One of Rumiko Takahashi's most successful "side projects" is the Mermaid series, about a pair of immortals struggling to find a way to become mortal again. Don't expect the wacky action of "Ranma 1/2" or the mythic fantasy of "Inuyasha." Instead, this is a gritty, melancholy fantasy story.
It centers on mermaids, and what eating their flesh does to human beings. A tiny number become beautiful immortals who never age and can't die, unless their heads are cut off. But most people either cough up blood and die, or turn into bug-eyed purplish monsters.
In "Mermaid's Forest," Mana and Yuta are still wandering the earth. But one day, while Yuta is having a nap, Mana follows a kitten out into a road -- and is temporarily killed by a truck. When she wakes, a doctor is about to cut off her arm, while white-haired girl Towa and old woman Sawa are watching. Mana doesn't suspect their gruesome intentions -- or the fact that they have Yuta chained in the basement.
In the second part, Towa drags the unconscious Mana to the mermaid's tomb -- if she can't have the flesh, then she'll switch bodies with Mana. They find a half-dead mermaid in the tomb -- and an enormous Deformed One. And then, Towa explains the horrific reason that she hasn't aged in sixty years... and the terrible revenge she wants on Sawa.
This volume ends on a poignant note with "The End of the Dream." Mana and Yuta are (again) killed, this time by a fall. But a hulking creature with bandaged face appears, and takes care of Mana. "Big-Eyes" seems to be a Deformed One, but he isn't a savage beast. Instead, he's timid and gentle, with a tragic past. Yuta, unaware of this fact, goes to gather help and hunt Big-Eyes down...
The second volume of the Mermaid series is almost entirely in the present, and focuses both on the worst and best in human beings. One is a revenge story, about a pair of sisters linked by selfishness and hatred. And the other is about a tormented, good man trapped in a monster's body.
In a sense, the first story is the superior of the two. First we think that Towa is a simple sociopath who wants to be immortal. But at the end, we discover what has made her hate her sister, and the horrible life she has led. Suddenly she's understandable, though not admirable.
But the last story is the more moving, with the friendship growing between Mana and the tragic monster Big-Eyes. Most touching is the sight of Big-Eyes telling Mana about how he slaughtered his village in a fit of madness. And later, weeping over a pile of human skeletons, telling Mana that sometimes he doesn't remember what he's done.
Mana and Yuta are also changing in this story. Yuta has a nightmare near the beginning that Mana is leaving him, showing how much he now cares for her. And Mana, who is so naive that she's never seen a cat before, learns new strength when she has to defend the wounded Yuta from a Deformed One.
Takahashi's dark fantasy series continues in "Mermaid Forest - Bitter Flesh," a pair of haunting stories that will linger in your mind, long after the credits roll.