The Empire Of Corpses – Review


The Empire of Corpses, or Shisha no Teikoku as it’s known in its native Japan is a project that has been on the radar for quite some time. The film itself being based on the book by the late Project Itoh who wrote a trilogy of acclaimed books and was heavily endorsed by his friend Hideo Kojima the creator of the Metal Gear Solid series. His death sadly meant that he never got a chance to see any of his films receive anime adaptations, but I think the man’s work speaks for itself. The strange factor though, is, why was Empire of Corpses picked, it seems a strange choice just because it was the last of the three books he wrote, not that the books were connected with one another, they were all separate stories. From what I recall, Itoh did not complete Empire of Corpses, it had to be finished by ghost writers. It would have made more sense to do one of his other novels first (That being said, however, it’s not as if the guy added potential great style and flair to this film). It’s directed by Ryotaro Makihara who directed an anime film called Hal but most notably worked in the animation department of The Full Metal Alchemist movie and was also a key animator on the film Colourful.

Empire of Corpses is interesting and it makes a great last review because this was a review a year in the making. I saw this film originally at MCM Comicon in London as part of an event called MCM Loves Anime and when I saw it, it was the first screening outside of Japan having only been out in cinemas for a couple of weeks in its native homeland. However, it was a film festival so I didn’t count it amongst my overall count of the year, but did say that I would try and review the film when it received a Blu Ray and DVD release. Well, a couple of months ago that actually happened, so this will be a first for the Axia film society. Normally, when I review a film I am reviewing it upon my very first viewing. This time I’m going to be re-watching the film, a year after seeing it and I will be commenting on whether my thoughts have changed with regards to the film on a second viewing. Also, for the first time ever I will be commenting on the Japanese cast and the English dub cast, since the first time I saw it in Japanese and for this review I watched the dub. So, is the highly anticipated Empire of Corpses as good as people were expecting it to be.

The Empire of Corpses takes place in the late 19th century in an alternative time line that mixes fictional characters with real people. After Viktor Frankenstein’s research has successfully caused a corpse to be re-animated, the world attempts to replicate his research. However, the copses are unable to have free thought and will, aka a soul. John Watson (played by Joshimasa Hosoya and Jason Liebrecht) successfully manages to get close after re-animating his friend Friday (played by Ayumu Murase and Tod Hackaborn), however, his experiments are illegal and he is picked up by British Intelligence officer M (played by Akio Otsuka and Sean Henegan), in order to work for the British Government, with the express purpose of traveling to Afghanistan to track down Russian scientist Alexi Karamazov (played by Shin’ichiro Miki and Mike McFarland) along with the help of Frederick Barnaby (played by Taiten Kusunoki and Jane Michael Tatum). When they track down Alexi, they must discover whether he has Viktor’s notes and what they reveal for the future of corpse re-animation research, however, there are some other dark forces at work.

Empire of Corpses was a really interesting set up. The title is very apt since the sheer amount of re-animated corpses that are roaming the streets in a mindless state are being used for military and remedial jobs, perhaps an allegory to the prevalent slave trade that was going on during this historical period. It is also something that is rarely explored in anime, ‘steam punk’. You’d think this film would be amazing. Well, it’s good, yes that’s all I can really say about the film. I think it’s rather good. The biggest problem is that the plot is far too long, which is rather weird. The film runs at 2hrs which actually would be a good time to adapt the book, however, because of the way the book is structured and I suspect this is a rather loyal adaptation, it’s not paced properly like a film. It feels more like this should be a 12 or 24-25 episode series, which Toho easily could have done on the budget they had. I think the whole thing would have been paced a lot better and they even could have put more in that was cut out. The story as a concept, as I mentioned, is rather compelling, especially considering this isn’t like a Zombie movie, while they may be re-animated corpses they are not Zombies in the traditional sense and Friday’s demostrating intelligence leads you to believe there could be more to this entire thing, it’s not quite capitalised on however and when a lot of reveals are made they feel rather sporadic and it seems like even the characters don’t really know what is going on.

