School myths are a topic many anime and manga have been keen on exploring. The ghost that lives in the toilet, the living statues, or really anything else that appears in Haunted Junction. Today’s manga too explores one of these myths. In School Ningyo, it’s rumored that mermaids live in the school’s swimming pool. And if you consume their flesh, then you are guaranteed to succeed in love.
Those who give in to curiosity and chase these rumors are in for quite a shock. Follow the necessary steps and you’ll find not a single, beautiful fish-maiden will emerge from the pool. Instead, the halls of the school itself are overrun by dozens of girls in swimsuits. They may look normal at a glance, but all of them can phase through walls and floors as if it were water. These are your mermaids and the mission has not changed: kill them, butcher them, eat their flesh. There is more than love on the line.
School Ningyo is a horror mystery story, initially centered around a rotating cast. Each arc lasts a few chapters and focuses on different girls who became enamored with the rumor. One story might be about two girls partnering up, only to realize they are actually aiming for the same boy. In another, a girl finds the usually-evasive mermaids suddenly turning aggressive. These are all puzzle pieces that slowly create a complete picture of what this myth is truly about and how it came to be.
A cool plot device throughout this is the notebook. An old, worn down booklet in which the myth is described. Each new set of protagonists somehow winds up coming into possession of it and those who survive add their own findings to it. I thought it was really cool to have this evolving MacGuffin at the center of the story. The first girls who go into the school are shocked when they encounter the human-looking mermaids. In later chapters this knowledge becomes a part of the notebook. This means that subsequent protagonists know mermaids are people, but are nevertheless fine with killing them to get what they want.
None of this would’ve worked without the brilliant storytelling and art by Akihito Yoshitomi. His experience with surreal manga really shows in the mermaids. They are so beautiful and there’s an elegance to watching them swim through the air, but it’s also deeply unnerving. The mermaids are everywhere and all of them smirk tauntingly as they dance around their hunters. They seem almost pleased to be preyed on.
The detail in the art is also staggering. Despite having dozens of characters in some pictures, everybody has a complete and unique design. On top of that the backgrounds show off complex environments which are also elaborate. I was especially fond off the times where School Ningyo had an illustration that took up a full page or even a 2-page spread. These make for amazing page-turners and you’d be surprised how often these happen.
Towards the end of the manga’s 32 chapters it does change up its pace. New characters are introduced that stay around between arcs. This provides more room for character development and gives the story a focal point to wrap the mystery around as it moves towards an exciting finale. That is perhaps my only real criticism towards the manga. It might have been nice to have the eventual main characters around from the start in some capacity. To establish that they are the sole recurring elements and not just more randos.
That I have to resort to such nitpicking says a lot, I feel. School Ningyo was an amazing manga to read through. It grabbed me and wouldn’t let go until I’d finished it all. It has a great mystery and gorgeous art. A real treat for horror and mystery fans alike.