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Friday, November 27, 2020

Mermaid Saga Volume 1 Review

 

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. 

Towa's idea of revenge is inflicting the same suffering that she experienced. Even though she looks youthful, she will still die of old age because she didn't consume the actual flesh of a mermaid. Her actual youth was stolen by her twin sister, with the excuse of protecting her from her father's rage. It's an unexpected nuance, and I believe it makes her into the most layered character in the entire cast.


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.

There is a tacit implication that "dreams" end. Meanwhile, the immortals are forsaken to continue living, with no concept of a natural "end" in sight.

 

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. 

I love the framing here. The flowers, birds, and sky--all forms of nature--are overflowing past the frame. At the same time, Nae's soul, trapped in the vessel of her unnaturally-sustained body, is also trapped inside the frame. Her mental realization that she has died before supersedes the frame, because her mental faculties were completely nonexistent until now. She had died in that field, and the awareness is what will allow her to physically move on from that mental point in time.


 
This beautiful spread is what we see before Nae's soul passes on. Her physical interaction with Yuta is what her "soulless" body needed for closure. From this, Yuta will (I hope) learn to provide that sense of closure to all the people he'll encounter and form bonds with in the future, even, especially if he never intends on seeing them again. It's facet of basic human empathy that Mana is also learning.

 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.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Sunday 5 years later (Chief editor Ichihara interview)

 


Hey all! I've been around a little more lately, but just in case you don't know who I am, it's your beleaguered translator/editor/writer/tweet-er Sakaki here with pre-thanksgiving stuffing. As the above blurb states, I have managed to translate the first "half" of the Takenori Ichihara interview that was posted almost (About? What is time in 2020) a month ago. In all honesty I was ready to throw up the entirety of this bad boy but then well, I saw how long it was and thought I'd give you all (and myself) a break. The normal disclaimer stands: Not by a professional translator, point out mistakes if you see them, etc. 

Think of this as a continuation of the Ichihara/Takekawa interview (here) and (here) as it is brought up a few times during this interview. Ichihara sort of implies we'll be getting more Sunday anime soon (maybe Komi, finally?) Though otherwise it's a peek into the mind of the man who sought to fight Sunday and win.

Part two soonish!



“I knew I'd have to “abandon” myself.”


--- When you took over as Sunday's head editor five years ago, you made the declaration “Sunday will undergo massive changes.” In those five years what kind of changes have happened?

Ichihara: For one I consider the editorial department to be a team of fighters, so the most important element became reassessing ourselves. That of itself is a massive upheaval, which includes artists as well. For example to encourage examination of what kind of manga rookies want to create, we had veterans such as Gosho Aoyama and Kazuhiro Fujita to do lectures.

---Oh?

Ichihara: We did that, but in order to hold up the integrity of “Shounen Sunday” as a brand, we first needed to change the way we produce manga. If we don't change nothing will. When I returned to the Sunday editorial department the thing that shocked me most was how we weren't doing anything to cultivate the growth of newbie artists. The awareness of the editorial department to it's own surroundings was pitiful, and the drive for excellence and growth was all but not there. Though that's not to say the editorial staff itself was terrible. The “culture” and “climate of Sunday had broken over the years and had been lost. It was at that point that the brand and soul of Shounen Sunday was muddled, and I had to ask myself “What is the culture and climate of Shounen Sunday” to begin to guide and eventually repair the editorial department. Step one of this plan was informing everyone of my intention to reform how we go about producing manga. I asked myself daily what we could do to cultivate growth of new artists, and what efforts we could provide to make this happen. There was a “Team Sunday” that worked every day to come up with ideas, and it's through this daily communication that we began to brainstorm where to go. First came speaking to everyone in the editorial department. Even though some were new and didn't have the know how, their passion toward manga was overflowing and their energy as youngsters would ensure they could do the hard work. It was there that I began to see hope in our endeavors.

---Now, about what you meant when you said “I am not satisfied with the current situation” five years ago...

Ichihara: It feels too real to think I said that a mere five years ago (laughs) When I returned to Sunday in 2015, the sales henceforth were in pretty bad shape. Management and operations of the magazine itself was in a dangerous place. I came to work in Sunday because I love it. I asked to be transferred into the seat of head editor because I could see we were in trouble, and that there was something I could do about it so I persisted. First and foremost we needed to foster new artists and promising rookies. Both had to be done at the same time or else it'd be all for nothing. However, at the time I didn't have much faith in the editorial department's power of observation. So at that point I took it upon myself to read every new artist's oneshots myself.

