Embalming is an unsettling and twisting psychological horror from director Shinji Aoyama. We are treated to a chilling journey through the embalming process and the illegal organ trade as a young embalmer struggles to solve the mysteries surrounding her.
As the film begins we are introduced to Miyako as she is asked to embalm a young boy named Yoshiko who is believed to have committed suicide. Detective Hiraoka, a cynical worn-out looking cop meets Miyako at the crime scene and explains that he suspects no foul play. The distraught family of the late Yoshiko request that he be preserved forever and so Miyako sets about doing the best she can.
Miyako is soon threatened by Jion, the priest of some religious cult who summons her and demands that she stop her evil acts upon Yoshiko´s body. The following morning she arrives at the embalming center to discover that someone has broken in and stolen Yoshiko´s head. As Hiraoka starts to investigate so does Miyako and the two are led towards a shadowy character called Dr Fuji who has been performing illegal organ transplants.
The direction here is very good; a sombre mood is achieved as the lack of conversation mirrors the clinical and cold surroundings. Aoyama uses handheld shots, good lighting and a quiet focus on the characters to great effect. The muted soundtrack and emotionally drained characters add to the dark mood.
This is slow paced but the horror lies in the embalming sequences themselves which are frighteningly realistic looking. The slow methodical procedure of organ removal, blood draining and body sealing is catalogued here and it´s none too pleasant to watch. If you are at all squeamish then is not for you.
The acting is muted like the soundtrack; we spend little time exploring the background or motivation of the characters other than Miyako. Each of the cast seems distant and lost in their own thoughts and the dialogue is fairly sparse and not always fully enlightening with regard to the complex twisting storyline.
Reiko Takashima plays the somewhat cold Miyako and her lack of an emotional response to the events that unfold as the murder becomes intertwined with her past is slightly perplexing, as though she has been numbed by spending so much time around the dead. Yukata Matsushige is convincing as the hardbitten no-nonsense cop and Toshio Shiba is very good as the damaged and mysterious Dr Fuji.
The tempo rises towards the end as Miyako learns some terrible truths and a young girlfriend of the dead Yoshiko struggles to keep her sanity. There are several twists and shocks before the credits roll and while the overall effect is chilling it does leave a number of unanswered questions.
This film flirts with different genres and would probably work better as a thriller than a horror, which could be achieved by simply removing the graphic embalming sequences. It is very nicely shot, well-acted and quite gripping in places but the muddled storyline gets frustrating at times and the surgical scenes have an almost documentary reality to them which is unnerving and unpleasant.