The Empire of the Corpses saw release in Japan a year ago. Not too long after seeing a limited theatrical release in the United States, FUNimation released the Blu-ray. Empire is a truly interesting film. It a science fiction thriller with some horror elements. It finds a fine line between telling a realistic story while delving into sci-fi territory. Not only is it a must watch for anime fans; it’s a must watch for anyone who have enjoyed the classic universal monster stories.
Set mainly in an alternate 19th century England, Empire’s plotline is engaging from the start. The narration by John Watson sets the tone for what’s to come. The driving force behind the story is the search for Victor Frankenstein’s notes. This is an excellent backdrop and one could even see the film as a brilliant take on Frankenstein’s Monster. (In this film referred to as “the One.”) Even though Victor is long dead, his presence is felt because he’s the one who discovered how to reanimate a corpse. The military uses this discovery to reanimate the dead for battle. The dead are also used for chores among other laborious tasks. It’s an interesting status quo, and gives the film a Walking Dead feel.
Even though people have managed to bring back the dead, no one has managed to do what Victor did: give the dead a soul. This is the driving force behind Watson’s character arc. He’s managed to bring his friend and colleague Friday back. Watson is desperate to give him his soul; because, while the body of Friday is there, without a soul it’s an empty shell. This might sound well intended, but the ongoing theme is to destroy the notes so that mankind won’t have that kind of power. Watson however when he finally comes into possession of the notes he hesitates, which leads to the deaths of many. People cannot play God, and when they try disastrous results take place.
Watson is portrayed as a man bent on bringing his friend’s soul back, to the point where it consumes him. It’s interesting to watch, especially when the One arrives on the scene for the first time. He questions whether Watson will become like Victor, a haunting message. The writing is fantastic from beginning to end. There are however some things that may have been resolved too fast. The consequences for Watson not destroying the notes were brushed to the side quickly. The scene with Burnaby yelling at Watson that it’s the latter’s fault was excellent, but right after that they’re back to being friends. It’s understandable that Burnaby would put aside his hatred to help Watson stop the One, but the resolution was rather quick.
Speaking of Burnaby, the cast is strong. Burnaby is a great character and without him the film would have been more dreary than it needed to be. Hadaly was good, but the writing needed to develop her better. Her first big appearance is a deus ex machina moment, and then later the plot twist is a little much to take in. If the film had shown a flashback, it would have been better. Her “father” was Thomas Edison, which is fascinating but again the story needed to show her backstory for it to be more effective. Nikolai appears early on. Watson does’t at first trust him, giving the viewer an interesting dynamic. Nikolai made for a nice contrast to Burnaby’s personality. (They were very similar to Fai and Kurogane from Tsubasa.) It was disappointing what the writing did with Nikolai toward the middle act. It was a powerful and effective scene nonetheless. If it wasn’t apparent before, this scene made it apparent: the destruction of Victor’s notes was top priority.
Frankenstein has been portrayed in various ways throughout the years. This version in Empire does the Monster justice. Here we see that he is disgruntled with human beings. All of his dialogue is excellent. From his ominous arrival to the final act, he might be the greatest character in the film. His endgame plan has a classical, tragic appeal to it. He shares the antagonist role with M. M isn’t as interesting, but the writing still makes good use of his ideology, even if the dialogue is just thrown at the viewer in the climax.
The film moves at a great pace. There’s a lot of dialogue, especially in the final act, but there’s a good number of action sequences to balance it out. The soundtrack is standard, but it does have a thematic quality to it. It works well with the 19th century setting. The greatest theme might be the piano melody played by the One. (It sounded like something straight out of a Universal 30’s film.) The ending of the film could have been better. It leaves the viewer confused and unsatisfied. In contrast, the after-credits scene is upbeat and a fun homage. (If you thought John Watson was just a borrowed name, you’re in for a treat.)
Overall, Empire of the Corpses is one of the best anime films from the last decade. The 19th century setting gives the story’s atmosphere a sense of elegance. The biggest aspect is that it’s also a sequel to the Frankenstein story. The driving force behind everything is Victor’s notes, which made for an excellent backdrop. Watson is a likable, flawed character. He’s a human obsessed with bringing back his friend’s soul from the dead, to the point where it jeopardizes the mission. The fallout of being obsessed with this was fascinating to watch. Themes are explored, such as free will. The One is one of the greatest versions of Frankenstein’s Monster. Every scene he was in he commanded a presence. Even though the film could have used an additional 15 minutes to flesh out some things (the explosive climax throws too much at the viewer), it is nonetheless a must-see.