• EM Embalming (Artsmagic) DVD Review

    Released by: Artsmagic
    Released on: June 28th, 2005.
    Director: Shinji Aoyoma
    Cast: Reiko Takashima, Yutaka Matsushige, Toshio Shiba, Hitomi Miwa, Kojiro Hongo, Masatoshi Matsuo, Seijun Suzuki
    Year: 1999
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    EM Embalming – Movie Review:

    The lovely Reiko Takashima (who played Mayo in Takashi Ishii’s Black Angel) plays a woman named Miyaki Murakami who works as an embalmer out of a hospital in Japan. One day she gets a call from Detective Hiroka (Yutaka Matsushige who played Yoshino in Hideo Nakata’s Ring), when her help is needed investigating the strange suicide of the young son of a local politician. It seems this boy, Yoshiko Shindo, jumped off of the roof of a tall building and plummeted to his death.

    At the request of Shinod’s family, Reiko begins putting Yoshiko back together so that he can be properly embalmed and preserved for fifty days or so, but soon Reiko gets an ominous warning from a local priest named Jion Bonze (Kojiro Hongo, star of many Gamera films!). The priest tells her that she is obsessed with death and that what she does for a living is purely evil, that a person, when he or she dies, is meant to ‘return to the soil’ inferring that preserving the body goes against the laws of nature.

    Soon after Reiko brushes him off and returns to work, she finds that her embalming partner (played by famed Japanese director Seijun Suzuki of Tokyo Drifter fame) has been gassed and that someone has removed and stolen the late Shindo’s head from the hospital. The police begin to investigate and soon come up with the theory that Shindo’s girlfriend Rika (Hitomi Miwa of the original Ju-On) is the culprit, but Miyaki thinks differently. Her partner shows her a strange email that he got awhile back from a Dr. Fuji (Toshio Shiba of Godzilla Vs. Hedorah), a man quite skilled in embalming who has been ostracized from the medical community for his unruly ways, and the very same doctor who embalmed Reiko’s mother when she died at a young age.

    It seems that Dr. Fuji, who works out of the back of an eighteen wheeler, has been selling stolen organs from various corpses on the black market for big money. Miyaki and Detective Hiroka dig deeper and deeper into Fuji’s operation until they slowly but surely put all the pieces together and connect the dots that fun from Rika to Shindo’s brother to Jion Bonze and to Dr. Fuji, finally indicating that Shindo not have attempted suicide after all but that he might have been a victim of foul play.

    Embalming is interesting both as a film and as a practice. If you listen to the speech that Jion Bonze gives to Miyaki, it isn’t hard to ascertain that it isn’t as common for bodies to be embalmed in Japan as it is in the western world and as such, Miyaki is a bit of an outcast based on her profession. Her relationship with Detective Hiroka is playful in that he flirts with her and obviously likes her looks, but she seems far more interested in the corpses she works on than in anything he has to offer. There’s something almost pretty about the precision that Reiko shows in her work on the corpses, reconstructing them by hand using photographs for reference.

    Shinji Aoyama does an interesting job of with his directorial turn on this film. One scene where the police storm into the headquarters of the black market organ sellers could have easily been lifted right out of a Takashi Kitano film with its unexpected violence punctuating the events with some shocking moments of bloodshed. Considering that Aoyoma’s background is in low budget Yakuza and crime films, maybe this similarity isn’t as coincidental as it seems at first glance. Though at times it borders on a serious drama, the film does remind us every once in a while that we are, at its essence, watching a horror film. Moments like when a needle begins to pry through a corpse’s eye after Miyaki has finished working on it, or the embalming process itself (shown here in some pretty grisly detail) confirm that Embalming does have its feet firmly planted in the genre. When Reiko meets Dr. Fuji, he’s seen packaging up his goods in Styrofoam containers, ready to be shipped off to a client, he does his job with cold precision and the camera doesn’t shy away from the gory details.

    Performances are strong throughout, with Takashima and Yutaka Matsushige doing fine in the lead roles and with Kojiro Hongo and Toshio Shiba making for interesting antagonists. Effects and cinematography are effectively gory and clinical, giving the story an appropriate look that suits it quite nicely. The biggest flaw with the film, and it’s less a flaw than it is just plain weirdness, is that at times it wants to be a straight out horror film, at times it wants to be a police procedural, and at other times it wants to be a thriller. While there have been films that have mixed these genres up successful in the past (David Fincher’s Se7en comes to mind), Embalming has trouble mixing a few of the plot elements together seamlessly and because of this things get a little disjointed towards the last half of the film.

    Either way though, Shinji Aoyama has crafted a uniquely morbid and all together interesting movie that delivers some creepy moments along with some interesting and tense action and suspense.

    EM Embalming – DVD Review:

    The anamorphic widescreen transfer is very good, but not quite perfect. There is some heavy grain in a few scenes and, as is strangely typical with Artsmagic's DVD releases of modern Japanese films, the colors look a little washed out. Other than that though, the film looks good. There is some very mild print damage in a few spots but edge enhancement. Mpeg compression isn't great but this is watchable enough.

    The Japanese language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix is quite nice. The dialogue is crisp and clean and the sound effects come through with enough gruesome clarity to really make those specific scenes work. This isn't an overly aggressive mix, it mainly uses the surround channels to fill in some empty space, but it suits the tone of the movie very nicely. Optional English subtitles are included that are easy to read and free of any typographical errors.

    The first extra feature on the disc is an audio commentary from Jasper Sharp of Midnight Eye fame. As seems to be the norm with the commentary tracks that Sharp has recorded for Artsmagic so far, it proves to be an interesting listen with plenty of good information contained inside, even if at times the delivery borders on the dry side. Sharp knows his stuff though, no doubt about that and he delivers some thorough insight into the history of the film, the director's work, and some of the more subtle themes and techniques worked throughout the movie.

    Up next is an interview with the director of the movie, Shinji Aoyoma. Clad in a leather jacket and a striped racing cap, Aoyama seems like a pretty swell guy - he's laid back and quite open to talking about his work on camera. He gives us his take on the film and it's history and also fills us in on some basic biographical information such as why he decided to branch out into film directing and what made him choose that career path over the other options that he had in life.

    Rounding out the supplements, underneath some fancy animated menus, are some well written biographies and filmographies for Aoyama and the five main cast members.

    EM Embalming – The Final Word Review:

    Artsmagic bring odd Japanese cult titles to DVD in grand style with great audio, and some very interesting extra features, even if the transfer is nothing to write home about. While EM - Embalming isn't going to appeal to a huge audience, for those who like intelligent horror that builds slowly and cerebrally, this is definitely one to watch out for.