An anime feature adaptation of late sci-fi virtuoso Project Itoh’s steampunk dystopian novel on computerized necromancy, “Empire of Corpses” is exquisitely drawn yet bogs down in a narrative as bloated as a drowned carcass. Following a young, androgynous Dr. Watson on a globetrotting espionage mission to find Victor Frankenstein’s secret formula, Itoh’s richly imaginative yarn is literally and figuratively a soul-searching journey. Yet, despite sprawling, jumbled exposition, director Ryotaro Makihara’s big-screen realization boasts such dazzling artwork and cinematic brio that it will live long on U.S. distributor Funimation’s streaming platform, aimed at hardcore Japanese anime geeks.
Itoh (aka Satoshi Ito) burst upon Japan’s science fiction scene with “Genocide Organ” and “Harmony,” but regrettably died of cancer at the age of 34. His last, unfinished novel “The Empire of Corpses” was completed by his friend and peer To Enjo. Produced by Wit Studio, which boasts the anime series “Attack on Titan” on its slate, “Empire” was the second animated feature adapted from Itoh’s works.
The film re-imagines the Victorian age as one feeding off two scientific breakthroughs a century ago — Victor Frankenstein’s experiment to resurrect the dead, and Charles Babbage’s invention of the prototype computer. In Europe, empire-building and the industrial revolution are powered by tireless slave-labor corpses, reanimated and controlled through a hard drive, called Necroware, installed in their heads. Over the course of the film, programmed corpses take on multiple symbolic references: robot technology, the evils of colonialism (with a contempo allusion to globalization), and godless existence.
In 1878, medical student John H. Watson (Yoshimasa Hosoya) has illicitly reanimated his deceased friend, whom he has renamed Friday (Ayumu Murase), with his own advanced Necroware, which gives a corpse the power to analyze data. What he’s obsessed with finding out, however, is whether the dead body still has a soul. He’s blackmailed by M (Akio Otsuka), head of British secret service, into undertaking an expedition to retrieve the lost “notes” of Frankenstein, which may have led to a new batch of corpses with enhanced functions, equipped for warfare, a condition that would tip the balance of world power.
Thus begins an expedition that takes Watson and Friday to India, Central Asia, Japan, and the U.S. Bolstered by Makihara’s breakneck pacing, the macabre yet vigorous battles against armies of corpses demonstrate Wit Studio’s talent for creating animated action. Yet even more satisfying are the vibrant color palettes of vastly different landscapes, from the muddy Ganges with turbaned corpses pulling barges, to dusty crags in Kabul and the snow-capped mountain curves of the Khyber Pass.
Like much of Japanese fantasy manga, the story appropriates figures from Western history and fiction, nonchalantly refashioning them to far-fetched but generally interesting effect. For travel companions, Watson has English adventurer Frederick Burnaby; Hadaly Lilith (Kana Hanazawa) from French symbolist sci-fi novel “The Future Eve”; and Nikolai Krasotkin (Daiki Yamashita) from “The Brothers Karamazov.” Ulysses Grant (Koji Ishii), Thomas Edison (Koji Takeda), and Japanese general Seigo Yamazawa also lend him a hand at pivotal points.
The expedition reaches its most intriguing juncture when Watson and his gang step foot in a sequestered village, coming face-to-face with corpse engineer Alexei Karamazov’s dubiously developed new breed. Karamazov (Shinichiro Miki, nothing like Dostoevsky’s character) is reminiscent Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” inasmuch as he plays God in this hidden Shangri-la. In a blistering confrontation between the protagonists, the film’s central conflict of morality versus science, and the implied reference to human experiments in war is grimly articulated.
The incident provides a lead for Watson that takes him and his companions to Tokyo, setting up an exuberant rendering of the early Meiji Era, with vividly illustrated scenes of a sumo wrestling match and a racy action set piece driven by zombie samurai. However, despite the sudden resurfacing of “The One” (Takayuki Sugo) — Frankenstein’s prototype corpse — there’s little dramatic traction. Before the conundrum of the lost “notes” and The One’s role is cleared up, the protagonists leap across the continent to San Francisco, where a very cinematic shootout only adds to the narrative entropy, as the film morphs into full-blown zombie horror. By the time it reaches a protracted finale at the Tower of London, viewers are bombarded with so many mind-boggling plot twists that it’s impossible not to throw one’s hands up in dismay. A pity, since the exquisitely detailed architecture and machinery featured are crowning examples of steampunk aesthetics.
With a huge roster of historical and fictional characters coming and going, it’s Burnaby and Krasotkin who stand out, thanks to the former’s hot-blooded derring-do and the latter’s unflappable cool. Watson, who betrays no clues of becoming Holmes’ sidekick in a later life, is portrayed as the sensitive, self-doubting philosopher, seduced by the enigma of immortality. His friendship with Friday is recalled in flashbacks with all the homoerotic trappings of “Boys Love” (a staple genre in Japanese girls manga).