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Recap #154: Mermaid Saga Parts 15-16: Mermaid’s Mask by Rumiko Takahashi

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Title: Mermaid Saga Parts 15-16 – Mermaid’s Mask

Creator: Rumiko Takahashi

Initial Thoughts

It’s Mother’s Day, and what better way to celebrate than by recapping yet another twisted mother/son dynamic from the mind of Rumiko Takahashi?

“Mermaid’s Mask” is the last story in the series, and is almost as bloody as “Mermaid’s Scar.” It’s one of the most terrifying entries in the title, and also the saddest, giving us a villain whose sympathy is on par with Towa Kannagi.

Unfortunately, one of the main characters doesn’t have a proper name, so I’ve given her the nickname “Masako” for reasons I’ll explain in the final thoughts section.

Recap

Things start off pretty quickly with a short flashback. A woman is carrying a young boy named Nanao in her arms, and is begging for someone to help them because he’s been poisoned! Nanao struggles to call for his mother, while in a nearby storeroom a woman has collapsed on the floor, her face hidden from sight. The woman crawls towards a small, cracked mirror and calls after Nanao, promising she’ll come back for him.

We zip to the present day, not to Yuta and Mana, but to a young boy who looks like Nanao in the flashback. The boy is been driven in a car with a scruffy looking gentleman; the boy’s holding onto some fancy looking package and it seems like he doesn’t want to be here at all. The man asks if the boy’s hungry when the boy replies he has to get back to his mom. He proceeds to toss the package out the car window…and then jumps out after it!

Bleeding and injured, the boy somehow manages to get up and carries the package with him to a nearby stream. Yuta and Mana come across the boy as he starts using stream water to clean himself up. The boy assures them he’s fine because he’s got some medicine with him. Taking out a tiny paper envelope, the boy swallows the contents and suddenly his arm is as good as new! This doesn’t seem to faze the boy, but it sure bothers Yuta and Mana. Yuta demands to know what the boy ingested, to which the boy explains it’s “Our” medicine.

While all this is going on, the boy’s mother, Masako, is looking for him around their household. She refers to him as Nanao. The boy’s grandmother, however, hopes the boy got away.

Yuta and Mana are walking Nanao back to his house while he explains he was kidnapped. His grandma woke him up super early and told him he’d be leaving with a guy (the scruffy-faced man) he’d never seen before. She also gave Nanao the package, which is apparently an urn of ashes. As they got to Nanao’s home, Masako rushes out the gate and is beyond relieved to see him. She notices the blood on his clothes and, realizing he was hurt, asks Nanao if he took his medicine like she told him too. That’s when she notices Yuta and Mana.

While Mana plays with their cat, Yuta asks Masako about the “Medicine” Nanao takes. Masako shrugs, saying the medicine’s been in their family for generations but acknowledges it’s strange how it can easily heal minor wounds. While Nanao helps Masako prepare some snacks, Yuta and Mana discuss whether or not their dealing with mermaid’s flesh. Yuta’s not keen by Masako’s casual acceptance when they’re confronted by Nanao’s grandmother. The older woman asks why the two brought Nanao back because she thinks he can’t stay here. She shows Yuta and Mana a photo of Nanao and his mother, but it can’t be.

Sadly here’s where “Same Face” issues come into play with the artwork, but more in Nanao’s case. The woman in the photo has sleeker eyes while Masako’s are wider.

As Yuta and Mana leave, Mana asks if Nanao is one of them. Yuta isn’t sure, but wants to investigate further. They clearly still remember their encounter with Masato.

While eating at a local restaurant, Yuta asks the owner if she knows any info about Nanao and Masako’s home, a.k.a. “The house with the storage shed.” While Mana stuffs her face, the woman explains there was a bloody incident some 25 years back. A local businessman and his wife were getting divorced and fought over custody of their son. The son decided to live with the dad, so the mother attempted to kill her son and herself rather than lose him. She fed them both poison, but the boy was rescued by his new stepmother and the mom was left with a pretty nasty scar on her face. Unfortunately, the woman doesn’t remember the son’s name but they did go to elementary school together. She adds there’s a new family living in the house now.

