Content Warning: domestic abuse and violence mentions
(NOTE: this is more of a critical essay than a review, i.e. I am going to spoil the shit out of the big twist in this manga. If you’re just trying to find out if you should read Mermaid Saga, well, you should, and maybe check out my review of volume one for The Comics Journal while you’re at it. I wrote this article assuming that people might have at least read that article so I skip over explaining some parts of the series’ premise. Anyway, enjoy the article! I had a lot of fun writing it. -HC)
What she fears is being misunderstood. She has been entrapped in an image wherein she is the aggressor, because the man who abuses her can infantilize himself before others with ease. She is not capable of hiding her anger. He inflicted that anger every time he hurt her. Nobody could ever just see that.
Rumiko Takahashi’s Ningyo Series (人魚シリーズ), published in English translation as Mermaid Saga, was occasionally serialized over a decade, during which time it changed magazines once. (1) I have a suspicion that the work began as something along the lines of a “pilot episode” for a monthly recurring series that didn’t quite catch on, but what it ultimately became was a collection of stories over four volumes (now two, in the most recent reprint of Rachel Thorn’s English translation for Viz Media) connected not only by its vagabond pair of immortal protagonists Yuuta and Mana and its high-concept lore of mermaid flesh and “lost souls,” (2) but a clear thematic throughline as well. Rumiko Takahashi is, among many other things, a massively successful cartoonist.
The purpose of Mermaid Saga for Takahashi might have been to fill a niche for work in the horror genre mode she occasionally adopted in her earlier one-offs, an occasional counterpart to her trio of 80s comedy megahits (Urusei Yatsura, Maison Ikkoku, Ranma ½). At the same time the series constantly returns in its stories to variations on a theme: structures of violence maintaining an idealized family image centered around an illusion of fragile, static femininity. Fathers, mothers, lovers, siblings, wield the toxic mermaid meat to sustain and isolate women, maintaining distorted versions of romantic and patriarchal ideas. Whether she is a hapless victim or a bloodthirsty succubus, ghostly or feral, the woman inevitably slips out of the version of herself that the family and the power of the mermaid’s flesh attempts to hold in place, whether it is by sheer force of will or the inevitable higher powers of decay and disillusionment. (3) The toxic immortality narrative is always in vain or at a price, but in Takahashi’s version it is never a quest pursued by an individual for himself, (4) but is instead imposed upon others cruelly or thoughtlessly under a pretense of love, a love for which women always bear the brunt.
Mermaid’s Scar opens with what would appear to be the most direct reversal of a reader’s expectations possible — a boy imperiled by his mother. Or rather, that’s what we gather eventually. This is not exactly what Takahashi shows us. What we first see are her protagonists, Yuta and Mana, meeting the boy, Masato, on a train. He is traveling alone from Tokyo to see his mother. He smiles serenely: “now we’re going to live together.” Yuta and Mana watch the boy run to meet his mother on the title page splash, and, by now, the reader already notices an alarming contrast: the boy runs towards her with arms outstretched, while the mother stands over him, looming like a phantom, stock still, her expression cold. This cannot be a happy family.
Two years pass as we turn the page and our suspicions are immediately confirmed. The boy, Masato staggering, his hollow eyes looking into the middle distance, covered in blood, not his own, holding a knife. Behind him, the dead body of his mother, stabbed. What on earth has happened. What drove a child to do such a thing?
The boy cleans the blood away and goes downstairs. A maid (his family is wealthy) arrives, asks him where his mother is. “She’s… still asleep.” Then, to his (and our) horror, the boy’s mother descends the stairs and meets her child, unharmed, ice-cold, composed. The boy hides behind the maid’s skirt, peering out pathetically. Now the reader understands the nightmarish scene: the mother has eaten the mermaid flesh. She is a threat to the boy. The boy had to try to kill her, had to get away, cannot escape her returning. He is a victim and no one can save him. Yuta’s arrival in the town drives this conclusion home even further, taking a stab wound to his arm defending the boy from his mother, who is chasing him in a frenzy, her face snarled with determined fury, wielding a pair of scissors like a dagger. She watches Yuta’s wound heal and observes that he is immortal, that he has eaten the mermaid’s flesh. It would seem she has as well. The talk of town gossips reports that this woman had apparently died in a boating accident that also took her husband’s life, then mysteriously “returned to life.” Like Yuta and Mana, she is apart from humanity. Like many of the immortals they have met, her behavior seems monstrous.
But appearances are deceiving, and by the end of the first chapter Takahashi twists her narrative knife deeply and reveals her story’s real reversal. A lost soul attacks Yuta and Mana, menacing the boy who runs away sobbing. This monster was once the house’s maid, Yukie. The boy has fed her mermaid flesh. This “boy” is actually older than his adult guardians, far older, by hundreds of years. He appeared to his “mother” as she lay dying in the wreckage inflicted by American bombings amid the chaos of the Second World War and fed her the mermaid’s flesh as she lay under rubble, pained and delirious. He forced her to be his mother. She could not live in one place for long with “a child who never grew.” She was saved, and then nothing changed. The boy never got older, and neither did she, so her role as mother continued for decades. Cast without her knowledge in the role of unaging mother to eternal child, she can never be anything but his mother, his caretaker.
