Genocidal Organ (虐殺器官, Shuko Murase, 2017)

genocidal organHistory books make for the grimmest reading, subjective as they often are. Science fiction can rarely improve upon the already existing evidence of humanity’s dark side, but Genocidal Organ (虐殺器官, Gyakusatsu Kikan) has good go anyway, extrapolating a long line of political manipulations into the near future which neatly straddles a utopian/dystopian divide. Plagued by production delays and studio bankruptcy, Genocidal Organ is the third of three films adapted from the novels of late sci-fi author Project Itoh, arriving nearly two years after previous instalments Harmony and Empire of Corpses. Sadly, its message has only become more timely as the world finds itself on the brink of a geo-political recalibration where fear and division rule the roost.

Set in 2022, the world of Genocidal Organ is one of intense “security”. Following the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Sarajevo in 2017, developed nations have once again become jumpy. As the world weary narrative voice over informs us, Americans have sacrificed their freedoms for an illusion of safety which decreases the burden of living under the threat of terrorism. This brave new world is a surveillance state where citizens are chipped and monitored, even the simple act of buying pizza requires an identity check.

Less developed nations, however, have descended into a hellish cycle of internecine wars and large scale atrocities. American special forces have identified a pattern which puts one of their own, mysterious linguistics professor John Paul (Takahiro Sakurai), at the centre of a vast conspiracy. Army Intelligence officer Clavis Shepherd (Yuichi Nakamura) is despatched to track the master criminal down through his sometime girlfriend Lucia (Sanae Kobayashi), a Czech national and former MIT linguistics researcher now teaching Czech to foreigners in Prague.

Clavis, like the best film noir heroes, finds himself falling down a rabbit hole into an increasingly uncertain world. A top soldier, he has been “engineered” to decrease emotionality and limit pain response to make him a “better” soldier. His world is first shaken when one of his comrades goes rogue, kills a valuable mark, and then turns a gun on him. The top brass blame PTSD but not only that, PTSD that was in fact induced by the very processes the soldiers undergo to ensure than PTSD is impossible. He has always believed that his actions, and those of his superiors have been for the greater good, but he has rarely stopped to think what that greater good may be.

Clavis’ missions see him jumping into a coffin-like landing pod and parachuting into street battles in which many of the combatants are children who have been drugged “to make them better soldiers”. Just as you’re starting to wonder who exactly is perpetrating the genocide, Clavis is asked the relevant question by a captive John. He replies that it’s just his job. John reminds Clavis that that particular justification has a long and terrifying history and so perhaps he ought to ask himself why he chooses to do this particular job and do it so blindly.

John’s big theory is that violence has its own grammar, a secret code buried in language which can be engineered to provoke political instability but then conveniently contained within its own language group. Essentially, he posits the idea of sicking the “terrorists” onto each other and letting them fight it out amongst themselves in those far off places which no one really cares about. The citizens of the developed world might frown at their morning papers, but they’ll soon file it under “terrible things happening far away” and go back to enjoying their lives of peace and security. John’s plan, he claims, is the opposite of vengeance, a means of keeping his side safe by ensuring that the terrible things stay far away, contained.

The “genocidal organ” is the heart hardened towards the suffering of others. John has some grand theories about this, about the survival instinct, fear, suspicion and desperation, but he also has a few on the trade offs between freedom and security. Itoh’s vision is bleak, and the prognosis bleaker but its logic cannot be denied, even if its execution is occasionally imperfect.


Currently on limited theatrical release throughout the UK courtesy of All the Anime.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

In This Corner of the World (この世界の片隅に, Sunao Katabuchi, 2016)

in this corner of the world J posterDepictions of wartime and the privation of the immediate post-war period in Japanese cinema run the gamut from kind hearted people helping each other through straitened times, to tales of amorality and despair as black-marketeers and unscrupulous crooks take advantage of the vulnerable and the desperate. In This Corner of the World (この世界の片隅に, Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni), adapted from the manga by Hiroshima native Fumiyo Kouno, is very much of the former variety as its dreamy, fantasy-prone heroine is dragged into a very real nightmare with the frontier drawing ever closer and the threat of death from the skies ever more present but manages to preserve something of herself even in such difficult times.

