becoming known as “The One”, but little is known about it or the notes Victor created in order to give The One a soul.
Our protagonist, John Watson (get used to hearing familiar names…) has been illegally performing experiments on the corpse of his deceased friend Friday, as he wishes to prove that the soul exists and can be brought back. It’s not long before he’s caught by the government, but instead of being sent to jail, he is sent on a mission by M, the head of the secret service.
The mission John must perform is to chase down Alexei Karamazov, who has come close to discovering how to return a soul to a corpse. Alongside some new friends, Frederick Burnaby and Nikolai Krasotkin, John begins a globe trotting adventure to discover more about the use of corpses and perhaps discover how to return Friday’s soul to his corpse.
The first half hour to 45 minutes of the movie are used as a bit of an excuse for Wit Studio (Attack On Titan) to animate numerous different locations in truly gorgeous detail. The time is also used to help develop the relationship between John, Burnaby and Nikolai, but the real meat of our plot comes when John and co. meet Alexei, who shows John the true meaning behind giving a corpse a soul. He also informs John of where he may be able to find Victor’s famous notes, which leads us to the second half of the movie.
Sadly the second half is where The Empire of Corpses begins to lose its way. It introduces The One into the story, who seems to have some scheme to free corpses from the ‘evil’ humans have committed in bringing them to life, but honestly not everything adds up. Some of this, sadly, is due to the fact that the original novel’s author (Project Itoh, also known by his real name of Satoshi Ito) passed away before completing the story. The book was then finished by To Enjo, a close friend of Ito’s, but the fact the work was finished by someone other than Ito himself really does show.
To the credit of Enjo, it’s safe to say that none of the characters really lose their way. There isn’t a major shift in John, Burnaby or any of the cast’s personalities and the problems are largely just the plot not quite matching up. There is a portion later on where the corpses bite humans and the bitten humans turn into corpses themselves, but surely this happened a few times before now with no effect to those who are still alive? It’s a tiny plot hole but these do add up and take away from an otherwise interesting story.
When I first watched The Empire of Corpses, I let a lot of the problems slide because I was captivated by the animation and our cast of characters, but on a second watch that doesn’t quite hold up any more. Familiar with the plot and well aware of the ending, it was difficult not to be a little put off by the numerous problems the movie actually has. Although considering how much I enjoyed the movie originally I wouldn’t let that put you off too much as honestly, the first time you’ll be too busy trying to take everything in to notice the small things that don’t quite add up.
Now let’s just take a moment to talk about how ridiculous some of the names in The Empire of Corpses truly are. We have John Watson, M, Friday (who is also given a codename involving 007…), Victor Frankenstein and even a brief appearance from a Thomas Edison and that’s just scratching the surface! Some of the names do fit the characters we’re given, but it’s still difficult to get over how silly some of them, and in the final showdown where you have people shouting “The One!” and “John Watson!” (why they had to shout their full name I’ll never understand), it’s hard to take the movie seriously.
Where animation is concern Wit Studio have done a truly wonderful job and bring to the table some truly fantastic animation. For a studio that had previously only really handled Attack on Titan before their work with The Empire of Corpses, it’s nice to see that they really did have a style of their own already. As I mentioned above, the first half of the story revolves around John travelling around numerous parts of the world, so Wit are given the chance to draw some deserts and snow-filled planes (they do a wonderful job animating falling snow, I was truly taken in by it) and these scenes allow the studio to go for a fairly realistic style that really showcase their talent. Even if the story isn’t quite up to scratch, it’s worth watching The Empire of Corpses just for the animation.
Music has been handled by Yoshihiro Ike who also provided the music for Days (which is currently airing), Kuroko’s Basketball from season 2 onwards and Tiger & Bunny. It’s difficult to really get a hold on why this soundtrack is so good because it never really stands out, even on a second viewing when I was listening for it, and yet it still builds the atmosphere really well. Perhaps not a soundtrack to be listened to on its own but within the context of the movie it definitely does its job well enough.
Our voice cast also offer some strong performances and are generally pretty memorable. John is played by Yoshimasa Hosoya (Haruhiro in Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, Azumane Asahi in Haikyu!! and Welf Crozzo in Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?) in Japanese and offers a thrilling and emotional performance which suits the character well. If we want to talk about the best voice actor though, then that has to go to Ayumu Murase (Shoyo Hinata in Haikyu!!, Junsa Sugimoto in Bungo Stray Dogs) who voices Friday in Japanese. For a character with little to no spoken dialogue beyond grunts and painful screaming, Murase proves a truly incredible fit for the role and leaves Friday a very likeable character who you can’t help but become attached to.
There is an English dub on offer but overall it lacks the emotional punch of the original Japanese track. Jason Liebrecht (Akira Takizawa in Eden of the East, Yato in Noragami) plays the role of John Watson and is probably the only member of the cast to provide a truly compelling performance. The others are riddled with fairly obvious fake accents (British and otherwise) and that takes away from the movie for me personally. If you’re a dub fan then this certainly isn’t a bad dub, but I recommend giving the Japanese track a watch first.
This release is brought to the United Kingdom thanks to Anime Limited and is available on both Blu-ray and DVD. The blu-ray is available as a Collector’s Edition combi-pack including both formats and an art booklet in a steel case. In regards to on-disc extras, the release includes some Funimation trailers, the original trailer for the movie and of course, the dub and subtitle tracks.
Overall, The Empire of Corpses is a fun watch if you can overlook the flaws and ridiculous names. It toys with an interesting idea and despite never really developing this to its full potential (simply because it gets too crazy), it’s intriguing and leaves you thinking about the possibilities for awhile afterwards. However, if you aren’t interested in the story then I’d highly recommend Empire of Corpses just for the animation as it’s an example of Wit Studio at their finest.
Disclosure: A copy of “The Empire of Corpses” was supplied by Anime Limited, the publisher, for the purposes of this review.