The whole thing is a massive search for Viktor’s notes it’s the big end goal for everyone, but there are a lot of other sub plots going on and a couple of them go absolutely nowhere, in fact there are a couple that feel almost entirely pointless. There is a big reveal around Alexi when he is found and it’s a good moment leading to a really haunting image, but the whole part of the sub plot never really comes back into play and by the end it feels like Alexi’s only real purpose in the plot really is to get them to their next destination, making his character feel rather pointless. I also felt the use of actual historical figures mixing with the fictional characters like Viktor Frankenstein and John Watson from Sherlock Holmes was rather bizarre and causes the film to lose some credibility. It’s not really like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where in the comic at least, the 2 were merged together quite well, they feel kind of jarring. Former President Ulyseus Grant is brought into the mix, and believe me, having him in the role was entirely unnecessary and could easily have been filled by a fictional character. He is also joined by Charles Babbage, who at least gets a point to be in the film, however it does kind of undermine the credibility and just feels like it has been put in there to remind us that this film takes place towards the turn of the century.

I’m probably making it sound like I am bashing this film, but it’s only because it does feel like a bit of a slog fest constantly shifting from perspective to perspective, giving you very little time to get a grip of what is going on, other than that, I actually think this is a well told story. If this film had been paced better it would have been amazing, there is actually some really great elements here, like the nature of the soul, what it means to be human and asking the question when science goes too far. Ok, it never quite dives too deeply into any of these subjects, but I appreciate the effort that’s been put in. Also the characters are rather likeable for the most part, ok they do a couple of stupid things every so often and a couple feel like they are just put in to fill a role rather than to be a character, but for the most part, I actually think the film is rather interesting, though John Watson appears to be the only one who gets much of a character arc. There is a slight arc for the only female character in the entire film, Hadary Lilith (played by Kana Hanazawa in the Japanese version and Morgan Garrett in the dub), but her character arc comes a bit too late in the plot, she is rather sporadically in the first half of the film and then feels like the writers decide to put her in the final act at the last minute, she is virtually absent for the middle act of the film.

Empire of Corpses is really frustrating with its plot because it feels like it was trying really hard to tell an interesting story, but it never quite reaches the heights it wants to reach. However, if you go into this film for just popcorn fodder, I think you might get a decent film out of this because it’s actually a very good action film. The action is tight paced and well choreographed and it moves nicely, some of the scenes actually get kind of tense towards the end. Granted the film has a couple of villains and the reveal of the final villain is rather obvious, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that they are actually quite good villains, for the most part. One of them does feel like one note and the reveal of the identity is very obvious, though, not necessarily if you are watching the dub and I will go into detail about that later. If there is one thing Empire of Corpses really needed to cut shorter, however, was the endings, this film has way too many things that feel like an ending, which lends more credence to the idea that it would have made a better series since a lot of the scene changes feel more like the end of an episode than they do for the ending of a scene in a movie. I feel like this film is trying to give Return of the King a run for its money in how many times it fake’s you out with what the ending is. The real problem we have, however, is that these scenes feel jarring and as a result the whole thing doesn’t flow well together. There’s nothing really wrong with the plot and narrative, most of what I have mentioned are just minor nit picks but when you put them all together with the poor pacing of the film you realise for all the good this film does, there is something really holding it back. The positives I will say, however, is that Watson is a very likeable lead, even if he does make a couple of stupid decisions down the line and I did like the camaraderie between him, Barnaby and Hadley, plus I really liked the relationship between him and Friday and I loved the way they portrayed a man desperate to see his friend return after death and how he would cling on to anything that would give him hope. It’s one of the reasons I won’t say that this is a bad film because of moments like that.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, this is the first time I am ever going to compare a sub with the dub since I have now seen the film in both.
The sub cast does a decent job as you would expect but the one thing I said at the time I first saw the film was that I felt the Japanese voices felt really out of place considering out of the entire cast of characters, only one of them is Japanese, the rest being British or Russian. I was able to suspend my disbelief enough to say they turned out good performances but I said that this film would benefit from the dub particularly if whoever gained the licence for the dub would use a British cast instead of an American cast. That theory got squashed, however, because Funimation got the licence and they tend to use their own in house actors, which is no exception here. If you are used to all of the shows that Funimation has dubbed over the years and considering their back catalogue. With their sheer dominance along with Crunchyroll, it’s hardly suprising that if you have the dubbed version you may end up recognising a few of the voices. Jason Liebrecht has been placed in the top role, which took me a while to realise it, but he actually plays Yato in Noragami, and he does a decent job for what he is given, though his British accent is a bit weird at times. I was very pleased to see Sean Hennegan playing M here, he has been playing roles in some of my favourite anime to come out over the last few years, including Baccano, Tokyo Ghoul, and Romeo X Juliet and he really brings something to the role this time around. The rest of the cast feels a bit weird, J Michael Tatum, who you will recognise as playing Eisach in Baccano and Irwin in Attack on Titan, is doing his best here but his British accent really needs some work and that’s really what I can say, the Russian accents aren’t too bad, but I think the British accents feel rather fake and forced, granted they were backed in a corner due to the setting and the nature of the characters, but they would have been better if they had used their natural American accents.

