Not long ago I described my feelings about steampunk to a friend in this manner: It started as a high concept, devolved into a fashion statement, and died not long after turning into a design motif. Too much of it is about dressing things up with clockwork, buckles, hinges, and Leyden jars; not enough of it is about pondering the implications of the setting, many of which are not at all positive or flattering. The Empire of Corpses could have ended up being nothing but fashion or design, but it spends some thought on what its fantasy technology would imply or achieve, and tries not to shy away from the consequences. And as a straight-up fantasy, it's great fun.
This is the first of three animated adaptations derived from the works of novelist Project Itoh. The novel Corpses was based on has not been translated into English, but the film doesn't need the book to be comprehensible; it works entirely on its own. If the other two forthcoming adaptations of his novels, Harmony and Genocidal Organ, are as good as this, they will together constitute as valuable and entertaining an addition to recent anime as we're likely to have.
Now I'm feeling zombified
Empire of Corpses posits a late 19th-century world where the dead can be reanimated. They are little more than shambling zombies that can be commanded with "necroware", a kind of primitive progamming. Incapable of creative thought, they are used by the nations of the world for labor, and, predictably, warfare. Armies of the dead are far more easily mobilized, and far more expendable, than human soldiers, and so there's the uneasy sense that when this world's WWI does come around, its consequences will not be nearly as horrifying as they need to be.
An expert in the dead, Dr. Watson, has taken to working with the body of his late companion and associate Friday. Friday was terminally ill, and essentially donated his body to science. He has also, in some sense, donated his soul, as Watson's experiments revolve around whether or not it's also possible to access the spirit of the dead through the remaining body. For the time being, though, he can reanimate Friday's body and program him to be useful — by taking notes, serving as a personal bodyguard, and so on.
To us, this sort of tinkering is ethically questionable; to the government of the day, it's a crime. When Watson's work is uncovered, he's offered a way out: rather than go to prison, he can help the government track down and recover a missing artifact of immense importance. The originator of the science of the dead — who else but Dr. Frankenstein? — took copious notes about his work (the "Memorandum") that allegedly involved information about infusing a corpse with a soul, something he was purported to have done with his own monstrous creation, now a subject of rumor. The Memorandum has gone missing courtesy of a Russian scientist named Karamazov, and so now Watson, Friday, another Russian, Krasotkin, and a brash British army officer, Burnaby, are all tasked with heading to points abroad to find it.
Dead men tell plenty of tales
Most fans of this kind of material ought to be nodding along by now. Aside from the appropriately retro technology and the free-form nods back to public domain characters of the period, there's also links back to the real world of the time, as when former president Ulysses S. Grant shows up when the crew appears in India. Corpses goes a step beyond, though, by contemplating not just the technology of the 19th century, but the thinking as well. This was a time of struggle between the materialist and spiritualist points of view, when mankind was trying to reconcile the classical notion of man as a sacred thing and the modern scientific view of man as merely one lump of animal matter amongst all the rest.
For the ambitious in this story, such questions take a backseat to how power can be best obtained and leveraged with the tech. Those chasing after Watson and his crew don't think anything of sending weaponized corpses after them, some sporting body fat that's been converted into explosives (!) and others that have apparently been upgraded with necroware that make them into deadly hand-to-hand fighters, and even imbued with a germ of intelligence.
Watson believes the Memorandum is at work here, but by this point the other members of his team suspect Watson doesn't want to follow through with their mission of finding and destroying the Memorandum. Perhaps Watson instead wants to use it to bring his dead friend completely back to life. Confronted with this, Watson doesn't realize his hubris makes him have a great deal in common with those he despises; he imagines his scientific quest to be a purer one than those driven by power.
This contradiction between means and aims becomes all the more stark by the time Watson and his cronies find Karamazov. He, too, has been bitten by the human-resurrection bug, and has found a way to "write" an artificial soul into a corpse — or, horrifyingly, into a live human being, with predictable results. What's telling is how Watson seems more angry with Karamazov for not trying to advance the technology than he is for the amoral ways he has put it to use. Later, when the group catches up with the Memorandum in Japan, it interacts with Friday in ways that give Watson hope that is view is in fact justified. Is some vestige of his friend in still there somewhere?
