Thursday, June 3, 2021

Ningyo densetsu (1984)

... aka: 人魚伝説
... aka: Legend of Mermaid, The
... aka: La légende de la sirène (The Legend of the Mermaid)
... aka: Mermaid Legend

Directed by:
Toshiharu Ikeda

Young newlyweds Migiwa (Mari Shirato) and Keisuke (Jun Etô) are independently employed fishers. Their primitive method involves Migiwa being tied to a rope, holding a weight and going deep onto the ocean floor to look for tuna. When she's ready to come up, she tugs on the rope and then her husband pulls her back up. Since they don't use scuba equipment or breathing tanks, it requires her to be able to hold her breath for a long period of time and for him to be very attentive to the movement of the rope. In other words, it requires her to put the utmost trust in him.

Their livelihood, and the livelihood of many others in the area, is threatened by wealthy industrialists led by the greedy, soulless Mr. Miyamoto (Yoshirô Aoki). Miyamoto is dead set on acquiring all of the land under the pretense of building an amusement park there, though he actually has other plans to drive out the locals and build a nuclear power plant. He's managed to buy off the Mayor, the Chairman of the Fishing Association and the heads of Kinki Electric Power's location development department and also has the majority of local law enforcement in his pocket. As for those who refuse to give up their fishing, some mysterious "accidents" occur, starting with one of the boats exploding and killing a man late one night; a crime that Keisuke witnesses.

While out for a dive one day, there's no response when Migiwa tugs on the rope. Keisuke's dead body (with a knife stuck in his chest) falls down and then someone shoots her in the arm with a harpoon gun before taking off in their boat. Bleeding and left for dead, Migiwa passes out underwater but miraculously washes ashore alive. When she attempts to get help from a police officer, he (clearly already bought and paid for) accuses her of murdering her husband and then trying to commit suicide. During a struggle, he ends up falling down a hill onto some rocks and injuring himself. With no one to turn to and no one to trust, Migiwa is forced to flee and then go into hiding.

Photographer Shohei (Kentarô Shimizu), one of Keisuke's friends / drinking buddies and, incidentally also Mr. Miyamoto's son, manages to run across Migiwa. Instead of turning her in (it turns out he has ulterior motives of a sexual nature), he sneaks her to Watakano Island, which is mostly populated by women, has no law enforcement and is unpopulated except for a brothel catering to mostly wealthy clientele. She's taken to the brothel run by Natsuko (Junko Miyashita), who agrees to give her shelter as a favor to Shohei, and is given a room where she's able to recuperate from her injuries. There, the seeds for revenge are planted.

Mr. Miyamoto and his cohorts decide to host a banquet on the island to celebrate. When Migiwa finds out he'll be there, she agrees to work the party to get closer to him. She's able to ensnare Miyamoto's #1 yakuza, who spills the beans on what had occurred. He was ordered to kill a man standing in the way of their project and Keisuke simply ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a witness to the murder, he also had to go. Once the yakuza reveals that he knows her true identity and plans on also killing her after he rapes her, Migiwa turns the tables on him, gets his knife and slashes / stabs him to death in a long and very gory scene complete with generous blood sprays. The incident drives Migiwa completely over the edge. She flees the island, drowns the corporate slimeball who orchestrated the killing of her husband in his swimming pool and then crashes the nuclear power plant reception with a homemade Neptune-like harpoon trident and slaughters everyone in sight.

I went in assuming from the title (yes, I should know better by now) that this would be some horror version of the same year's comedy Splash, or perhaps something more along the lines of the Mermaid in a Manhole entry in the Guinea Pig series, but instead got a serious, slow-going, dramatic tale of human revenge with an ocean motif and sociopolitical content about how disposable most of our lives are deemed when it comes to the almighty corporate dollar. Unlike some other similar tales, this actually does build to a crescendo of sorts, with nonstop bloody, exhausting, cathartic violence during the last 20 minutes as our protagonist unleashes a hellish fury on those she feels took her husband away.

There's also vague supernatural stuff going on under the surface involving Buddha and a statue half submerged in the sand, which is perhaps all just a figment of Migiwa's imagination. Due to her somehow surviving underwater for a long period of time after being shot, it's also not impossible that she actually did die and was possessed by some supernatural underwater being, though this is left open to our interpretation. Though this will be slow-moving for some tastes and falls a bit short of being a lost classic, it's still a solidly-crafted revenge tale. And while certainly exploitative, it's also given dramatic weight thanks to a compelling central performance from Shirato, Toshiyuki Honda's moving score and somber atmosphere achieved through good use of locations and Yonezô Maeda's photography.

The director, who'd become best known for the gory cult hit EVIL DEAD TRAP (1989) a few years later, started out making pinku eiga (soft-core sex) flicks, first as an assistant director and then making his own features like the notorious Sex Hunter (1980). That's all evident in this transitional piece during several prolonged sex / rape scenes. As per usual in Japan, blurring is used to hide frontal anatomy and thrusting butts during sex scenes, though non-thrusting butts appear to be OK to show there. The bloody mayhem however gets to stay completely intact.

Though this title has never been officially released here in the U. S., there have been a number of releases in Japan, including a 2004 DVD from Geneon and a 2014 Blu-ray from King Records.

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