Spotlight on Japan: EM Embalming

As the opening sequence of Shinji Aoyama’s EM Embalming states, embalming was commonly used in Ancient Egypt to preserve corpses in a beautiful state. But why is that wanted in the first place? That is the question Japan’s one of most unpredictable directors asks from the audience. Despite setting the film firmly in contemporary Japan he handles timeless questions which must have troubled even Egyptians a few thousand years ago. Miyako is a young embalmer who – after her embalming of an important person is sabotaged – has to face a strange cult, the troubled history of her family and serious questions that could alter her world view.

The most wonderful thing about EM Embalming is how it invites many thematic interpretations. Personally I see it first and foremost as a meditation on death and letting things go. The film’s main conflict is started by a character’s refusal to believe someone close has died. The very nature of embalming and its ethics are approached from many angles, both positive and negative. The Japan Times’ Mark Schilling sees it in a more grand way, as a “study of the human need for connection and meaning” – which is another eye-opening way to see what Aoyama is going for with the movie. To add even more complexity to the film, the DVD cover provides a refreshing – even if slightly overblown – perspective to the film and calls it an “investigation into the illusions that make up society”.

Aoyama approaches the subject with extensive gore that some might find off-putting. I personally didn’t find it disgusting, but that might only be because Takashi Miike has numbed my disgust for gore. It is certainly the factor that polarizes audiences and hence can be seen as a flaw of sorts. In my opinion it’s more or less essential for the film’s thematics and great atmosphere. Oddly enough, some of the action sequences occur without blood and gore and these are usually the moments that characterize the cold-blooded cop character more memorably than his dialogue. It’s his confident, unforgiving attitude that carries the film whenever Miyako is not on screen – and has a palpable presence in the ambiguous, thought-provoking ending that still lingers in my mind.

Shooting the characters calmly and often distantly appears to be Aoyama’s trademark and he makes no exception for EM Embalming. Alienation is used enough for the sake of drawing the attention away from the gruesome detail to what is happening on a more philosophical and psychological level. Yet he always manages to sneak in close enough to make the audience feel for the characters – even if it is notably more subtle and challenging than in the films of Aoyama’s contemporaries. However, I have to admit that I’m not completely convinced the editing is great after only watching the film once. But even in that case I can tell that the eerie soundtrack is marvellous.

What Aoyama does with EM Embalming is incredibly sophisticated for a film that relies on body horror. However, its first impression is not as lasting as it could be and it doesn’t reach brilliance in all aspects.


About Oz
A Finnish film buff who has taken a huge interest in language and Japanese cinema. Can be contacted via email (, Twitter (@OzymandiasJL) and a Private Message on EvaGeeks (Oz).

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