Story & Art by Rumiko Takahashi
Translation & English Adaptation by Rachel Thorn
Lettering by Joanna Estep
Design by Yukiko Whitley
Edited by Amy Yu
Rumiko Takahashi’s love of horror, folklore, and monsters pervades her body of work. While specializing in romantic comedy and slapstick in her earliest hits, she would often reimagine folk tales and monsters through a parodic lens, or mashup the mundane and the supernatural with a satirical bent. While Mermaid Saga wasn’t Takahashi’s first attempt at a more serious horror story, it was her first attempt at long-term exploration of a horror concept as a serialized action-adventure narrative. The nine stories that comprise this series were published over a period of ten years, staggered roughly a year apart, drawn while Takahashi was already still in the midst of weekly serializations for Urusei Yatsura and Maison Ikkoku and later Ranma ½, not to mention other one-shots sprinkled in between. As such, as much as Mermaid Saga explores the growth of its protagonists over a long period of time, so does it reflect upon Takahashi’s growth as an artist and storyteller. It shows her increasing eagerness to tell more serious horror-action stories full of scary monsters, contemplative themes, and bloody violence, which she’d fully realized in InuYasha and her most current series, Mao.
Most stories involving characters who are immortal or in pursuit of immortality deal with the concept that living forever can feel agonizingly meaningless. Takahashi tackles this monkey’s paw in the form of the myth that eating the flesh of a mermaid can potentially make one immortal, with the twist that the flesh is actually poisonous and most who eat it, if they do not die immediately, are doomed to suffer one way or another. Some people are transformed into bug-eyed, fish-headed monsters called Lost Souls, losing their sense of reason and wailing in constant pain, becoming driven solely by their violent impulses. Others gain immortality but are cursed with a physical scar or deformity that serves a permanent reminder of their inhumanity. The few who do succeed in achieving immortality without defects are still burdened with the guilt and grief of outliving their loved ones, doomed to live a lonely existence and desperate to find another like them to share their life with, or in the case of a twisted few, create one themselves no matter the lives they must destroy in the process.
While there are a few tragic victims of the mermaid’s curse that befall those whom its forced upon, the common thread that links all those who willingly choose to seek and eat the mermaid’s flesh themselves or give it to others is the hubris of thinking humans can escape the cycle of life and death to live in a world that never changes. Many of the characters who eat the flesh themselves, like Yuta or Masato, don’t really think twice about what it means to never age until realizing the alienation they’ve created between their loved ones and their ageless selves. Those who try to force the flesh upon others, like Eijiro, Natsume’s father, and Nano’s grandmother, are desperate to live in a pretend timeless world in which a relationship they’ve lost can be restored and preserved forever, unwilling to let go of those who’ve left them.
No matter their motivations, nearly every character who wants the mermaid’s flesh is looking for a way to escape their own loneliness and trauma. So many of them try to use the flesh not out of a fear of death, but to avoid being or feeling alone in the world. Time and again, it’s shown that the most miserable characters are the ones who are desperate to not be alone, yearning to share a life with a loved one who understands and accepts them wholeheartedly. It’s that fear of loneliness that motivates children to feed their ailing parents the flesh and vice-versa, that drives those with dead loved ones to use the mermaid’s ashes and organs to create zombies and homunculus, and inspires a spiteful few to feed the flesh to those they hate most so that they may share and live with the same pain they’ve had together forever.
In their attempts to escape both death and their loneliness, so many of these characters tragically feel afraid to live. No character more poignantly demonstrates this than Towa, a woman who’d been locked away in a dungeon for decades while her twin sister got to grow up and start a family, becoming so embittered with spite she refused an offer of a better life with someone who truly loved her to live in a place she hated to get revenge on the person she hated most, only for everything she lived for to end before she could even savor it. Towa is just one of many characters who can be said to have missed out on living full lives by being blinded by obsession, motivated by feelings of guilt, grief, or hate for people they loved and lost, and hoping to permanently ensnare in their grip using the mermaid’s flesh, not willing to simply let go of old relationships and make new ones.
Those who brush against immortality struggle to find meaning in an existence a life devoid of death and in knowing that everything will change around them besides themselves. Much as they are physically stuck in the past, so is their state of mind, unable to envision a future that’s different from the life they currently live, refusing to grow up. No matter how many times characters may try to ignore reminders of an unchangeable past, going so far as to replace corrupted parts of their body to pretend at normalcy, the scars they’ve encumbered inevitably and inescapably come back to haunt them. Even the cruelest of the characters, including serial murderers and manipulative abusers, crave companionship or yearn to share their lives with someone else, their desperation warping into a violent and self-destructive possessiveness that exacerbates their unhappiness.
