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Review © Mandi Apple, 2005.

Directed by Shinji Aoyama, starring Reiko Takashima, Yutaka Matsushige, Seijun Suzuki, Hitomi Miwa, Masatoshi Matsuo, Junichi Hayakawa, Toshio Shiba and Kojiro Hongo.

Directed in 1999 by Shinji Aoyama, a full year after the release of Hideo Nakata's giant crossover hit Ring and two years after Kiyoshi Kurosawa's groundbreaking Cure, right from the outset EM-Embalming (aka EM/Embalming, aka Enbamingu, aka EM, aka Embalming) sets itself up in two ways - firstly as a kind of strange satire on the supernatural movies which were doing the box-office tango in Japan at that time, but secondly - and infinitely more effectively - as a serious horror movie in its own right, all joking aside.

You might think one objective is mutually exclusive from the other, and it would seem from watching this movie that you'd be right. Luckily, it succeeds in one aspect, and the most important at that - as a disturbing, weird, innovative and unsettling oddity, a work of grisly horror that will delight and disturb fans of both psychological chillers and gorefests alike.

The question about EM-Embalming on my lips from the get-go was, is this movie the Anti-Ring? Attention to detail like casting Yutaka Matsushige (who also played the doomed journalist in Rasen, released the year before) and utilising elements from the successful J-horror formula (including a knowing Ring-style oval-mirror moment, which made me chuckle) would suggest that he is at the very least giving the genre-directors a gentle dig in the ribs, if not entirely mocking them and subtly pastiching their style.

Aoyama even takes the mickey out of their supernatural themes, preferring to stick to entirely human and worldly motifs of death, decay and madness, and playing with the audience's emotions concerning some of humanity's deepest fears, breaking the taboo of the disrespect and violation of the dead, a primitive and primeval horror, and something which evokes a kneejerk reaction in most people. Let this serve as a warning to casual horror movie viewers: EM-Embalming is most definitely an extreme movie in all senses of the word.

Taken as satire, however, it all falls a bit flat – mainly because it does not directly satirise anything concrete, only sticking two metaphorical fingers up at the moneyspinning 'Japanese Horror' style rather than rewriting it to suit his own ends as Takashi Miike did with his recent and reasonably successful movie Chakushin ari. If anything, EM-Embalming reminds me in a berserk way of Rasen on acid, crossed with Hypnosis and Sybil - that is the only parallel I can possibly draw.

As for the 'comedy' moments, though, don't even go there - for instance, a dreadful back-projection driving-a-car shot which would even make the Keystone Kops hoot in derision at its old-fashioned awfulness, is evidently supposed to be funny, but it just adds a rather jarring and distracting note. In fact, all the outright daft additions of that kind in this movie only serve to fragment the conflicted emotional nature of the piece. They're certainly not going to have anyone rollin' in the aisles, although they did raise the occasional grin from me.

The acting is reasonable and competent, though no real star performances (excepting the veteran director Seijun Suzuki, taking a brief cameo role as the embalmer's assistant) means that it's a very understated piece, which both does and doesn't work in its favour: the humour is lost through the subtlety, but the horror gains what the comedy loses.

The entire movie is, as you might expect from such a high-calibre auteur-director, beautifully shot with artistically elegant framing and cinematography - and the music is almost tongue-in-cheek overblown at points, but still very effective.


Murakami Miyako (Reiko Takashima), the embalmer featured in the story, gets a call first thing in the morning from police detective, Hiraoka, (Yutaka Matsushige), inviting her to the scene of a young boy's death, who she is being asked to embalm. The lad in question, Shindo Yoshiki, apparently fell to his death from the roof, and there's no question of homicide as far as the police are concerned - evidently it's either suicide or an accident.