We first meet Suzu (Non) in December 1933 when, due to her brother’s indisposition, she’s sent to deliver the seaweed from the family business to the city. Observing pre-war Hiroshima with the painful tinge of memory, Suzu, her head in the clouds as always, gets herself completely lost and is eventually “rescued” by a strange man who puts her in a basket with another boy he’s “found”. Life goes on for Suzu, the tides of militarism rising in the rest of the country but seemingly not in this tiny rural village where she dreams away her days sketching fantasy stories to entertain her younger sister.

Despite a putative romance with a melancholy local boy, Tetsu (Daisuke Ono), Suzu is soon married off and travels to the harbour town of Kure to be with her new husband, Shusaku (the boy from the basket who carried a torch all those years, tracked her down and sought her hand in marriage on the basis of a single encounter). Always a dreamy girl and still only in her late teens, Suzu struggles with the business of being a wife and, though Shusaku’s family are nice people and welcoming to their new daughter-in-law, she constantly provokes the wrath of her widowed sister-in-law Keiko (Minori Omi) while striking up a friendship with her daughter Harumi (Natsuki Inaba).

The atmosphere in the cities may have been tense, but here in a traditional rural backwater, politics rarely rears its ugly head. Suzu and her family are just ordinary people living ordinary lives, yet they are literally on the fringes of the battlefield, gazing in wonder at the impressive array of giant battleships in the harbour including, at one point, the Yamato which becomes a kind of symbol of the nation’s hubris in its claims of invincibility. Shusaku, like his father, works as a clerk at the local naval offices which means he’s present (and as safe as anyone else), but this is otherwise a land of women alone, waiting for brothers, husbands and sons to come home or learning to accept that they never will.

Suzu’s troubles are normal ones for a woman of her age and time in learning to adjust to a new life she has not exactly chosen and which has meant cutting herself off almost entirely from everything she’s known. The severed connection with troubled childhood sweetheart Tetsu lingers but Suzu learns to make Kure her home, developing a deep love both for her husband (to whom she was fated, in an odd way, by their fairytale meeting) and for his family. A mildly conservative message is advanced as Suzu learns to become “happy” even in the midst of such anxiety while her sister-in-law Keiko’s attempt to forge her own future by becoming a ‘20s city flapper and marrying a mild mannered man for love has brought her nothing but heartbreak. Keiko pays dearly for her acts of individualism, suffering (the film seems to say) unnecessarily through allowing her sorrow to make her bitter, though hers is undoubtedly the most tragic of fates only offered respite by the growing community and interconnectedness of the little house in Kure.

Time moves on a pace as Suzu climbs ever closer to the climactic event she has no idea is coming, but has been on the viewer’s mind all along. The bombings intensify, the losses mount, and the future recedes but sooner or later it has to become not about what has gone or what could have been but what there is and what there will be. Suzu’s dream world colours her vision and ours as explosions in the sky become beautiful splashes of paint and raining fire bombs fireflies blinking out in the night sky. The more unbearable everything becomes the more her picture-book illustrations take over until one particular event becomes so painful, so difficult visualise that it is only possible to describe in abstract, black and white line drawings. The bomb is almost a peripheral event to Suzu, considering leaving her new home for the old one. A tremor, a flash, and a feeling of unidentifiable dread. Katabuchi’s aim not to show the direct horror of war (though there is plenty of that), but its effect on the lives of ordinary people just trying to survive in difficult circumstances not of their making. Filled with a sense of essential goodness, In This Corner of the World is a tribute to those who endured the unendurable and remained kind, determined to build a better world in which such horrors belong only to the distant past.


UK trailer

A Silent Voice (聲の形, Naoko Yamada, 2016)

silent-voiceChildren – not always the most tolerant bunch. For every kind and innocent film in which youngsters band together to overcome their differences and head off on a grand world saving mission, there are a fair few in which all of the other kids gang up on the one who doesn’t quite fit in. Given Japan’s generally conformist outlook, this phenomenon is all the more pronounced and you only have to look back to the filmography of famously child friendly director Hiroshi Shimizu to discover a dozen tales of broken hearted children suddenly finding that their friends just won’t play with them anymore. Where A Silent Voice (聲の形, Koe no Katachi) differs is in its gentle acceptance that the bully is also a victim, capable of redemption but requiring both external and internal forgiveness.

