Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Naru is the prince of one of the merfolk's underwater kingdoms, and at age twenty-one he's long overdue for marriage, at least according to his mother. But Naru's not interested in any of the mermaids – he's got a fascination with the human world and with one human girl in particular. Desperate to be with Nami, he agrees to make a trade with a sea sorcerer: his hotness for a pair of human legs. But without his stunning good looks, will Naru be able to attract Nami? And once he really gets to know her, will he even want to anymore?
Hans Christian Andersen's literary fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” has to an extent been eclipsed by its 1989 Walt Disney counterpart, but the base tale remains the same: young mermaid falls in love at first sight with a human prince, trades her voice to a sea witch for legs, and either a) lives happily ever after or b) kills herself and turns into sea foam. Yomi Sarachi's Mermaid Boys draws from both sources in its gender-swapped version of the tale, but it more importantly points out some of the more cringe-worthy aspects of both Andersen and Disney to create a story that isn't so much a retelling of either as a humorous look at both.
The protagonist of Sarachi's manga is Naru, a merman prince. At twenty-one he's still unmarried, much to his mother's despair, and even worse, he's fascinated by humans. He loves their weird stuff, watching them walk around, and, somewhat to even his horror when he realizes it, has what he calls “a human fetish” – he finds human women more attractive than mermaids. He comes to this conclusion when he becomes enamored of Nami Sakuragai, a human high school girl. It's not so much love at first sight as love at first rescue; he likes her when he's just (creepily) watching her, but it isn't until he saves her from drowning that he decides that he's in love. This not only gets him taken in by the Shark Coast Guard and jailed, but it also leaves him vulnerable to Mellow the Sea Sorcerer, who offers to make him human in exchange for his voice.
This is where Sarachi starts to really lampoon the best-known versions of “The Little Mermaid.” Naru immediately refuses Mellow's offer, because what good is getting to be with Nami if he can't talk to her? And ix-nay on the eyes and ears as well, because he's going to need those to woo her too. Ultimately they settle on Naru's good looks as Mellow's price, which makes an interesting statement in a romance: Naru's perfectly comfortable giving up his hotness because he'll still be able to talk to Nami, meaning that he puts more weight on his personality than on his handsome face. In a genre which, regardless of demographic, relies heavily on preternaturally pretty people, Naru's confidence in himself is both a nice change and a fairly important one, and even though Mermaid Boys is very much a comedy as well, that doesn't negate the implications of the deal.
Of course, as someone who had mermaids fawning over him for his entire life because of his looks, coupled with his status as the prince, Naru may have a slightly inflated opinion of his personality's allure. He's not taking into account the fact that Nami has no way of knowing that he's a prince, and that if he talks about it not only will he sound like more of a crazy person than she thinks he is (the whole “pants” concept is difficult for him), but he'll also immediately turn into sea foam and die. There's also the issue that without his manly good looks and flowing mane of hair Naru looks about fifteen, which on the one hand allows him to less creepily get close to her, but on the other gives him even less credibility.
Thus is the stage set for a comedy of romantic errors. Nami's already got a potential suitor in the form of her childhood friend Arashi, and Naru soon finds out that another one of her male friends is hiding a hefty secret of his own. Naru's also woefully uninformed about the realities of the human world – clothes are just weird to him, eating fish is terrifying because it feels like cannibalism, and codes of behavior aren't at all what he's used to. Mostly this just makes him look like a freak to Nami (or a “foreign exchange student” to her friends and classmates), and it forms almost as significant a barrier to their relationship as the lack of a voice would have. That's because while the two of them can talk to each other, there's very little actual communication going on, making an interesting statement about what it means to really talk. At times the two of them can understand each other, such as when Naru tries to help Nami overcome her fear of the water after her father's loss at sea, but at others they're more talking at each other rather than to. Not having his voice may actually have made Naru's life easier, because then Nami would at least have thought that there was a medical reason for his perceived weirdness.
Although the character art is simple, the backgrounds to this book give a beautiful sense of place. The setting is a small island off of Okinawa, Miyako Island, and it's clear that Sarachi did in fact visit it before creating the series. The art is still fairly unadorned, but details like architecture do a very nice job of setting the scene and making it clear that the story takes place somewhere different than the majority of manga series. The only real complaint is that there's something odd about the way that the merfolk's tails bend, as if Sarachi just covered human legs with fins and called it a day rather than looking into how seals or other similar sea creatures' lower bodies are constructed.
Mermaid Boys' first volume is both a fun send-up of and a gender-swapped reimagining of “The Little Mermaid” story. With a merman prince who seems marginally better at bargaining than the infamous mermaid, a series of misunderstandings that are funnier than they are annoying, and pleasantly simple art, this is a nice start to a fantasy romance series that has a lot of potential.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Fun send-up of the usual “Little Mermaid” story, both funny and with potential for sweetness
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