Story and Art by: Rumiko Takahashi
Translation and English Adaptation by: Rachel Thorn
Lettering by: Joanna Estep
Design by: Yukiko Whitley
Edited by: Amy Yu
There's a lot of stories and folklore around the world, specifically concerning mermaids. Now imagine, Japan, 1984. Rumiko Takahashi, partway through her serialization of Urusei Yatsura and Maison Ikkoku. She's got stuff to say about mermaids and the concept of eternal youth, and by George you're gonna hear about it. Whether you check out the OVAs, the serialized TV anime, or this beautiful new manga release from VIZ's Signature line, there's plenty to parse and sink your teeth into. Mermaid Saga is a series that was irregularly published in Shogakukan's Weekly Shonen Sunday and Shonen Sunday Super, and tells the story of a man named Yuta, who once ate the flesh of a mermaid and gained immortality. He interacts with many people, some normal, and some of whom are privy to the secret power that mermaids have in this world. Frankly, I wasn't sure what to expect before reading this. I gleaned from other folks that there were horror elements among other things, which made me doubtful to whether I'd enjoy it or not. Thankfully, the contents and art of the story wasn't particularly grotesque or gory, even though blood and flesh play an important role in the legends passed on and witnessed in this tale. Takahashi's art is pristine as ever, even 35 years after it was created. Her paneling is very concise but evocative, perfectly cutting frames to lead the eyes through dynamic angles and evocative spreads that take advantage of her strong background work and her characters' expressive body language. As a shorter work, this is also a perfect entry into her catalog for a reader unfamiliar with her.
|Takahashi's use of color is breathtaking. Thanks to being a VIZ Signature release, many if not all of the color pages from serialization are kept in their original format instead of greyscaled. |
Mermaid Saga's Yuta was once a fisherman, who became immortal after he and other fisherman consumed the flesh of a mermaid they once encountered. He outlived his wife, and wandered Japan and its seas, searching for another mermaid who could perhaps tell him how he could be freed from this curse. Throughout his travels, he encounters multiple people who've had uniquely different experiences revolving mermaids and immortality. It is these unique experiences that help elevate Mermaid Saga from being just "good" and enjoyable, and make it a much more substantial story. The first tale, "A Mermaid Never Smiles," introduces Mana, a girl who also becomes immortal. She was kidnapped by a village of women who are actually Lost Souls, or humans who couldn't actually acclimate to the powers a mermaid can give a human. They turn into monstrosities, and can only look human by consuming other humans who have actually succeeded in becoming immortal. Yuta saves her, and it becomes a cautionary tale for people who can't stay satisfied with what they have. Mana, completely ignorant of the world, now travels with Yuta to make the most of her newfound life. What makes this a good opening story for the "Saga," is the introduction of Lost Souls, and the concept that immortality isn't a given, and it is not a blessing. We see the ramifications of others attempting to attain immortality blow up in their faces in different ways, for different reasons, and it makes for some distinctive experiences that I don't think you'd see in other stories.
|Is it just me or is it messed up that this lore just dooms mermaids into being victims of cannibalism?|
"The Village of the Fighting Fish" takes us back to before Yuta met Mana, and shows us a forlorn love that was not meant to be, between him and Rin, the successor to a band of would-be pirates on an offshore island. This tale has some immense artistry at hand, and shows how deftly Takahashi can draw the movement of water. There is another band of pirates reared by a man named Sakagami, but his end was orchestrated by a woman he kidnapped and made his number two: Isago. It turns out that she was a mermaid, and needed the flesh of another in order to sufficiently provide nutrients for an unborn child she had conceived a year and some months before her kidnapping. In the process, Sakagami becomes a Lost Soul, and there is some amazing action between the scenes in the ocean, and Yuta breaking into the Sakagami hideout. Isago as an antagonist is fascinating, and while I'm sure it's very unlikely to be on purpose, there's a striking similarity to Shakespeare's villain Iago, in their morality and how they manipulate others for their cause. Isago was pregnant with a child from a human, but hid it after he was murdered and she was kidnapped by a brutal pirate. She decided to play the long game and tempt him with the bait of mermaid's flesh, knowing that he was unlikely to acclimate and reap its benefits. One can say that her actions were justified because they were for her unborn child, and because it can be seen as revenge for her partner, but her sadistic behavior belies her lack of empathy. The sequence of her jumping off the cliff is especially poetic, because everyone around her thinks she's committing suicide, because only Sakagami knows she's actually a mermaid.
|Sakagami: You Won't Jump. |
Isagi: Watch me.
Also Isagi: I lived b*tch.