Before Watson can find an answer, though, the Memorandum falls into the hands of none other then Frankenstein's creation, still alive after all these years, and by all accounts with a soul and a mind of his own. What, then, would he want with the Memorandum, since he already has everything it could have possibly imbued him with in the first place?
Mankind is something to be overcome
The dividing line between fully human, no longer human, and proto-human are blurred thoroughly as the story advances. (Warning: Spoilers follow.) One of the other major characters who embodies this is Hadaly Lilith, who shows up as ex-President Grant's strong right arm and bails the heroes out when they're caught in a tight spot. Hadaly, as it turns out, is an incarnation of that other common steampunk trope, the "clockwork human", or proto-android, although this secret is only tipped to both the audience and Watson alike more than halfway through the story. That she is a mechanical creation is not the big secret, though; it's that she harbors ambitions of humanity. Then again, for her to have such an ambition at all seems like proof of humanity all by itself.
Ultimately, the story turns into a multi-way clash of control for the worlds of both the dead and the living. First is Watson and his people versus his handler in British intelligence, "M", who has decided the best way to end the gruesome wars that are now fueled by corpse technology is to just kill everyone and rule the corpses. He sees the human race as — how might Nietzsche put it? — something to be overcome. And arrayed against all of them in turn is "The One", a/k/a Frankenstein's creation, now a wizened old figure who has plans of his own to derive a true human soul from the great mass of the dead, one with which he can himself merge.
If you read that last sentence and thought Bride of Frankenstein, you're right on target; the movie even gives Burnaby an old-school Frankenstein monster, complete with the bolts in his neck, to tangle with during the climax. The way the movie is salted with such nods is part of its genre appeal (what, "M" wasn't a tipoff, too?), but the film isn't hung up solely on making references for its motive force. The setting, its trappings, the external bits, those are all just the way it gets the audience in the door; the real story is in exploring how Watson's ambitions are, in fact, an embodiment of everything he is struggling against.
That said, I shouldn't brush off the fun stuff. Most people are going to see this because it's a period adventure with tons of spectacular imagery, and I can hardly find fault with them for that. The animation was produced by Wit Studio (Attack on Titan, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, Seraph of the End, HAL), a Production I.G spinoff, and it has much of the same polished, elegant look as that house's prior works. Period detail is fused with fantasy throughout; the towering giant "difference engines" (19th-century supercomputers) with their endless stacks of spiny gears look downright H.R. Giger-ish. I also liked the way subtle shifts in art direction accompany each hop around the globe: when the crew come to Japan, we're shown a cityscape with color washes that are immediately reminiscent of a Hokusai print.
Are too many endings better than not enough?
It's a shame, then, that the movie muddles its message in a couple of key ways. The first, and maybe least problematic issue, is the way its technology is more magic than tech in the long run. This is mostly me griping about the way the necro-tech in the film is handled, since we eventually get to the point where the zombies can be commanded by way of what amounts to a kind of supernatural cellular signal. On the other hand, if it's intended as a viewpoint that stems from a 19th-century concept of technology, it makes that much more sense, even if at times it feels more like convenience of storytelling than exploration of a concept.
What I'm much less enamored of, though, is the final third or so — not because of what happens, exactly, but how. It's the kind of messy, overblown, three-climaxes-too-many third act that has become the stock-in-trade of action/adventure-oriented storytelling lately. It's scale-out thinking: if one climax is good, two must be great, and three must be REALLY SOMETHING! But more is not automatically better, and the movie's urge to huff and puff means we also end up with about two denouements too many as well. This includes a post-credits sequence — one that's admittedly a great mythology gag, but which also seems to contradict the troubling last scene we get before the credits roll. Pick-your-own-ending storytelling is not inherently foolish, but in a story where the specific implications of what happens are vital, it's the wrong way to fly.
I'm a critic, so I'm obliged to quibble where it's merited. What I won't say is that these things invalidate the whole, or make it not worth the effort. I found the charity to forgive AKIRA its nihilism and excess, and to see how Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise worked despite some ill-conceived moments. The Empire of Corpses doesn't quite land on the moon, but it sure gets aloft.