Through these repeated examples of twisted relationships, of people who’ve tried and failed to immortalize not just themselves but a point in their lives, Takahashi revisits and reframes the coming-of-age morals she explores in Urusei Yatsura and Masion Ikkoku in cautionary tales that express the importance of embracing change and growing up through the contrasting philosophies of Yuta and Mana with the people they encounter. While so many of the immortals live tragic and unhappy lives, immortality itself is not such a bad thing. From a different perspective, it’s an opportunity to take as much time as you need to explore the world and different experiences and make the most of them. As protagonists, Yuta and Mana serve as great contrasts to the nihilistic worldviews of other immortal characters they come across. When confronted by another immortal woman who sees death as preferable to a life of suffering, both Yuta and Mana refuse her offer to simply end their lives. Yuta and Mana haven’t given up on life, and wish to truly live out their lives, aging and growing as other people naturally do. The saddest part about living forever is living alone, but unlike other characters who try to sequester themselves in their own worlds, Yuta and Mana aren’t afraid to interact with the world they live in and form new relationships with other people.
For centuries, Yuta lamented his solitary life, fearful of both being rejected for never aging as his wife did and of the heartbreak of sharing his life with someone only for them to die while he must live on. Nevertheless, he still treasures the connections he forms with people like Rin, Nae, or Natsume, however fleeting they may be, holding the memories of his time with them close to his heart. It’s his willingness to be emotionally available and involved with other people, never losing his sense of empathy or compassion, that prevents Yuta from becoming jaded to the value of human life or his own. He doesn’t seek to undo his immortality because he wants to die, but because he’s learned better than everyone the joys of living, and wants to experience the joys of growing old together with the people he loves. Through Yuta, Takahashi explores how what gives our lives meaning is not how long we live but how we live, and how we choose to participate in the world and the impact we leave behind on the people who come in and out of our lives.
Even more than Yuta, Mana’s character arc fully embodies the joys in living and experiencing the world as an active participant, and what it means to truly love and care for someone. Mana had lived a sheltered life in which she was paradoxically both treated like a princess and as cattle by the women who raised her, complimented for her beauty and put on a pedestal while simultaneously having her freedoms restricted and desires ignored, to the point where her feet were literally bound and shackled so she couldn’t move. As such, when we first meet her she’s bossy towards her caregivers and treats them disdainfully, badmouthing them and throwing tantrums and chucking bowls in their faces, because that’s really the only power she has and the only way she’s been allowed to communicate with other people. She’d developed a complex of entitlement and superiority as well as a longing for the companionship of someone who treated her as an equal and truly cared about her wants and well-being. Yet, despite how much she resented her caregivers and how mean she was to them, she’s still heartbroken when Yuta kidnaps her and the women start throwing spears at them, one of them grazes her cheek, showing a disregard for her safety despite their earlier promise that they’d risk their lives for her. It confirms the fear she always held in the back of her mind, that her caregivers don’t really care about her, and their affections for her were shallow and self-motivated. In Yuta, she finds a person who cares about her not as an object but as a person, someone who will actually risk his life to protect her and will do so time and time again.
Recognizing that Yuta truly cares about her pushes Mana to become someone who can both fend for herself and help him. As the story progresses, she starts to care about the well-being and feelings of other people as well, including Big Eyes and Nae, becoming determined to help them even if it means putting herself in danger. In fact, she’s often more bold and willing to put herself at risk to save people, unafraid to tackle Big Eyes even after he knocked her back or of breaking through a glass window using her own body to save Yuta from Masato. Despite encountering some truly cruel people, Mana remains an unflinching optimist and defender of the good in others, recognizing and reaching out to the humanity in Big Eyes and comforting him at his end, and defending Nae’s humanity when she’s accused of being a soulless husk. Over the course of the story, Mana not only grows selfless compassion for other people and eagerness to help, but her relationship with Yuta deepens from her thinking of him as a companion to someone she truly loves and would do anything to protect.
Many of the stories end with Yuta and Mana reflecting upon the events of the story, coming back to Mana’s growing emotional awareness, going from being oblivious to Yuta’s feelings to trying to comfort him when she recognizes he’s feeling down. One of the most touching reflections happens at the end of “Mermaid’s Scar,” where Mana sheds tears of joy for the first time when she’s relieved Yuta is alive. Mana’s growth from seeing her relationship with Yuta from a self-centered lens to a selfless one encapsulates the strength of growing up and forming mutually loving and complimentary relationships at the core of Takahashi’s ethos. In Yuta and Mana’s relationship, Takahashi wonderfully depicts that what can make life truly worth living is finding someone you can depend on and who can depend on you, creating a relationship that’s built on trust and respect for another person’s well-being and happiness, and most importantly, one that can grow and change over time as you do as a person.
All this philosophizing isn’t to say that Mermaid Saga isn’t also just plain fun to read. It’s a treat trying to unwind the mysteries in every story to piece together the truth of what’s going on, and Takahashi plays with tropes and expectations by throwing in some curveballs that keep you guessing and may shock you in how dark the reality of the characters can get. Takahashi also has a lot of fun playing with the concept of immortality for morbid humor, like digging themselves out of the ground and shrugging off news of each other’s deaths. Yuta and Mana both die many times over the course of many stories in dramatic and gruesome ways, to the point where it becomes so unsurprising that one of the stories just begins with them being found already dead!