Back at Nanao and Masako’s home, while Nanao sleeps his mother inspects the package he was carrying. Dumping the contents out of the wrapping, there are some broken pottery pieces and something wrapped in paper.

Masako heads upstairs and hugs Nanao while he sleeps.

The next day, Nanao runs into Yuta and Mana while the two are working at a local warehouse. Yuta takes the opportunity to ask Nanao about the medicine Masako gives him. Nanao tells Yuta he’s been taking it since he started elementary school, but when he was younger the medicine made him cough up blood. That’s enough for Yuta and Mana to order Nanao to NEVER take that medicine again (Mana gives him a light dope slap on the back of the head for added measure), while Yuta is extremely pissed off Masako would make him keep ingesting the shit knowing what it was doing. It’s at that moment Nanao notices the man who kidnapped him is nearby! Mana watches Nanao while Yuta confronts the man, asking why he took the boy without his mother’s permission. The man bitterly seethes at the mention of Nanao’s mother before turning around and leaving.

Mana takes Nanao back home while Yuta follows the man. He spies the man calling someone from a pay phone and arranging a meeting somewhere. It’s Masako, who doesn’t seem too thrilled.

As Mana and Nanao return to his home, the two see Masako heading into the locked storage shed in their backyard. Curious, the two wait for Masako to exit. She’s in there for a long time, and Nanao’s unsure of what’s inside because he was forbidden from going in the shed. Suddenly, a woman in a fancy looking kimono leaves the shed, but it’s not Masako. Mana recognizes her as the woman from the photograph, only she has a bandage over one eye.

And her hair is shorter, like Masako’s…

Yuta’s followed the man to a bench and gazebo on a cliff overlooking the town. The man’s waiting for someone, who turns out to be the bandaged woman. Yuta’s shocked when the woman refers to the man as “Nanao,” but even more so when this Nanao calls her “Mother.” The woman takes out a small hand mirror from her purse, remembering how Nanao saved his allowance for months to buy it for her as a gift.

She pushes him off the cliff.

Horrified, Yuta tries to stop the woman from leaving and demands to know what she’s doing. As Yuta grabs her, the woman’s bandage comes off.

Momentarily taken aback, Yuta’s left himself open for the woman to stab him in the gut with a knife from her purse. She then calmly walks away, figuring Yuta will die. Yuta removes the knife and goes to check on the older Nanao, who’s clinging to the Cliffside and hurt, but still alive. The man begins to explain the child Masako has been raising is really HIS son, while Yuta figures the scarred woman is the same one from the story and ate mermaid’s flesh.

Nanao Sr. tells Yuta all about how his mother tried to kill them with mermaid’s flesh 25 years ago. He survived because the flesh burned his throat as he ate it, so he threw it up. What little he did ingest left him with a smaller, similar looking scar on his shoulder, but he aged normally. His mother, however, doesn’t seem to have aged a day. She looks the same as she did 25 years ago, and 8 years ago when she appeared and kidnapped his son. She even renamed him “Nanao.” Nanao Sr. spent years looking for them when his grandmother contacted him and told him his mother and his son had returned to her house. Yuta figures the woman’s using Nanao as a substitute, but Nanao Sr.’s not sure what she really has planned for him.

Unfortunately, because Yuta and Nanao Sr. aren’t aware of the severed face, Yuta’s still not sure who Masako could be then…

Mana and Nanao are searching through the storage shed trying to figure out where Masako went. While Nanao looks around, Mana spots what appears to be Masako’s blouse sticking out a trunk. Upon closer inspection she notices bloodstains and opens the trunk to find bloody bandages and what look like surgical tools. There’s also a small box…

Nanao asks what Mana found when someone grabs his shoulder.

