By Rumiko Takahashi. Originally published as 人魚シリーズ (Ningyo Series). 4 volumes.
"Dummy, that's the last thing I want to hear."
Mermaid Saga is the story of two outcasts, Yuta and Mana, with a bizarre secret: they cannot die. They have eaten the flesh of a mermaid, which will either grant immortality (Yuta is actually 500 years old), or turn the eater of the flesh into a wretched, brutal monstrosity known as a "Lost Soul". Our heroes wish to live a mortal life, and search for the flesh that is also the one cure for immortality. On the way, they encounter people whose lives are also affected by mermaids in various ways, and try to help.
Despite the recurring main characters, Mermaid Saga is less of a "Saga", than a collection of short stories with a recurring theme- the story has no real ending, nor should there be, yet the conclusion still feels quite final. Without the pressure to tell an ongoing story, Takahashi creates some of her most involving stories ever- and this is the author of Maison Ikkoku! The stories are also somewhat different in tone from what we are used to in Takahashi series. There is no tongue-in-cheek feel to the stories, and in fact, the tone is often horrific. When live mermaids actually show up, which is rarely, do not expect any appearances by Ariel & co.; Mermaids are demons and manipulating femme fatales, as in old sailor lore. The few historical flashbacks, notably a story set in the Edo period in the first volume, are relatively accurate, unlike in Takahashi's most recent series InuYasha, where it might as well be a fantasy world.
Even more impressive than the series itself is the artwork. Mermaid Saga's magazine serialization started smack in the middle of the serialization of Maison Ikkoku, which as I mentioned earlier this week, was the highlight of Takahashi's entire artistic career. The breathtaking visuals look as if they took hours to create, but it cannot be so, for deadlines in the manga profession are famous for really sucking. In another series, the 4-volume length would make this a light, quick read, but every panel made me brood on the story, as well as the skill and craft put into the final product. If ever I meet someone in need of convincing of the power of graphic storytelling, I will point them right over to Mermaid Saga.