Embalming was Shinji Aoyamas venture into the horror genre. Rather than holding any allegiance to contemporaneous Japanese genre horrors like Ring (1998) et al, this is more of a clinical, necrotomic horror in the vein of a film like Anatomie (2000) or the taboo-defying NEKROmantik (1987). Aoyama certainly gets ones attention in the opening few minutes when he stages a gut-crunchingly realistic embalming. His camera sits impassively on as we see in calmly detached closeup detail as the heroine inserts cotton wool and plastic padding into a head that has been split open, before sewing a flap of skull back on; inserts pieces of metal under the eyelids; jabs a tube into the jugular and starts pumping out the blood all before the superbly creepy moment where one of the bodys eyelids starts to flicker. Aoyama is not however going for shock effect or the cartoony tongue-in-cheek splatter of films like Re-Animator (1995), Bad Taste (1988) or the later Japanese gonzo splatter cycle of directors like Yoshihiro Nishimura with Tokyo Gore Police (2008) and Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl (2009). This is more grisly real gore, the following of procedure in documentary-like detail.
Certainly, there is no doubt that what we are seeing during the embalming scenes is an authentic depiction of real-life practices. There is another scene later on where heroine Reiko Takashima meets the black market organ-legging doctor (a fine unsentimental performance from Toshio Shiba) in his laboratory in the back of a truck where we see him removing the entrails from a corpse and packaging them in plastic for dispersal, and he then sits back in his filthy charnel house smoking a cigarette while talking to her, before draining the corpses blood out into the gutter outside the truck and then severing the head with a chainsaw and tossing it in a trash bucket.
The main problem with Embalming is that Shinji Aoyama creates immensely exciting promise in these scenes a film that goes way out on a grisly edge with taboo-defying determination and delves into a dark hidden underworld of black-market organ-legging. Alas despite a good start, it is a film that gets sidetracked away into an extraordinarily complicated plot involving: a girl with multiple personality disorder, twins of the deceased, sinister religious cults, suicide pacts, secret revelations about the heroines fathers identity and its relationship to the crimes and even her chosen career as an embalmer, as well as further familial revelations about the parentage of not only the dead teenager but also the split-personalitied girl. It is a thriller plot that seems overburdened by this constant need to keep providing surprise revelations and Aoyamas determination to wind every single aspect of the film together into an interconnected mandala of associations. Indeed, by the end of the film, what had started as a promisingly grisly horror show about embalming merely ends up as a contorted thriller of credibility defying improbability filled with almost anything that Aoyama has thought to throw into the plot.
Shinji Aoyama subsequently went onto deal with strange cults in A Forest With No Name (2002). Aoyama subsequently returned to genre material with My God, My God, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? (2005) about a future affected by a deadly virus.