Classmates Shoko (Saori Hayami) and Shoya (Miyu Irino/Mayu Matsuoka) are almost mirror images of each other, sharing the first syllable of their names (at least phonetically) but representing two entirely opposite poles. Before Shoko transferred into his school, Shoya was the class clown, behaving disruptively and acting as the leader of a group of mean kids who, if not exactly bullies, certainly exert a degree of superiority over their meeker classmates. Shoko, hard of hearing, remains necessarily quiet, communicating through messages written on a notepad. Though some of the other pupils are fascinated by the novelty of someone like Shoko suddenly appearing, delighting in writing messages back and for and eagerly embracing the opportunity to learn sign language in order to communicate with her more easily, the mean kids, with Shoya as the ringleader, delight in making her life a misery just because they can.

Though some of the other children object to the way Shoya and the others are behaving, they do little to defend their new friend. Some of the more impressionable kids even halfheartedly join in, perhaps feeling bad about it but also enjoying being part of the angsty pre-teen group of nasty kids, but when it all gets too much and Shoko decides to move on everyone is suddenly struck with remorse and a need to blame someone else for the harm they’ve caused. Hence, Shoya gets a taste of his own medicine, ostracised by his peers as the lowlife who hounded a deaf girl out of school. Who’d want to hang around with someone like that?

Humbled, the stigma follows Shoya on into his next school as feelings of guilt and self loathing intensify until he reaches a point at which he can’t go on. Intending to finally end it all, Shoya unexpectedly runs into Shoko again and eventually manages to make a kind of motion towards an apology, attempting to make friends after all this time and making use of the sign language he’s taught himself to show his sincerity.

Isolated both by the continuing rumours of his primary school days and an intense personal feeling of unworthiness, Shoya finds it impossible to interact with his fellow students whose faces are each covered by a large blue cross. Bonding first with another lonely outcast, Shoya’s world begins to open up again but the spectre of his past continues to haunt him. Reconnecting with some of the other kids from primary school he finds that not everyone remembers things the same way they’ve become engraved in his mind. Though a few are anxious to atone, one of his former friends, Naoka (Yuki Kaneko), takes a different approach to the problem in continuing to blame Shoko – for the “attention” her condition attracts, the “requirement” for others to modify their behaviour to suit her, for simply existing in the first place enabling the behaviour which took place (about which Naoka remains unrepentant), and being the root cause that her merry band of friends fell apart.

If it seems like the tale disproportionately focuses on Shoya’s guilt and and redemption rather than Shoko’s suffering the balance shifts back towards the end as the pair truly mirror each other with another suicide attempt forming the climax of the second act. Shoko responds to her often cruel treatment with nothing other than friendliness, smiling with hands outstretched even whilst continuing to receive nothing but rejection. Though she may seem all smiles and sweetness, her overly genial persona is itself an act as she tries to overcompensate for the “burden” she feels herself to be causing through her need for “special treatment”. Eventually, Shoko snaps – firstly in primary school as her well meaning attempts to bring Shoya over to her side fail once again, and then later in a much more final way as she decides that there is nothing left for her in a world which fails to accommodate for difference.

The story of a girl who struggles to be heard, and a boy who refuses to listen, A Silent Voice is a quiet plea for the power of mutual understanding and reconciliation. Director Naoko Yamada and screenwriter Reiko Yoshida bring the same kind of quirky slice of life humour which made K-On and Tamako Market so enjoyable along with the raw visual beauty which has come to define Kyoto Animation to this often dark tale, perfectly integrating the more dramatic elements into the otherwise warm and forgiving world in a believable and natural way. Nuanced, complicated and defiantly refusing total resolution, A Silent Voice is one of the more interesting animated projects to come out of Japan in recent times and further marks out Yamada as one of its most important animation auteurs.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Your Name (君の名は, Makoto Shinkai, 2016)

your-nameIndie animation talent Makoto Shinkai has been making an impact with his beautifully drawn tales of heartbreaking, unresolvable romance for well over a decade and now with Your Name (君の名は, Kimi no Na wa) he’s finally hit the mainstream with an increased budget and distribution from major Japanese studio Toho. Noticeably more upbeat than his previous work, Your Name takes on the star-crossed lovers motif as two teenagers from different worlds come to know each other intimately without ever meeting only to find their youthful romance frustrated by the vagaries of time and fate.

Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) is a typical country girl and daughter of a Shinto temple family who dreams of the urban sophistication of the big city. Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki), by contrast, is a typical city boy living in Tokyo and taking full advantage of its cafes and mass transportation systems. One fateful day, each wakes up in the body of the other and must quickly adjust to living in someone else’s skin. Though each originally believes the events to have been merely a dream, friends and family members are quick to point out the strange behaviour of the two teenagers. Neither Mitsuha nor Taki maintains a clear memory of their time in the other’s world though they are able to keep in a kind of contact through their respective diaries (his on a smartphone, hers in a more traditional notebook). Beginning to develop a degree of mutual affection through their strangely acquired intimacy, Mitsuha and Taki each have a profound effect on the other’s life but fate seems content to keep them apart.

Body swap comedy is not an unusual genre in Japan (Obayashi’s similarly themed I Are You, You Am Me being a notable example which was even remade by the director himself thirty years later as Switching, Goodbye Me), nevertheless Shinkai mines the situation for all of its awkward comedy as Mitsuha and Taki get used to living as the opposite gender. Beginning with the obvious repeated joke of Taki waking up and squeezing “his” breasts, there are other issues to contend with from which pronoun to use to remembering to avoid slipping into a rural dialect. Taki, obviously at sea with how to get on as a girl, causes consternation by turning up late for school with messy hair and subsequently behaving in an unacceptably masculine way. Conversely when Mitsuha is playing Taki, she helps him sort out various things in his life through her feminine influence including getting him a date with his workplace crush.

The pair are indeed “star-crossed” as their romance is heralded by the arrival of a rare comet, watched by both at the same time, as it splits in two. The comet strike turns out to have a much more pressing importance than simply as a symbol of romantic destiny but neatly represents the central dynamic of Mitsuha and Taki as two halves of the same soul. The two are connected by the “red string of fate” visualised through Mitsuha’s long red hair ribbon which later makes a reappearance in Taki’s sake based dream sequence and serves to bind the two together. Mitsuha’s family also make traditional braided bracelets which, as her grandmother tells us, represent the flow of time itself, weaving narrative into dramatic knots.

The knot, in this case, is the comet strike which later threatens to keep the tragic lovers apart rather than bring them together. Recalling the devastating earthquake of 2011, the destruction wrought by such a catastrophic event does not stop at loss of life but becomes a great ongoing loss – things left unsaid, opportunities missed, lives unlived. If it were only possible to turn back time and somehow save all those people from harm. Mitsuha and Taki have been given just such an opportunity thanks to their usual connection.

Like many Shinkai heroes, Taki and Mitsuha later find themselves burdened with a sense of incompleteness, as if they’re continually searching, trying to regain something they’ve lost but are unable to put a name to. The memories of their shared past fade, dissipating like a dream upon waking leaving a only faint trace behind them, just enough to know that something is missing. Yet, journeys end in lovers meeting, and even in a metropolis as vast as Tokyo recognition is powerful force.

Shinkai takes his trademark aesthetic beauty to all new heights with his idyllic country landscapes, realistic cities, and the visually striking (if potentially deadly) fracturing of a comet. Much less deliberately downbeat than Shinkai’s previous work which often emphasised the impossibility of true love satisfied, Your Name is no less emotionally affecting even if its melancholy sense of longing persists until the very last frame.


Reveiwed at the BFI London Film Festival 2016

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Psycho-Pass: The Movie (劇場版 PSYCHO-PASS サイコパス, Katsuyuki Motohiro & Naoyoshi Shiotani, 2015)

psycho-pass movieThe Japan of 2116 is a peaceful place. Crime is at an all time low thanks to the Sybil system which monitors the nation’s citizens issuing them a “Crime Coefficient” rating assessing how likely they are to commit a crime. When a potential criminal’s Psycho-Pass reaches an unacceptable level, the Public Safety Bureau are called in to hopefully put a stop to any criminal activity before it has the chance to occur.

