“Salaryman Kintaro” and “EM/EMBALMING”

- reviews by B. Alan Orange

Salaryman Kintaro

Artsmagic continue to impress with their ever-expanding flow of eccentric Asian fare. Tired of all the fallible claptrap that seems to clog the stretched-out arteries of my DVD shelf, all I have to do is look to their label for something offbeat and refreshing. For awhile now, they’ve continued to pump out a steady flow of acclaimed work from various auteurs not widely recognized in the States. Sure, all the Internet fan geeks know Miike’s name, but it takes a dedicated company like Artsmagic to push these titles into the varied hands of the everyman wandering about aimlessly in Best Buy or Frye’s.

So far, I’ve yet to be disappointed with their ever-growing catalogue of extraordinary films. They recently released the awesome 9 Souls and a glorious box set containing all five episodes in the Angel Guts series. These have been some of my favorite DVDs of the past year. I was extremely happy and excited to find two new entrees from Artsmagic in my mailbox when I got home last night. Upon opening them, I had no idea what to expect. I’ve graciously fallen behind on my contemporary Japanese Film knowledge. I know that I need to see Miike’s Izo and his Zebraman. Other than that, I’m lost in a field of cinematic wet dreams.

The two titles I’ve been given are both a few years older than I would have expected. An adaptation of Hiroshi Motomiya’s popular manga novel, the anime series “Salaryman Kintaro” is from 2001. And the film EM/Embalming was theatrically released in it country of origin around 1999. Both projects have stood the test of time, I assure you.

Salaryman Kintaro Vol. 1, which will be released on April 26th of this year, contains the first four episodes of this popular television anime (there are 20 shows all together, and Artsmagic plans to release these on a periodic basis). Based upon a best selling comic, the series has not only spawned this phenomenon of a cartoon, it has also ushered in a cult-like audience with its live action television drama (of three seasons) and a big screen version, both of which made a star of Katsunori Takahashi in Japan. There have also been a few video games based on the franchise.

This four episode disc was my first exposure to the character. Salaryman Kintaro set out to give me a headache. My hatred for Japanese Anime is legendary. I could never get into this obviously aromatic art form. It has the same effect on my brain as Mary Hart’s voice has had on so many others. The painted colors and twitchy, spearing motion usually associated with your typical framed manga is liable to give me seizures. I fall on the floor in hysterics, and have yet to make it through more than six minutes of everyone’s favorite, Akira. No lie. I was dreading Salaryman like a juice box straw to the pee hole. But then something weird happened. I found myself immensely enjoying this weird abrogation of the usual anime plot structure.

It’s not at all what I expected. It’s as if someone took the popular British Sitcom The Office and smashed it face first into a copy of Lone Wolf & Cub. Basically, what creator Motomiya did was take the Samaria genre and apply it to the business work place. What’s come out of that idea is a very odd, very cool, very entertaining ode to the Japanese contractual work place. The show revolves around Kintaro and the young, motherless son he totes about in a backpack. Kintaro used to be the rebellious leader of a motorcycle gang, but changed his ways to fit a more corporate Japan. The first episode sees him saving a company president from some street toughs that are beating the man to a pulp. As a sort-of-reward, Kitano is offered a plush white-collar job.

Kintaro is envied by all his co-works, and swooned over by the shallow pool of beautiful office secretaries. The women at this Construction Company love our contemporary hero. He’s the Elvis of Business Associates. He spends his days sharpening pencils, much as a sword smith would sharpen swords. Mundane scenes of mahjongg play out like fast paced kung fu set-pieces, and the boring word of desks and office kiosks is turned into a prolific statement on the Japanese white-collar workforce.

Like much of the anime seen on Japanese TV, The dynamism is cheap and fast. A lot of it is static and unmoving, just a slight step-up from Clutch Cargo and the like, but there’s something so mesmerizing about the storytelling that you actually forget you’re watching a cartoon. The people represented on screen are as real as any thespian I’ve ever seen in the flesh, and my memories of the show come like some sort of water colored occurrence that actually took place at some time in recent history. I wasn’t surprised to learn later on that this had, in fact, been filtered through the live action format. It’s deserving of the medium. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if an American Director adapted it for U.S. audiences. I think it would translate well.

