Empire 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).