Mermaid Saga is an occasional horror manga series from Rumiko Takahashi, collected in three volumes. It's a slightly unlikely candidate for anime adaptation, given its short length, violent content and inconclusive ending, but probably thanks to its creator's name it's been turned to date into two OVAs (1991, 1993) and a thirteen-part TV series (2003). Just don't expect it to be anything like Urusei Yatsura, Ranma 1/2 or Maison Ikkoku. To be honest I wasn't particularly impressed and ended up giving away my DVDs, but I'll admit that it succeeds at being bleak, creepy and occasionally gross. For example the last two TV series episodes weren't broadcast and are only available on DVD, possibly due to their graphic content, while there's one bit of the manga that's still never been adapted: the intensely violent Mermaid's Gaze storyline.
Of course guts and gore on their own aren't enough on their to make for good horror. Takahashi is an excellent storyteller and often the most horrible thing about Mermaid's Forest is simply what the characters are willing to do to each other and themselves. This isn't a splatterfest. On the contrary, it's character-based storytelling that creates people you care about and puts them through the wringer. Unfortunately there's a weak link and that's the show's two heroes, Yuta and Mana. They're sympathetic and credible, but they're also wandering immortals who rarely have any emotional connection to anything. They can't die and they have no ties with the mortal world. They turn up, get involved in random horrors and then amble off again afterwards. Nothing that happens to them really matters. This show could have been fantastic with stronger lead characters, or alternatively I think I'd have also preferred it as a pure anthology show with no recurring characters.
The show's premise is that eating mermaid's flesh can turn you into an immortal. Sounds good, eh? The mermaids might think differently, of course. The catch is that this transformation usually goes wrong, with the most people's eyes popping out as they either die in agony or become a soulless, hideous monster. Highlander this ain't. Yuta is five hundred years old and just wants to be able to live a mortal life again, but with immortality at stake he keeps meeting people willing to commit atrocities.
Curiously enough, this is based on Japanese folklore and you can see another anime treatment of the same material in episode 16 of Blue Seed. There's a legend of a girl in the 5th century called Yaohime, who ate meat that her father had been given and as a result went on living for another 800 years. Furthermore the mermaids themselves are completely different from the beautiful versions we're used to in the West, instead being troll-like monsters with fins and fangs. It's said that they can steal the appearance of a human girl either by eating her or by making her eat the flesh of one of their number (freshly killed for the purpose). Unfortunately this makes them age like any other human, so every hundred years or so they'll go looking for another girl.
The TV series looks cheap, but in a good way. Being horror, dramatic compositions are more important than things like detailed artwork or the frame-per-second rate. The OVAs are pretty, but obviously created by different production teams, with the second one making the characters look slightly simian. I didn't like that. I normally have a lot of time for Madhouse, but here I think they goofed by going in the Atsuko Nakajima vein of the Ranma OVAs from around that time. It's nicely animated, but I prefer the TV version. Incidentally even though a different production company produced each of these three animated adaptations, all of them used Kouichi Yamadera and Minami Takayama as the voice actors for Yuta and Mana. I appreciated that.
The TV series is good, but it feels insubstantial. Episode two wrongfooted me by having Yuta but not Mana. Huh? Where'd she go, then? What I'd missed is that this is a modern-day series with occasional flashback episodes set in Yuta's past, e.g. pirate days or the Tokugawa ascendancy.
The first OVA (Mermaid Forest) is an adaptation of the manga storyline of the same name, with additional bits from A Mermaid Never Smiles. Oddly enough it's directed by Takaya Mizutani, who's better known for Pokemon and Steel Angel Kurumi. It's good, but it's basically the same as episodes 4-5 of the TV series and there's little reason to watch one if you've seen the other, unless you're desperate to see animated nudity. For what it's worth, the OVA version is less dramatic but more mysterious (and adds a surreal footnote to the tragedy).
The second OVA (Mermaid's Scar) adapts the story in episodes 12-13 of the TV series. It's downright nasty and a satisfying note on which to end the story so far of Yuta and Mana, which I suppose is why the TV show also ended on it. Again they're both very faithful adaptations, with the TV series version actually being pretty gross at times. The OVA is nasty, but at one or two points this was almost hard to watch. They really get splash-happy with the red stuff.
I wanted to like this series more than I did. Its problem is that it gives itself a narrative by including two ongoing protagonists, but then doesn't let that narrative go anywhere. Yuta and Mana are wandering and will presumably go on doing so forever. Admittedly that's the whole point of the series, but even so I'd have been happier had the show had more narrative spine and emotional connection. It feels kinda empty somehow. It's too episodic, even if the individual episodes are often strong. The result is an insubstantial show that lacks the meat of something like Vampire Princess Miyu (still an all-time horror favourite), but it pulls off some decent tragedy and I kinda liked Yuta and Mana as people, if not as dramatic protagonists. This anime probably isn't worth buying, but it's worth watching.
I've also been told that the manga is strong, for what it's worth.