If The Boy and I disagreed on April, we really disagreed on this next animated film which was also a Steampunk future-past-type debut feature from Ryôtarô Makihara, Empire of Corpses. In this film, Victor Frankenstein’s success in reanimating corpses results in research on all other things being halted, hence Steampunk. Though, if we’re being honest (and why would we be?), it’s pretty loose about things. Our hero is John H. Watson—
Let me stop here for a second.
“Cultural appropriation” is back in the news again, and it’s always one of my favorite topics because it’s so amazingly stupid. (I imagine the people who yell loudest about it are those who steal all their movies and music by downloading it.)
And nobody appropriates Western European culture and makes hash out of it like the Japanese. In Miyazaki’s classic Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki lives…well, somewhere in Europe. The writing on the signs looks sort of Germanic script-like. Someplace (and some time) where kites and and dirigibles are popular. Who knows? Who cares?
This movie takes this to a T so, yes, the character’s name is John Watson, and lest you think it’s a different John Watson the Holmes’ doctor sidekick, he’s John H. Watson. You’ll also run into a blonde Thomas Edison, a Friday (whose code name is, no joke, “Noble Savage 007”), and a sober Ulysses S. Grant. There’s a computer (not called that) named “Babbage” and another one named “Paul Bunyan”. Two of the main characters are from The Brothers Karamazov, cohabiting with real-life historical adventurer Frederick Barnaby.
Also, we got a big-boobed blue-eyed blonde who also references a 19th century French novel, but I won’t reveal how for fear of spoilers. (Although, to be honest, I saw it coming without knowing of the novel.)
Literary and historical characters intermingle with inappropriate-for-the-19th century technology and heaps of “magic science” that the Japanese love so well. Oh, and the “Noble Savage 007”? Well, we also have a Moneypenny and an M, so, you know, throw some Bond stuff in the hash, right?
The premise is that Victor Frankenstein created his monster in 1814 or so, and the usefulness of reanimated corpse slaves is so potent that all other technological research is abandoned. (Clearly, it’s not, since the world is full of late 19th century and steampunk inventions, but that’s what we’re told.) The catch is that the original reanimated corpse, who has no name and is just called The One, had an actual 21 gram soul while all subsequent attempts have produced soulless automatons. So, the movie’s MacGuffin is the original research notes of Frankenstein.
Our hero’s journey is to bring back his recently deceased chum, Friday, but with his soul (naturally), which I think was against the law. I wasn’t clear if it was any reanimation or this particular one or the whole soul thing, but the point is, Watson’s in trouble and now has to go work for the government—who send him off to find Dr. F’s notes.
It’s very Japanese. Very animé. Amongst all the preposterous inventions and anachronisms, magic, straight-up, appears in the second act. This is where it sort of lost me. And even if it hadn’t lost me at that point, by the end, I could only vaguely figure out what was going on. The animé people literalize abstractions in such a way as to make action sequences out of what might be more cerebral things which worked okay for me in The Boy and The Beast (and of course Inside Out) but not so much here.
The Boy, on the other hand, thought it was The Best Thing. Ruling out the classics we’ve been seeing, he ruled it above all other films we’ve seen this year. He threatened to go see it again the next day (the only other day it was playing, and then only at 10PM, which he’s less keen on now that he’s a working man), and while he conceded there was a lot of inappropriate animé-ish stuff (big-boobed blonde, e.g.) he still loved it. And I know why.
His all-time favorite animé series is “Full Metal Alchemist” (and its remake/sequel/reboot) “Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood” which, by the way, also features a hash of western history and a magic-science thing. But that’s not the important thing: The main story concerns a boy’s quest to restore his little brother’s body, which he…uh…swapped out for a suit of armor during an alchemy accident where they were trying to bring their mother back to life. (Alchemy is magic here, and can do anything—except restore life, much like Corpses’ premise of being able to animate the dead but not really bring them back to life.)
But the heart of both movies is the quest to save a friend, at any cost, even when you have to carry that guy around and risk your life and so on.
The Boy has reasons for being moved by this sort of stuff, and it’s no less valid than, say, parents liking Inside Out more than their children. Certain things resonate with us, with our experiences, with our points-of-view, or just aesthetically, and that, perhaps above craft or narrative, is the transcendent aspect of art.
That said, I would only cautiously recommend it to someone in my age group, for the reasons mentioned. Younger folks, especially when more steeped in animé traditions, will see it on a different level.