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  Embalming Body Horror
Year: 1999
Director: Shinji Aoyama
Stars: Reiko Takashima, Yutaka Matsushige, Toshio Shiba, Hitomi Miwa, Kojiro Hongo, Masatoshi Matsuo, Seijun Suzuki
Genre: Horror, Thriller, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Miyako is an embalmer who leads a lonely life restoring corpses to a lifelike appearance. She is drawn into a complex conspiracy when the head of one patient – a young boy who seemingly committed suicide – is stolen by unknown villains and secrets from her past rise to the surface.

This curious Japanese film combines extreme autopsy gore and soapy drama, and throws in police procedural thrills, teen angst and political intrigue for good measure. It’s certainly low budget, shot it those ugly tones that only digital video can bring, but Shinji Aoyama is also a director of some style and proves adept at developing a compelling, unpredictable storyline.

Much of the film’s success lies in its casting. Reiko Takashima may look far too attractive to spend her day elbow-deep in viscera, but she lends a resigned, haunted edge to the lead character. Miyako is, as one character puts it, “obsessed with death”, and the sight of her dead mother, perfectly embalmed after she was killed while Miyako was a young girl, set her on a course to become an embalmer herself. Who performed this miracle of morgue art is a question that Miyako has lived with for many years, but the theft of the head brings some uneasy answers. Although perhaps not quite as many as those struggling to keep up with Embalming’s frequently confusing, overlapping storylines might like.

A day before the boy’s noggin is pinched, Miyako is visited by a sinister religious cultist who believes embalming is a sin, but may have have other reasons for wanting her to stop the process on the unlucky lad. Miyako’s police detective pal Hiraoka (Yutaka Matsushige) believes that the boy’s death was no suicide, but the only proof of any foul play is a small needle found embedded in his neck. The emerging evidence leads in two directions – to the boy’s twin brother and a schizophrenic girl that both brothers were seeing, and most importantly for Miyako, to the legendary underground embalmer Dr. Fuji.

Toshio Shiba puts in the film’s other great performance as Dr. Fuji, a man as unethical as he is brilliant. Fuji thinks nothing of selling on body parts he does not need, and yet approaches his job with a dedication and care that surpasses even that of Miyako, who is both disgusted and drawn to this enigmatic figure. And of course Fuji proves to have a history intertwined with Miyako’s that shocks even her.

Even when the plot seems muddled, the film retains a strange fascination. The pace is slow, but Aoyama injects a variety of macabre scenes and shocks – most centred around the gruesome embalming process, although there’s also a brutal Takashi Miike-style shootout and all sorts of shenanigans with the stolen head. And watch for a small role for Seijun Suzuki, the director of those great sixties pop-art thrillers Branded To Kill and Tokyo Drifter, playing the morgue assistant.

Aka: Enbamingu, EM: Embalming
Reviewer: Daniel Auty


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Shinji Aoyama  (1964 - )

Japanese director best known his acclaimed 2000 film Eureka, a hypnotic, sprawling drama that was a prize-winner at Cannes. Other offbeat work includes the thrillers Wild Life and Lakeside Murder Case, dark drama Desert Moon and the gruesome Embalming.

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