Reviewby Carlo Santos, Oct 14th 2005
DVD 2: Bitter Flesh
Mana and Yuta, the two immortals who have eaten mermaid flesh and survived, continue their journey in search of a natural death. Along the way, Mana has an accident, and her disappearance from the local clinic leads Yuta to the strangely named Mermaid Forest, where a mermaid is supposedly buried. Living alone in the forest are an old woman and a young beauty, and when Yuta finds Mana in their house, the connection between the two women and the Mermaid's Tomb becomes clear. Or does it? After that, Mana and Yuta have another accident—this time falling off a cliff—and in the valley they discover a Deformed One (someone who tried to eat mermaid flesh but became a monster) existing on the brink between human and beast.
Life can be a real drag sometimes. Just ask Yuta, who's been at it for 500 years and wants to call it quits. After a while, you've done all the living you can do. So why are there so many people out there who want to live forever? The next three episodes in Mermaid Forest—a two-part saga about the eponymous forest and a solo episode about a monster with a heart—explore new shades of tragedy brought about by the search for immortality. The places and the characters change, but the themes and lessons remain the same.
Recurring themes can create a sense of unity, but they can also be a story's downfall, as these episodes show with their repeating plot elements. Apparently all of Mana and Yuta's adventures involve getting "killed" first, and then surprising the hell out of their mourners when they come back to life. From there, the characters they meet all have varied but carefully defined personalities; one would expect no less from Rumiko Takahashi. Other repetitions set in after that, however. You can probably guess the connection between the two women in the Mermaid Forest, although the full details of their relationship, once revealed, provide a good twist at the end. In addition, the story of the man-beast echoes older tales about monsters taking beautiful women captive. An appropriate idea for this series, but it comes off a bit too cheesy, especially with lines like "Why, Mana? ... Is it because I'm ugly?"
Even though some story elements repeat themselves, there's no denying their emotional effect. What can be more heartbreaking than death? Some long-running series make a business out of characters "dying" and then conveniently returning; this one inverts the formula and explicitly sets up two characters that can't die, while everyone else around them does. For those who have dabbled unsuccessfully in mermaid flesh, death may be a welcome release from their empty lives, but they still died without finding happiness. In contrast, Mana and Yuta want nothing more than that welcome release from life, yet it's the one thing they can never have. That sad irony, along with the tortured history behind each supporting character, creates the dramatic essence of the series.
Capturing the nuances of Rumiko Takahashi's manga art on screen may be a futile task, but the animation staff compensates in other ways. Strong highlights and shadows create eerie lighting effects, perfect for the mysteries and horrors in each episode. Richly detailed backgrounds also set the atmosphere, with grim caves and hollows giving a true sense of something ominous in the earth. In contrast to these areas are the meadows, hills and coastlines of Japan, a picturesque counterpoint to the dark subject matter. The character designs aren't quite so fetching, however; although clear and easy to tell apart, their angular features and strong colors seem too harsh compared to the shadowy moods of the series. Similarly, the animation doesn't measure up to the emotive power of each story. It builds up atmosphere and suspense wonderfully, but doesn't follow through when it comes to climatic action scenes, relying instead on standard shots and too many speedlines.
The most subtle part of this series is the music, which often creeps into important scenes at barely a rumble. Low-pitched instruments like cellos and taiko drums lead the way, navigating through odd melodic fragments that never quite become a tune. Even during the most energetic scenes, the music is midtempo at most, setting the mood with long harsh chords rather than clever flurries of notes. The theme songs also reflect the tragic tone of the story, although their light pop flavor dilutes the effect.
Choosing between audio languages on this disc and is like seeing the same story retold in different ways. Choose dub if you want the dark, dramatic style of horror, and sub for a more subdued, tragic approach. These three episodes show the English cast getting a much better feel for their roles, particularly with Liam O'Brien covering Yuta's full range from everyday conversation to impassioned yelling. On the Japanese track, Masako Kyoda steals the show as Sawa, the maiden of the Mermaid Forest, invoking a voice of poisoned honey—incredibly sweet, but incredibly evil. And if you do choose dub, the script follows the translation close enough, although it re-arranges several phrases and occasionally inserts words not in the original.
Like the more lighthearted but still enjoyable Rumiko Takahashi Anthology series, Mermaid Forest is basically a compendium of short stories, but in this case, one with a unifying theme. The good thing about this is that you can be sure of what to expect: thickly plotted horror tales, intense moods, and crazy people who want to eat mermaids. The bad thing is that certain things start to look the same: Mana and Yuta waking up from death yet again, hidden twists and secrets yet again, and... yeah, those crazy people who want to eat mermaids. But don't worry too much about that. In the world of Mermaid Forest, the misery of living forever (or wanting to live forever) will still break your heart.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Powerful, emotional stories expressed with striking artwork.
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