A look back on Nobuhiro Watsuki’s Embalming (and a tiny look ahead)

After finally finishing this series, and taking some time to think about it, I want to share some of my random thoughts on Embalming, the fourth series by Nobuhiro Watsuki. With the upcoming continuation of Rurouni Kenshin, it’s interesting to discuss the manga in the wider context of Watsuki’s works, too. Especially since a lot of Kenshin revival things happened during the run of Embalming. If you look at the character redesigns in the Kenshin Kanzenban manga edition, you can see the influence. Embalming was also put on hold while Watsuki worked on the tie-ins that accompanied the live-action movies. I think this did harm the series, also dragged it out a little bit. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but nothing ever happens in a vacuum, so there’s no use lamenting.

(This article doesn’t contain any real spoilers, but that’s also because it didn’t turn out the way I initially thought it miiiight. Obviously, deep thoughts and analysis is for later, today is for superficial rambling!)

The series’ full title is Embalming – The Another Tale of Frankenstein. Sure, that’s Engrish. The series takes place in Europe and draws inspiration from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (surprise, I know!): 100 years after Frankenstein created his monster, his work notes have survived and there are a bunch of crazy scientists, and one dedicated cult-like organization, who are using them to create undead monsters with more or less human-like looks and abilities. These creatures are called “Frankenstein” in this series. I know, I know, “but Frankenstein was the name of the doctor!” but you have to think of it as a brand name. You drive a Benz, you fly in a zeppelin, it’s normal language evolution.

If you have read (or watched) Busou Renkin, you’ll probably remember the character Victor. Embalming clearly developed from ideas that Watsuki and his co-creator and wife Kaoru Kurosaki already had during Busou Renkin. When you think about it, both series kind of deal with (often grotesque) monsters that sometimes used to be human! The core difference is that Embalming is a lot darker. Instead of an idealistic and easily likeable teenage protagonist, we have a small ensemble of bitter and morally grey anti-heroes, each with their own, often questionable goal.

Before Embalming was turned into a series, there were two one-shots. The first one is included in the final volume of Busou Renkin and already gives you a good idea of the overall tone of the series. To my knowledge, the second one hasn’t been released anywhere outside of the original magazine. That’s very annoying.

Ultimately, Embalming is … a mixed bag to me. The later volumes aren’t as strong as the first few ones. There are a lot of battles near the end of the series that I can’t find myself caring about. This includes the final battle, which I found hard to follow anyway. I didn’t care about the main antagonist, period. :(

Maybe I’ve just stopped caring about shonen battle manga – but I strongly feel that the strong point of Embalming is its characters, and that the over-the-top monster designs hold the series back. I would love it if Watsuki and Kurosaki created a series that was more grounded in reality and just fully focused on the characters and the plot. I would adore that.

But: Embalming has some of the best characters and boldest storytelling choices in Watsuki’s career! It even becomes his first series with a sad ending. Not “unhappy”, but surprisingly bittersweet – and completely appropriate.

If Embalming grew out of Busou Renkin as a darker take on the “humans becoming monsters” theme, I wonder what ideas will carry over from Embalming to Kenshin, and what the manga’s mood is going to be like.

A few very random things that perhaps no one else cares about:

  • I’m curious to see the original Aoshi and Misao again. Embalming features a pair of characters who are based on them: Ashuhit and Elm. (Aoshi’s Kanzenban redesign is basically Ashuhit in a cool ninja suit.) There’s actually “a Misao” in, like, every Watsuki manga, but it was especially interesting to see a character like that in combination with “an Aoshi”. There wasn’t actually much interaction between Misao and Aoshi in RK, so it’ll be interesting to see them again. Also I just like angsty, tall bishonen, I’m not claiming my interest is purely academic. :3
  • I often joke that if there’s one thing all Watsuki manga have in common, it’s that childhood flashbacks end in blood, death and trauma! And related to that: parent/child relationships are always messed up and a source of misery for the kids. There are very, very few parents in these stories that are both alive and good parents! Either they die tragically or they are abusive, evil or insane! This is something I’d love to discuss in more detail.
  • Also deserving of further thought: Embalming features no less than three dysfunctional mother/daughter relationships. I think that’s new? I like the way the female characters are handled in this series overall, and I feel like it’s really indicative that for the first time, there are a noticable number of mother/daughter relationships: meaningful and complicated relationships between two women? Must study further.
  • Wow, this post is not as deep or coherent as I was initially hoping. I’ll just think of it as more like brainstorming for future posts!

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