Harmony / The Empire Of Corpses – Review

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There’s no way that could go horribly wrong!

Harmony: In a world where everybody is healthy and life gets more perfect every day, Tuan feels imprisoned and unhappy. After having to return home to Japan she’s confronted with both her past and darker forces that want to push the world into a new, horrifying direction.

The Empire Of Corpses: In a world where economy and wars are fuelled by the labor of mindless walking corpses, Watson is looking for Victor Frankenstein’s diary. With its secrets he wants to give his recently resurrected friend Friday his soul back. But a lot of other people are also looking for the diary and their plans are much less compassionate.

Review:

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Instead of trying to use the technology for good, one of the first things humanity in this movie did was to use the corpses as soldiers.

Watching Empire Of Corpses and Harmony back-to-back made me think: This is all Gen Urobuchi wants to be – without the urge to be also cool. Psycho-Pass, Madoka Magica and Rakuen Tsuihou: The darkness is there but it’s something that can be dealt with – because there are heroes. That’s the most glaring difference between the darkness you often see in animes and the darkness of Project Itoh’s works. Maybe the world is dark and the characters are fundamentally anti-heroes but in the end there’s a greater good that can be fought for and there are people who fight for it. All that’s left to do in the dark worlds of Harmony and Empire Of Corpses, though, is to either despair or submit to the darkness. It’s about anarchy in the most nihilistic sense.

Based on the novels by Project Itoh Harmony and Empire Of Corpses both deliver stories that have a lot of similarities in terms of themes and topics. It’s very striking how different the stories are in what they want to talk about and especially how they want to talk about it. It isn’t the characters so much or the plot or the story. The first often feel/are powerless, the second is more about inevitability than anything else and the third is more or less a giant, depressing allegory. It isn’t so much that you look at these movies and look for the entertainment on the surface-level while also enjoying some intriguing subtext. Both these movies are asking the audience to look through the surface and focus on what the allegories try to get at.

What this looks like is in both movies the same: Characters go on a journey where they confront/explore the world’s dark secrets. But it isn’t a heroic quest with a victory at its end but the simple revelation how hopeless and futile things are. Any creativity the characters can offer against the meaninglessness of life is destruction. In Harmony it’s the elimination of human self-awareness (as well as the death of a certain character) and in Empire Of Corpses it’s the elimination of the past. It’s reminiscent of Peter Watts’ works which are equally nihilistic. In his novel Blindsight, for example: At the end of it the Earth is overrun by vampires (which were created by humans) and humanity dies as too many have uploaded their consciousness into a digital Nirvana leaving not enough people behind to maintain the machines for that Nirvana. And the vampires aren’t even human and more like immortal fleshy robots. If you’ve seen the movies, stuff like that will sound very familiar to you.

The question both movies struggle with is also the same: Who’s at fault – and why did they do that? Both movies have their own false Utopias to dress up the question. Also, the stories hinge on some basic assumptions about it nihilism: One, the only truth is the lack of it (there are no absolute answers). Two, virtues and vices are essentially the same because both lead to horrible actions. And three, beauty and ugliness are reversed (it’s the beautiful that hides ugliness and ugliness that hides beauty).

Harmony is more pronounced in addressing that question. The “enemy” is quickly identified and exposition is mostly there to explain how the new utopia surrounding the Administration and its Lifeism is controlling the world. From the very first minute it’s clear that Tuan doesn’t like the clean world of Lifeism. But there’s no rebellion happening. All the story shows is various ways to escape the dangers of life – to the point where it’s decided to stop being human altogether. But at the root of it is the simple fact that the biggest enemy of peace is humanity. Flaws are what define humanity and they lead to death time and again. And nobody in the movie ever tries to make a case for accepting that. Instead everybody tries to escape the fundamental imperfections of life.

Of course, it’s easy to see how that’s the case for the lifeism-society but it’s only after Tuan has met Miach again that it becomes clear just how meaningless Tuan’s rebellion had been. Miach’s selfishness becomes apparent as it’s revealed how she jumped at the chance to discard her humanity for happiness while also helping the “Administration” do the same to the rest of the world. When she rebelled against lifeism together with Tuan and Cian, she didn’t rebel against lifeism itself but her selfawareness. The Miach in Tuan’s memories had turned out to be a lie.

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Both movies seem to share that idea and both think/show that it’s a bad idea. “Fixing” humanity seems like a necessity but this is the key to its destruction also, it seems.

