Reviewby Caitlin Moore,
Mermaid Saga Collector's Edition
Fifteen-year-old Mana has spent her entire life in an isolated village in the mountains of Japan, confined to her futon but with the villagers at her beck and call. Yuta became immortal 500 years ago when he ate the flesh of a mermaid, and has been searching for a way to regain a natural life ever since. He stumbles on Mana's village right when the women begin acting strange, complimenting Mana on her beauty. Yuta must uncover its secrets, especially since if he doesn't, Mana will surely die soon.
Have I mentioned how incredibly pleased I am that Viz is re-releasing all of Rumiko Takahashi's older works? While her more recent series have failed to make much of a splash, her older works were positively formative for pre-2000 anime and manga fandom. Mermaid Saga makes an excellent addition to the list of re-releases because, while Takahashi may be best known for her science fiction/fantasy comedies now, she is severely underrated for her skills as a horror writer.
The first question to address is whether or not this is worth re-purchasing if you already have a previous edition. There's no major changes to the content; as far as I know, all the chapters had been released in English before. Unlike the new editions of Urusei Yatsura and Maison Ikkoku, Mermaid Saga retains the old localization, which is fine by me because Rachel Thorn is an excellent translator and writer who doesn't tend to make significant changes to the text. The big difference this time, other than the double-length volumes, is the inclusion of color pages, which previously were changed to black and white. Takahashi's color work, painted in watercolors, is gorgeous and makes this a major upgrade from the old versions.
I imagine, however, that curious potential new readers are more interested in the content of the volume than comparing editions. The Mermaid Saga is primarily a series of short stories connected by Yuta and Mana as they wander Japan, searching for a way to remove their immortality so they can grow old and die, rather than go through decapitation which is usually the only way to kill someone who has eaten the mermaid's flesh.
Takahashi masterfully weaves together multiple aspects of the mermaids and their curse of immortality throughout the volume. The mermaids themselves rarely appear as beautiful young women; in their truest form, they are monsters, with huge, gaping jaws and viciously sharp teeth. Eating the mermaid's flesh doesn't guarantee immortality; most people who eat it die immediately, while others are transformed into hulking, inhuman beasts. Using different parts of the mermaid can have different effects, each a terrible curse in its own form.
However, the most chilling thing that Yuta and Mana encounter in their wandering is what humans are willing to do when they come across a mermaid. The prospect of immortality does funny things to the human mind, but it's not just that. Many of the people they meet have already had their lives touched by the curse and performed terrible, desperate acts. “Perhaps, after all, the real monster… is man,” would be a trite message in the best of times, and fortunately, Takahashi sidesteps it. Few of the characters are all good or all bad; most are much more complex, just normal people who made a terrible mistake and must live with it.
As protagonists, Yuta and Mana are little more than perfunctory, which is fine; other than the first two stories, things tend to happen around them rather than to them. They stumble into already-existing situations, and it's their presence, rather than their choices or actions, that is the catalyst that spurs the story. The two make good foils to each other; Mana's naivete from growing up so completely cut off from modern society contrasts well with Yuta's world-weariness.
Still, there are traces of character development. The two chapters highlighting Yuta's past display his loneliness and desperation for human connection since his wife died of old age, even if it can only be for a brief time. Mana grows increasingly independent and capable, going from completely helpless to being able to act on her own, though her connection to Yuta remains strong. It is a little frustrating that every chapter involves Mana getting kidnapped, besides the one she's not in. Even then, there's a different girl who gets kidnapped.
As tends to be the case in anthology series, the individual stories vary quite a bit in quality. None of them are bad, but I found “Dream's End” to be a bit trite. Takahashi was clearly trying to do something different from the other stories, but doesn't quite achieve the effect I could tell she was going for. My personal favorite was “Mermaid's Promise,” the last story of the volume, which connects to Yuta's past, shedding a bit more light on him and his past choices. It's the saddest and most human of the tales, offering something between a tragic doomed love story and zombie horror – a creepily effective mix of genres.
What makes Mermaid Saga unusual for Takahashi's longer-form works is its lack of gags. Even Maison Ikkoku, her most dramatic series, would be best categorized as a romantic comedy. Mermaid Saga, on the other hand, has almost no jokes, focusing instead on the action and horror. I'd encourage people who appreciate her art but don't enjoy her sense of humor to give this a try despite misgivings.
However, it's still not for everyone. Yuta and Mana die a lot, with all the accompanying blood and gore. It's not as graphic as it could be, mostly just buckets upon buckets of blood, but that's still enough to put some people off. Those sensitive to body horror may want to stay away as well, since the potential consequences of eating mermaid flesh isn't just a binary “die immediately or live as an immortal.” Mana's lack of agency improves by the end of the volume, but is still a recurring issue that will irk some readers.
With those small exceptions, Mermaid Saga is a great manga for most people. Takahashi's visual storytelling is always top-notch, the interconnected short horror stories will be sure to appeal even to those who are not fond of her sense of humor. This is a true classic, brought to new audiences with all the love and care it deserves.
Overall : A-
Story : B+
Art : A
+ great art, creepy horror, beautiful new edition
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