The scarred woman slashes Mana’s arm with the axe, and Nanao breaks free of her hold to shield Mana. Mana grabs one of the surgical scissors from the trunk and jabs at the woman’s face to get away, but the scarred woman manages to get another good whack into Mana’s back. Mana’s still able to get Nanao out of the shed because the woman’s too distracted by the pain in her face. Nanao leaves Mana in the garden because he wants to get some of his family’s medicine for her injuries. Mana doesn’t have a chance to explain she doesn’t need it before the boy flees into his house. Mana thinks to herself she has to tell Yuta about the severed face in the shed.

The scarred woman’s not coming after them because she has other things to worry about. Mainly, she has GOT to slip into something more… comfortable.

She makes Masato look like a punk ass bitch.

Meanwhile, Yuta is carrying the injured Nanao Sr. back to the house, and has begun to connect the dots between Masako and the scarred woman.

Nanao’s looking for more medicine when he’s approached by Masako, whom I’m honestly surprised hasn’t passed out from shock after switching faces twice in one day. Nanao’s overjoyed his mother is back until he notices some bloodstains on her clothes and thinks she’s hurt. He tells her about the scarred woman who attacked Mana, and Masako promises she’ll take care of Mana.

Outside, Mana’s injuries are still healing when Masako approaches her. Mana yells at Masako about whatever is in the storage shed, so realizing her secret’s been stumbled upon Masako proceeds to strangle Mana with a length of hose. As Mana struggles, Yuta and Nanao Sr. reach the house. Masako’s shock that Nanao Sr. and Yuta are still alive gives Mana the chance to get away, but Masako tightens her grip. Mana scratches Masako’s cheek, and in seconds the wound disappears. That’s enough convincing for Yuta and Mana.

Back in the house, Nanao refuses to sit idly by while he thinks Mana and Masako need help. Retrieving some more of the medicine he heads into the hallway where he’s stopped by his grandmother (or rather, his great-grandmother). Grandmother orders Nanao to give her the medicine, and demonstrates what it really is by feeding it to the cat.

Grandmother cries he has to run away from Masako. She screams she’s not his mother, but Nanao doesn’t believe her even as Grandmother tries to tell him how dangerous she is.

Outside, Masako asks Yuta who, exactly, he is when he tells her he also ate mermaid’s flesh and has been alive for five hundred years. Masako was NOT prepared for that answer, and has trouble comprehending living so long when Mana throws Masako’s old, scarred face on the ground between her and Yuta. Nanao Sr. wasn’t prepared for that revelation either as Yuta begins to truly understand the depths Masako’s sunk towards. Masako calmly asks Yuta if he was scared at all when he ate the mermaid’s flesh.

Masako starts to reminisce about her life with Nanao Sr. She recalls how she decided she’d rather die and take him with her than lose him to her ex-husband. But Nanao Sr. went to live with his dad anyway, and she got stuck with a painful scar on her face. The pain grew worse with each year, and she was forced to become a recluse. The only time she ever left the house was to secretly visit Nanao as he got older and started a family of his own. She recalled how adorable baby Nanao was, as if he was her son reincarnated. Nanao Sr. desperately cries “That child isn’t me!” Masako caps off mentioning where she found her new face. A short while after she kidnapped Nanao she’d been walking on the beach, and found the body of a recently dead woman washed on the shore. I’m not even sure where she got the idea to swap faces, but she smiles as she mentions the pain disappeared with her new face.

Nanao enters the garden, and his father begs the boy to come to him. Instead, Nanao runs towards Masako’s arms. Yuta tries to stop Nanao, so Masako uses the axe on him like she did on Mana. Nanao is horrified as Masako promises Yuta will be fine, and reveals to Yuta she’s going to feed Nanao the mermaid’s flesh to make him immortal too. Yuta screams she knows it’s poison, but Masako is sure Nanao will be fine. After all, she’s been building up his tolerance by feeding him ground up bits of it over the years.

Masako locks herself and Nanao in the shed while Yuta bangs on the door, trying to make Masako understand it won’t work and only a minute percentage of people survive mermaid’s flesh. Meanwhile, Mana’s been in the shed trying to find the flesh herself. Masako reveals it’s hiding spot, and then hacks at Mana with a small hand glaive. Yuta’s trying to break through the wooden bars in the small shed window while Mana collapses on the ground.

