Comic books have long been considered a male-dominated industry, though they in fact have a rich and diverse history of female writers and artists. Our own Kayleigh Hearn will examine the works of female comic creators in superhero comics, indie favorites, manga, and any undiscovered gems or oddities that come her way, in her monthly column Ink Ladies.
When I began the Ink Ladies column, I knew one artist I absolutely had to cover was Rumiko Takahashi; she is, after all, the best-selling female comic artist in the world. As a kid who discovered manga in the late 1990s, her characters–Lum, the alien in the tiger-striped bikini; redheaded, pigtailed Ranma Saotome–were as familiar to me as Wolverine. In the comics blogosphere, when we talk about women in comics, I feel that we don’t talk about Rumiko Takahashi enough; maybe that has something to do with the lingering idea that western comic fans don’t read manga, and manga fans don’t read comics. So I knew I wanted to write about her work, but which series?
Since 1978, she has been astoundingly prolific; her longest-running title, Inu-Yasha, totaled 56 volumes, and there are over 100 million of her books in circulation. Her work has stretched across a remarkable number of genres: the romantic comedy Maison Ikkoku, the sci-fi high school comedy Urusei Yatsura, the madcap “battle of the sexes” action series Ranma 1/2…all of these books are worth writing about, but the Rumiko Takahashi manga that’s left its biggest mark on me is one of her most overlooked titles: the grim supernatural horror series known as the Mermaid Saga. Serialized in Shonen Sunday irregularly from 1984-1994 and collected in three volumes, it’s her shortest ongoing series and one of her darkest. (It’s also been animated a handful of times, including OVAs and a 2003 anime TV series.) Mermaid Saga is the violent, haunting (but not hopeless) story about the horrors that befall people searching for the mythical mermaid, and what it can grant them: immortality.
We meet Mermaid Saga’s hero, Yuta, as he walks along the seashore, his disheveled appearance and ever-present duffle bag revealing him to be a drifter far removed from the happy, casual beachgoers. But that’s not the only thing that sets Yuta apart: despite his youthful appearance, Yuta is a 500-year-old immortal, wandering across Japan in search of a mermaid. Centuries ago, Yuta was a fisherman who heard the legend that consuming the flesh of a mermaid could bestow eternal youth and longevity. After discovering the strange, scaly flesh of a mermaid, Yuta and his friends ate it out of curiosity. Because this is a horror manga, the legend doesn’t tell the entire gruesome truth: most people who eat mermaid’s flesh die violently, or are transformed into bug-eyed monsters called “lost souls.” Yuta is one of the few lucky ones who achieve true immortality, but it proves to be an impossibly lonely existence. Bored, cynical, and weary of his endless life, Yuta seeks a living mermaid to find a cure for his immortality. It isn’t that he wants to die (he can be killed only by decapitation, Highlander-style); he simply wants to feel human again.
Yuta finds a new reason for living when he meets Mana, an immortal girl raised in a mysterious, isolated village populated only by old women. Though Mana at first seems haughty and spoiled, she is actually being held captive. The old women are revealed to be mermaids who fed her the flesh of one of their own—in a sick circle of cannibalism, eating the flesh of an immortal girl can restore a mermaid’s youth. Yuta rescues Mana from her intended fate, and the man who has lived too long is suddenly joined by a girl who hasn’t lived at all. The rest of Mermaid Saga jumps throughout the centuries, alternating between tales of Yuta’s brutal adventures in the distant past, and the horrors that Yuta and Mana face together in contemporary Japan. No matter the century, there’s always someone searching for immortality, and willing to go to horrific lengths to possess it.
Mermaid Saga is frequently shocking, but beyond the violence are twisting, tightly-plotted mysteries rooted in human emotions like selfishness, loneliness, and rage. “Mermaid’s Mask” contains one of the most disgusting scenes I’ve ever seen in a comic (an immortal woman gives herself a face transplant), and I say that with total admiration. The manga is sometimes very beautiful, too; the human characters are drawn with such soft, lovely features that it feels doubly horrific when their bodies are mangled. Re-reading the books, I was surprised by how many scenes I remembered, like the first appearance of Towa in “Mermaid’s Forest,” with her bandaged arm and cane, her pure white hair a stark contrast to the black night behind her. Look at the climactic scene of “Mermaid’s Promise,” a familiar horror story about a dead woman who is resurrected but returns “wrong.” Yuta and Mana follow her to a valley where red flowers are said to bloom all year, and the endless caws of birds drive the woman into a murderous frenzy. Though we can’t see the red color of the flowers on the black and white pages, or hear the birds in a visual medium, the scene is so powerfully crafted that it doesn’t matter. The moment of confrontation is intense enough that we feel the redness of the flowers and the maddening cries of the birds. That’s the power of Takahashi’s artwork.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Mermaid Saga is the way Takahashi is able to maintain suspense in a story with immortal heroes. After all, where’s the danger in a horror story where the characters can’t be killed? The threat of decapitation frequently hangs over our heroes’ heads, most spectacularly in a scene where, while chasing down an evil immortal, Yuta crashes into a room transformed into a Rube Goldberg-ian deathtrap with marbles on the floor and wall-to-wall piano wire—the perfect setting for him to stumble and slice his own head off. (To say nothing of the other violence Takahashi inflicts on her hero: Yuta is also drowned, stabbed, shot, harpooned, and defenestrated.) Wisely, Takahashi also surrounds Yuta and Mana with ordinary people who have been pulled into the mermaids’ currents and must be protected or, if necessary, avenged. “The Village of the Fighting Fish” is particularly powerful for its short-lived romance between Yuta and a resourceful young pirate girl named Rin. (“Yuta. Live Long.” “Dummy. That’s the last thing I want to hear.”) Mermaid Saga never forgets its human elements while dealing with the supernatural.
Takahashi is also wickedly inventive at wringing every possible gruesome result out of consuming a mermaid. Eating the mermaid’s flesh grants immortality, but what happens if you drink a mermaid’s blood? What can be gained from a mermaid’s ashes, or a mermaid’s liver? All of these scenarios are explored with gory gusto, though by the final volume the results begin to wear thin and become repetitive. At times, it even feels as if Takahashi is re-writing the rules of this world as she goes along (“Some mermaids have two legs. And those mermaids who live in the sea are the source of our nourishment.” Wait, what?). Perhaps there was no sense in beating a dead mermaid. With its immortal protagonists, Mermaid Saga could have gone on forever, but instead it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The final chapter of Mermaid Saga may feel like an abrupt ending, but it’s not an ending for Yuta and Mana at all. And whatever supernatural horrors are lurking ahead of them in the shadows or the sea, at least they have each other. Forever.
Come back next month for another installment of Ink Ladies!