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EM: Embalming   C

Artsmagic DVD / GAGA Communications

Year Released: 1999 (USA: 2005)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Shinji Aoyama
Writers: Shinji Aoyama, Izô Hashimoto (based on a story by Saki Amimaya)
Cast: Reiko Takashima, Yutaka Matsushige, Toshio Shiba, Hitomi Miwa, Kojiro Hongo, Masatoshi Matsuo, Seijun Suzuki.

Review by Jim Harper

With his work defying easy classification and shying away from mainstream trends, it has taken some time for Shinji Aoyama to attract the attention of Western audiences. However, Eureka (2000), his three-hours-plus meditation on the effects of violence, has become a festival hit in Europe, and his profile has been slowly but steadily rising for the past few years. The next Aoyama film to see an English-language release is EM: Embalming (1999), a film that has been described as the director's contribution to the post-Ringu horror wave.

Miyako Murakami (Reiko Takashima) is an embalmer who works closely with the local police. She's called in to prepare the body of a young man who is believed to have committed suicide, and what would have been a routine case quickly moves into the realm of the extraordinary. First of all, she uncovers evidence that indicates the young man may have been murdered. She's then ordered to stop the embalming process by a local cult leader, who says her actions are evil. To cap it all off, the boy's head is amputated and stolen. Needless to say, the explanation behind all this is pretty strange, and it manages to take in murder, missing twins, bizarre religious cults, black-market organ transplants, and astounding personal revelations along the way.

Unsurprisingly, there's plenty here to hold the viewer's attention. To his credit, Aoyama understands that it's sometimes best not to play this material straight and injects a moderate dose of black humor into the situation. Best of all are the film noir touches that Aoyama throws in: the smoky-smooth jazz music, the cop with the ever-present crumpled raincoat, and the deliberately fake-looking backgrounds seen through the car windows. EM: Embalming is at its most entertaining during these sequences.

It's a shame then that Aoyama seems unwilling to commit to one direction for the film. It's not horrific enough to work as a horror film, even though it definitely has a few gruesome moments. The successive plot developments are certainly offbeat, but they stop just short of plunging into David Lynch territory, raising the question of why they were included in the first place; after all, "slightly weird" usually comes across as something of a compromise. Eventually Aoyama seems to settle on a more standard killer-thriller direction, a choice that does not sit well with the rest of the film. After everything that's come before, it's kind of disappointing.

Since there's no real commitment to any particular direction and an unsatisfying resolution, EM: Embalming cannot be described as a success. It's certainly not the next hidden gem of the Japanese horror boom, and viewers expecting that are likely to come away frustrated. However, it's an interesting example of a talented director experimenting with different forms and a pleasing diversion from the mounting tide of Ringu clones.

Artsmagic DVD presents EM: Embalming in anamorphic widescreen. There is some print damage towards the end of the film, but other than that the colors are strong and well-defined. The disc includes Japanese audio tracks in Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0, although the film has an exceptionally spare soundtrack featuring lengthy periods of silence, so it's unlikely to make full use of your sound system. Removable English subtitles are provided. Aside from biographies and filmographies of the director and the main cast members, the extras include a 20-minute interview with Shinji Aoyama, in which he discusses the film and his career so far, and a commentary from Jasper Sharp. Both are worth investigating and provide interesting insights into the man and his movies.

Review published 05.31.2005.

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