"The Mermaid Forest" is actually my favorite short story in this first half of the series. It concerns Yuta and Mana, now traveling together as fellow immortals, stumbling into a new town. Mana is hit by a truck, and the doctor who treats her actually steals her corpse. He is actually the betrothed of a twin sister who drank the blood of a mermaid trapped in a forest her family governs. Because she only drank the blood, Towa only partially received the blursing (blessing + curse) of immortality, and was in danger of reverting into a Lost One. Only the doctor and her sister Sawa know the truth, and the doctor has heart-wrenchingly accepted the task of dismembering corpses so that Towa can amputate and replace her limbs as they begin transforming her into a monster. Now that they have custody of Mana, however, she wants Mana to use her immortality to scrap and collect the flesh of the mermaid in the forest, but not for the obvious reason. Instead of granting herself full immortality, she actually wants to curse her sister! It turns out that it was her sister Sawa who fed her the blood on her sickbed, as an experiment to see if there were any adverse effects--so that she could possibly ingest it afterwards. Once Sawa saw that Towa suffered and stopped aging, she decided not to and lived her life normally. Towa, stewing with despair and malice, despised that her sister was able to live a normal life, with marriage and children and being able to leave their villa to see the world. She wanted to inflict the curse of immortality onto her as punishment for living a fulfilling life without her. It reeks of misguided karmic retribution, but it's also fascinating. Sawa actually dies of a heart attack from shock before Towa can force-feed her the flesh. Towa's revenge will never be completed, and with that acknowledgment, her entire reason to continue living as an immortal was taken from her. She fades into ash along with the rest of the forest, after asking to be burned together. It's a tragedy beyond the concept of repentance. Towa's attachment to the past and suffering, fixating on her sister, is what led her to corruption.
In Mermaid Saga, all humans who've tried to attain immortality seek some form of escape from it after the fact. They recognize that humanity exists because it is effervescent, and that making meaningful connections can only make a life fulfilling when both parties realize their lives are finite. Yuta has befriended many folks as he wandered for 500 years, and Towa's suffering came from the realization that being restricted physically while immortal is a prison sentence. She couldn't use her time at all and because of it was deprived of mentally aging along with her physical stagnation. The next story, "Dream's End," is about a Lost Soul who regains his sanity after meeting Mana. He remembers how he became a Lost One, and feels intense remorse and regret at the thought of killing his family and village. He clearly has retained his humanity, but provocation and antagonizing make him lose sight of himself... It reminds me of Frankenstein's Monster, in that the continued persecution and demonizing of people gradually leads to those people retaliating violently, as there is only so much that people can take before exploding emotionally. The title is dropped when the Lost Soul is fatally injured and regains his mental faculties. He recognizes Mana and calls out her name. In her arms, he grows cold, and Yuta acknowledges, "He was able to die.. as a human." It's a very sharp denouncement of antipathy, and the kind of behavior that only breeds more hate and violence.
The final story in this volume, "Mermaid's Promise," is about a regret in Yuta's past. We've been slowly introduced to the varied effects different parts of a mermaid have when it comes to immortality, and this tale introduces the concept of ashes. A girl named Nae buried mermaid ashes in a field of flowers, making them bloom all year round. When it was time for Yuta to leave for good, Nae was tricked into meeting him there and was brutally strangled by her fiance, a different man. Flash forward to the present, she was buried in the soil that had the mermaid ashes, and has revived as a corpse without memories; a soulless "demon," with an appetite for blood. It's not a permanent revival. It was more of a last ditch effort that her fiance, emotionally backed into a corner at being completely rejected by her, thought would be better than leaving her dead for good. What makes this story good is that Nae does in fact have fragments of her memory, which come back in flashes at the mention of Yuta. The promise that she made wasn't a real one, but one manipulated by the fiance, who I will not name because he is scum. Mana is with her for most of the story, and experiences jealousy for the first time, but doesn't act maliciously from it. In fact, she defends Nae, and tries her best to give Nae closure. The closure from actually meeting Yuta is what allows Nae's soul to resurface and move on after being trapped in a body that was meant to be returned to the earth. It's a story that could only have come after "Dream's End," because it allows Mana to act on the empathy that she learned from the Lost Soul she comforted before. It works as a way to tie Mana to Yuta's personal history, emotionally, and also prove her growth after exploring the world she could not experience while shackled to the village she was kidnapped to.
What makes Mermaid Saga work is unmistakably Mana and Yuta's individual personalities. For a duo traveling together, they actually get separated at every single story they're in. Mana is younger, and her experiences always put her in a position to interact with and learn from other immortals, or victims of the pursuit of immortality. From Towa, the Lost Souls, and Nae, being able to hear and learn from the lives of others has clearly shaped the way that she acts on her emotions, and her desire to take matters into her own hands. Yuta's purpose, surprisingly, is mostly to just keep himself--and Mana--alive, since their only weakness is decapitation. Being able to exert agency even in "captivity" allows Mana to influence the story and events in a way that makes her life meaningful. She was turned immortal against her will--without even knowing. But now she is using that same life to learn and act on her principles. How else will she grow? This first half of Mermaid Saga was absolutely riveting, and I'm very excited to see what other stories and struggles with the inevitability of time's passage Rumiko Takahashi will give us in the next installment. Volume 1 of Mermaid Saga was released on Tuesday, November 17th, 2020, on print and digital by VIZ Media for their VIZ Signature imprint. They also officially release everything by Rumiko Takahashi that legally available in English.
This review was possible thanks to VIZ Media for a review copy.