A Project Itoh Retrospective, Part I – The Empire of Corpses

I’ve only ever read one of the works by the late Satoshi Itoh. It was his first novel, Gyakusatsu Kikan, or in English, Genocidal Organ. It was a stirring sci-fi novel depicting a future in which first-world countries became surveillance states out of fear of terrorism. Once you’ve read some of his work, it isn’t surprising that he was great friends with Hideo Kojima, the writer/ director behind the Metal Gear Solid series.

Itoh wrote three published novels in his time before losing a battle with cancer in 2009. Genocidal Organ was followed by Harmony in 2008. In the same year, he penned the novelization of Kojima’s grandest work yet, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Before losing a battle with cancer in 2009, Itoh began work on another story, The Empire of Corpses.

That final story would go on to be finished by Itoh’s friend Toh Enjoe and published in 2012. In 2014, a film project was announced, adapting all three of his original stories to animation. Genocidal Organ would be animated by Manglobe (Samurai Champloo, Ergo Proxy). Harmony would be helmed by Studio 4°C (the Berserk: Golden Age Arc movies, Mind Game). Finally, The Empire of Corpses would be helmed by Studio WIT (Attack on Titan, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress).

This ambitious project would be simply titled: Project Itoh.

Even with no subtitles, this trailer gives me chills

Back in 2017, I wrote briefly about Itoh’s history in anticipation of Genocidal Organ‘s theatrical release in the US. However, I missed an opportunity to truly explore the merits of these films. It’s been three years and I haven’t seen much attention given to these unique science-fiction stories. It’s time to consider whether or not this project truly did justice to the works of a talented author who passed away too soon.

From director Ryoutarou Makihara, this is The Empire of Corpses.

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In an alternate history, Victor Frankenstein was successful in restoring the soul of a dead man. Known as The One, this creature would become the ideal of which all scientists would strive to recreate in their own research. In this history, the reanimation of corpses became the dominant focus of science. The dead, while never as perfect as The One, became the new workforce of the world.

The story follows John Watson in the years before he met Sherlock Holmes. Along with his friend Friday, he endeavored to discover the secrets of the human soul to truly bring people back from the dead. However, after his friend’s untimely death, John resurrects him, intending to continue his research.

M, voiced by Akio Otsuka and Sean Hennigan

His illegal reanimation of Friday’s corpse catches the attention of M from the British Secret Service, who makes Watson a deal. He can go to prison or he can work for him and Watson takes his chances with the government. His assignment sends him on a quest to find Frankenstein’s research notes to stop them from falling into the wrong hands.

Along with Friday and his newly assigned partner Frederick Burnaby, Watson makes his way across the world in search of the research notes that he hopes will allow him to bring back Friday’s soul. Along the way, he slowly tweaks Friday’s programming, implementing every new method he discovers to resurrect his companion. However, it becomes clear soon that more than one person is pursuing the notes.

The premise of Empire and the technology at the heart of the story feel like if a Victorian spin on Ghost in the Shell. From the plugging of cables into people’s necks to the elaborate technology used in programming the undead with “pseudo-spiritual elements,” it all feels far-fetched but fleshed out with care.

In a world where the dead walk, not as a plague, but as a function of society, how does the world change? The answer is both that it changes greatly, while also not at all. The opening of the film establishes that the undead were welcomed after women’s movements promoted the use of the undead for war instead of their husbands and sons.

War is a large theme of the movie. In a way, the story mirrors the common theme of Itoh’s other works: the ugliness of human nature. As the characters march through Afghanistan, they witness battles between armies of undead led by living commanders of rival nations. Despite the predictability of the undead’s programming making battle seem irrelevant, one character points out how war persists out of a desire for nations to tell tales of heroism and valor.

Similar to Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 4, Itoh’s stories often explore war as an unnecessary blight that is more often than not pursued out of greed. The boom of necromancy and its exploitation in warfare sets the tone for a story about how technological advancement is too often molested for the sake of mankind’s uglier addictions.

Rewatching the film after all this time and after absorbing more of Itoh’s work, this aspect of the film resonated with me more and made the story a lot stronger. Originally, what made me fall in love with the film was it’s aesthetic and the scale of its adventure.

[left to right] John Watson (Yoshimasa Hosoya and Jason Liebrecht) and Friday (Ayumu Murase and Todd Haberkorn)

Despite the darker elements, there is something so nostalgic about the globe-trotting adventure on display in this film. It reminds me of the whimsy of older adventure films, be they Indiana Jones or the fantastical Studio Ghibli films of my formative years. Combined with the darker color palette of the film’s portrayal of Victorian London – especially during the conclusion – and the film harkens back to the Tim Burton films of my youth.

This film’s greatest achievement in sights and sounds was giving me an aged-up version of the kinds of escapism that shaped my tastes as a child. The fact that I’ve picked up on more of the film’s philosophy upon rewatching it only makes its importance greater to me. It’s fitting that this film feels like the successor to those films from my youth yet is also far more than just escapism by the end.

