Genocidal Organ, the final installment in the “Project Itoh” trilogy, opens on the site of a real-world massacre. A tour group idles in observance of the “Sarajevo Roses,” a memorial of resin-filled mortar fire craters marked in remembrance of the thousands of civilians who lost their lives during the six-year Siege of Sarajevo—a conflict which, to this day, stands as the longest concentrated assault of its kind in modern history. In the film, this locus of past trauma and catharsis becomes the scene of yet another atrocity, as the lives of Sarajevo’s citizens are once again indiscriminately snuffed out, this time in the immolating hellfire of an atomic bomb. This cycle of barbarism, of history continuously circling back on itself to reprise the horrors of a previous generation, is the thematic fulcrum upon which Genocidal Organ pivots.
Set between 2015 and 2022, Shuko Murase’s adaptation of the late Satoshi “Project” Ito’s debut novel follows Clavis Shepherd, an intelligence officer working at the behest of an international spec-ops unit tasked with pursuing the culprits responsible for the nuclear attack and bringing them to justice. While investigating, Shepherd learns of the elusive John Paul, a mysterious power broker whose machinations have instigated a swath of civil unrest and genocide across the world. As Shepherd’s team hunts John Paul from one war zone to the next, he begins to question the efficacy of his actions, and of whether or not the impulse for genocide is writ into the collective psyche of humanity itself.
Murase is at home with this material, being known as a director for his work in producing such intense, psychologically-driven series as Witch Hunter Robin and Ergo Proxy. The character and mecha designs of ‘redjuice,’ a pseudonymous illustrator known for their work with Ito prior to his death, translate well onto the big screen. Here, they echo the unmistakable feel of Yoji Shinkawa’s work on the Metal Gear Solid series, whose creator Hideo Kojima was something of a mentor to Ito when he was first starting out as a writer. Knowing how close the two were, it’s not that hard to see from the surface how much Kojima’s signature series went on to inspire Genocidal Organ and vice versa. Composer Yoshihiro Ike, who previously worked with Murase on Ergo Proxy series, delivers a score that fits comfortably into the mold of the typical spy action-thriller faire that’s preceded it, with plaintive piano keys, discordant synth stabs and pregnant pauses akin to the likes of Harry Gregson-Williams (Enemy of the State) or John Powell (The Bourne Identity). As far as aesthetic formalism, everything in Murase’s film gels into a cohesive, satisfying whole.
In the tried and true fashion of contemporary science-fiction, Genocidal Organ is set in a world ‘twenty minutes in the future,’ with all the terrifying uncanniness therein. It’s as if the viewer is witnessing an eerily plausible transmission from some adjacent, alternate dimension, bifurcating at some small, yet critical juncture. It’s a world where, amid Monday Night Football broadcasts and supermarket runs, augmented vision technology and commercial robotics are not only popular, but routine. Yet unfortunately, the miraculous circumstances that yielded such extraordinary advances were not enough to save its inhabitants from the ills which plague our own era. “The day [the] twin towers were lost, something inside of us changed,” Clavis says early on in the film. “The scope of our freedoms shrank in order for us to fight terror, and although the pendulum did swing back a little, the trauma of losing our peers meant that public sentiment never changed course… It’s like the whole world just decided to go crazy.” In this world, the anthemic promise of the 21st century remains irrevocably marred by the September 11 attacks, while the world at large continues to be wracked in an unending cycle of social unrest, spiritual malaise, and senseless proxy conflicts fermented by self-styled demagogues, nihilistic radicals and moneyed benefactors. Welcome to the new hell, same as the old hell.
Throughout its near two-hour runtime, the film broaches many weighty subjects, including, though not limited to, the collusive relationship between state-sponsored mercenaries and weapon contractors, The Sapir-Whorf theory of language as a means of ideological currency and the instinctual capacity for sympathetic and hostile impulses hardwired into the human subconscious. And to its credit, Genocidal Organ manages to juggle all of these hefty concepts rather capably. At least, to a certain extent. For all its strengths, the film’s third act fumbles in its depiction of the theme of America’s selective amnesia and social darwinist view of capitalism, exemplified through one character’s point-blank declaration that the indiscriminate sacrifice of countless civilian lives abroad is a small price to pay for affordable jalapeno pizza and Big Macs back home. Apart from this satirical exception, the film’s tone otherwise is as taut as a tripwire.
As the capstone to a trilogy of authorial adaptations, any writer reviewing Genocidal Organ would be remiss not to at least mention how the film works in tandem with its predecessors. When Noitamina, Fuji TV’s flagship animation block, announced in 2014 that they were producing a series of films based on Project Itoh’s novels and that each would be animated by one of three prestigious studios, it was their intention to release each film across three months in the latter half of 2015. While Wit Studio’s The Empire of Corpses and Studio 4°C’s Harmony released as scheduled and received screenings in the West that following year, Genocidal Organ was delayed due to the financial woes and restructuring on part of Manglobe, the studio originally commissioned to produce it. Directed by Ryoutarou Makihara and based on an unfinished novel published posthumously after Ito’s death, The Empire of Corpses is consequently the weakest installment in the trilogy; with a conceptually intriguing premise that otherwise collapses into a heap of overwrought steampunk tropes, indulgent name-drops, and tiresome third-act exposition. Harmony, co-directed by Michael Arias and Takashi Nakamura, is a superior film by comparison, depicting a dystopian world where a global medicinal technocracy led by the World Health Organization is brought to heel by a subversive campaign of coordinated terror attacks. With that in mind, even considering the film’s protracted development and occasionally shoddy pacing, Genocidal Organ stands head and shoulders above either film as the most cogent and thoroughly crafted realization of Ito’s work to date.
It’s a testament to the writing of Project Itoh that, no matter the relative quality of these adaptations, the thematic severity of his philosophical premises shine through regardless. Where Empire of Corpses portrayed a society of opulence built literally on the back of itinerant workers robbed not only of their humanity, but the peace of death, and Harmony depicted a world where the Hippocratic Oath has been misconstrued into a civilization defined through a soul-deadening complacency and the subjugation of free will, Genocidal Organ’s alternate reality cuts the closest to our own: a world in which the shadow of the past and its assorted traumas holds the future hostage.
And, in the immortal words of L.P. Hartley, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
Director: Shûkô Murase
Writer: Project Itoh (novel), Shûkô Murase (screenplay)
Starring: Yuki Kaji, Akio Ôtsuka, Yûichi Nakamura
Release Date: July 12, 2017 (limited)
Toussaint Egan is a culturally omnivorous writer who has written for several publications including Complex, Playboy, A.V. Club, and Paste. Give him a shout on twitter.