Empire Of Corpses also sees selfishness and the abandonment of humanity for a better world in a conflict. Here, the world is slowly losing its soul as it’s being taken over by the technology to create corpse-robots. These corpse-bots don’t have a soul and the world is increasingly relying on them to do simple labor while also using them for endless wars. But Watson is trying to find a way to restore the soul of his friend who died and was turned by him into such a robot. On his quest for Victor Frankenstein’s diary he realizes that rgis technology is the essential factor that is pushing the world towards destruction. On one hand you got M who wants to use Victor Frankenstein’s technology to turn the entire world into corpses (therefore ridding every one of their humanity which is considered bad) and on the other hand you have The One (Frankenstein’s monster) who selfishly wants to create his wife at the expense of the entire world.

It’s interesting to note here that Empire Of Corpses was Project Itoh’s last novel before he sadly died (and someone else also finished writing it). Having only seen Harmony as well, I’m a bit skeptical whether Project Itoh would’ve gone for the same ending. What makes it very different is that it actually offers an escape that Tuan in Harmony didn’t have: Removing the core-factor for the misery of the world without destroying it. A big part of Harmony was how in its third act the failure of lifeism led to widespread violence. In Empire Of Corpses, though, Watson simply can eliminate the corpse-technology and the world is fine.

If you ask yourself the question, though, which one the better movie is, the answer is simple: Empire Of Corpses. Simply by virtue of the plot Empire Of Corpses is miles ahead of Harmony in terms of entertainment-value. At least you got the barebones of a straightforward adventure with Empire Of Corpses. Also the animation is much more polished with art-design that shows more variation that Harmony’s bland color-palette.

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Harmony doesn’t cover new ground in how it criticizes “false utopias” but what makes it interesting is how it looks at this from the angle of healthcare.

Both Empire Of Corpses and Harmony (though, the latter to a bigger extent) suffer from exposition-heavy and generally very heady writing. “Show, don’t tell.” certainly isn’t a much-exercised virtue in these two movies. Add to that how characters often spend more time talking about the story than to each other and you get the sense that the ideas they’re talking about are indeed more relevant than anything happening in the plot. The drama effectively only exists on a cerebral level. What kept my interest in both movies wasn’t so much the fates of the individual characters but where the story would go with its ideas.

And the ideas behind these two movies are what decides how much you’re gonna get out of these movies. The dark and nihilistic writing in both movies isn’t something you see in a lot of sci-fi/fantasy-stories these days. It goes beyond the grim and gritty of Game Of Thrones and finds its tone more in line with Lovecraftian horror (whose essential message is that the entire universe is out to get you) for example. Of course, once things get that nihilistic you’re past having any sort of inspirational message or an ambition for realism. The universes of these two movies show off the worst aspects of humanity and declare the better parts to be secretly ugly or practically non-existent.

But why would you want to watch something that depressing? I’ve already said how the movies are driven by the question “Who’s at fault – and why did they do it?”. The wrongdoers are the objects of the movies and figuring out what their deal is makes these movies interesting. Because the even more basic question that also more optimistic stories deal with is: “What’s wrong with the world?” And normally it’s just a tyrant that a hero needs to kill or maybe it’s the dragon that a knight needs to kill or it’s just high-school-kids looking for friends because everybody needs friends. All of these stories try to find some good, try to say: “It’s not all doom and gloom.” But only rarely do you get nihilistic stories like in these two movies that want to say “What’s wrong with the world? Everything.”

It all comes down to a matter of taste in my opinion. Do you like nihilism or not? If you think nihilism seems overindulgent in a story or want clear drama with stakes and a satisfying conclusion, these two movies certainly aren’t for you. But if you want to see stories about worlds that drown in their own misery and can stand the tiring amount of exposition-heavy philosophizing that’s happening in the dialogues, then you will find some enjoyment in these two movies which you won’t find in a lot of other places.

Rating: Harmony 6/10 The Empire Of Corpses 8/10

Random Thoughts:

  • One interesting facet of Project Itoh’s sadly short career is his friendship with Hideo Kojima (the mind behind the Metal Gear Solid-series). Kojima even allowed Project Itoh to write an official novel for the game-series.
  • This series of movies was originally planned as a trilogy but Genocidal Organ (which was supposed to be released even before Harmony) was never finished. Manglobe, the studio responsible for Genocidal Organs, filed for bankruptcy last year. So, who knows when that third movie is coming out… Release-wise, Genocidal Organ was Itoh’s first novel, Harmony came after that and Empire Of Corpses came out after his death.
  • I have to admit I have no idea what to think of the epilogue in Empire Of Corpses. So, everybody is playing the role of a “famous person” (fictional or real). Considering how nihilistic the movie is… Is that enough to count as a happy end? Or does the ending imply that they all just end up playing various roles without ever having learned how to move forward? Like, at best they’ve simply sidestepped the end of the world but haven’t actually moved past it as a society…?

About M0rg0th

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

Posted on October 12, 2016, in Anime, Harmony, Reviews, The Empire Of Corpses and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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