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Project Itoh: Empire of Corpses UK Blu-ray Anime Review

11 min read

empire-of-corpses-uk-coverTake a few well-known literary characters, combine them with actual historical people, and add a little steampunk and zombies and you get….something really REALLY awesome…

What They Say:
From the studio that produced Attack on Titan comes a captivating historical action thriller based on a Phillip K. Dick Award-winning novel by Project Itoh. In an alternate version of 19th century London, the world has been revolutionized by corpse reanimation technology creating armies of undead who serve the living as laborers across the globe.

In an attempt to revive his dearly departed friend, young medical student John Watson becomes obsessed with replicating the work of Dr. Victor Frankenstein the legendary corpse engineer whose research produced the only re-animated corpse to possess a soul. But when his illegal experiments put him at odds with the British government, Watson is drafted into a worldwide race to find the lost research notes of Victor Frankenstein before the secrets of the human soul fall into the wrong hands.
Contains the film with both the English dub and the original Japanese track with English subtitles.

The Review:
After the last couple of anime movies have had 2.0 releases for Japanese, this one breaks the trend by having 5.1 releases on both English and Japanese though no 2.0 release or easy option for subtitles – that aside, no adjustment needed from my original settings (I had to actually lower it down a little in both languages aside from the extras), with a show that has not as much music and instead you rely on the sound effects and language which give it this incredible atmosphere, with no issues with it being out of sync and working to full effect – this is one of those releases that is a bit more unique and the audio alone is a good example, especially as due to the setting it is actually preferable to watch in English (the extras mention they brought in dialect coaches to make the English and Russian accents sound more authentic)

Presented in 1080p using the AVC codec at 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the movie has this Victorian era combined with steampunk ideas giving it a far more animated look than your traditional anime series in full-screen format as it does feel more of a western animated movie at times – this makes the movie stand out even more though in today’s market, especially as with the setting being around the world and the main character being English, the looks of all the characters reflect the times really well and bring itself to being a great look and a great release.

There was no packing for this test release.

An interesting set up with the menu as we get clips of the movie in the background with the selections below it on a black bar – however the clips are done in static style black and white, making it feel like the era it was from…and then you get into the movie which is in full colour. The choices are easily selectable and as per Blu-Ray fast to react, with Play Movie, Scene Selection, Set Up and Extras. Easily changeable from the main menu and from the movie itself, this is standard but always acceptable.

We have standard extras in 2 promo videos for the movie, the original trailer, and trailers for shows released or upcoming (Psycho Pass, Tokyo Ghoul A, Seraph Of The End: Vampire Reign, Ghost In The Shell: The New Movies, Assassination Classroom, Evangelion, Terror In Resonance and Tokyo Esp).

The big extras is what is called Funimation Short: Empire Of Corpses which is a short 7 minute interview with 4 of the actors/actresses involved – we have J. Michael Tatum (Barnaby), Mike McFarland (Karamazov), Morgan Garrett (Hadaly) and Jason Liebrecht (Watson) – it is basically a Q&A as they answer various questions ranging from introduction to the characters, what they hope to achieve, and if the things they do are morally right, how they work, their favourite moments, did their characters get what they want in the end, and is the world better off by the end of the movie? They cram a lot in a short period of time and are an interesting take of what they thought of their characters and the movie.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
The Empire of Corpses is a movie made via the work of the late Project Itoh (with the light novel version unfinished to be finished by Toh Enjoe) and along with other novels Genocidal Organ and Harmony (due to be reviewed in the coming months) released as an anime film. It was some-thing of a very unique spin regarding anime combining sci-fi with steampunk and history with the added dash of psychology mixed in. The fact it combines both historical figures like Thomas Edison with fictional figures like John Watson into it makes it sound both like it could be the best thing ever, or just a mish-mash.

Fortunately, it is a lot closer to the former than the later. This is one of the most unique premises and spins for a movie, and yet in 2 hours manages to get through everything somehow and make sense, with a lot of awesome on the way to end it.