While not as overtly funny as some of Takahashi’s other series, she still weaves in some fun bits of levity, like Rin stubbornly trying to swim in heavy armor despite sinking to the seafloor or the great running gag of Mana hangrily gobbling up food whenever she’s presented with a meal. The stories also weave in sweet moments of compassion and caring between Yuta and Mana, providing an optimistic perspective on people’s capacity for love and compassion that finds hope at the end of these tragic tales. It wouldn’t do for a story about how life really is worth living for it to be a downer to read, so it’s nice to have these moments of respite to point out that there’s more to the world than pettiness and cruelness, sprinkling in and choosing to end on moments of warmth and kindness instead.
Mermaid Saga is as beautifully drawn as it is written and shows Takahashi at her best in terms of the detail of her environments and personality of her character designs. I love this era of Takahashi’s character art, where her linework is bold, thick, and round, creating characters with solid forms and strong gestures, with even elderly characters brimming with vivaciousness. Her more cutesy design sensibilities are downplayed for a more realistic look, particularly noticeable with the few animals that pop over the course of the story. While Takahashi was no stranger to drawing monsters in her works, the mermaids and Lost Souls are truly grotesque and ghoulish, with horrifying wrinkled faces full of fangs, building eyes, and distorted bodies. Takahashi imbues dread and tension into her layouts and paneling, making for gripping page-turns and discomforting moments of shock and surprise. Her settings are fleshed out in great detail, with haunted houses and creepy manors depicted with a tangible sense of eeriness to them, and the forests and villages the characters travel through teeming with detail. The highlight of her art in the book is easily the crimson field of flowers at the climax of “Mermaid’s Promise,” which makes for both a beautiful and poignant setting for the story’s final beat and foreshadows a similar motif used in a pivotal scene in InuYasha.
Speaking of, Takahashi’s action art in the series is really intense and bloody. The weight and realism to a lot of the choreography in how Yuta and Mana fight creates a sense of tension and dread that the more fantastical violence in her other works can’t quite measure up to. There are some really cool and clever fight beats in the series, often involving a lot of impaling Lost Souls through their heads with spears or stakes. There’s also some really fun ridiculous stuff, like Masato’s Home Alone-esque tricks and traps or Shingo pulling out a giant shotgun from behind his back seemingly out of nowhere, but even the most ridiculous of beats is paneled and choreographed excitingly. Even if you’re not as much into the horror genre, Mermaid Saga is an excellently drawn action comic that benefits from its immortal characters and monsters to depict some shockingly brutal violence.
Viz’s newest release boasts a gorgeous cover with a great blue-pink gradient wave pattern with glittering bubble sprinkles that give the book a shiny and prestigious aura, though its prettiness may belie the book’s more grizzly violence for those unfamiliar with its content. The most wonderful part about their release is their retention of Takahashi’s absolutely gorgeous watercolor pages, which are some of her best and most evocative and affecting pieces of art she’s ever created, ranging from eerie and melancholic to just stunningly colorful and beautiful, like the orange-skyed sunset hues in the opening pages to “Dream’s End.” These color pages are a wonderful addition and enhancement to the reading experience of the series, and I only wish they could’ve all been retained, as it’s clear that’re some pages that were originally in color that’ve been grayscaled. Nevertheless, Viz’s release is a high-quality book worthy of the wonderful art within.
Mermaid Saga is fascinating in the context of Takahashi’s oeuvre, and so many of the stories included in this anthology foreshadow future plots and themes in her later works, but its shorter length and lack of availability for many years have seemingly left it overlooked by newer fans of her later series. Which is a shame, because it’s truly a remarkable work in of itself. It depicts Takahashi’s willingness to push her boundaries as an artist while still in the prime of her career, pushing the boundaries of her well-established aesthetic and art style and writing heavier stories musing on the meaning of life and existence and featuring absolutely brutal moments of violence and chilling examples of humankind’s capacity for cruelty. What results is arguably one of Takahashi’s most beautifully drawn and poignantly written series, perhaps the most even in quality of all her works. As much as I adore some of her other stories more, the interesting variations Takahashi’s able to find in the premise of immortality and mermaids make for a series of excellent horror-action fables that succeed in exploring compelling perspectives on life and death, what makes a life worth living, and the longing for companionship and belonging at the very core of the human heart.
While some may bemoan its lack of a definitive ending, I personally like that the series ends extolling growth while making a promise of reunion. Takahashi never officially concluded the series, and in fact, considers it an unfinished work she may very well one day return to. I love the idea of Yuta and Mana speaking directly to the reader on the final page, telling us that no matter how long time passes and how much we’ve grown and changed since we last read their adventures, they’ll be the same as we remembered them whenever we revisit their adventures. Our lives may be impermanent, but the memories we’ve made, and the things we cherish and hold close to our heart, are truly immortal.