A boy is understood to be innocent, free from the burdens of society because he lacks the knowledge that comes from experience and maturity. It is the responsibility of parents, especially mothers, to care for their children because children do not understand the world and cannot protect themselves. It is a painful, exhausting responsibility, but one that is expected to come to an end, or at least evolve, when the child becomes an adult. This boy, in spite of his appearances is mature, timeless, invulnerable, jaded, deliberate and ruthless in his actions. He has sought out a new mommy for literal centuries, indifferent to the pain and death his busted attempts cause, indifferent to the lives of the women he traps in motherhood’s years of most exhausting anguish, to allow himself to remain in the comfortable ignorance of an endless childhood. The “mother” in this dynamic has no choice, does not understand what he has done to her, does not understand her role until years pass, and then decades, with no escape or respite from the burden he decided she would devote herself to from now on, possibly forever.
Masato has made it impossible for his “mother” to know or be close to anyone but him, nobody mortal could ever easily understand what he has done to her. She was consigned by this undying boy to an eternal life without living, fixed in place in a lonely maternal role that could never change, isolated from any close friendships, from ever transcending a fake, yet restrictive duty as mother to the timeless manchild, stuck, trapped. Just as he will stay a child forever, she remains a woman just on the cusp of middle age, an adult, a mother, never frail, never vulnerable, never a victim, always responsible in the eyes of others and tormented in private by her fake son’s unyielding demands. Masato is growing dissatisfied with her and her private rebellions, and in retaliation punishes her violently and makes disastrous attempts to replace her. However, mysteriously, this mother’s body is beginning to slowly die, the scars from his butchering of her with the knife will not heal. In dying, she can defy his will. He is furious.
The second chapter approaches a full-blown psychodrama of an abusive sociopath as the 800-year old boy stalks and terrorizes Yuta and Mana. Like many serial abusers, Masato is reenacting a traumatic error that hurt someone else more than it hurt him — when he was a child he ate the mermaid’s flesh and lived, then shared some with his mother. He did not know that some people did not survive this, and his mother did not. The memory of the monstrous lost soul chasing the newly born immortal, the nightmarish loss of a nurturing mother into an abject vast threat, etched itself into the permanent boy’s frightened mind and over centuries calcified into a hollow misogynistic need. The boy-man travels from place to place searching for a woman to fill the vacant space of mother figure, ensnare in his sad and permanent moment, sustaining for as long as possible that moment before his violent mistake had destroyed his happiness. Women for him are not people, not quite even possibility, but a necessity to staunch his lack of personhood. He has all the time in the world to gather mermaid meat, all the time in the world to find women who look like mothers, all the time in the world to find a chance to feed them the meat without their understanding, all the time in the world for one of them to not deform or break this time. He also has time to heal, to grow in spirit, but with every victim targeted he chooses not to change, not to overcome himself, his pain, his absence. That would take too much work.
“People like you and me can’t let ourselves love people as easily as that. It would be too painful.”
Yuta and Mana’s love for each other contradicts Masato’s facile and cruel relationship with his trauma. They present an immediate threat to him because they understand what he is, and threaten his understanding of the world because their pain is similar. They are immortals, they have seen just as much of death, violence, the horrors of humanity and nature, the tortures of the wretched magic flesh. They are outsiders who cannot exist in normal society for long. But in each other they have someone else who knows, who wants to understand, and they look after each other. It took them a lifetime of isolation to find each other. It took patience and endurance. It’s a strength that I’ve seen in many survivors that an abuser like Masato will never be able to understand. Upon seeing his latest, longest living mother finally slipped away into death, death where he cannot reach her, Masato sheds full tears for just a moment. Maybe he realizes he loved her, maybe he is returning to that moment when his real mother died for real. He doesn’t sit in that moment for long. He stands up and leaves, returning to his dull mission to inflict his life on women, a purpose that numbs his pain but does not heal it.
Men like Masato cannot be defeated or destroyed, but they can be defied. Yuta and Mana survive him, Masato’s mother does not survive but, by dying, she overcomes his dominance, his pathetic definition of reality. For decades she was trapped under his thumb. She did not look like a victim. She was too large, too old, too loud, too righteously angry for her suffering and her attempts at survival, acknowledgement, her scream for help, to ever look like anything but aggression to a world that does not imagine that men who act like harmless little boys can also be vicious and unrepentant patriarchs. Masato will go on enacting his vicious ambitions on potential mothers, but he will never ultimately succeed. No person can ever be contained in his warped worldview. He will go on miserably running from his feelings, heavier and heavier with the guilt remaining from the corpses of women left behind, women who he is too shallow to recognize as people, something greater than a failed experiment. Fearing the responsibility that comes with maturity, he will live out the dullest life imaginable, an eternal childhood, shirking the joys of living and the pleasures of loving people that come along the pain and danger and regret we expose ourselves to when we enter the world as adults. Her scar never faded, but the bleeding wound of his psyche will never be closed or treated. That is her vengeance. She will be herself and he never will. And she shares this private vengeance of hers with every reader who has survived or will survive abuse.
(1) From the remarkably well-sourced English Wikipedia entry: The stories of Mermaid Saga are written and illustrated by Rumiko Takahashi, and were serialized irregularly in Shogakukan’s Shōnen Sunday Zōkan and Weekly Shōnen Sunday from 1984 to 1994.
(2) The term for the formerly human mutant monsters deformed by eating the mermaid flesh who did not become immortal in Rachel Thorn’s English translation, first published in 1996. In the original Japanese, they are called なりそこない (Narisokonai), which a more direct translation might render along the lines of “no-good ones.” In the North American English localization 1993 Original Video Animation adaptation of Mermaid’s Scar the term was translated as “deformed ones,” a somewhat insensitive choice.
(3) I wrote something similar in my review of the first volume for TCJ.
(4) I choose a masculine pronoun with “masculine” pop culture in mind, e.g. the Highlander movies (yes, I know women love these)