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Tuesday, Aug. 17, 1999

Aoyama offers a stiff little mystery

My seventh-grade science teacher was a fun guy who liked to liven up his class with games and stories. Once, apropos of nothing, he told us about a summer job he had had -- working in a funeral parlor. Seeking a break from the routine, he and two colleagues went out drinking one night. One became passing-out stinko, giving my teacher and his friend the inspiration for a neat practical joke.

Carrying the drunk to the parlor's embalming room, they stripped him, strapped him to an empty table (the others were occupied by corpses) and waited for him to sober up.

"You should have seen his face when he came to," my teacher said, a nostalgic glow in his eyes. I wish I had. I wonder how a class of Japanese 13-year-olds would have reacted to this story? Gales of laughter? Stares of incomprehension? Or would they have thought that this gaijin was indeed hen (strange)? In any case, Americans and Japanese have quite different ideas about death and how to deal with its consequences, as Shinji Aoyama's "EM/Embalming" makes clear.

As the title indicates, the heroine, Miyako Murakami (Reiko Takashima), has an unusual job -- embalmer. Although embalming is, as the film's prologue reminds us, common in the United States, where it originated in its modern form, it is still rare in Japan -- so much so that the program carefully explains the procedure (noting that Japan did not get its first native-born embalmer until 1997).

The film, an offbeat murder mystery based on a novel by Saki Amamiya, is thus something of a fantasy, much like Shun Nakahara's 1991 "Juninin no Yasashii Nihonjin," a reworking of Sidney Lumet's classic jury drama "12 Angry Men" that was set in modern Japan, even though this country doesn't have a jury system.

Does it work? While "Juninin's" clever script and sharp characterizations made me forget the unlikeliness of its premise, "EM" remains a coolly stylish, if gory, oddity from beginning to end.

One day Miyako gets a call from a professional acquaintance -- the deadpan Detective Hiraoka (Yutaka Matsushige). He has a job for her -- a 17-year-old boy named Yoshiki Shingo (Masatoshi Matsuo) has jumped to his death from the roof of a building. A suicide? Perhaps not, as Miyako begins to believe when she is embalming Yoshiki -- and is pricked by a long needle embedded in his body.

Then, while she is still trying to puzzle out the meaning of this unexpected object (a murder weapon?), a hooded stranger enters the unguarded embalming room -- and exits with Yoshiki's head.

Who on earth would do such things? Miyako's white-bearded assistant (director Seijun Suzuki in a cameo) tells her and Hiraoka about a mysterious organization that deals in cadaver parts and an outlaw embalmer named Dr. Fuji (Toshio Shiba) who may be supplying them.

The organization, Hiraoka confirms after invading its warehouse headquarters with a phalanx of cops, really exists, but he is unable to locate the missing head among the organization's inventory.

Meanwhile, Miyako visits Dr. Fuji, a dissipated middle-aged man with a disconcerting gaze. When she walks into his embalming room -- a cramped, dimly lit abattoir -- he is dissecting the corpse of a teenage boy with the delicacy of a butcher chopping sirloins. Not missing a beat, he tells Miyako that the perp is a "punk girl," though he names no names. He also tells her a story about the Vietnam War, in which he served as a military doctor, that shocks her out of her tough-pro pose.

After some more digging, Hirano and Miyako learn that Fuji may be right; Yoshiki's girlfriend, Rika Shinohara (Hitomi Miwa), suffers from multiple personality disorder and is currently dating Yoshiki's wild twin brother, Kuniaki. Could one of her alter egos have done Yoshiki in?

Then they discover that the shrink (Kojiro Hongo) who was treating both Yoshiki and Rika is also the leader of a nutty religious cult and is conducting bizarre experiments, in which he brings patients to the point of death and then "reboots" them, supposedly with new personalities. Was Yoshiki one of his failures?

After the explosive energy of his 1996 debut "Helpless" and the Tarantinoesque comedy of his 1997 gang film "Wild Life," "EM" impresses as restrained and subdued (I don't want to say "cold") as Miyako's embalming-table-side manners. Even the bang-bang scenes feel -- deadened. Blasting away at one another, both the good guys and bad guys stand as straight and expressionless as shooting gallery targets. This conceit -- a steal from Takeshi Kitano's "Sonatine" -- is not only silly but self-defeating, robbing the action of all but intellectual impact. (One imagines graduate students scribbling notes in the dark on Aoyama's "brilliant undermining of genre expectations.")

In his defense, Aoyama takes what could have become a schlockly exercise in shock horror and delivers a film that, for all its blood pumping through tubes and organs falling into trash cans, is a queasily compelling study of the human need for connection and meaning -- and the grotesque forms that need can take when denied.

While verging on a black comic turn, Toshio Shiba's performance as Dr. Fuji is the film's strongest; his dark night of the soul is not just another fashionably blank attitude, but the genuine article, forged in the satanic mills of anger, loathing and despair.

For Miyako, embalming is a way of remembering her dead mother, who looked so lovely in her coffin. She is every inch the caring professional -- and she gave me the creeps. For Fuji, his work is a frank expression of his contempt for the human race. He gives the movie a demented charge -- and me reason to believe that, in his sixth film in three years, Aoyama is moving beyond the self-regard of his earlier Gen X efforts to a wider range of experience, while pushing the limits of the possible. More than just another media-savvy stylist, he is emerging as a filmmaker with an unmistakably individual vision. But the next time he feels the urge to culturally cross dress, he ought to take a second look in the mirror.

Embalming, I think, would have fit Tim Burton a little better.

"EM/Embalming" is playing at Shinjuku Joy Cinema 1.

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