Taken in an alternative timeline as the above suggests, the work of Victor Frankenstein has brought the first corpse to life with the ability of will – i.e. thinking and speaking for itself, simply known as ‘The One.’ Nowadays, people are using what is known as Necroware as corpse technology to reanimate corpses as almost slaves and work use. However, some people are trying ways to emulate what Victor Frankenstein did…

Take one John Watson (yes, as in Sherlock Holmes) who wishes to resurrect his friend however his methods are a tad illegal to give the corpse more emotion – his work is a slight success but he is caught by Agent M of the British Secret service who offers him a deal – go to prison or work for him. His goal is to find Victor’s notes and figure out how to put a true soul into a corpse for whatever purpose M has…

Empire of Corpses Japanese Cover ArtworkHere, reality meets fiction as Captain Frederick Burnaby (a real-life British intelligence officer of the 1800s) is hired as Watson’s bodyguard and is quite the likable jock type guy who thinks more with his muscles, but in a positive way in this regard as a good balance for Watson. Following former US president Ulysses S. Grant and finding Alexei Karamazov (from the novel The Brothers Karamazov) – here depicted as a Russian corpse engineer who stole Victor’s notes – they meet up with Nikolai Krasotkin (also from the same novel) whilst tracking Grant’s movements as well – as all parties are looking to see how the soul works whilst Friday – the new name for the living corpse friend of Watson – types all the notes away…

This leads to a clash with are pretty much zombies as corpses indeed have the will to attack humans somehow, as we see Grant appear with his beautiful secretary who Watson seems smitten with immediately – and she brandishes a big-ass flamethrower. To say she is an action girl is an understatement but there definitely seems more to her as we discover she also wants to find souls, but for what purpose?

After capturing a zombie and Watson attempts to reanimate it is clear that he is doing this just so that Friday can return to normal a la the original Frankenstein. However Nikolai definitely sees it as a dangerous game they are playing, and more so once they do find Karamazov who whilst seems to have the same intentions, he asks Watson various questions on his motives, to what concludes is a rather tragic way – as Karamazov experiments on his brother before doing the same to himself as a) an example of what happens b) the fact he didn’t have the notes and c) the fact this was their fate as the Russian government saw what they was as blasphemous. It is almost a view on society being against reanimation science (unless as late discovered it was just for their benefit as in the pretty much slave system of the Frankenstein’s) – it leads them to Japan as where the notes are held…

After a year getting to Tokyo, Watson and crew meet with Yamazawa of the Imperial Japanese army, who knows of the notes and leads the group to them but are attacked by Bishamon style samurai (advanced zombies in armor) – Watson leaves the two others to fight them off to go destroy the notes as Karamazov asked him to…except he still has his vision to return Friday back to full life and instead has Friday analyse the notes…which causes the building to set on fire. This brings us the reappearance of ‘The One’ – as Friday seems to analyze enough thought to try and attack and lash at Watson – and he takes the notes as Watson appears to perish…

Fortunately, he was saved by an angry Barnaby, Yamazawa and also the woman who was the bodyguard/secretary of Grant, Hadaly Lillith (from The Future Eve which if you knew the book would spoil what she really is – the fact her ‘father’ is Thomas Edison would give even more clues) but with Friday still raging, Hadaly showcases her skills and unique powers in controlling corpses – giving again more uniqueness to what she is – she leaves with the gang, betraying Grant who wants the technology for other reasons, and Watson upgrades Friday considering The One can now use the notes to control all corpses, Friday is now immune…

Empire of Corpses Header 4-18This brings us back to the beginning of the story of agent M and why he hired Watson – the finale is M captures The One and wishes to turn all humans into corpses, theorizing that with no emotion, no hatred can occur, thus no more war, death, and destruction. However M causes corpses to now attack humans a la zombies, so the gang break through with Barnaby kicking butt (and later fighting Frankenstein’s monster!) and Hadaly and Watson heading to stop M. Unfortunately, The One manages to escape and finish what he came for – to actually get the bride Victor Frankenstein promised him (tying of course to Frankenstein’s bride) – with Hadaly as the bride and The One’s soul into Friday.

