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Far East Extreme: How to train your “Mermaid in a Manhole”

Monday, March 25, 2019 | Opinion

Those who have been following Far East Extreme since its inception may be surprised at the absence of any mention of Guinea Pig until now, since THIS is the film series that finally took things too far. The story goes that none other than Charlie Sheen happened to watch one of these movies, and, thinking it was an actual snuff film, reported it to the authorities. The Guinea Pig films – 6 Japanese movies made in the 1980’s usually utilizing different casts and crews – is comparable to films like Cannibal Holocaust or Salo, where one can’t always tell if the violent and disgusting acts on screen are real or not. Rest assured, there is no actual snuff in these films; no people or animals being mutilated.

However, one could be forgiven for being in this mindset, since most Guinea Pig movies focus almost exclusively on sadistic torture and violence, to the exception of all else. That is, except for Guinea Pig 6: Mermaid in a Manhole. This film (which, depending on your reckoning, may be the 3rd, 4th, or 6th in the series) is notable in that it is based on a written work of the same name by Hideshi Hino. Hino, who was renowned for his horror manga since the 1960s, decided to step in the director’s chair and adapt his own work. This was not Hino’s first foray into the world of Guinea Pig, only three years prior he had also directed and starred in Guinea Pig 2: Flowers of Flesh and Blood.

The plot of MIAM concerns an unnamed artist recently estranged from his wife, whose work has certain macabre sensibilities. One day, he decides to go into the sewers for inspiration, and finds a bona-fide mermaid hanging out among the heaps of scattered refuse. The mermaid (played by B-movie and soft porn actress Mari Somei) is the real deal- which we can see with great close-ups of all her slimy fish parts. She is unable to speak, except telepathically, inside the artists head. This voice tells the artist – coincidentally – that he and this mermaid met before, long ago during his childhood. For the artist, this is finally his dream come true: a chance to paint his masterwork. Their reunion, despite taking place in a disgusting sewer, is up to this point a happy affair (complete with romantic-sounding music), but it takes a turn for the worse when he notices the mermaid has a rather disgusting-looking abdominal wound.

As any gentleman would do for a woman in distress, the painter offers to let her come to his place and crash on his couch/bathtub.  In the meantime, the artist continues his work, while his nosy neighbors (the comic relief in the film) speculate on what is going on. The first half of Mermaid in a Manhole is almost romantic in the twisted way – the artist acts with much tenderness toward his subject, who seems to be unnaturally devoted to him in turn. When her wound gets worse and begins to fester, he panics as if he actually cares for her. Despite knowing very little about this odd man, we sympathize with him almost immediately. However, as the mermaid’s condition continually degrades, the horror begins to truly come to the fore.

“As any gentleman would do for a woman in distress, the painter offers to let her come to his place and crash on his couch/bathtub.”

The second half of the film marks a turning point thematically; all of the lighter moments are thrown out, and we focus solely on the woman’s physical pain and the man’s mental anguish. The artist, who swaps paints for the mermaid’s pus and body fluids, becomes less and less grounded in the real world. He is not a sadist, but twisted by an obsession over his art. This is clear despite the film being light on dialogue, a lesson in showing rather than telling. Mermaid in a Manhole is film about painting, but is also surprisingly quite riveting: you aren’t sure how things will end, though you get the sense it won’t end well.

Being an underground low-budget affair, Guinea Pig can’t shock you with disgusting CG-aided effects, pyrotechnics, or camera tricks. Everything you see on the screen is the result of practical effects, created by one Nobuaki Koga, the true standout of this film. All of the blood, bugs, organs, and other assorted filth on display is incredible in its realism, and should be required viewing for any aspiring horror filmmaker or anyone with even a cursory interest in special effects.  The camera work and acting itself is pretty basic, but it is saved by the stuff flying around on screen. The plot proves that simple is better: This is a rather straightforward affair about a man and his mermaid. There is very little dialogue; the protagonist’s lines consist mainly of cries of shock and horror (which he does well) and the mermaid thrashes around in pain and agony while covered in all sorts of fake prosthetics and apparatuses shooting fluids all over. I feel like some kudos are necessary for Ms. Somei, because the role of the mermaid, while requiring no Shakespearian stentorian acrobatics, is physically very demanding: involving her acting as if she is in great pain for a very long time without becoming absurd or unintentionally humorous. For lead actor Shigeru Saiki, this would become the first of many horror movies he’d be a part of; Saiki later landed roles in Audition and Ghost Train, and is still active to this day, mostly on the small screen.

This movie, even by the standards of the series, is not perfect. One re-used sequence of the panicked artist running up and down the stairs becomes almost comedic, and the camera-work is inconsistent at times, especially the dramatic close up shots that look like they belong in a campy drive-in double feature from 20 years prior.  The sound design is suitably gross, but drops the ball at the last minute and almost ruins an otherwise good ending. However, these are minor complains, and Mermaid in a Manhole is more than worth the hour it will take of your time. Better yet, it will never be confused for the real thing, unless of course you actually believe that mermaids exist.

Alex Ehrenreich
I'm a writer and horror-lover currently living in Tokyo. Be sure to check out my column "Far-East Extreme" where I write about the best in Asian horror cinema every month.