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EM: Embalming (DVD)

Starring Reiko Takashima, Yutaka Matsushige, Toshio Shiba, Hitomi Miwa, Kojiro Hongo, Masatoshi Matsuo, Seijun Suzuki

Directed by Shinji Aoyama

Released by Arts Magic


While the process has been used here in the States, and indeed in many countries throughout the world, for many years now, embalming is still not a widely used preservation method in Japan. Because of this, an embalming usually has to be specifically requested by the loved ones of the deceased, and it’s still viewed with a lot of controversy on the subject of the soul’s ability to pass over if the body is embalmed.

Aoyama’s first foray into the horror field, EM: Embalming tells of a female embalmer, Miyaki (Takashima), who is asked by a wealthy politician to embalm his son after his apparent suicide off a high rise. Before she can complete the task, however, her assistant is knocked unconscious by some thugs and the body’s head is inexplicably stolen from the body.

Together with detective Hioka (Matsushige), she attempts to find out just what is going on, and why someone would want just the head of a young boy. She is lead by her assistant to Dr. Fuji, a man that may or may not be her estranged father (thought to have disappeared after Vietnam), who now does embalming for an organ harvesting organization. It’s so hush-hush, they operate out of the back of a truck. Creepy.

As the truth slowly crawls to the surface, things just get stranger and stranger, with multiple personalities, secret religious ties, and the question of whether embalming truly keeps the dead alive for their loved ones some of the more prevalent themes. Because of the nature of the story, it’s hard to classify the film as strictly horror. There are certainly a good amount of nasty, nefarious things going on behind the scenes, but overall what Aoyama is going for is a building sense of dread more than anything else, and at that he succeeds.

It’s mainly a matter of the cinematography that makes this work. Aoyama has a skill for setting up the camera in one place and letting a very long take come to fruition in front of it, whether it be exposition or action. It’s something I almost didn’t notice at first, but as the movie progresses there’s more and more of it, to give you an unflinching look at what’s really going on. A tribute to his cast, as well, as they all did a great job.

I wouldn’t say EM: Embalming is really brilliant or inventive, because it is somewhat all over the place at times, but it’s definitely a different kind of story than most horror/suspense films from Japan (mainly due to it’s lack of ghosts) and gives insight into aspects of the Japanese culture we’re not usually privy to.

I’m not sure what happened in the transfer, perhaps they just had a bad print of the film, but the film really doesn’t look too good at all on this disc. Though it’s in its original aspect ratio (1.85:1), there’s a lot of grain in the darker scenes and it’s just plain distracting. This also confounds me because the movie came out in 1999 so it’s not like they’re working from old stock or anything. The sound, however, in either 5.1 surround or 2.0 mono, is excellent, especially during some of the gooier scenes when parts are being separated from their whole.

Features include a 20-minute interview with the director that, while an interesting insight into how the Aoyama approaches his work in general and EM: Embalming in specific, is about as dull as you can get. The entire interview consists of a static shot of the director, who barely moves and rarely says anything funny or amusing to lighten the mood. I’ve seen similar features on previous Arts Magic releases, and I hope in the future that they’ll do something to enliven the setting; perhaps showing shots from the film or behind the scenes while it’s going on.

Jasper Sharp, of Midnight Eye notoriety, provides a commentary track that delves into everything from the individual actor’s careers to the history of Japanese horror, and lots of subjects in between. My main complaint was that little of it had to do with the movie at hand, but that was really a secondary concern as, all in all, it was a very fascinating bit of commentary. I was reminded of some of the commentaries on Universal’s Legacy releases of their classic films in terms of how overall informative it was, and I hope it enhances your appreciation for the film. The disc is rounded out by some bios of the director and the stars.

EM: Embalming, as a suspense film, is effective for the most part, even if the director doesn’t seem completely sure of the kind of movie he wanted to create. Minor issues with the DVD aside, it’s worth checking out if nothing else for the fact that it’s a different kind of J-horror, one that is blissfully ghost-free.


3 out of 5

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Johnny Butane

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