Production Company: Gaga Communications
Release: 31 July 1999
Length: 96 min.
Format: 35 mm
Director: Aoyama Shinji
Planning: Sadai Yuji
Producer: Sato Kumi
Screenplay: Aoyama Shinji, Sato Kumi
Photography: Tamura Masaki
Music: Yamada Isao, Aoyama Shinji
Murakami Miyako: Takashima Reiko
Det. Hiraoka: Matsushige Yutaka
Shinohara Rika: Miwa Hitomi
Shindo Yuki/Osato Kuniaki: Matsuo Masatoshi
Jion: Hongo Kojiro
Film as Critique Is a Real Fake
First a head is lopped off, then a scantily clad beauty gets sliced in two, and finally everything ends in a dance of blood and knives. It is de rigeur for a horror flick and clearly as fake as it can be. Did you ever meet someone who really thought Janet Leigh was stabbed to death in Psycho?
Horror films, however, maintain their long-standing popularity through a play between this fakery and reality, prompting a suspension of disbelief that allows us to vicariously enjoy the bloodshed while all the while knowing it’s not authentic.
But what do you do with a horror film that makes little effort to trick us into thinking this is real? This is a question that came to mind when watching Aoyama Shinji’s Embalming. As the crude, B-movie-like title suggests, this psycho-thriller is full of the grossly excessive, but not much is done to make us accept it nevertheless.
The plot itself borders on the comedic: Murakami Miyako (Takashima Reiko) is an embalmer called in by her detective friend Hiraoka (Matsushige Yutaka) to take care of the body of Shindo Yuki (Masao Masatoshi ), the 17-year-old son of a prominent politician who apparently committed suicide. But after she fixes him up, someone sneaks into the morgue and steals Yuki’s head.
An investigation leads in directions that strain credibility: an organization that trades in body parts; a powerful religious cult headed by a former doctor who hopes to “reset” people’s personalities like a computer; a legendary illegal embalmer named Doctor Fuji (Shiba Toshio) who may be Misako’s father; a girl with multiple personalities who was not only the lover of Yuki but also of his secret twin brother Kuniaki. Et cetera, et cetera.
Everything ends in a mess of infidelity, incest, corruption, dismemberment and multiple murder, but under Aoyama’s distanced direction, it remains as fake as it can be, from the lengthy embalming of Yuki done in close-ups, to Doctor Fuji’s mobile embalming room, to the back-screen projection used in some of the car scenes.
The uninitiated might write this off as poor, low-budget filmmaking, but Aoyama, with superior films like Shady Grove and Wild Life (1997) under his belt, is too immensely talented to be dismissed like this. As the use of back-screen projection indicates (the old practice of projecting filmed street views behind actors when filming a car scene), it seems Aoyama has chosen to make Embalming this way. But why?
One possibility is that he was intending to create a tongue-in-cheek parody. Certainly not a few people laughed during the press screening I attended. But I feel Aoyama’s style is too neutral for this film to succeed as satire.
Another possibility is that Aoyama is leveling a critique at the recent spate of psycho-horror films brought on by the success of The Ring (“Ringu”) and The Spiral (“Rasen”) double feature. While some entries in the cycle have been interesting, most were all flash with no substance, reeling out the tricks for scaring the audience but offering them nothing else. By refusing to use these ruses, Aoyama seems to be distancing himself from this kind of cinema.
In fact, it does seem Embalming is Aoyama’s statement on cinema. The film in fact reminded me of the view of Hitchcock offered by the critic Shigehiko Hasumi (who was one of Aoyama’s teachers and is now president of Tokyo University). Countering the received opinion that Hitchcock is the master of suspense, Hasumi emphasized that the director, who so frequently used back-screen projection and fake decor that his films bordered on the absurd, was much less concerned with wielding a bag of tricks to fool the audience than with exploring the impossibilities of cinema by playing with its fictionality. Any hack can trick the audience, but only a master can show us the cinematic nature of that ploy.
Aoyama clearly refuses to play the recent horror movie game. Others can try to convince us that someone just got killed, but Aoyama reminds us that death, except in the rare documentary, is impossible in cinema - and that we know that. Film is too complex to merely become an endless show of hiding the basic facts of cinema and reality.
In that sense, Embalming is a welcome intellectual caution against a certain trend in Japanese cinema. But it doesn’t exactly work as entertainment. What Aoyama, and Hasumi before him, seem to have forgotten is that Hitchcock’s psycho-suspense films are also profound explorations of the manipulative power of cinema, of the sadism and masochism inherent in filmmaking and viewing. By remaining neutral throughout Embalming, Aoyama reveals cinema’s fakery without reminding us of its frightening power.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 5 August 1999, p. 9
Copyright 1999: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow