Embalming (EM エンバーミング, Shinji Aoyama, 1999)

“Nothing can last forever” according ironically enough to an embalmer who feels it is her calling to preserve the bodies of the dead she says to help their grieving families, but does that actually help or is she actively preventing them from moving on in enabling their desire to hold on to something beautiful that is already gone? Jumping on the J-horror boom, Shinji Aoyama’s adaptation of the mystery horror novel by Michiko Matsuda Embalming (EM エンバーミング, EM Embalming) is another millennial mediation on the loss of bodily autonomy amid the corruptions of the late 20th century. 

A predominantly Buddhist funerary culture, embalming is rare in Japan which generally favours cremation over burial. As the opening crawl explains to us, the process may be familiar from the ancient Egyptian mummy, but was also put to use during the American Civil War in order to transport bodies of fallen soldiers home to their families. It also says that through technological advances, bodies can now be preserved for up to one hundred years though according to embalmer Miyako Murakami (Reiko Takashima), the best she can do is 50 days or perhaps she’s merely decided that after the the 49th day it’s inappropriate to hold on any longer. Apparently friendly with local policeman Hiraoka (Yutaka Matsushige), Miyako is called in when the 17-year-old son of a local politician, Yoshiki, is found dead on the pavement outside a tall building having fallen from above. Having no reason to suspect foul play, Hiraoka concludes it’s most likely to be a suicide. The reason he’s called Miyako is that the mother is out of her mind with grief and insisting her son be embalmed to preserve him as he was for all eternity though his father does not agree. 

Neither does local priest Jion (Kojiro Hongo) who sends a couple of his goons to pick Miyako up so he can tell her in imposing and ritualistic tones that she must stop the “evil acts” she’s “inflicting” on Yoshiki’s body, insisting that she’s spanner in the karmic wheel of life and death holding up the cosmos by refusing to let nature take its course in returning Yoshiki’s body to the universe. “What you are carrying out is a violation of the silence of Bodhisattva, and is therefore an act of evil!” he explains though Miyako is hardly about to be swayed from her life’s work and as we later realise Jion has motives other than the spiritual in mind. Nevertheless, it’s true enough that even if Miyako insists embalming gives dignity to the dead, Yoshiki has no further say as to what happens to his body or how much longer he remains in this world. There’s no way to know how the bodies Miyako works on would have felt about the prospect of being mummified or if they would be happy with the way their bodies may go on being used after their death. 

“When a human being dies, they become an object. Human flesh becomes food for maggots and bacteria and eventually the bodies disappear completely” according to another embalmer, Dr. Fuji (Toshio Shiba), who works with shady “death dealers” and in Miyako’s opinion betrays the art of embalming by frankensteining his bodies using a series of replacement parts to achieve the appearance of perfection. He seems to regard human bodies dead and alive as inanimate entities to be treated no differently from plant matter, recounting tales of his war trauma which seems to have permanently disconnected him from his humanity. The only reason Miyako has tracked him down is because Yoshiki’s head was severed and stolen in freak burglary and she’s received word he might know where it is. Yet to Dr. Fuji and other death dealers as Hiraoka had previously mentioned, the head is the least valuable part as he proves by simply dropping one in the bin while talking to an unfazed Miyako. 

Miyako may be as some accuse her “possessed by death” and attempting to exorcise her unresolved grief and mortal anxiety through the art of embalming in search of an eternity she does not really believe exists. But then as her assistant Kurome (Seijun Suzuki) reminds her, the dead cannot be brought back to life, “you can only be a flower while alive”. Dr. Fuji hints at a dark history that recalls the crimes of Unit 731, experimentation on living bodies and total disregard for the dignity of the dead, while an even older corruption seems to stem from shady priest Jion, “some rip-off faith healer targeting society’s political and economic echelons” as Hiraoka describes him. At times darkly humorous, Aoyama’s bleak drama is filled with existential dread and a sense of the uncanny as we see corpses twitch and flicker with the absence of life while Miyako meditates on an impossible eternity rejecting her powerlessness in the face of transience in favour of the simulacrum of existence in a world ruled by death.