Holding the jar with the mermaid’s flesh, Masako sees Nanao staring at her old face on the floor.

Yuta keeps screaming at Masako to stop as she asks if Nanao will eat the mermaid’s flesh. She promises him it’s not poison because she ate it too, and she’s f-

Masako drops the jar and sinks to her knees, clutching her face and begging for help. She screams if this is going to be the rest of her life, having to change her face every time the scar returns, over and over again for centuries. Nanao tries to comfort her, saying he’ll eat the mermaid’s flesh. Mana starts to regain her strength and tells the idiot not to do it, but Nanao believes it won’t hurt him. Masako is actually hesitant for once, remembering how she tried to force Nanao Sr. to eat the flesh and how it didn’t work. It might not work now. But, what if…?

The moment Yuta finally gets into the shed, Mana finds the strength to leap forward and smacks the mermaid’s flesh out of Nanao’s hands. She calmly tells the boy he’s a hundred years too young to do something like that. Yuta glares at Masako, chiding her for not being the one to stop Nanao. Masako, of course, knows she’s far too weak to have done something like that. As Nanao Sr. crawls into the shed, Masako gives him back the mirror. She tells her son she’s giving it back, as well as Nanao.

She tells Nanao, both or one, that “Your mother… is going to go someplace far away.”

And with that, she left.

The next day, there were reports of a nearby warehouse burning down. They only found the body of an unidentified woman.

Nanao is saying goodbye to Yuta and Mana, explaining his mom’s not coming back and he’ll be living with “That guy.” Nearby, Nanao Sr. has gotten his injuries cleaned up and looks far less scruffy. Nanao is still sad wondering where his mom went, but Yuta and Mana try to console him. Mana jokingly refers to the boy as a “Little squirt,” causing Nanao to reveal he’s gotten an inch taller since the last time he was measure. Yuta takes this as proof he’s starting to grow naturally.

 

Final Thoughts

Bet you’re glad she’s not your mom, huh?

Mermaid’s flesh seems to be a real stubborn bastard the way it will manifest scars and tissue damage on brand new limbs and flesh transplants regardless of how long it will take. The whole thing with Masako’s scar coming back felt like a nod towards Towa Kannagi’s issue with her arm.

I can’t imagine what this torture must’ve been like for the grandmother, who was unable to stop Masako from trying to kill Nanao Sr. and tried to reunite him with his child when Masako came back. I wonder what it was like for the two women having to live together all those years.

The reason I referred to Nanao’s mom as “Masako” is because in the anime adaption she was portrayed by legendary voice actress Masako Katsuki. But I’m intrigued by the decision to choose Miss Katsuki for the role, given some of the characters she’s previous portrayed. Katsuki is most famous for her time as the original voice actress for Michiru Kaioh, a.k.a. Sailor Neptune.

(Painter, violinist, Sailor Senshi, one half of one of the greatest lesbian couples in fiction, and the most elegant, unrepentant troll you will EVER meet)

But has also voiced characters such as Ms. Chono, teacher and petty control freak from the first anime adaption of “Yu-Gi-Oh!,” a.k.a. Season 0…

(The Wicked Witch of Expel)

Remi Mizuchi, the Madonna of Takanoha High by day, sociopathic megalomaniac by night from “Sukeban Deka” (Delinquent Girl Detective)…

(Don’t let the 70s shoujo eyes fool you, the woman’s pure evil and proud of it)

And Aya Misaki, wannabe Alpha Bitch from “Oniisama E…” (“Dear Brother…”)

(The woman had no clue how outclassed she was)

The reason for my interest is the number of parallels between the aspects of Nanao’s mother with these other characters, to the point I believe Miss Katsuki was cast deliberately because of them.