Thanks to Burnaby’s efforts in the fight in Frankenstein’s monster, he damages the system which reverts the souls to what they were, and Friday takes over and stops The One sealing the soul inside the notes, with the finale of Watson being saved by Friday, leaving a very interesting ending where the reverse of the start happens with Friday and Watson…before getting a nice little scene if you’re patient after the credits….

This movie is just…amazing. I really wish this had been a short 6 episode series as the ideas played with this, managing to combine real life historians with literary characters in an alternate timeline with steampunk/zombie combos? It sounds like a very strange fanfiction but amazingly, it works. You don’t see these characters from their original lives or books, you see them as new people in this alternate work of fiction – and the way the story is told is fantastic.

John Watsons’ journey doesn’t make you see him as Sherlock Holmes’ partner (though there is a nod at the very end of the movie, also Hadaly too as another famous Holmes’ figure) – you see him as John Watson, corpse technology master who only wants to learn Victor Frankenstein’s secret in retrieving a soul for a corpse. His reason is honest – he wants to bring his best friend back to life…the ways he does that? Not quite as honest…but it does lead to a journey which comes full circle via the person that hired him (M) and the scope of all these questioned asked from society – how morally right is it to play with God? Is there such thing as a happy ending? What does he eventually truly want to achieve? He is a character who is likable but who has faults and is a direct contrast to the always smiling Burnaby who is the movies most likable character, but you know there is always something there. The budding romance with Hadaly is a love at first sight idea but then you learn who Hadaly is, and she is another great character along with Watson and Barnaby who you fall in love with – her reasons for finding a soul despite being one of the most emotional characters out there combined with why she has certain powers…a definite action girl of the best kind.

The Empire of Corpses VisualThe fact all these books and real life people meld together to create a story in just 2 hours which would make a lot of Hollywood jealous is tantamount to Itoh’s work. The One is a hidden villain but ties into the Frankenstein mythos whilst M’s logic for turning the world to zombies is actually a good one but like Watson, not the best way in getting there. Unlike Watson though he doesn’t learn from it and it’s a way to say who is the true villain – M? The One? The original Victor Frankenstein? There are plenty of questions this movie throws at us and it is up to the viewer to decipher the answers.

The animation is superb – combination of background, animation, and CGI flows through like a Steampunk Ghibli movie at times with a touch of Don Bluth. The dub also is highly recommended as one of the shows where clear work was done to get the right accents and dialects for the British and Russian characters that the movie is one of those that works better in English. The action and battles, whether just one on one with Burnaby or Hadaly gunning down a million zombies with a flamethrower are so clear cut it does feel like something that isn’t an anime. The way the movie moves through the timeline – year after year in the time period from Britain to Russia, to Japan, changes for the timeline and the country they visit – is very well done and showcased, again wishing this could have been a mini-series to establish more of this.

This is one for the collection – as a true masterstroke of animation and storytelling, a hybrid of fiction and factual characters in a strange alternate environment, and not only making it work, making the characters obviously different yet not condescending to their original lives or works. It is a rare gem in today’s anime market and one I’m glad I had the chance to view.

In Summary:
Project Itoh is indeed a project and this being the first of three (with one soon to view), Empire Of Corpses setting the bar INCREDIBLY high. With Watson vs. Frankenstein it seems a hokey premise with steampunk atmosphere and zombies for added ‘huh’ but somehow it works. And not only works, works amazingly. The characters are deep, fun, tragic and the questions still asked make the viewer wonder if the answers would ever be correct. Combined with superb visual and audio (especially in English) it is a true delight that this concept worked so well. Highly recommended.

Japanese 5.1 Language, English 5.1 Language, English Subtitles, Funimation Short Empire Of Corpses, Promo Video #1 and #2, Original Trailer, Funimation Trailers.

Content Grade: A
Audio Grade: A
Video Grade: A
Packaging Grade: N/A
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B

Released By: Anime Limited
Release Date: September 26th, 2016
MSRP: £19.99
Running Time: 120 minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Playstation 4, Sony Bravia 32 Inc EX4 Television, Aiwa 2 Way Twin Duct Bass Reflex Speaker System.

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