The desire to find a soul is a plot hook that has been used in no shortage of ways, but it’s such a dramatic and theatrical one that I consider it timeless. I interpret this film very much as a love story. Watson goes across the world so desperately trying to bring Friday back because he despairs at having lost them without being able to convey his heart to him before they passed.

Watson is an intelligent but desperate man. He doesn’t care about the danger that the research notes pose so long as he gets his friend back. At once it is his greatest flaw, but it is also his ideal. He believes in striving forward and doesn’t think that progress requires the sacrifice of lives.

While I enjoyed Watson and Friday’s relationship and thought Burnaby to be an amusing and endearing companion, my favorite character ended up being Lilith Hadaly, an assistant to US President Ulysses S. Grant. Hadaly is a recurring character veiled in mystique for much of the film. From the moment she is introduced, however, she makes a striking impression.

Lilith Hadaly, voiced by Kana Hanazawa and Morgan Garrett

I can’t explain the full extent of why she is so cool without delving into spoilers. All I can say is that her background and her motives for aiding Watson are inherently intriguing and make her a standout member of the party during the conclusion.

Something that may have already been apparent from the plot synopsis alone is this story’s homages to literature. Watson as the main character is one thing. Besides the character M, there are a few James Bond references such as one character’s callsign being 007 or the Osato Chemical Company (a reference to You Only Live Twice). Straying from British fiction, the character Alexei Karamazov is a reference to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

The film delights in these references, as well as the appearance of historical figures, some integral to the plot, and others just cameos. They don’t serve as much purpose narratively beyond being a love letter, but I didn’t mind. I still remember watching the film in the theater and just having fun with each nod and wink to classic works of fiction.

The film’s greatest weakness is also where I believe the film fully achieves the pinnacle of its aesthetic. The conclusion sees a climactic battle with the stakes raised appropriately for a fantastical adventure film such as this. As much as I love the payoff, certain ideas are explored too late for the conclusion to make total sense.

Given that this is a film about zombies, I’m sure many have a concrete idea about the most common rule about the undead: if they bite you, you become a zombie. However, as fantastical as the concept of the film is, The Empire of Corpses loves to ground itself as much as possible in its own rules.

With most zombie fiction, the undead are created either by voodoo magic or a viral infection. However here they are created by vague advancements in technology related to bio-programming. There’s no set rule in this film stating that when bitten you turn into a zombie. So when the conclusion begins to portray this, it feels sudden, as funny as it sounds.

Granted, the technology behind the zombies is revealed to be far more advanced than initially thought, with analytical engines around the world being used as radio towers of sorts. Still, the extent of these analytical engines’ capabilities are only explored later on. These late additions to the world-building are big pills to swallow for sure, but despite how cluttered the ending feels, the conclusion still managed to capture my attention.

An exceptional piece from the score by Yoshihiro Ike

The soundtrack by Yoshihiro Ike is enchanting. It truly captures the epic feel I got from adventure films way back when and it is certainly his best work. While I thought his score for B: The Beginning was lacking, this track managed to surpass his music for Kuroko no Basket, Dororo, and Ergo Proxy. It also bears mentioning that Ike is responsible for the score in all three Project Itoh films, meaning I might eat my words if I enjoy the music in those other two more upon rewatching them.

The animation across the board was great. There is some CGI in instances where there are large crowds and there are certainly lots of those, but the art direction by Yuusuke Takeda left me with a sense of wanderlust for the beautiful venues portrayed. Shoutout to Tsukasa Kakizakai for the background art, as well.

The action animation has a comparable level of quality to WIT’s other works, notably, Attack on Titan‘s first season. Granted, the action design itself is far less grand than Titan, but every sword slash or gunshot was executed with care.

On the topic of the English Dub, I enjoyed it wholeheartedly, but that might also be because I’m a sucker for any dub with British accents. Overall I think the performers did a fine job, although the Russian accents could feel slightly clichéd. Jason Liebrecht’s performance as Watson was good for the most part, but when he got into impassioned arguments with other characters, I felt like his accent could sound a bit strained and too high-pitched. Despite that, I think the dub is good enough that I couldn’t imagine not watching the film in this way.

The Empire of Corpses holds up as one of my favorite comfort movies, despite the grim subject matter. It is a marriage of thoughtful (if not fully realized) commentary on human nature and the pacing of a blockbuster action-adventure tale. It’s dazzling and sets a high bar for the next two films to follow.

Next week, I will take a look back at the second film of the trilogy, Studio 4°C’s Harmony.

Part II – Harmony

Part III – Genocidal Organ

The Empire of Corpses is available on Blu-ray through Funimation. It’s also available for legal streaming on Netflix outside of America.

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What are your thoughts on The Empire of Corpses? Was it an enjoyable ride or were you feeling overwhelmed by the end? Leave a comment below and tell me what other spooky anime I should check out. It is nearing Halloween after all.

Speaking of, I suppose you could consider this my Halloween review. It’s certainly got the right aesthetic for it. I hope you’ll come back next week for the next part of my Project Itoh retrospective.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time!


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