Reviewby Carlo Santos, Aug 18th 2005
DVD 1: Quest for Death
Legend has it that anyone who eats a mermaid's flesh will live forever. Yuta is a young man who has done exactly that, but after living for 500 years, all he wants is to be human again and die a natural death. Knowing that he must find another mermaid in order to undo his curse, his search takes him to an isolated coastal village. There he meets a young woman named Mana who has had her own unfortunate experiences with mermaid flesh. As Yuta and Mana learn the terrible secrets of the village and its resident mermaids, they narrowly escape, and now they travel the seas looking for a way to return to normal life. One flashback of Yuta's life recalls his encounter with a town of seagoing bandits, who are at odds with a rival town that seeks far greater riches—the riches of eternal life.
Following on the heels of the Rumiko Takahashi Anthology comes Mermaid Forest, another anime adaptation of the legendary manga-ka's lesser-known stories. While the Anthology is a lighthearted showcase of unusual experiences in everyday Japan, Mermaid Forest is a more fantastic tale with greater emotional weight. What this series lacks in quirky charm, it makes up for with intense drama, and as always, richly imagined story and characters. Who knows, it might even get people to read the manga.
The first episode of Mermaid Forest is a tragic masterpiece on its own, proving yet again that Rumiko Takahashi's storytelling skills are unrivaled. It combines many of the elements that make her work great: adventure, fantasy, romance, and a couple of chilling plot twists. Sadly, the next two episodes don't reach that same level; the two-part "Village of the Fighting Fish" is a far more pedestrian affair that descends into hack-and-slash battle as it lumbers towards its finale. Perhaps they lose the impact of the first episode because we already know about Yuta's condition and aren't as easily shocked by further revelations about mermaids. Although the initial concept is compelling, Yuta's ongoing search for normality could soon get repetitive. Of course, with Takahashi's overflowing creativity behind the project, it's easy to believe that there'll be more twists and surprises along the way.
Like many other Takahashi sagas, it's the characters that form the core of this anime, pulling the viewer effortlessly into their world. Mana is introduced at the very beginning as a sour-tempered young woman, but as her predicament is explained, she quickly becomes a sympathetic figure. Similarly, Yuta starts out as "just some guy," but once he's attacked by the women of Mana's village, it's hard not to root for him as he extricates himself from peril, sets out to protect Mana, and demands some answers about his curse. Together they form a well-matched but doomed couple of two humans who have become far too involved in the dark world of mermaids. Even side characters quickly grab our interest, like the village maiden Rin who develops an ill-fated love for Yuta, and scheming matriarch Isago, a villain who is detestable in all the good ways.
There ought to be a disclaimer on Rumiko Takahashi-based anime that they'll never match the look of the manga. Mermaid Forest suffers from that problem considerably, looking more like a generic late-90's anime but with digital animation. The characters often have the surface features of Takahashi's designs—certain hairstyles, eye shapes, and body structure—but they lack the sinuous touch of her original drawings. Although the high-contrast colors and picturesque backgrounds make this a visually serviceable anime, it lacks the personality that could take it to a higher level of artistry. The stiff animation doesn't help much either; many of the action scenes look awkward when people come in contact with each other, and at worst they have resort to the ultimate crutch of still-frame poses. The gripping characters and story would be easier to enjoy if the animation weren't so shoddy.
Like most fantasy adventures, the music score is rooted in an orchestral sound, although the style isn't quite something that can be pinned down. At times it draws from traditional Japanese music, or from typical film scores, or even from soothing New Age tunes. The music can be almost transparent in its lack of a true melody, yet it sets the emotions fairly well (and sometimes too well, with certain motifs playing over and over). The opening and closing themes fit into this same mold, being nondescript but melancholy songs that evoke the feeling of Yuta's mysterious world.
Geneon's dub production with New Generation isn't much to listen to, with most of the cast overacting their lines and threatening to turn the show into a period melodrama. Initially there's even a problem with syncing the spoken lines to the characters' mouths, although it improves later on. What doesn't improve is everyone's tendency to deliver wooden dialogue and awkward catchphrases that would wreck this anime (at least from a verbal standpoint) if it weren't being bolstered by a compelling story. Veteran Wendee Lee is the one bright spot on the English audio track, portraying the villain Isago with a silky voice that practically crawls with sinister motives.
The only extras featured on the DVD are some previews and a production art gallery, which simply reinforces the fact that the character designs don't quite match up with Takahashi's manga style all that well.
Although it has its technical shortcomings, Mermaid Forest is a delight for those who like to get lost in a good story, particularly one with the flavor of fairytales and legends. It asks a simple question—"What would it be like to live forever?"—and explores the dire consequences that follow. It seems that searching for eternal life brings out the worst in people, and yet for those who've survived it long enough, it also brings out their best. This is Rumiko Takahashi at her most pessimistic and tragic, but even so, the richness of her ideas makes it hard to turn away.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : B
Story : A
Animation : C
Art : B-
Music : C+
+ A depressing and beautiful fantasy about the follies of humankind.
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