In March 2009, one of Japan’s youngest and perhaps greatest science-fiction writers died. Satoshi Itou, also known as Project Itoh, left behind a half-finished manuscript titled Empire of Corpses (屍者の帝国). In 2012, Toh EnJoe announced his intention to finish Itou’s work and it was published later that year with much acclaim. In 2015, three films based on Itou’s three key novels were released, including Empire of Corpses.
Unfortunately, ratings of the film have been pretty dismal. When you search the film on Google, one of the top suggested searches is ‘Empire of Corpses explained’. Today, I wanted to look at the disconnect between Itou’s written work and its translation onto the screen.
In an alternate 19th century world, corpses are reanimated as workers for humankind. From cannon fodder to servers at restaurants, corpses have formed an entirely new class group. The story focuses on a young John Watson who is desperately trying to unlock the secrets of the human soul so that he can properly resurrect his friend, Friday. His work has caught the attention of the British Secret Service who send him, along with some companions, on a mission to retrieve Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s notes. These notes are rumored to have instructions on imbuing corpses with a thinking, feeling soul.
Plot & Story
I believe where the movie really meets its demise is the plot. So much content is jam-packed in the film’s two hours and the audience can barely keep up. Characters hop from one country to the next, following strings of hints that don’t seem to quite fit together and fizzle into obscurity. Side-characters are thrown in with no real introduction, disappear for an hour, and then come back in with the expectation that audiences are supposed to remember them! But the irony of all this is that the movie could have been great if it was simplified and slimmed down. Entire plot points could be completely removed and not make an ounce of difference to the ending except of making for a better viewing experience.
Perhaps my biggest frustration with the film is the philosophical babble of each character’s intentions and motives. If the movie stuck with its simple overarching theme of ‘Watson wants to get Friday’s soul’, I could get onboard with that. But instead, there’s a bunch of monologued self-loafing that rivals Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein himself. If that mess was hard to work out, it’s the same for pretty much every character except Burnaby. Burnaby is Watson’s bodyguard and seems not to have much character outside of being a manly-man. Characters kill themselves for some reason, the ones that are alive bemoan humanity and the actual interesting character does a 180 at the end. Honestly, the only way this film could be more confusing is if they threw in Luffy from One Piece at the end to do a little tap-dance.
Art & Music
Even if I was completely lost on the movie’s plot, I could at least sit back and enjoy the art. The location designs were absolutely stunning. I almost felt like I was looking at a postcard. Action scenes were fluid, and the small details of various weapons and tools really stood out. The character designs were pretty average. I will make a note that the one female character in the film, Hadaly, while gorgeous, suffered a dangerous case of boob physics. They moved around like a pair of melons strapped to her body rather than actual flesh. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to comment on music-wise. To be honest, I barely noticed any music throughout the film besides one or two scenes and the end credits.
Themes & Trivia
Playing God: Just like the original Frankenstein, the film shows the consequences of one’s hubris, whether it comes in the form of personal sacrifice or the suffering of others.
Steampunk: The various mechanical tools and character designs have a definite steampunk design inspiration.
Twenty-One Grams – The theory of the soul’s weight of twenty-one grams is based on an experiment conducted in 1907, where a scientist measured the weight of six patients before and after death. Not the most scientific experiment ever done, but it is one that has captured the fascination of individuals for many years.
Not the Empire Itou Imagined
As unique a premise Empire of Corpses was, it was one that really did not translate on screen. At times the film was a mish-mash of scenes with no real plot driving it, and at others it was drawn out impossibly long with no end in sight. As visually stunning as the film was, the background and character designs are not enough to forgive that mess of a plot. ‘Disappointing’ is the main word that comes to mind to summarise this film. A disappointing use of potential.
- Visually stunning
- Encouraged me to check out Project Itoh’s novels
- Story is a mess of random scenes mish-mashed together
- Character motives are shallow
- Drawn out ending that is ultimately unsatisfying
Empire of Corpses