Wouldn't it be annoying to keep coming back to life every time you die? Viewers of the previous Mermaid Forest DVD would agree, after seeing the same plot device twice in a row. Fortunately, death takes a holiday in this installment as Yuta and Mana survive the next three episodes without falling off cliffs or getting hit by trucks. Instead, they learn that some people are so desperate for immortality that they even invent other ways to cheat death. With moody visuals and an air of fearful mystery, it's another disturbing glimpse into the world of those who foolishly want to live forever.
Following the format of previous discs, Volume 3 contains a one-shot episode and a two-parter. The solo story "Bone
Princess" flashes back to feudal times and reveals another shocking and costly way to prolong human life. It's in the two-part "The Last
Face," however, that Takahashi's storytelling skills shine best: disjointed incidents and characters gradually weave into a twisted family drama involving duplicate mothers, duplicate sons, and one psychotic woman. The conclusion may seem far-fetched and ready to have plot holes poked in it, but it still delivers the impact of a parental relationship gone terribly wrong.
The presence of such vivid characters and stories has its drawbacks, though: the strong supporting cast inadvertently forces Mana and Yuta into the background. This isn't so much of a problem in "Bone Princess," where Yuta is on a solo adventure that requires active participation, but Nanao's family problems in "The Last Face" demand so much focus that it reduces the two immortals to observers. In fact, this is what they do for most of the two episodes, lurking in bushes and crouching behind signposts as they try to solve the mystery. Not that the reduction of their roles ruins the story—rather, it makes room for developing the side characters, especially the growing madness of Nanao's mother as she fights for her son.
The work of the animation staff remains consistent in these middle episodes: sharp lines and rich colors bring out both the characters and the backgrounds, especially in depictions of rural coastal Japan. Atmospheric effects like monochromatic red backgrounds establish the horror-mystery tone of the series, serving a dual purpose of mood and symbolism ("The Last Face," for example, uses fog as a motif at the beginning and ending of the story). Unfortunately, the series is also consistent in the things it does poorly, including action scenes. Quick, sweeping movements often come across as awkward, and nothing takes away from the horror atmosphere like seeing Yuta suspended in mid-air against a background of shounen-style burst lines. The character designs are also less-than-impressive, lacking the elegant Takahashi touch and looking more like generic, easy-to-draw anime designs.
Matching the subdued mood of the animation is a quiet but effective music score. With little more than solo instruments and fragmentary melodies, the music adds an extra dimension of mystery to the story. More interesting, however, is when the music drops out and uses silence to enhance a particularly dramatic scene—don't expect any clangy "surprise" chords (since when have those ever surprised anyone?) in this series. The theme songs, although dull, also set the right mood at the beginning and end of each episode.
Liam O'Brien continues to be the standout voice in the English dub, playing Yuta with confidence and portraying a wide range of emotions. The supporting cast is a hit-and-miss affair: Mermaid Forest has a stronger concentration of children and the elderly than most anime, and while the actors have the idea
of what kids and old folks sound like, they fail to bring out the individual personalities. The Japanese track is a more sure-footed reading of these characters, although they also fall into the trap of sounding like pre-fabricated grandparents and kids. The dub script features some odd inconsistencies—follow it with the subtitles on, and you'll find some lines with a significantly different meaning, even though other portions of the conversation are kept intact. At times, it reveals plot details that the original script tried to keep hidden or ambiguous.
Extras on the DVD include a production gallery of character art; with the cast of characters changing regularly in the series, it's a welcome bonus to see each DVD containing a new set of sketches.
It's easy to fault Mermaid Forest for being repetitive: mermaid-hunting folks who want to live forever, Mana and Yuta trying to figure out the histories behind them, and the depressing consequences that follow. But on these recurring themes, fresh twists emerge: a darker side of mysticism in the search for immortality, and a disturbing family mystery that's as rich and complex as one of Kindaichi's or Conan's whodunits. It's easy enough for our two immortals to escape death, but escaping episodic monotony? That's a feat in itself.