With Mermaid Saga coming from Rumiko Takahashi, the author of works such as Urusei Yatsura, Ranma ½ and Inuyasha, I was really interested in picking this one up, given her pedigree. While I’ve never read any of her other works, this impressed me by being a very interesting read that successfully dabbles in the horrors surrounding mythical creatures in a typical Japanese style.
In the world of Mermaid Saga, there’s a legend that if you eat the flesh of a mermaid, you will gain everlasting life and youthful beauty, which Is exactly what happened to Yuta, a former fisherman who has spent the last few hundred years travelling around Japan in an effort to find a mermaid who could make him mortal again.
The manga tells of his travels in episodes lasting one or two chapters, each focussing on a group of different people who have been affected by the mermaid legend, offering plenty of variety in tone, characters and places. It starts off very much in the realms of horror, as we see a teenage girl, Mana, being kept captive by a village of creepy old women. Although Yuta manages to rescue her, they soon find themselves face-to-face with some horrific monsters, all the while being hunted by the villagers. Just what in the world have these villagers been doing? Well, you soon find out that it’s not exactly pretty, as it hammers home what I love most about Japanese ghost stories – taking the beautiful and mysterious, or even sometimes the mundane and ordinary, and turning them into something a lot darker and more gruesome.
Playing into this is definitely what this manga is good at, particularly when you get to later stories such as “Mermaid Forest”, which sees Yuta and Mana ending up in the care of Dr. Shiiina, after the now-immortal Mana “dies” after being hit by a truck. Dr. Shiina, however, has a secret of his own, having spent most of his life caring for a girl named Towa, who drank the blood of a mermaid but ended up with a monstrous-looking arm. As Yuta and Mana uncover more about Towa’s predicament, what unfolds is a touching family tragedy that looks into the dark side of humanity and asks if it is us that are really the monsters here. This is a theme also carried by one of the shorter episodes in this volume, “Dream’s End”, which focuses on someone who ate mermaid flesh and turned into a monster, but still shows some of his former humanity.
My favourite tale on offer here though is “The Village of the Fighting Fish”, which takes us more into the realm of action-adventure, with a samurai-era set story about clans of warring pirates each trying to get their hands on a mermaid for different reasons. There’s still a very human element present, but is a lot more fun to read than some of the other stories, largely thanks to the goofy extended cast of characters. The likes of femme-fatale Isago and the idiotic Sakagami Island pirates offer up some much needed comic relief; while on the other side, O-Rin, the daughter of the village chief, proves to be a very capable seafarer who has a funnier back-and-forth with Yuta than Mana does, which makes me wish she was the female lead instead.
This is largely because I found that by themselves, Yuta and Mana simply aren’t that interesting. We don’t really know much about them other than them both being immortal, and they aren’t really expanded upon until later in this particular volume. Even with that, however, they feel more of a vehicle for the reader to experience these creepy goings-on. The extended cast, who often have been affected by the mermaids in a greater variety of ways than our protagonists, have a lot more depth to their characters as we are being told their stories, rather than just Yuta and Mana’s quest to get their humanity back.
Takahashi’s artwork is drawn really well and despite it having the typical style of a 1980s manga, it feels like it has aged well, although the backgrounds can be a little plain. This does however keep things easy to read and there are never any panels that feel too busy. There are some colour pages in here too, however in our particular digital review copy they appeared to be very pixelated and low-quality. While hopefully this is not the case in the retail copies, this is something to be aware of, particularly if you are buying digital. The English translation, by Rachel Thorn, is easy to read with no issues to speak of.
Overall, while the lead protagonists aren’t the most interesting of characters, this first volume of Mermaid Saga proves to be a fascinating read thanks to its excellent ghost-story-like approach, with plenty of creepy tales to get stuck into. If you are interested on reading a very Japanese take on mermaids as mythological creatures, or if you are into yokai in general, then this is a title I think you’ll get a lot of enjoyment from.