The remains of a young man are found on the streets after he, apparently, committed suicide and leapt to his death. Embalmer Miyako is requested to preserve the young man’s body, and as she begins her work, she finds a mysterious pin protruding from his eyelid. Her job becomes even stranger when she comes back the following morning to find that the head of the cadaver has been stolen. These seemingly unrelated events sends Miyako deep into the underworld of Japan where death cults and organ harvesters lurk.
At this point in time, I have probably recommended or have talked about “Mike Yokohama: A Forest with No Name” enough times that it qualifies as obnoxious. I’m ashamed to admit though, even as fond as I am of that movie, I know very little about the work of director Shinji Aoyama. Due to my complete lack of knowledge of Aoyama’s work, I decided it was time to correct this mistake and I thought it best to start off with the only movie of his that I had seen other than “A Forest with No Name”, which is, obviously, “Embalming”. A movie that I saw back in early-2000 but have since completely forgotten about.
Damn you, early onset dementia!
“Embalming” is one of those movies that I believe people are familiar with but may not have seen because it was lost in the shuffle of the Japanese horror movie craze when it kicked off. Quite frankly, I’m not even sure how I managed to watch it (goddamn this dementia). There are only two things that I know with certainty, which is that I watched it, and that I watched it because it was called “Embalming”.
"A movie centered around embalming? This will be great cause it’ll be all graphic and stuff!"
I’m not sure if those were my exact words or not but I imagine it was close — as I’ve said, I was incredibly stupid back then (as opposed to now where I am just mostly stupid).
But, nay. “Embalming” is far from being great. It’s not even good, to be honest. I believe the reason I forgot about the movie is because it’s horribly convoluted and extremely dull. To be fair, “Embalming” falls more on the crime-thriller side rather than horror but still manages to fit into that genre rather nicely because of its rather unusual premise. Aoyama's film uses its lead character Miyako (Reiko Takashima) — an embalmer — as a detective. I know that doesn’t sound too unusual in this day-and-age where every other TV-drama is about a crime scene investigation team. Within the context of “Embalming” though, Miyako is a character who has free access to crime scenes and the police rely on her knowledge for their investigation. Even though she merely preps the bodies and does not examine them. Miyako becomes the equivalent of Jodie Foster’s character in “Silence of the Lambs” with no reasoning or justification. That’s just the way it is in this movie. Which is fine; it’s a gimmick and we can run with it. The problem is that it doesn’t stop there.
And my comparison to “Silence of the Lambs” is far from inappropriate as Miyako regularly finds herself confiding in Dr. Fuji (who may or may not be Miyako’s father) — a recognized master embalmer who’s also wanted by every government agency because of his dealing in black-market organs. She uses these interludes to help try and solve this case, and all the mysteries surrounding it, while also coming to terms with her own personal issues. Of course this is all through a series of indirect exchanges where questions are answered with questions because, somehow, Dr. Fuji knows exactly what’s happening while he’s hacking up bodies in the back of a van.
But back to my initial point, the problem with “Embalming” is that it doesn’t know where to stop and let the film and the story exist as it should. Even with it being this weird little “Silence of the Lambs” -esque thriller, it would have functioned fine. However, the film continues to pile on different elements and tries to expand the story past its boundaries but never manages to make of the pieces connect together. There are subplots about organ harvesting, death worshipping cults and psychological disorders. And there’s a goddamn love story thrown into the mix too. Amongst all those plotlines are themes dealing with incest, child abandonment, obsession, social constrictions, and the philosophical aspects of embalming itself.
At the core of “Embalming” is a very simple crime-thriller story and that is all it needed to be. They could have used the philosophical aspect of preserving the dead and how the living are obsessed with the remains of their loved ones and the after life. There’s plenty you can do with that but instead a needless amount of subplots were tacked on that bogs the movie down and leaves the audience asking, “Why?” Each individual plotline isn’t completely irrelevant as they all can be tied back to that core concept but they don’t work well with one another. Worst of all, most have no closure — especially the plot about the cult. That one left me scratching my head. When the the film manages to finally drag itself to the climax, it falls back onto the initial story of a suicide and missing head that and makes you wonder how or why so many deviations from this plot were warranted.
“Embalming” is regularly sold on being “graphic” and “nauseating” when the only aspect of the movie could actual generate a feeling of nausea is the erratic flow as it jumps from one plot point to the next. There’s never enough time spent developing the various plots and themes within them to actually bring about any value. Granted, they are all thinly connected via the overall theme of the living’s obsession with death but there’s nothing of substance that’s explored. And again, there’s no resolution to all of the individual pieces outside of that main idea.
Trudging through “Embalming” was both exhausting and tedious as it tries to do too much, say too many things all the while accomplishing nothing. With that being said though, “Embalming” has its place within Japanese genre films at the time of its release. The unusual concept and its attempted abstract approach has it fit in with the likes of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Charisma” or Sion Sono’s “Suicide Club”, with the exception that “Embalming” failed at executing its ideas unlike those films. Instead, “Embalming” is unfortunately left to resign with a film like “Uzumaki” — it’s watchable to a degree but terrible on a technical level.
I actually couldn’t believe just how terrible “Embalming” was and what made it worse was the fact that I revisited because of my fandom over “A Forest with No Name”. Granted, that’s not a perfect movie by any means, but I wasn’t expecting to find such a problematic movie with “Embalming”. It’s especially weird to realize that this was the movie he made, only a year before, “Eureka” — the movie that essentially made Shinji Aoyama famous.