Yoko Komori’s two-volume Mermaid Scales and the Town of Sand is a coming-of-age manga. Scales was serialized in 2013 and 2014 under the original title Aoi Uroko to Suna no Machi in You. The English translation appeared in 2023.
Following the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, fourteen-year-old Tokiko and her father leave Tokyo to stay with Tokiko’s maternal grandmother in Sunanomori. Tokiko has only been to the small coastal town once before, when she was four1. Tokiko does remember one aspect of the town quite clearly: this is where Tokiko was saved from drowning by a merman.
Tokiko’s classmates are intrigued by their new classmate. Why would someone transfer schools in their last year before high school? Why would someone move from exotic Tokyo, where every schoolgirl is a fashion model, to a sleepy fishing village, where students are just boring and normal? Clearly, these are mysteries to be solved.
Tokiko is not the exotic model her fellow students might expect and they are not dim-witted country bumpkins. It does not take long for Tokiko to make new friends in her home town. It is only natural that Tokiko would mention merfolk to her new chums. It is at this point she discovers some of the town’s peculiarities.
While mermaids and mermen figure frequently in local legend, everyone denies their reality2. Tokiko may sincerely believe that she was saved by a merman, but clearly she is mistaken. The adult thing for her to do is to stop insisting that she was, set her childish belief aside, and focus on mundane matters. To continue as she has been doing is to risk being ostracized.
But are these denials just lies? Tokiko and her chums gradually become aware that the town’s adults have many secrets, secrets from which they are determined to shield the children. This, of course, only inspires curiosity and investigation.
Readers may wonder why the two stay with Tokiko’s maternal grandmother. The characters and the manga itself come down pretty hard on the idea that the marital problems were mainly due to Tokiko’s mother being a self-centered flake. When the couple splits, Tokiko’s mother’s mother takes her poor son-in-law’s side.
This is an example of a story driven by local geography and weather. Specifically, the town is subject to occasional catastrophic inundations that sweep away houses, drown people, and poison the soil with salt. Locals have embraced rites they believe mitigate these tragedies. Merfolk are a key part of the lore.
This could as accurately be titled Tokiko and the Town of Needlessly Obfuscating Adults. The adults, for reasons that are compelling to them, wish to keep certain curious aspects of the local culture secret from their children. Among other consequences of their customs, the struggle to hide certain matters results in at least one accidental death. The lies that followed that death have warped the life of one of Tokiko’s schoolmates.
The narrative has every element needed for the town to become Japan’s answer to Innsmouth. However, this isn’t about secret rites carried out under moonlight. It is about why the rites exist. The focus is on the coping mechanisms people create to deal with setbacks. Some of the consequences might be tragic, but the people doing the rites do not intend them.
Accordingly, the manga’s tone is far more amiable than one might expect given the above. Eventually all is explained and if the explanations are not entirely reasonable, they’re at least understandable. In the end, the story turns out to be happy one, except for that one kid who died. That said, two volumes are about as much of this as I cared to read, the adults not being available for me to smack on the back of the head.
1: Or twice, if you count when her mother visited while pregnant.
2: Except for one girl, who turns out to be the town’s compulsive liar, eager to get attention at any cost.