---In our interview five years ago, you did say “I'll be the one to decide upon whether a oneshot or new serialization runs or does not.”

Ichihara: “Not having faith” means essentially “What will you do then as a leader?” Back then we were in a touch and go situation with the manga artists who are our essential co-workers. For example if a rookie with talent came to us, and we said “you have no talent at all” and sent them packing then that rookie's abilities are lost to us. So for the first three years I did read every single storyboard that came our way, but nowadays we have a system where a chief and five or six other people get together, discuss a work and cosign that a that a rookie has talent and that we have the environment to thoroughly bring out the best in them. I leave the final decision in the hands of those chiefs.

---The chief system you speak of was brought up in your interview with Shingo Takekawa, right?

Ichihiara: We have two jobs. One is to support the artists that are being serialized in the magazine right now, and promote their series behind the scenes. Adding to that, there's another secret job in “leaving seeds behind.” Both of these are important, as if one doesn't leave seeds behind then a magazine that's in good shape will be in the danger zone five or ten years later. Especially for the head editor. If your team now doesn't accumulate anything now for ten years later, then there's no meaning in thinking of and succeeding in efforts now as it'll be all gone in five to ten years. I've said it myself; not thinking about what you want to leave the next generation of kids is a failure on the head editor's part.

---It's not just what's in eyesight, but what lies ahead that one can't ignore.

Ichihara: Moreover, a victim is necessary in order to strengthen the team that until now has been in a slump. A powerful victim. Which is why I know I have to “abandon” myself. For if I think of myself as expendable and merely a cornerstone of the magazine then Sunday will undoubtedly have a long and fortuitous future. To me someone doing good work for the editorial staff should say “If I can make it so someone else doesn't have to go through what I am right now then it's all worth it” then we're doing well. Normally I wouldn't want to go through this kind of suffering, so it becomes about ensuring that what we pass down to future teams is the right way to Sunday, so that huge reforms may not be necessary in the first place.

---And that's to properly utilize your faculty.

Ichihara: My reformation plan was planned to take place over 8 years. If I could follow through with this plan for the entirety of that time, then I'd have laid the foundation for exponential growth. To put it in numbers, from five years ago, Sunday's potential has shot up five hundred percent. We've gone from being in the red to a full revival. If I include my time with Gessan (Monthly Shounen Sunday) I've been working as head editor for 12 years, but there hasn't been a single year where performance has slipped. Though to me that's obvious since in the first place my ultimate goal isn't to have a great performance assessment. My dream is “For Sunday to become Japan's strongest brand.” Sunday truly is a great brand, and my actions now are to build upon that. Sure Jump, Champion, and Magazine are around, and each of them put in the same work with their creators every day like we do, but this isn't a battle we look to win for a year or two. After all, the strongest team will prevail. Though the true victory one is one sought to last over a twenty year period. That can only be achieved by piling up seeds over a long period of time which isn't an easy path to victory in the least. There's no other way to pursue this goal than through copious amounts of work. To that point, I have been working on a strong foundation and will continue to over this eight year period –this is my obligation. It means I believe what I set out to do will be done in these eight years. Though there's no way a complete reformation will be done in this time.

---Makes sense.

Ichihara: In order to revive our brand and strive for success we have to cultivate many artists and rookies who will then produce hits. Though in honesty that isn't what my original goal was. Rather what is necessary is for us to become a greater organization. Taking a short road and aiming for better sales isn't it. Shonen manga is like agriculture, a super slow business. It is about growing young editors and rookie artists... a “human” cultivating business. There's a term where soil that is well nourished is where bigger and more beautiful flowers grow. As such creating a strong brand means having cornerstones and foundations which is what I am building as I heard into this sixth year. It's the kind of work that feels like you have to work yourself into the ground like an idiot to get anywhere in. Though it already feels like my body's gone through a round and ended up in the gutter. (laughs)

---You did say that “It's been tough getting proper sleep” five years ago.

Ichihara: That's the life of the boss in a weekly shounen magazine. Though I'm the type who doesn't worry about my mental state too much. Besides it's not a trial, it's super fun. It's fun, but business is tough on the body. (laughs)

--- In the interview with Takekawa, you said “All parts of working manga is fun.” That left quite the impression.

Ichihara: Yes, it's all a lot of fun. There's nothing I'm unhappy with. That's what I meant about my role as a “sacrifice.” earlier. It might sound saddening to think “I'm just a sacrifice” but it isn't, I swear! (laughs) In history humans have always enjoyed gathering together as a group and assigning roles to strive towards a bigger goal. As of my role in Sunday, it's to make the team as strong as they can be, and think of ways of making them better. I couldn't think of a better role for myself. I don't think of myself as unfortunate. (laughs) Every day is fun. There might be some days where I feel down about it, but then I know if no one does anything it won't get done and that keeps me going.

“The right cycle in cultivating rookies.”

---Five years ago you spoke of “Bringing in new rookies and cultivating them.” It was also five years ago that the oneshots for “Komi Can't Communicate” by Tomohito Oda, and “Sleepy Princess in Demon's Castle” by Kagiji Kumanomata were published. It was in the following year of these first publications that their full fledged series began. Now these two series seem to have become the flagships for Shounen Sunday.

Ichihara: That's the right cycle in cultivating rookies. Yes these serializations began in 2016, but before that happened there was a long period in which they were rookies. There was an honest search for talented rookies and then proper responsibility was taken to ensure their growth began. I'd say it takes about three to five years to go from the start point to serialization. Some might be a little faster than that, but the average is about three years. Komi and Sleepy Princess both started in 2016, but Sleepy Princess only got an anime this year. So including the four to five years after a serialization begins and the time after meeting the new artist, it takes about seven to ten years for the crop to become ripe. We're expected to have a multitude of works for readers to read in a short amount of time, but that crop can't be forced or controlled by an editorial chief's ego. For example even if we want the time for ripeness and harvest to come faster, the manga artist has their own life and is the one who knows when they are in the best state to create, and the fans when they are ready for a series to make the leap to TV. Knowing when that golden period is taking shape is most important. Thus, rookies work hard, and we gather them. They'll be better than they were in one year in two, better than that in three, and so on. Of course we'd expect their level of skill to grow too. If not then the team isn't fostering proper growth. That's the cycle we like to find ourselves in.

---Five years ago you said you expect “the serialized artists to change within two years” but of the 30 or so serials that were in the magazine back then, only about five of those series are ongoing. Is it normal for magazines to change so much in five years?

Ichikawa: You'd think that, but management of a healthy manga magazine is closer to that of a mille-feuille when it comes to serializations. Magazines do have super long serializations don't they? For us it's “Detective Conan” and although it's a continuation “Major 2nd” counts too. Readers hope for long serializations like those so we do our best to have them. In addition to that there were three to four series that were made into different forms of media, and a few some with 10 to 20 volumes that will be animated in the future. If there are about 30 serials then there about 20 series that remain stable. Among these are three types, “super long term” “long term” and “current season” serializations. Aside from those it's not unusual to see five to ten series get replaced each year. Though five years ago the mille-feuille was completely busted.

---You said that the time of the interview that you've “Decided to cancel quite a few series.”

Ichihara: First of all we have to gather works that readers read and think that are “fun” or “interesting. "by reading the questionnaires and responses to it. The next step is to replace five to ten of these a year to maintain the strength and balance of the magazine. It's difficult, since just throwing new works into the magazine isn't enough. The quality of the work has to be considered so that readers will continue to purchase of the magazine. Furthermore the work should be –if at all possible one that gets a buyer to purchase the volumes as well. This is the way to restore the mille-feuille state of the magazine which was the biggest improvement to the magazine and one of the first conditions I sought to implement.

---In five years, popular series like “Magi” and “Silver Spoon” have ended, and “Komi Can't Communicate” has become super popular. Meanwhile “Sleepy Princess in Demon's Castle” has become an anime, and “Amano Megumi Suki Darake!” has transferred from Sunday Super to become a super long serial in weekly Sunday. The impression seems to be that as bigger works end in Sunday, rookies are the stars now.

Ichihara: As longer popular series end in Sunday many concerned parties worry “Oh no, what are we going to do now?” (laughs) It's important for these series to reach their conclusions naturally. This is the life of an artist after all. Though if we stick to the rookie cultivation cycle, then there's nothing to fear with a popular work ending. After all if a serialization ends, then a artist can just work on their next story. It's not as if Sunday will suddenly fade away, and as long as there are new artists we'll be fine. There are returning artists as well so it's honestly a great thing.