However, the world outside of Japan is not quite so ordered and so its Sybil system has become an important political export. Things are about to get murky as the nearby SEAUn (South East Asia Union) is currently in a state of civil war and its de-facto leader has struck a deal with Japan for additional support in return for trialling the system in a new reclaimed land development. Not everyone is happy with sacrificing personal liberty for social safety and so an active resistance unit working against both the deployment of Sybil and the leader they see as a dictator is continuing to prove a destabilising force.

This all comes to a head when a group of so called “terrorists” manage to sneak in Japan hoping to  take the fight to Sybil itself. After a brief but intense shootout with the PSB, the gang is neutralised save for one which famed Inspector Akane Tsunemori manages to capture and take in for questioning. However, whilst Akane is waiting for the captive to come round from the sedative she gave him, her bosses have taken drastic action which amounts to lethal torture. Akane is horrified, but when the recovered information flags up the familiar face of her former colleague Kogami, she quickly finds herself at the centre of covert, international political machinations which cast her own nation in far from a positive light.

Psycho-Pass: The Movie (劇場版 PSYCHO-PASS サイコパス, Gekijo-ban Psycho-Pass) is the big screen outing for the hit TV anime which has so far spanned two series each with their own distinct narrative arcs. Series creator Gen Urobuchi handled the first season but sat out the second (handing the reign’s over to Murdock Scramble’s Tow Ubukata) in order to work on this film which takes place after season two but was actually developed at the same time so avoids direct reference to its events. For the most part, Psycho-Pass: The Movie works as a stand alone enterprise though it does make reference to plot elements from season one, or more exactly its villain, without further explanation which may leave newcomers feeling lost. Fans of the franchise already familiar with the characters and their relationships will undoubtedly get the most out of the set-up, but in depth knowledge of the series is never a prerequisite for understanding the action.

“Action” is an apt place to start when it comes to the themes of Psycho-Pass: The Movie as it acts more as an exciting side story to the main series than the grand conclusion that might be expected. Broadly speaking, the central concern is the increasing interference of powerful nations in the “domestic affairs” of smaller ones. Akane is as idealistic as they come despite everything she has already seen and is unprepared for the extent her own nation’s complicity in this very dirty, possibly proxy, war. In this country, those with flagged Crime Coefficients are forced to wear a standard issue collar which is designed to explode Battle Royale style and are treated as an underclass not permitted to board the same public transport or occupy the same “public” space as the general population. Once again this sits uncomfortably with Akane, but there isn’t a lot she can do about it.

Kogami, now a drifting mercenary since going on the run from the PSB, has become a rebel revolutionary trying to help the oppressed citizens fight for democracy in this war torn land. To some, he’s a terrorist (though the rebels are never shown targeting civilians or carrying out “terrorist action” so much as acting as a resistance group) but his sights are firmly set on hypocritical, oppressive regimes and especially those acting as puppet states for a third party. Akane and Kogami’s relationship status continues in the “it’s complicated” direction which has progressed throughout the series and they aren’t given very much time to build on that here though their mutual respect for each other adds to the tension as each comes to terms with being on opposing sides yet somehow still “together” in spite of external obligations.

Even if Psycho-Pass: the Movie proves disappointing in terms of its character development (betraying its side story origins), it excels in the action stakes with several impressive, high octane battle scenes not to mention the strange ballooning effect of the explosive Dominator weapons. Though it sets up a complicated, geo-political conspiracy of superpowers exploiting civil unrest to steal puppet states and install dictatorial stooges who oppress the local population into a sublime obedience with the promise of long desired peace, it wisely avoids expository dialogue preferring to keep things moving in a more urgent fashion. A minor entry into the Psycho-Pass world, Psycho-Pass: The Movie is nevertheless an exciting return to its increasingly dystopian universe and even if it adds little in terms of themes or characters, does at least point towards a promising continuation of the series.


Reviewed as part of the “biennial” Anime Weekend at BFI Southbank. Psycho-Pass: The Movie has also been licensed for UK distribution by All the Anime (and Funimation in the US).

