Pile of Shame
Mermaid's Scar

by Justin Sevakis,

Mermaid's Scar

Mermaid's Scar is one of those early stocked-at-every-Blockbuster-Video-in-the-country hits of the VHS era that almost every fan that came of age in the mid-90s saw at one time or another. Colorful, violent, and hypnotic in its own way, it made a big impression on 13-year-old Justin back in the day. But I hadn't seen it in years, and so I thought it might be nice to revisit the OAV for this week's column. And also, having never seen in in Japanese, it would be a first-time viewing of sorts.

Mermaid's Scar is, of course, one of myriad stories that make up Rumiko Takahashi's Mermaid Saga, which ran occasionally between 1984 and 1994 in Weekly Shonen Sunday Magazine. With the premise that, if you can find and consume the flesh of a mermaid, you can either live forever (or, more likely, turn into a giant horrible monster known as a "lost soul"), the series follows the adventures of a 500-year-old 20-year-old Japanese nomad named Yuta, and his similarly immortal partner Mana, as they travel Japan, work odd jobs, and inevitably stumble upon trouble. There's a lot of blood in the Mermaid Saga, and presented as a series of short stories, the work is some of the best in Takahashi's oeuvre.

The Mermaid's Scar chapter takes place in modern times. It finds Yuta and Mana on a train out to the countryside, where they meet a young, shy kid traveling alone. He's en route to Tokyo to go live with his mother, in the big mansion on the cliff, which isn't creepy at all. While the two immortals take a job at a nearby construction site, they find out more: the mother and her rich husband were KILLED in a boat explosion, but miraculously, she alone came back to life, walking out of the hospital days later without a single burn. Masato is cared for by his young nanny Yukie, who ends up witnessing some inexplicably violence between the two. Yuta intervenes, and finds out that there's way more dark twisted stuff going on than anyone realizes, and at the center of it all is a few morsels of mermaid flesh.

The manga series has seen quite a few anime adaptations, first as a 1991 OAV of Mermaid Forest by Pierrot (released in the US and UK as part of the 1986 Rumik World anthology series, which it wasn't), this 1993 OAV, and finally as a 13-episode TV series by TMS that retold nearly all of the stories, but defanged the violence quite a bit. This production, produced at MADHOUSE and directed by Morio Asaka (Chihayafuru, Card Captor Sakura), is easily my favorite of the bunch. It has that harsh-edged look of 90s anime, with emotive character designs by Kumiko Takahashi and an incredible sense of moodiness.

Special attention must be paid to the musical score, which is by violinist/composer Norihiro Tsuru, best known by anime fans for his work on Heroic Legend of Arslan. Far from being a typical horror or intrigue score, it's a deeply felt, harshly paced bit of music that both grounds us in the centuries-old folklore, and shakes us emotionally, making use of leitmotifs for Yukie and Masato's mother. Its slow, measured pace during action scenes is unnerving: the show would simply not be the same without it.

I saw Mermaid's Scar back in the day, and while I enjoyed it, I always had a suspicion that watching it subtitled would've been a very different experience. The dub was the first to be produced by Viz, and while it was an ambitious production, it reeked of the sort of overreach that is typical of amateurs just getting into anime dubbing. The English rewrite has an odd, halting quality, and performances are extremely incongruous: Janyse Jaud chews up the scenery as Masato's mother Misa. Jason Gray-Stanford turns in a restrained Yuta. And child actor Christopher Turner delivers a wooden, alien-like performance as the aged 8-year-old Masato.

Returning to Mermaid's Scar as an adult, and seeing it in Japanese, it is indeed a very different show. While the other-worldly quality of the dub had made the show even creepier, it lost a large amount of realism that made the high fantasy concept a lot easier to swallow. Masato's mother is far more restrained and "normal" in the Japanese, and far easier to relate to. Masato is also voiced by a child in this version, but his deadpan violence is far more believable. Without the dub's sense of camp, the show reads as much more relaxed and real. The storyboarding and staging take queues in equal measure from Ozu and Osamu Dezaki, particularly in the latter's use of dramatic still frames.

No subtitled version of Mermaid's Scar was ever released stateside, and like all of the Rumiko Takahashi OAVs, none have been reissued on DVD in any country. Their total lack of availability is puzzling, and as they're all made by different companies, one can only assume that Takahashi herself may not like them and doesn't wish them to be available. Regardless of why, their scarcity is a real shame. Not all of them have aged well, but the best of them are truly some of the best productions of their era. Mermaid's Scar stands not only as one of the best Takahashi anime, but one of the best OAVs of the early 90s.

Japanese Name: 人魚の傷 (Ningyo no Kizu)

Media Type: Movie

Length: 50 min.

Vintage: 1993

Genres: Drama, mystery, fantasy

Availability (Japan): Only VHS and Laserdiscs were released.

Availability (English): Viz's dubbed VHS version is all there is, unless you count bootleg DVDs. Never even seen a fansub.

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