Miyako has been called in because his mother is mad with grief and wants to have her son's smashed-up body restored and preserved forever. But as Miyako states quite baldly, embalming does not preserve a body 'forever' - the effects are short-lived, lasting only 50 days after treatment. During conversation it transpires out his father is very famous and powerful: Shindo Hideto is the head of the National Country Party, and as such she is expected to take extra special care of her charge. However, as she is leaving, on the way downstairs she sees a mysterious young woman loitering about on the staircase, so Miyako follows her up to the roof, along with the detective and the other policeman. From her strange behaviour, it's obvious she's involved with the boy who died here, and the cops find out that she is Shinohara Rika (Hitomi Miwa), the late Yoshiki's girlfriend.

From there we follow the course of Yoshiki's body, from autopsy to embalming mortuary, and an unflinchingly graphic, artistically beautiful and clinically explicit scene of corpse restoration ensues, all set to a chilling accompaniment of dead air. (Viewers with dodgy tums are advised to look away.... now.) It's obvious that Miyako performs her work with love and respect, and that her greatest value is compassion for the family, trying to ease their grief by showing their deceased as the beautiful, whole and perfect person they were before death.

But something very strange happens, shocking Miyako - her assistant removes a foreign object from the boy's eyelid, which turns out to be a needle. As she runs out into the hall in utter shock, she is suddenly confronted by a strange sight: two men dressed in traditional-style religious clothing appear in front of her, replete with sashes and staffs. They are monks at a nearby cult temple, and they ask her to accompany her to meet a Buddhist-cult priest, Daitokuin Chief Bonze Jion, who threatens her, telling her to stop perpetrating the 'evil acts' she is performing on Yoshiki's corpse. It would seem that this particular cult are opposed to the restoration of a body via embalming. (Having looked briefly into traditional Japanese Buddhism, there doesn't seem as if there's a precept forbidding the modification of a dead body, and most sources state that although it's not usually practiced in Buddhist funerary rites, it's not really frowned on.)

Later, not having taken the priest's order seriously and having finished her work on Yoshiki, she invites the detective to her apartment to discuss the needle which popped up out of Yoshiki's eye - which naturally gives the detective incentive to open a murder investigation. Talking to Hiraoka, Miyako finds out that there's more to Jion the priest than meets the eye (pun intended). But Hiraoka, is more concerned with Rika, Yoshiki's girlfriend - the girl who appeared on the roof and threatened to kill herself in front of him and Miyako.

Something very odd is happening in the mortuary at this time: Miyako's elderly assistant Kurume (Seijun Suzuki) has been attacked by a mysterious man in a gasmask - who proceeds to steal Yoshiki's head, leaving the perfectly preserved body behind. Suspicion must surely fall on the father, who didn't want the embalming process carried out - and by extension, Jion? However, Hiraoka has a completely different lead in this case. He tells Miyako and Kurume of a band of bodysnatchers known as "Death Traders", who steal corpses from hospitals and funeral homes and harvest the organs for sale on the black market. (That good old-fashioned urban legend of the organ thieves comes into play - echoes of the urban legend mythmaking of Ring here, perhaps?)

After the detective leaves, however, Kurume confides to Miyako that many years ago, he was headhunted (pun very much intended) by the organ thieves - and he produces the letter they sent him to prove it. In his experience, only one man can make some kind of profit from stealing a usually unharvestable head- the organisation's head (yes, intended), Dr Fuji - a previously eminent surgeon struck off again and again for illegal activities and now the evil head honcho (mm-hmmm... ;-)) of the gang.

Miyako takes an email address from Kurume 's letter and makes contact with the gang herself. The next night she is taken to meet Dr. Fuji, her nemesis and evil counterpart, in his 'mobile morgue', performing a harvesting and embalming procedure - with no care or respect, simply chucking organs left, right and centre as though the body he is working on is nothing but chump chops. Miyako succeeds in getting some information from the evil doctor - not only about who bought the head from him, but he also tells her that, due to the amateurishness of the killing, it must have been carried out by a young person. With Kurume 's earlier assertion that it was probably a crime of passion, all leads would point to Shinohara Rika, Yoshiki's girlfriend, as being the murderer. He also tells her that Jion used to own a psychiatric hospital.