English Subtitled trailer:

Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie (攻殻機動隊 新劇場版, Kazuya Nomura, 2015)

Ghost in the Sell new movieMasamune Shirow’s cyberpunk manga Ghost in the Shell burst onto the scene in 1989 and instantly became a genre classic. Mamoru Oshii then adapted the manga into a much lauded anime movie in 1995 which almost came to define cyberpunk animation even if it emerged towards the end of the genre’s heyday. A sequel, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence followed in 2004 as well as a TV anime spin-off Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Now with the 20th anniversary of the original animated movie, the series has yet again been adapted into a series of entirely new anime OVAs under the name of Ghost in the Shell: Arise. Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie (攻殻機動隊 新劇場版, Kokaku Kidotai – Shin Gekijoban) is the big screen outing of this latest incarnation scripted by Tow Ubukata who also produced the very GITS influenced Mardock Scramble.

Following on from the Arise OVAs, we find Major Motoko Kusanagi at the head of her gang of cybernetically enhanced former soldiers operating as security consultants with a special focus on cyber crime. Still outside the government aegis, Kusanagi has managed to wangle herself some extra funding and official patronage when she’s brought in to handle a sensitive hostage situation as seven disgruntled soldiers take a number of hostages inside a financial institution.

Though Kusanagi & co have the situation well in hand, they are about to have the rug pulled from under them firstly by the reappearance of the Firestarter virus which corrupts the memories stored on an infected cyberbrain wreaking havoc with their new captives, and then secondly as the hostage situation itself turns out to be a high level diversionary tactic designed to provide cover for the assassination of the prime minister. Kusanagi and her team quickly discover there’s far more going on here than they could ever have imagined and soon enough Kusanagi herself becomes the centre of a hi-tec conspiracy.

Like the Arise OVAs which preceded it, The New Movie maintains a much heavier focus on action set pieces than the philosophical contemplations that made Ghost in the Shell such an important entry in the cyberpunk catalogue. Though the ideas are not entirely absent, they are presented as background much more than an essential component of the series.

That said, the film does touch on some quite prescient issues firstly with the role of the soldiers which highlights the pressures ordinary rank and file officers are under when they see their service has not been valued and they’re about to be sold out by the country they risked their lives to protect. They are also, apparently, not well cared for by military authorities who kit them out with second grade equipment which they then also fail to maintain leaving many of their number literarily falling apart as their components become “obsolete”.

Ironically enough, Kusanagi also thinks of her team as component “parts” in a well functioning machine. She congratulates herself by praising them as a prime selection which she has been lucky to find – they need to look after themselves because a replacement component would be a hard thing to come by. However, if they begin to malfunction in some way, she will “purge” them rather than allow them to corrupt the rest of her system. This way of thinking seems cold to some members of the team, particularly to Togusa who’s the least “enhanced” among them. Raised by the military, Kusanagi is a born leader but not one to whom warm words come easily so this, actually rather apt, metaphor is as close as she will allow herself to get in letting the guys know that they each have their specific place within her grand plan. Though she needs them to perform as expected, they are important to her on both a personal and professional level.

This is where we’ve been heading with Arise – the origin story of Section 9 as it comes to be in the original movie, and of Kusanagi herself. Unsurprisingly the conspiracy turns out to have a lot to do with the Major’s own past and a few buried “ghosts” which must be exorcised in order to move forward. This extended metaphor is played out in the somewhat contrived final fight which sees Kusanagi facing off against a villain using an identical cyberbody which means she is fighting “herself” in a way, but nevertheless, it is a victory of the reclaimed self (even if that same “self” is about to undergo yet more existential battles in adventures to come).

The new character design and animation style have begun to seem more familiar by this point, though despite the stellar work of Production I.G the New Movie never quite reaches the aesthetic heights of the iconic original. This is only further brought out by the frequent homages to 1995’s Ghost in the Shell including the final scene which is almost a carbon copy of the original film’s opening (thematically fitting as it is). The action scenes, however, are extremely impressive and display innovative animation techniques which make fantastic use of the latest animation technology. Another exciting, action packed outing for Major Kusanagi and her guys, the New Movie doesn’t quite live up to the legacy of its namesake but nevertheless proves a thrilling cyberpunk infused adventure and a fitting bridge between the Arise series and the landmark 1995 movie.


