Ever wonder what the world would be like if the British Empire had been built upon a working class of reanimated corpses? Well, the new anime film Empire of Corpses brings that world to life -- and it is fantastic.
Empire of Corpses begins in the year 1878 and is set in a world quite similar to our own. However, there is one huge difference: Reanimated corpses are used as slave labour across the world. The use of reanimated workers is so prevalent that they handle almost every menial job. On the streets of London, we see them as waiters and porters. In British India they make up entire armies. They pull river barges and crew ships at sea. They can even take dictations or down everything they see happen in the world around them.
These zombie workers (yep, we're breaking out the "Z word") were created thanks to two major changes in history as we know it. The first is simple: Dr. Frankenstein was a real person -- and so was his monster. This leads to an entire science built around reanimating life.
The other is that Charles Babbage actually built his Analytical Engine in the 1830s -- dragging the world into the computing age over a century before our own. With computers, it became possible to program the soulless bodies of the dead to respond to any number of simple commands. But more than that, the zombiefied human brain can act as memory storage -- making it the perfect hard drive for the analytical engine.
The adventure of Empire of Corpses follows young medical student John H. Watson -- yes, that John H. Watson -- and his zombie partner Friday. After showing remarkable skill in reanimating his dead friend Friday in his own personal lab, Watson is recruited by British Intelligence and is sent to the far corners of the Empire to investigate rumours related to new types of zombies being created. He finds himself partnered with renowned Victorian adventurer Frederick Burnaby and repeatedly encounters femme fatale Hadaly Lilith as he races across the globe to stop a plot that could destroy the world as he knows it.
As you may have guessed from the paragraphs above, Empire of Corpses is a mixture of classic literature and historical fiction. Watson, Frankenstein, Hadaly, and Alexei Karamazov are all fictional characters reimagined for a steampunk world filled with domesticated zombies. On the other hand, Burnaby, Seigo Yamazawa, Ulysses S. Grant, and Thomas Edison were all real people. Seeing how they are portrayed in the world of Empire of Corpses is equal parts fun and fascinating.
Thematically, however, Empire of Corpses is focused on one topic: the human soul. The zombies are used as a workforce because none of what they were as living humans remains. Their eyes are dead and they are unable to speak.
Likewise, while they can follow commands, they cannot assimilate information without direct programing via an analytical engine. So while you could program zombies to shoot guns at enemies, they cannot determine for themselves what constitutes an enemy from context alone. In other words, they can be programmed but cannot learn.
This change is attributed to the loss of the soul -- the supposed proof of which is that when a human dies, its body becomes 21 grams lighter due to the soul's escape. Never has there been a reanimated corpse with a soul -- except for, as the legends would have you believe, the very first one: Frankenstein's monster.
Watson is driven to discover if the soul is, if fact, a real thing. For if it is, there may be a way to return Friday's soul back to him -- effectively giving his dead friend a new life. Of course, Watson is far from the only person hunting for the knowledge to bring back the dead. As he, Friday, and Burnaby travel the world, they encounter more than a few people who have taken this obsession to extremes, far beyond what Watson has even dreamed of. And so with each revelation, Watson comes a step closer to returning his friend's soul -- and, in another sense, losing his own.
Empire of Corpses is an absolutely amazing film. It has the action and adventure of a globetrotting adventure; and through its mixture of historical fiction and classic literature, it builds a fantastical -- yet, still familiar -- world. Yet, beneath all that is a deep exploration of the nature of the human soul and the minds of those driven to understand it. All this comes together to make Empire of Corpses one of the best anime films I have seen in years and one destined to become a classic.
Empire of Corpses was released in Japanese theatres on 2 October 2015. It has been licensed by Funimation for release in the the US in 2016.