I dig Salaryman a lot.

EM/Embalming

Now, I was as equally unfamiliar with the next DVD from Artsmagic, entitled EM/Embalming, as I was with Kintaro's tale. Almost every description I could find on the internet described it the exact same way, “Tales of the Gimli Hospital meets Michelangelo Antonioni in this bizarre horror flick directed by auteur Shinji Aoyama.” Hmm? Does that mean much too you? Me neither. I had to further my investigation by looking this sh*t up on a Google search.

For those not in the know, Gimli Hospital is some surrealist Canadian flick from 1988 that deals with a Fisherman and his use of fish. Anonioni was an Italian filmmaker that created neo-realism, upon which Scorsese has dedicated most of his career too. Having experienced neither of these two things, I still had no idea what to expect from EM.

The film opens with a pretty extensive history of the embalming practice. We also learn that the act of embalming is quite rare in Japan, the first Japanese-born embalmer having set up shop as late as 1997. Soon after this sordid history lesson, we’re introduced to our two main characters, the female Embalmer Miyako Murakami and her partner of sorts Detective Hiraoka. What follows plays out like a creepy, late night TV movie that would have you wide awake, peeking from behind covers with the irrational hope that it’ll all be over soon.

EM/Embalmer is a who-done-it of sorts that reminds me a lot of the popular US series CSI. This would be one of its more well-thought out, unique episodes. When we’re first introduced to our heroine/embalmer, she is inspecting the scene of a teenage suicide. Yoshiki Shigno is the son of a National Country Party leader; and it is unclear if he jumped to his death or was pushed by another culprit. The mother wants the body preserved, but a lot of people aren’t down with that idea. In fact, a local religious sect, run by The Daitokuin Chief Bonze and looking like the Thugee cult from Temple of Doom, perceive the practice of body preservation as being Evil and against nature.

The movie moves at a slow and lucid pace, like a daydream that’s having a hard time continuing on with itself. The thing is set in a dead sepia tone that is unsettling and unnatural, giving the piece an aura not unlike the dead bodies that are being juiced up with formaldehyde. Director Aoyama continuously toys with the convention of converging vectors, giving the film a minimalist sense of infinite detail. It counters the fact that there’s a lot going on here.

We are treated to long, drawn out scenes of actual bodies (mostly likely rubber mannequins, but they look incredibly real) in the process of being embalmed. These moments are extremely graphic, but not gratuitous. The act is similar to that of building a model ship inside a bottle. It comes as an art project. It may seem morbid to the casual viewer, but to Murakami, it’s an ordinary and mundane practice; a jigsaw puzzle that needs to be put back together.

Most of the storyline sees Embalmer and Detective on the case as they search for both the missing head of the supposed suicide victim and the person that probably had a hand in his murder. They soon cross paths with a man trafficing in severed limbs; a Dr. Fuji who spins horrific tales about his service as a medical practitioner in the Vietnam War. He comes on the scene like some sort of new age Frankenstein, giving the movie some of its more gory scenes. Though, it never qualifies as an unnecessarily violent film. Most of the hacking and sawing is done on a corpse, which is at all times, within the framework of the story, regarded as a soulless vessel.

Em/Embalmer is held together by an incredibly artistic eye. It languishes about itself, slowly building and arcing into one of the more unique crime dramas to have come out of Japan in the last couple of years. It bucks the traditional Yakuza theme, which has been overly prevalent, in order to give us a unified thriller that has never quite been done before.

Again, I was pleasantly surprised by my late night DVD adventure. These are two worthy discs that should see their way onto your already overcrowded shelf. I just hope that sometime, in the near future, Artsmagic releases the live-action counterpart to their animated Salaryman. I’m very interested in seeing them now that I’ve acquainted myself with the mythology…

The release schedule for these DVDs is as follows: March 29th sees the release of Angel Guts the Series (which includes all five films). April 26th sees the release of The Fire Within, A Yakuza in Love, and the first volume of Salaryman Kintaro. And May 31st sees the release of EM/Embalming and the second volume of Salaryman Kintaro.

That’s it. Thanks for stopping by. And I sure hope you pick up a couple of these discs. They're worth the price.