The Mirror Aspect: There’s the small plot point about the broken mirror Masako gives back to her son when she gives back Nanao. In “Sailor Moon,” Michiru’s Talisman was the Deep Aqua Mirror, a hand mirror she used for divination and as a weapon with an attack called “Submarine Reflection.”

The mirror is able to see through deception and dispel illusions.

In Ms. Chono’s episode of “Yu-Gi-Oh” she had to play a game that consisted of putting together a broken mirror like a puzzle. Of course she tries to cheat and gets punished for it, with the mirror exposing her inner ugliness.

The broken mirror in Masako’s case represents her broken face and broken soul.

The Two Faces: Almost all these other characters are double-faced like Masako, though not exactly in a literal sense. In Michiru Kaioh’s case I’m referring to legitimate depth, as her elegant demeanor belies her snarky, unabashed tendency to troll everyone around while also hiding a person who’s had to make some difficult decisions in their life. Honestly, she’s even more terrifying than Haruka Tenoh, a.k.a. Sailor Uranus, her girlfriend and the one people mistakenly assume wears the pants in their relationship. Michiru doesn’t take kindly to people underestimating her emotions or what she’s capable of; she loathes being patronized about serious issues. We’ve seen some of that in Masako, who appears harmless but goes to unhealthy extremes to hold on to Nanao and has tried to murder several people to make sure he stays in her life.

In the case of Ms. Chono and Remi Mizuchi, it’s a bit more literal. Chono’s a conniving woman who enjoys suspending and expelling students for petty reasons, uses her looks to get people to agree with her without bothering to justify her beliefs, and goes on arranged marriage dates just to dump men, while feeding off their shallow compliments.

But later on, Ms. Chono receives her punishment when she breaks the rules of the Shadow Game she’s forced to participate in with Yami Yugi, where his magic warps her face to be as ugly as her personality.

The ugliness inside her is brought out much like the way Masako’s scar manifests on her new face. She can’t keep hiding it, and if she tries it’s just going to cause her pain and suffering when she realizes her only other option is to keep swapping faces for what might be eternity.

While in regards to Remi Mizuchi, she appears to be the most popular girl in Takanoha High, beloved by her classmates and seen as the white sheep of the Mizuchi family. When she’s honestly the worst of her sisters and corrupt politician father, and has been scheming to sacrifice all three of them to gain her family’s wealth and power to take over Japan as a crime boss and terrorist.

Remi’s beautiful features contort into a snake-like smirk of pure evil when she’s showing her true self, but it’s a deliberate example much like the way Masako swaps faces. Her worst actions occur when Masako wears her original, scarred face, and eventually the scar appears on her new face when that violence carries over to the form she’s created for herself.

In regards to Aya Misaki, it goes back to my mention of depth. Aya appears at first glance to be a shallow, petty young woman who tries to act haughty and leads a smear campaign against the main characters of “Oniisama E…” but her efforts always backfire, leading to her humiliation and eventually a serious injury on her arm. Yet in the anime adaption, Aya is revealed to be a truly unhappy person who is indeed capable of loving people and caring about others (like her subordinates Miyuki and Megumi, who truly care about her and wish to help her, and her dog Halloween), and almost commits suicide after all her nasty actions come back to bite her. Don’t worry, she gets better. Aya was trying to take what she believed was owed to her, but had she left the protagonists alone she would’ve spared everyone, especially herself, so much agony. Much like in the way Masako, who is only worried about what she wants, has done nothing but hurt her son, her grandson, and most importantly herself as her desperation left her a scarred, broken woman who eventually kills herself because she knows how weak she truly is. Masako is truly her own worst enemy, and had she left Nanao Sr. to go with his father she could’ve found a healthier way to be in his life and the life of her grandchild.

I’m fascinated by the nuances of picking Miss Katsuki to voice the character and hold my belief it was a deliberate choice in connection to some of her past roles. I’ve actually talked about this more in regards to her casting as Ms. Chono, as there were a LOT of parallels between her and Michiru Kaioh in that one episode. Hell, Yugi was even voiced by Megumi Ogata, who voiced Sailor Uranus.

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