In 1984 ATG (Art Theater Guild), one of the most experimental and artistic of Japan’s film distribution companies, and Directors Company, released Ningyo Densetsu, directed by Toshiharu Ikeda. ATG had already established itself as a cutting-edge visionary with such releases as Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (1969), Shuji Terayama’s Pastoral: Hide and Seek (1974) and Seijun Suzuki’s Zigeunerweisen (1980). Ningyo Densetsu was something altogether different – a commercially viable fusion of murder mystery, white collar crime and revenge thriller which looked more mainstream than most of ATG’s previous releases. Also known as Mermaid Legend, the movie is also much more extreme than some of the most infamous exploitation films of its era yet it is distinguished by its artistry in all areas of production. But make no mistake, this is not family-friendly fare or recommended for fans of The Little Mermaid.
The film starts off as a deceptively low-key portrait of a newlywed working class couple with a fishing business. At the center of the film is Migiwa (Mari Shirato), a pearl diver whose specialty is harvesting abalone for her husband Keisuke (Jun Eto) and their struggling business. Exerting considerable pressure on Keisuke is Miyamoto (Yoshiro Aoki), a corrupt local developer who wants the fisherman to sell his small parcel of seashore land for a stalled amusement park project. [Spoiler alert] After Keisuke witnesses the murder of a fellow fisherman by Miyamoto’s hired yakuzas, he and Migiwa are targeted as the next victims but the attempt on their lives in only half successful. Migiwa survives but is forced to go into hiding because she is being framed for her husband’s murder.
Shohei (Kentaro Shimizu), her late husband’s childhood friend, helps Migiwa flee to a nearby island where she is offered shelter in a brothel and is cared for by an elderly couple who have a poignant WW2 backstory. Shohei’s interest in Migiwa is conflicted because he is the ne’er-do-well son of Miyamoto and he proves to be a treacherous ally. At a key turning point in Mermaid Legend (almost 50 minutes into the movie), he grabs Migiwa from behind in a stranglehold as if to kill her but quickly relents and tells her he is just kidding. He then proceeds to take her by force in an explicit sexual encounter that would not be out of place in a pinku eiga film (Japanese softcore erotica). From this point on Mermaid Legend becomes increasingly dark and ultra-violent.
The last third of the film might be a make or break moment for some viewers due to the improbability of the small, petite-looking Migiwa wrecking bloody revenge on what looks like more than a hundred people at a nighttime reception for executives of Kinki Electric Power, the organization responsible for the local murders of fishermen. At the same time, audience identification with our traumatized heroine is so strong that we long to see justice served and we get it via a constant barrage of arterial spray.
The transformation of Migiwa into an avenging angel of death armed with a weapon fashioned from two tridents makes the sword-slashing heroine of 1970’s Lady Snowblood (played by Meiko Kaji in two films), look almost demur in comparison. This entire sequence is certainly over-the-top and outrageous yet it has an undeniable emotional intensity. And it is just as easy to suspend disbelief in Migiwa’s seemingly invincible physical prowess as it is in any similar revenge scenario in a male action hero film, whether it be Jason Statham (Wrath of Man, Crank), Keanu Reeves (John Wick) or Denzel Washington (The Equalizer).
Of course, none of this would work as well as it does without Mari Shirato’s fearless performance as Migiwa, which is completely convincing every step of the way. In this regard, Mermaid Legend works as an intense character study of one woman’s journey from innocence into an outraged realization of the injustices committed by the powerful against the powerless. There is also an almost supernatural element to Migiwa’s transformation which is revealed through spiritual rituals and prayers to a Buddha statue…and those prayers are answered tenfold.
You could also view Mermaid Legend as a morality tale and an undisguised attack on a type of modern day criminal such as corporate executives, lawyers or government officials who use money and power to achieve their selfish goals. The fact that the main offenders in Mermaid Legend represent a nuclear power plant gives the film a cynical anti-nuke edge.
Director Toshiharu Ikeda first achieved notoriety in the Japan film industry with several boundary-pushing pinku eiga films such as Sex Hunter (1980) and Angel Guts: Red Porno (1981). Arguably his most famous one is Kagi (1997) a taboo-shattering remake of Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 erotic black comedy, Odd Obsession. The film stirred up considerable controversy at the time for depicting full frontal female nudity, which was forbidden by the censors. Ikeda, however, is much better known to fans of J-horror for Evil Dead Trap (1988), a violent slasher film that quickly became a cult favorite and inspired two sequels.
Evil Dead Trap seems inspired by the extreme horror films of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci but is even more sadistic, bloody and misogynistic. The film doesn’t really deserve its overrated reputation and is basically a visually ugly genre knockoff of Friday the 13th and its ilk with a bunch of clueless journalists ignoring clear signs of danger and wandering into an insane killer’s lair. The most effective part of the film is the creepy setting – an abandoned warehouse with endless, dark corridors – but the dull, repetitive nature of the slim storyline and an absurd detour into the supernatural at the climax are obvious detriments. Ikeda even admitted in interviews that he hated horror films and he also confessed to having never watched Evil Dead Trap after it was completed.
Ikeda always seemed more emotionally invested in the pink films he directed and you can see evidence of that in the two explicit and extremely intense sex scenes in Mermaid Legend, one in which a nude Kiwiga engages in a life and death struggle with a knife-wielding rapist. Most Japanese critics rate Mermaid Legend as his finest work but also give Ikeda high marks for Scent of a Spell (1988), a psychological melodrama, and The Man Behind the Scissors (2005), a police procedural drama. Unfortunately, Ikeda never managed to score an international breakthrough hit that displayed the innovative directorial talents he brought to Mermaid Legend. He died in December 2010, an apparent suicide (his body was found in the sea).
One last thing to mention about Mermaid Legend is the superb cinematography by Yonezo Maeda, who got his start in pink films but moved on to more prestigious work with Juzo Itami’s The Funeral (1984) and A Taxing Woman (1987), Yoshimitsu Morita’s Happy Wedding (1991), and Seijun Suzuki’s Princess Raccoon (2005). In Mermaid Legend, he captures some dazzling underwater scenes that include Migiwa swimming amongst the ocean flora and fauna as well as a frantic swimming pool murder. Hand-held camera scenes are also expertly utilized to capture Migiwa’s crazed slashing/stabbing rampage along the boardwalk of a seaside pier at the climax.
Mermaid Legend is currently unavailable on any format in the U.S. in an authorized edition. You might be able to find a DVD-R of it from outlets like European Trash Cinema or purchase a DVD of it from Japan in the original language (no English subtitles) from a supplier like CDJapan. I hope this is a title that a specialty distribution like Cult Epics or Synapse Films will acquire and remaster on Blu-ray in the future.
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