Monday, April 18, 2016

Project Itoh’s Empire of Corpses

It is a post-Frankenstein world. The process of resurrecting corpses has been weaponized by the great powers, but those who have followed the good doctor have only been able to match his ability to re-animate the flesh. No subsequent anatomists have been able to rekindle the mind or the soul. That is all very well for the governments that want mindless soldiers, but Dr. John Watson aches to reawaken something inside his late but not departed friend Friday. Despite some initial reluctance, he will join the globe-trotting search for Dr. Frankenstein’s lost notebooks in Ryôtarô Makihara’s anime adaptation of Project Itoh’s steampunk science fiction novel Empire of Corpses (trailer here), which screens nationwide for two days only this Tuesday and Wednesday.

Dr. Watson had no intention of joining the Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but the mysterious director known only as “M” prevails upon him. It turns out he has violated quite a few laws with his unauthorized reanimation experiments. Gruff British agent Frederick Burnaby and their mysterious ally Aleksi Karamazov are determined to destroy the records of Frankenstein’s monstrous creation, but Dr. Watson is more conflicted. Of course, Watson is not the only one interested in the notes’ possible practical applications. Frankenstein’s notorious first creation, now referred to as “The One,” also has use for his creator’s secret methods.

Based on Itoh’s posthumously published novel (completed by Tô Enjo), Empire is fully loaded with literary and historical allusions as well a bounty of steampunk devices, the most intriguing being the self-aware automaton who periodically comes to the rescue. It also has the mother of all stingers, which seems to hint a possible sequel, but that seems unlikely given the fate of its author.

In the third act, The One and the film’s secret supervillain try to employ Frankenstein’s forbidden knowledge to shackle mankind’s free will, which is a massively provocative turn of events. Frankly, it is kind of sad only films take themes of personal freedom seriously are anime features, like Empire and Psycho-Pass, but at least Funimation has been releasing them. Midori Goto, Hiroshi Seko, and Koji Yamamoto’s tag-team adaptation does indeed begin with great promise and ends in strong fashion, but many of the midsection’s exploits feel rather repetitive.

The world-building in Empire is quite fascinating, precisely because it uses so many elements we are familiar with, but in a radically different context. Itoh’s original vision also manages to give zombies a fresh spin, just when the overexposed shuffling undead need it the most. Makihara has trouble maintaining the energy level over the full two-hour running time, but it is quite satisfying to be immersed in the alternate Victorian universe he realizes. Recommended on balance for anime and steampunk fans, Empire of Corpses screens this Tuesday (4/19) and Wednesday (4/20) in New York, at the Village East.