So to sum up, I think the dub cast is well cast and are probably better cast than the Japanese cast, however, I think the sub cast turns in a better performance overall and this is coming from someone who will try and watch a dub before he ever watches a sub, some exceptions notwithstanding. My attitude would be, if you enjoy watching Anime in a dub the cast is perfectly passable and you will get a perfectly decent performances, however, when you realise who all these actors have played in past Anime that Funimation has licensed, you may be a bit disappointed that they are turning in average performances compared to those roles.

Now, as for the animation, well I actually think this is one of Witt Stuido’s best work in a long time. Witt is a really good studio, so that is saying a lot. I may really like a lot of the animation in their previous shows like, Attack On Titan and Seraph Of The End, but this was dam good. Ok I’m not talking Studio Ghibli or animation quality like the previously reviewed Your Name, but this is still nothing to be scoffed at. My only complaint when it comes to the animation is that it is drastically different from how it appears on the heavily stylised poster and DVD box. I suspect people that judge the film based on the poster and DVD box alone may be slightly disappointed in that sense, but they really shouldn’t be because the animation here is top notch and it really suits the brilliantly choreographed action scenes.

The soundtrack is not too brilliant. There are a few scenes that play out with some brilliant songs, but there is nothing that really stand out about it. The score is perfectly competent, however. The Empire of Corpses is what I would describe as a pretty good anime movie, but not something that I think I would want to re-visit again. There is a really good set up and story here, and for the most part, if you don’t think about it too much, this is actually a pretty good film with some decent characters and a plot that has some interesting ideas and gets them down. The problem is it never quite fulfils the ideas true potential and as a result makes the whole thing feel kind of lost, not helped by the films Terrible pacing which suits a TV series much more than a 2hr film and leaves the whole thing feeling condensed, yet drawn out, in a sort of weird cognitive dissonance effect.

Does that make it a bad film? No, I actually think it’s rather enjoyable but it doesn’t make it a great film, and I think this may have a few people disappointed who were looking forward to seeing the film. I personally kind of like it, but I think there is a reason why this film didn’t stay in my brain for a year after seeing it. Maybe another one of Project Ito’s novels will get turned into a film, I wouldn’t mind seeing another, in fact there is a very good video I found on YouTube about his work which I will leave a link to on the bottom, and because of it I hope this film will have some kind of success so I can get chance to see another film based on his work because I think there is some potential here, let’s just see what happens.

“ And that is 2016 ! ”
While I may have enjoyed myself a lot at the cinema’s and Television gave us some interesting series to look at and it’s been one of the best years for anime in a long time, when you go back to real life, this year was the equivalent to a Dr Pepper advert, ‘what’s the worst that could happen’. But between what has been a lot of disappointing and some downright awful decisions made and some terrible tragedies committed by some absolutely awful people, I think it’s right to remind ourselves that we need to get on and live for our own sakes and for the sake of our society around us and I think great movies can really benefit from that. So in 2017 I recommend that we keep vigilant what is going on around us, but we also remember to sit back and have some fun, 2016 was a great year for the Film Society for me since I saw more films than I expected to see and there were some really great films that I saw this year which I don’t think I will forget.

We are going to kick of 2017 the same way we kicked off 2015 and 2016 by finishing off my unfinished business of the year. Join me on 6 January where I will be giving my thought on the Best and Worst movies of 2016 aka what DVD’s do you need to be buying or pre-ordering and what movies need to be avoided more than Katie Hopkins at a Cocktail party.

Come back again on 13 January where I will be giving my review of Assassins Creed.

Thanks for reading my review. I hoped you enjoyed reading my review as much as I enjoyed writing it and Happy New Year to you. I intend to spend New Year in exactly the same way I spend every New Year, bored out of my skull complaining that everyone Jools Holland got for his New Year special is rubbish.
Calvin – Nerd Consultant

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