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Embalming (Aoyama Shinji 1999)



Genre: Frankenstein Meets Psychoanalytic Acupuncture!

review in one breath

When the embalmed head of a powerful congressman's son goes missing the investigation leads to, among other things, a shady buddhist priest, a renegade embalmer, a highly dysfunctional teen love gone terribly awry, and black market organ trade. Throw a little acupuncture and schizophrenia into to the mix and you've got the perfect recipe for this truly bizarre tale!


Holy cow! Imagine a monster sewn together from the torso of Frankenstein, the head of Sigmund Freud and the hands of an occultic Acupuncturist, all fueled by ghost power! What would you call your new friend? How about Embalming, since this precisely describes what this film delivers. Directed by Aoyama Shinji and starring (none other than...) Suzuki Seijun (renound classic cult director of Branded to Kill, etc.) Embalming does best what only Japanese B-cinema can, and thats eclectically combine a wide variety of motifs which are otherwise completely unrelated. Why commit to a mere monster movie when you can also add ghosts, psychoanalysis and dysfunctional parenting, all wrapped in sci-fi social commentary? Why, I ask? Why?

In many ways, Embalming is a modern Japanese version of Frankenstein which replaces the original's naive yet optimistic notion of the possibilities of science with a naive yet optimistic exploration of the possibilities of the Western practice of embalming the dead. This view of embalming as a queer and potentially mysterious science will best be understood keeping in mind that Japanese have always cremated virtually all of their dead. Thus the attempt to preserve and beautify a corpse in itself suggests something akin to the ancient Egyptian superstition that doing so somehow approaches immortality. It is this infusion of contemporary embalming techniques and ancient Egyptian superstitions that Embalming taps into for the backdrop of its narrative.

In classic Japanese psycho-babble fashion, Embalming goes all out to explain the intricacies of the pseudo-science employed. Thus the audience is privy to thorough and graphic embalming of both the proper and improper varieties while being thoroughly instructed in the philosophy and mysticism behind the art. This dedication to instruction seems to be a staple of Japanese B-cinema. (See Ringu 2, Isola and Noroime for classic examples.)

But as I said earlier, this film does not limit itself to embalming alone. After what seems like a rather slow and ponderous first few scenes, the plot becomes increasingly complex (or obfuscated?) as additional layers are added. Off the top of my head the additional "layers" which come to mind include:

  • Teen love
  • Occultic accupunture
  • Reunion of (very) dysfunctional families
  • Multiple personality disorder
  • Disembodied ghosts

There's probably more, but my mind is still reeling and I can't think straight.


Murakami Miyako is a straight-forward coroner/embalmer working with police detective Kurume. Their latest investigation involves the apparent suicide of 17 year old Yoshiki, son of a prominent congressman. When Miyako examines the body, nothing seems unusual except for a small needle lodged in Yoshiki's neck. Miyako then carefully embalms the body with the help of her assistant, Colonel Sanders (Suzuki Seijun) in preparation for the elaborate funeral. During the night, however, someone breaks into the morgue and steals Yoshiki's head.

The search for the missing head leads Miyako and Kurume into the black market organ trade. What they find along the way, in addition to an impressive collection of limbs, heads and torsos, is the mysterious Dr Fuji, social outcast and renegade embalmer who must practice his dark art in the back of a semi-truck to avoid detection. In addition to learning from Fuji the possible whereabouts of the head and the secret of the sinister and powerful person behind its disappearance, Miyako discovers that Fuji holds the keys to her own past and her future destiny.


Though a bit slow at first, Embalming picks up speed and proves to be entertaining in its own way. And while there is plenty of schlock-gore and the supernatural, this is thoroughly within the genre of crime-thriller and literally follows the investigation of Kurume and Miyako. As such it is fun though certainly of the light fare variety.

Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Not unless you are really interested in becoming an embalmist. Plenty of schlock-gore including graphic embalming techniques such as visceral organs removed by hand and heads removed by chainsaw. Some shooting and stabbing. Heck, even dear old Colonel Sanders gets the knife in this one! He was trying but she looked pretty bored. The perfect blend of Frankenstein gore, Freudian psychoanalysis and Taoist acupuncture! The only things missing here are alien spacecraft and Godzilla!


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