Reviewed as part of the “biennial” Anime Weekend at BFI Southbank. Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie is also available in the UK from Manga Entertainment (and Funimation in the US).

Unsubtitled trailer (why is it so hard to find a trailer for the Japanese language track with English subtitles for these?)

Empire of Corpses (屍者の帝国, Ryoutarou Makihara, 2015)

empire of corpses posterEmpire of Corpses (屍者の帝国, Shisha no Teikoku) is what would happen if someone’s vast library of Victorian literature was destroyed in a fire and then someone tried to put all the not too singed pages back together based on their knowledge of international pop culture. Inspired by Project Itoh’s novel of the same name and the first of three planned adaptations of his works, Empire of Corpses is a very specific kind of absurd, boys own action adventure based around the idea of empire supported by a zombified proletariat.

Beginning in London in 1878, this is steampunk paradise only steam power is quickly becoming old hat as the greatest discovery of the age turns out to be the city’s largest untapped resource – its dead. Reanimated corpses can be trained to fight wars, wait tables, or work as servants but they’re tools now – not people, they may be able to follow an order but they have no mind to act with. Corpse Engineer John Watson has unwisely reanimated his friend Friday, but is distressed not to be able to restore his friend’s soul along with his body.

Watson ends up being dispatched on a secret mission by Her Majesty’s government to reclaim the notes made by the famous Dr. Frankenstein who has succeeded in creating a sentient creature known as The One. The notes are apparently in the possession of Russian scientist Karamazov. Watson travels to India with Burnaby, a mercenary bodyguard, and Friday where he also teams up with a mysterious flame thrower wielding busty blonde, Hadaly.

Empire of Corpses touches on some interesting philosophical questions such as the nature of the soul, the border lines between death and life, and the repurposing of a body as a fleshy tool. Though it stops short of delving into what the British Empire was really based on, the idea is very much that using reanimated corpses to fight your wars remotely is an absurd solution to an unnecessary problem.

That said, these “zombies” are a well trained and docile bunch. Until of course, they aren’t. Certain forces have planned to harness the zombie hordes for their own ends to create mass panic and wholesale destruction across the world. This might be the first mission the later famous John Watson will tackle, but he’s about to realise that there’s a lot more going on here than a set of secret documents no one wants to fall into the “wrong” hands.

Empire of Corpses remained unfinished when Project Itoh unfortunately died at a relatively young age. The concept is filled with extremely interesting ideas which are only ever dealt with in a superficial sense, though one wonders if the novel he might eventually have completed would have progressed so far down the ridiculous fantasy historical epic route. Very clearly channelling ‘30s style, post-penny dreadful tales of derring do starring familiar names, Empire of Corpses steals a host of famous literary characters from across the international canon as well as a number of historical personages, though only really borrows their names or perhaps a few other minor details. After raising such interesting ideas, the film quickly reverts to riduclous B-movie genre tropes as the gang get caught up in a zombie apocalypse with flashing mystical lights and the transmigration of souls thrown in for good measure.

No, it doesn’t make any sense though it isn’t really supposed to. Patient viewers will be rewarded with a post credits sequence shining a little more light but just as much bafflement onto the characters and their possible futures, though the intention is clearly just to raise a knowing wink from the well read members of the audience. By the time it all turns into The Wizard of Oz, some will undoubtedly have followed the yellow brick road out of the cinema but it is worth sticking around to see the final coda.

What Empire of Corpses has going for it is the extremely impressive visuals. Backgrounds in particular are gorgeously drawn making for an always interesting spectacle even if other aspects of direction can seem a little uninspired. Clumsily plotted and often incoherent, Empire of Corpses has its fair share of problems even aside from the inherent absurdity of its original premise, yet it isn’t completely unsalvageable and those who come expecting a B-movie style slice of incomprehensible hokum might well find much to enjoy.


Reviewed as part of the “biennial” Anime Weekend at BFI Southbank. Empire of Corpses has also been licensed for UK distribution by All the Anime (and Funimation in the US).

Unsubtitled trailer: