Part I – The Empire of Corpses
Part II – Harmony
I find it amusing that the Project Itoh films adapted Itoh’s novels in the reverse order of when they were released. While that wasn’t the original intention, as the release schedule was different before The Empire of Corpses‘ announcement, it nevertheless became this way.
Empire was a mere concept of a story never completed by Itoh himself before he lost his battle with cancer. Next, Harmony, the tale of medical dystopia, was written amid Itoh’s cancer treatment. Genocidal Organ might not have a clear parallel to Itoh’s plight, but it was his first and most prominent written work. Through this film project, it’s almost like Itoh was becoming alive again.
That said, the film was hardly as optimistic as such a claim would imply. Genocidal Organ is a militaristic sci-fi drama that dissects the mind of soldiers in a future where they can be made to feel nothing. The influence between Itoh and the works of Hideo Kojima is plain as day and this story arguably goes even harder in portraying the horrors of modern warfare than MGS4 did.
This film was also delayed from late 2015 to late 2017 as Manglobe went bankrupt and production resumed under a new studio. The production problems combined with the long wait meant that the film project lost steam while the expectations grew larger for those still anticipating it. When all was said and done, was Project Itoh a success?
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After a homemade nuclear weapon is detonated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, major nations around the world become surveillance states. In the years following this transformation, third world countries become warzones and death spreads throughout the world, outside the safety of the modern surveillance state.
Captain Clavis Shepherd, a member of Special Operations I Detachment, is an assassin for the U.S. Government. After a mission to assassinate a corrupt dictator, he finds himself hunting an MIT graduate named John Paul whose very presence in a country incites terror. Every country he finds himself in descends into genocide months after he visits
The original novel wasted no time in setting a truly grim tone. Clavis describes the sight of dead children in a warzone after the dust has settled. He goes on to describe a nightmare in which he is taken by the hand by his dead mother as they march together with the dead to god knows where.
The film’s opening is less psychological and metaphorical, showing the nuclear explosion in Sarajevo. The scene cuts back and forth between that and a moment of human passion that, to those who haven’t read the book, probably seems very random. The movie begins by setting up the world, whereas the book began by setting up the protagonist.
Up until the moment of this review, I had long thought highly of the film adaptation. Despite the removal of certain extra scenes and character moments, I thought it to be an intriguing action film that was fairly faithful to the source material. While I still think highly of the film, the above-mentioned disparity between the two stories’ introductions might hold the key to the film’s problem.
A big draw to the story is indeed the political angle and the vision of a frightening future not terribly far off from the present day. However, it is the characters that carry that vision. Both Clavis and John Paul are the two key pillars that uphold this story. One is a soldier who has become completely numb to tragedy and genocide. The other is an academic who would forsake countless nations to uphold his values.
What I find incredible is that the scenes of Clavis in the film are largely faithful to his portrayal in the book. However, a lot of scenes are removed, and simply by having those sequences removed, it changes the entire context surrounding the character.
In the book, the opening chapters paint a portrait of not only Clavis’ mind but of the past that has shaped it. We learn of his mother’s death in a hospital, something Clavis sees as him “killing her with his words” by taking her off of life support. Soon after, we learn of his father’s shotgun suicide. It’s a horrifying moment described casually, with passive thought given to trivial details, such as who cleaned his father’s brains off the wall.
There is a lot of heavy subject matter, similar to Harmony, dealing with suicide and death of all kinds. While the film has plenty of death and portrayals of the horrors of war, from mass executions to body horror, there is a lack of the more personal terror that plagues the people fighting the war.
Clavis’ introspection, his monologues about the state of the world, and his experience with loss paint him as a deeply troubled man. He is the kind of soldier you hear about in stories about PTSD and the compounding trauma that brings the war with them wherever they go. I would compare the book portrayal of Clavis to something like Bullseye from Daredevil Season Three, but with a more stable structure keeping him level.
What’s interesting is that, if you took out those scenes from the book, both the book and film portrayal of Clavis isn’t too different from a typical action story protagonist. That isn’t to downplay the enjoyment of Clavis in the film, but it is a missed opportunity. Part of me wishes that the film let the audience think he was a standard main character up until the end and then delved into his past from the novel.
As it is, the anime takes a more Metal Gear approach to tell the story. There is a philosophical debate at the core of the story between Clavis, the somewhat unassuming but highly motivated protagonist, and John Paul, the mastermind. The politics and the “science” of human nature take center stage.
The sci-fi of Genocidal Organ is two-fold. First, the advancements in security, infrastructure, and weaponry. They’re futuristic while grounded enough to be believably attainable. Second, more far-fetched concepts that tie into the film’s cynical message about mankind. The latter is perhaps the most out-there concept and – without spoilers – is one of the most interesting parts of the story.
The story is a lot of military operations bookending a comparably relaxed espionage mission to Prague, where Clavis investigates Lucia Skroupova, a woman with ties to John Paul. Lucia is a Czech language teacher with whom Clavis becomes close. A recurring theme is that of language. It is how Clavis describes how he “killed” his mother, and in John Paul’s view, it plays a major role in how genocide begins.
Something about American military stories written by Japanese writers is always a win for me. Maybe because these writers seem to have an understanding of the aesthetic of Hollywood films about western spies and soldiers, but with a refreshing outside perspective. There is both a respect for western culture matched with a critique of its political standings.
Something is humbling and necessary about fiction depicting your own country as the enemy from some standpoint or another. America is far from a perfect country and stories like this aren’t afraid to paint my home as an aggressor in the war machine. It’s another reason why I was excited to see how this film would take on the ending of the story and I wasn’t disappointed.
Before I saw the film, I had heard some criticize the ending, claiming that they changed it. This made me afraid, as the ending of the book was absolutely chilling. After watching, I think it suffers from the issue I mentioned earlier, but to a lesser extent. It might not quite go hard enough in letting the horror of the subject matter stew in the mind of the viewer. Regardless, the entire film preceding the ending gives enough context that any viewer can see how dangerous the decisions made are.
With all the differences, minor and major, between the film and the book, I find myself wondering how the production issues factor in. Was the film originally going to be longer, filled with even more of the grim subject matter that made the original story so haunting? With the switch to Geno Studios, it was made clear that the film was unfinished and that it would be completed by the end of 2016. I shudder to think about what the status of the film was before the original release date in November 2015. It likely would have had to been delayed regardless of the Manglobe bankruptcy.
Shukou Murase is a director that oftentimes shapes the look and feel of every project he is attached to. Some more than others. With works like Ergo Proxy and Blade Runner: Black Out 2022, he is the director and character designer. Sometimes he even works as a key animator or animation director. The look that he gives to characters is truly unique.
There is a striking look to his character designs. The character animation can be a bit stiffer in some sequences but the posing, shading, and expressions have a unique look that I don’t see often in anime. It’s mature and highly detailed. Unfortunately, the consistency of the art is variable at best – likely a side-effect of the change in studios.
Of course, I say that, but given the issues at Manglobe before the switch, I wouldn’t be surprised if the project was just sorta rough all around. None of the visuals ever felt like a deal-breaker, mind you. There are great uses of CGI and some creative first-person shots that blend styles. My biggest complaint is how the art quality in a single scene can change so much.
As for the performances, I recommend watching the movie in English. The dub never got released during the limited theatrical run in the US, but that just tells me they took their time on it for the Blu-Ray release. Directed by Clifford Chapin, the English version features performances by two of my favorite dub actors: Josh Grelle as Clavis Shepherd and Ian Sinclair as Williams.
Grelle has a great vocal range and his deeper, more serious performance as Clavis was a dream come true, down to his breakdowns later on. He captures the fragility of Clavis’ mask that he wears as an assassin. Sinclair is hilarious as usual and steals the show as the wild and energetic Williams, never quite taking things as seriously and not wanting to think too deeply about the state of the world. I do think sometimes the script could sometimes sound a bit unnatural, but philosophical discussion about freedom in a post-9/11 world isn’t exactly something that sounds like casual dinner conversation.
All in all, I think some lines could have been directed better. Special shoutout to Ricco Fajardo who voiced John Paul as I completely mistook him for Alex Organ. Fajardo’s performance sounded just like Organ’s voice for Shogo Makishima from Psycho-Pass. Needless to say, it was a great voice for a villain.
As a political sci-fi drama, Genocidal Organ offers a fascinating, realized vision of a post-9/11, War-on-Terror-fueled dystopia. Some of its concepts are far-fetched, but they speak to an even more bold supposition of human nature. The idea that suffering is something that is displaced is one that will make you question the privilege of living in safety and security (if you truly are that privileged).
Enthusiasts of military aesthetics and sci-fi of the like will have plenty of eye-candy in this movie. Lovers of philosophy and political drama will get a treat as well but might find the book more fulfilling in both narrative and character. With Project Itoh finished, how successful was this film project?
As ambitious as it was, I wish that the films became more popular. More aggressive marketing or more attention from the anime community would have helped. Online, the only big YouTuber who covered it was The Canipa Effect, and they only previewed it before the films released. To make matters worse, the films themselves were not perfect.
The Empire of Corpses was a darkly whimsical adventure that unfortunately became a bit bloated – conceptually at least – by the end.
Harmony was dense – too dense – and slogged through an otherwise interesting story about human consciousness.
Genocidal Organ was an otherwise realized sci-fi story that simply removed too much of the source material to become the masterpiece it could have been.
Despite all that, I would still call this a Project worth endeavoring in. Empire of Corpses, despite the jumbled conclusion, stands as one of my favorite films to revisit based on its aesthetic and storytelling alone. Harmony may have been boring at but I’ll never forget it for as long as I live.
Thanks to the first two I went ahead and read one of my now-favorite books of all time in anticipation of this film adaptation. Even if it wasn’t a masterpiece, Genocidal Organ is a competent action film that I could see myself revisiting time and time again, book in hand, to dissect this great story.
Rest in peace Satoshi. Thank you for your stories.
Genocidal Organ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD through Funimation.
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What did you think about Project Itoh? Is it worth a watch or was it more a misstep? Leave a comment below and tell me what other lesser-known anime films I should check out.
Thank you very much for reading. I’m gonna be writing quite a bit in the coming weeks to make the most of this shitty year before I go on hiatus in December. I’m hoping to write more and maybe even publish something online in 2021.
Let’s all do our best to see this year through together. Stay healthy, stay safe, and be kind to one another. I’ll see you next time!