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So I believe I can state in all seriousness, utilizing my vast knowledge of all subjects medical, that the embalming process is icky. That’s a technical term for disgusting and/or disturbing. The removing of organs and fluids to maintain a semblance of a life like appearance in a dead body is not a process anyone outside the medical community would normally want to find themselves privy to. This general aversion to the subject, however, has not lead to any lack of motion picture output. There are plenty of films, from a variety off nations that centre on this particular practice.

Every body not dispsed of becomes one of them...
Film
EM Embalming opens with an impromptu crash course in the history of embalming. As most of us probably already know, the practice has its roots in ancient Egypt and the mummification process. Once thought a heathen practice by most major religions, embalming is now involved in almost 90% of American funerals (according to the title card). Contrary my hopes, however, EM Embalming is not a historically based documentary; it is a murder mystery.

Our story begins with the somewhat ambiguous death of a young man. During his post mortem processing, embalmer Miyako finds a suspicious needle embedded deep in the boy’s flesh, like, behind his eyeball. The plot thickens the next day when the victim’s head is plucked mysteriously from his newly preserved body. Miyako joins forces with a plucky (and startlingly invincible, apparently) police detective to find the thief and the truth behind the boy’s mysterious death. Together they unearth a series of suspicious events and people, including illegal organ harvesting, insanely powerful religious sects, and crazy psychopathic schizophrenics. I embellished that last part from the video box.

...it gets up and kills...
Sorry to say however, that despite an amusing premise, EM Embalming is an excruciatingly boring film. Director Shinji Aoyama, who has gone on to more experimental and respected work (he even won at Cannes), appears to be involved in the production strictly as a director for hire (though apparently not), simply moving the plot forward whilst using a minimal amount of effort. The actors fill their clichéd roles efficiently, if not interestingly. Everyone involved effectively does his or her job in as mediocre a manner possible. Even the psychopathic schizophrenic and ambiguously evil doctor resist hamming it up, opting instead to perform blandly. I honestly could’ve used at least one Hannibal Lector style scenery chewer.

There are a few awkward jabs at social commentary, but for the most part these fall flat out of either ambiguity or heavy handedness, apparently in the world of embalming there is no middle ground. Every lesson learned lacks any real insight into the human condition. Those interested in the moral of the story can rest easy, as they’ve probably already learned it; humanity is corrupt and corruptible. I would’ve preferred either a fluffy murder mystery or a deep study of the ethics of preserving the dead. There seems to be two better movies somewhere in the material.

The plot structure curiously apes that of most Italian Giallo thrillers. A specialist (usually an artist rather than a doctor) is somehow witness to or directly involved in a violent crime. They become increasingly obsessed with assisting in the official investigation, often becoming a target of the criminal in question, only to reveal a tapestry of deceit that rocks their feeble little world to the core. It also features some rather graphic post-mortem mutilation sequences that are filmed in a very specifically Italian exploitation manner. I could have easily believed either Lucio Fulci or Joe D’Amato’s names listed in the credits as some kind of directorial assistant (barring the fact that both directors were actually quite dead by the time this film was produced). This curious homage, if it is such, marks pretty much the only enjoyment I really derived from the picture. Gorehounds may take the box’s warnings as an incentive, but most will find utilization of the fast-forward and skip buttons mandatory.

...the people it kills...
Video
This Artsmagic presentation of EM Embalming is presented in an anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 widescreen. There appears to be lack of headroom throughout, leading me to conclude that the film was originally intended for a slightly less wide presentation. The image quality is very poor. Heavy grain, which may or may not have been intentional, is prevalent throughout the entire film, making darker shots nearly impossible to discern. Though this grimy quality adds to the films icky subject matter, it makes the film look as though it has been mastered from a VHS copy. On screen text (which is Japanese) is very blurry, and image detail is minimal throughout. There are heavy ghosting effects and issues with image edges blooming. This is a pretty dismal transfer for such a resent release, and throughout my short critical career I’ve come to expect more from Artsmagic.

Audio
In edition to a sad video transfer, EM Embalming suffers greatly from an unbalanced 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround audio presentation. The LFE is so extreme when used that I found a nearby shelf losing its contents. In the case of a film like Saving Private Ryan, I would see this as a plus, but here the bass only kicks in when a car enters frame, a certain male actor speaks, or occasionally when a gun goes off. In contrast, the films dialogue and ambient noises are so quiet that I needed to turn my system up to an unsafely high volume to hear them. Between these highs and lows, my hand didn’t loosen its grip on the remote for the entire duration.

...Get Up And Kill!!
There are very few directional effect, and the few present were sometimes reversed. Vehicles visually proceed from left to right, but audibly are heard opposite. Artsmagic has also supplied a vastly superior stereo track. The general balance is much better and the bass channel less distracting.

Extras
This is my fifth Artsmagic DVD release (seventh if you count all three films in Miike’s Black Society Trilogy), and I have become accustomed to their special feature set up. Like most of their releases, EM Embalming features an in depth commentary track with an Asian cult film expert. This time, however, Tom Mes must have been preoccupied as one Jasper Sharp (co-author of The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film) is instead present. Like Mr. Mes, Mr. Sharp comes to the recording quite prepared with vast volumes of pertinent notes (he can be heard turning pages as he speaks). His knowledge is most welcome, though I wish he would have focus a little more on the on screen actions, rather than pouring out all of his knowledge of the director, the director’s friends, what the actress had for dinner last night, and so on. Of course, I am exaggerating, but not much.

Also included is the obligatory Artsmagic talking head interview with director Shinji Aoyama. Aoyama’s general enthusiasm and warmth makes reviewing his film harshly a bit difficult. He answers each question thoroughly (perhaps a little too thoroughly for Artsmagic’s editors, as there are quite a few fades throughout) and gives plenty of insight into his craft. He and commentator Sharp both make great mention of his attachments to director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who mentored him during his early career. The interview is pretty long, at about twenty minutes, a bit too long for me, but fans of the director will most likely be enthralled by what he has to say. The features are finished off with filmographies of the key players.

"I could only afford a half of an autopsy table"
Overall
While EM Embalming didn’t do it for me there are plenty of J-Horror completests out there who will want to check it out. Those looking for better movies about organ harvesting may want to seek out Kei Fujiwara’s Organ (also suggested by the commentator), or Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things. Those in search of more gruesome and convincing on screen embalmings, without engaging plots, should find Joe D’Amato’s Buio Omega (aka Beyond the Darkness, Buried Alive). For an interesting (if not boring) night of comparison, watch this back to back with Armando Crispino’s
Macchie Solari (known in Stateside as Autopsy).


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