Miyako, with her superior medical knowledge, tells Hiraoka that a human body can be rendered helpless by the insertion of a needle just below the ear: perhaps that was how Yoshiki was killed, whilst paralysed by this mysterious needle? Rika herself is involved in a weird gang who are living in an old disused psychiatric hospital nearby who know her as 'Ayumi', not Rika, and is sleeping with Kuniaki, one of the boys in the gang, who just happens to be a dead ringer for Yoshiki.

It isn't until later that Hiraoka tells Miyako the girl 'Rika' has multiple personality disorder. But how does this all fit in with Yoshiki? What happened to ex-surgeon Chief Jion's hospital, which was forced to close down? Where does Dr. Fuji fit into all this, and what of the strange needle - was this something planted by Rika? Miyako is determined to finish what she started in embalming Shindo Yoshiki's body; and if she has any hope of doing so, she has to unravel the tangled threads of this mystery and find the missing head - and fast.

One of the most interesting things about this movie is the way that Aoyama approaches something like a philosophical debate with his audience. The whole practice and procedure of embalming seems to evoke a somewhat conflicted response in this work: there are many references to the passing of beauty and the briefness of life, but also a strong investigation into whether embalming is something which is inherently wrong and unethical.

Even in the first shot of the entire movie, it didn't escape my notice that, in the embalmer's apartment, there was a large hourglass featured prominently, clearly a symbol of tempus fugit, and there are countless other examples where the characters reference the nature of all things being transient, and establishing Aoyama's assertion that this is the way of the world and the natural order of things, and that people should not meddle with this natural order.

The phrase "Nothing lasts for eternity" is repeated again and again throughout. Aoyama is, in respect to the rather controversial practice, showing both sides of the argument - those who believe embalming is a good thing to ease grief and show love and respect to the dead, and those who believe that it's a crime to mess with mortal remains in any sense as you cannot prolong life - only an illusion - and that everyone must accept transience in the end, as part of their own mortality.

Taken completely at face value and treated seriously, this movie is a curious, morbid and macabre gem full of gothic, clinically creepy moments. The story itself is confusing, clever and genuinely horrifying, a grisly mix of medical thriller, splatterfest and suspenseful murder-mystery, and full of squirm-inducing moments throughout - both due to the pure gore and guts content, which shockingly outstrips some Guinea Pig movies I've seen by quite some margin, and also to the sheer psychological nastiness involved. EM – Embalming is totally unlike anything else in the genre - one of the most brilliantly weird, inspired and innovative movies I've seen for a long time.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Barking Madness: woof!/10
Violence: 11/10, mainly perpetrated on folks too dead to care about it
Sex: 2/10
Chills: 6/10
Dismembered Corpses: more than you can shake a bonesaw at
Confusion: ????????/??
Music: I'll warn you now, it's a bad, bad, bad idea to listen to the flesh-sewing sequence on headphones
Litres of Tomato Ketchup: it's bloodier than a butcher's shop in there!

Films in a Similar Style: absolutely none, but if you insist, then – Rasen, Hypnosis, Suicide Circle

*** Highly recommended! ***

This film is being released by Artsmagic in 2005.

EM-Embalming Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2005

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Shinji Aoyama
Reiko Takashima
Yutaka Matsushige
Hitomi Miwa


http://www.artsmagicdvd.com/ and http://www.artsmagic.co.uk - Artsmagic very kindly provided this movie to us for review, and are due to release the DVD in 2005
http://www.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/getarticle.pl5?ff19990817a1.htm - a very thoughtful and incisive article by Mark Schilling at The Japan Times
http://pears.lib.ohio-state.edu/Markus/Review/Films99/Embalming.html - an interesting review by Aaron Gerow, but taken from an academic perspective rather than a horror angle
http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=253935 - short but succinct piece by the New York Times
http://www.25frames.org/php_filme/show_movie.php?film_id=1739&refid=11 - short piece in German with links [German only]

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