Director: Shinji Aoyama
Writers: Shinji Aoyama & Izo Hashimoto
Producers: Katsuaki Takemoto & Satoru Ogura
Starring: Reiko Takashima, Yutaka Matsushige, Seijun Suzuki, Hitomi Miwa, and Masatoshi Matsuo
Make Me Beautiful Forever? : EM Embalming
The ninth week winner of Film Phonics, “embalm,” sent me on a mission to locate an audiovisual text that isn’t included in a teaching packet for mortician’s school or the pathology portion of medical school. Luckily, I struck gold at Best Buy. Boxed in a translucent sky blue DVD case, looking much more like CD cover art than movie poster, Shinji Aoyama’s “EM Embalming” stared me right in the face. I grabbed it without reading the plot synopsis.
As Tim Burton’s stop-motion film “Corpse Bride” suggests, it’s possible to make a dead body beautiful forever—or at least morbidly attractive. In real life, however, a corpse can only retain that pulchritude for fifty days, as embalmer Miyaka Murakami (Reiko Takashima) explains to Detective Hiraoka (Yutaka Matsushige) in “EM Embalming.” Aoyama’s film might, to some extent, still be about probing a dead body for answers, but its focus on preparing the dead for funeral rites and the role of science/medicine in this matter makes Aoyama’s film more philosophical than TV shows like “Crossing Jordan” and “CSI.”
Adapted from Saki Amemiya’s novel, “EM Embalming” was released in Japan in 1999. Six years later, ArtsMagic DVD has made it available in the US. The film begins with text and a voice-over narration that provides a historical frame for the practice of embalming. From ancient Egypt to the battlefields of the American Civil War, preserving the dead has long been part of human culture. The plot commences immediately as embalmer Miyaka goes to the scene of a suspected suicide-by-jumping-off-rooftop. Detective Hiraoka fills her in on the details of the deceased: Yoshiki Shindo; seventeen years-old; son of Hideto, head of the National Country Party. Like any good death of someone close to a politician, not everyone is willing to accept suicide as an explanation.
After medical examiners perform an off-screen autopsy and deliver the body to the Josei EM Center for embalming, Miyaka discovers a needle underneath Yoshiki’s right eyelid. Her supervisor Dr. Kurume tells her that perhaps Yoshiki did not kill himself after all. Shortly thereafter, someone steals the poor lad’s head. The rest of “Em Embalming” involves Miyaka’s investigation into the circumstances surrounding the alleged suicide as well as figuring out why a quack faith-healer Daitokuin Chief Bonze Jion (Kojiro Hongo) is against embalming. With Detective Hiroaka’s help, she uncovers more than she could have imagined.
Although I would like to discuss the remainder of the narrative as it relates to the issue of embalming and its ideological implications, doing so would divulge too much of the turns the film takes. I can, however, briefly address one of the startling differences between it and the rest of Japanese mystery/horror. I’ve lost count of exactly how many there are, but every Japanese film I’ve ever seen—classical or not; unmistakably horror or not—is on some level a little sinister. “EM Embalming” is one of the few Japanese films that contains actual non-creepy segments. Is it because the camera is more mobile? Possibly, though there are scenes filmed in long take reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu. Is it because “Em Embalming” incorporates a soundtrack with music that is sometimes foreboding and other times not? Perhaps, perhaps not. The moments of genuine eerie result from abrupt changes in mise-en-scene (two males in traditional Japanese attire appearing out of nowhere) and the inclusion of images (hallways and mirrors), which are also associated with horror films from several national cinemas.
It’s tempting to call “EM Embalming” boring or slow due to unquenched expectations to see something like “Cure” or “Suicide Club”—minus the bizarre humor. Am I becoming desensitized to gore? Is psychological terror really more effective than explicit, realistic depictions of evisceration? Or is blood and body trauma in the context of medicine and science (“Anatomy” excluded) not going disgust me in the same way as it would in relation to something else? I will surely continue to ask myself these questions with each graphically violent, morbidly beautifully, and savagely bloody film I watch.
On a final note: what I know about what real medical examiners and forensics pathologists do and don’t do on the job is from shows like “Crossing Jordan,” “CSI,” and the occasional “60 Minutes” or “Dateline NBC” special. I thought dead bodies didn’t bleed….or maybe Yoshiki’s corpse didn’t bleed when it was rinsed it just leaked.
Every week, Stina Chyn puts her viewing habits in your hands. Readers vote on five random words posted at Back Talk every Tuesday. The winning word dictates what she will have to watch and review the following week as that word must appear in the title of the movie. Choose wisely!