Guinea PigShigeru SaikiGo RijuMari Somei
Guinea Pig 6: Mermaid in a Manhole
Medium: film
Year: 1988
Writer/director: Hideshi Hino
Keywords: horror
Actor: Shigeru Saiki, Mari Somei, Masami Hisamoto, Go Riju, Tsuyoshi Toshishige
Series: << Guinea Pig
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Format: 63 minutes
Website category: J-horror
Review date: 16 August 2011
It's the last Guinea Pig film, subject to the series's eccentric numbering and not counting the "Best Of" compilation and "Making Of" special. Incidentally "Best Of" in this context means "Most Nauseating Scenes From", so I'd suggest steering clear of that one. Today's film though is pretty good.
As far as I can see, the two best-regarded Guinea Pig films are this one and Flowers of Flesh and Blood. Interestingly those are also the two that are directed by the original manga creator, Hideshi Hino. They're both achieving something artistic with their stomach-turning content, although to see that as a meaningful statement you'll need a strong stomach and a flexible viewpoint. Mermaid in a Manhole I've seen called "the most disgusting film I've ever seen", even from people who've seen other Guinea Pig films, but oddly enough it's not principally a gore film. There's a bit of razor action and of course the meat cleaver, but what makes it nauseating isn't blood. No, it's slime, pus, tumours, oozing worms and someone vomiting their own innards through all kinds of orifices, only one of which is their mouth.
The plot's thin and instead I'd describe the film as an hour of disturbing and oddly beautiful magic realism. Shigeru Saiki is an artist whose wife left him a month ago. We first see him painting. After that, he goes down into his favourite place... the local sewers. Apparently he used to play down here as a child or something.
There he finds a mermaid (Mari Somei), complete with fishy tail and naked breasts. She's pretty and she seems like a nice girl, if perhaps a little lost, but she also has a midriff injury that's so bloated with tumours that it looks like a mushroom farm. Sakai carries her home and puts her in the bath.
Now if you know your Japanese mythology, this is alarming. Japanese mermaids are unusual. Eating their flesh can make you immortal, but they might just as easily kill you before you get a chance to do that. Mari Somei though means Sakai no harm, but instead merely seems determined to be painted as often as possible. Her injury never stops getting worse. Medicine doesn't help, although Somei isn't keen on letting Sakai apply it in the first place. She doesn't want him to waste his time treating her. She's going to end up as a pus-spurting Elephant Man and furthermore I think she knows it, but even at her worst she'll only ever want two things: (a) that Sakai get on with his painting, and (b) occasionally some mercy hacking and slashing.
This is strong stuff. The thing is, Sakai's a good man. He once saw Somei when he was a boy and he's doing everything in his power to help her. You could see this film as being all about terminal illness, with the Sakai-Somei relationship going through all sorts of stages as Somei goes from being a beautiful topless girl to being a rotting, spasming abomination. Any man would want to help her at first, but it says a lot about Sakai that he's no less faithful to her at the end. I think I'd call that love. This is why I used the word "beautiful". Furthermore, Somei makes demands. She's never cruel or arbitrary and you can understand completely why she's asking that, but you don't go through an experience like that without having to do unpleasant things and by the end, it's got as bad as it can get. This is powerful.
That's one theme. Another though would be the relationship of the artist and his subject matter. Sakai collects Somei's multi-coloured pus and paints pictures of her with it. You'll have a girl dying in agony and Sakai just sitting there, painting her. Maybe this is saying something about Hideshi Hino himself, of maybe it's another viewpoint on the things human beings are capable of doing in this kind of extreme situation.
Then there's the finale, which adds a further layer of ghastly possibilities. Hino leaves it ambiguous, though. The dialogue's saying one thing and the fish scale on the table is saying another... if that is indeed a fish scale.
The six Guinea Pigs can be divided into three pairs of films. The Devil's Experiment and Flowers of Flesh and Blood are neo-snuff gorefests that got this series its reputation as perhaps the most revolting in the world. He Never Dies and Devil Woman Doctor are comedies. Finally we have the two Japanese Home Video entries, Android of Notre Dame and Mermaid in a Manhole, both of which are lyrical and oddly mournful splatter exploitation pieces about the relationship between a lonely, mildly unhinged man and a beautiful dying woman. They're both surprisingly deep. They're both light on plot and heavy on character. Mermaid in a Manhole is the more artistically successful and far better regarded, but I think they make a fascinating pair, the existence of each enriching the other.
Both also have lingering close-ups of a woman's naked tits. It's noticeable that Somei's tumours and pustules spread all over her body... except her nipples. While I'm being frivolous, I'll also mention that it took me nearly half an hour to decide whether Sakai's nosy neighbour, Masami Hisamoto, was male or female.
I realised recently that I've read a Hideshi Hino manga, incidentally. These include Hino Horrors, Panorama of Hell and Hell Baby, of which I've read the last one. It's strong stuff. I quite liked it.
It's aware of the classics. Notice the Frankenstein-like thunderstorm as Somei gives birth to (revolting) life. You could also read symbolism into the sewer scene at the beginning and the way in which human civilisation has infected and befouled the world around them (e.g. mermaids). Furthermore, I'd say this is likely to be deliberate. This is an artistic film that's full of symbolism and metaphor, such as at the end when oozing paint trails destroy Sakai's pictures. Overall, remarkable. It's the strongest example I know of what transgressive cinema can achieve with gross-out subject matter. Personally I didn't find it hard to watch, but there are plenty of people out there for whom this got to them in a way that ordinary gore films didn't. You couldn't do this in a normal movie. It's low-budget, disgusting to watch and will strike normal people as a offence against celluloid, but that's all part of what makes it unique.
"There are seven different colors of pus in these tumours. You will paint me with the pus of seven colors."