03 September 2009

Hunting Down a Dream

On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the launch of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman magazine [the twentieth is upon us now], DC Comics invited him to pen a new volume. He came up with a prose story titled The Dream Hunters, illustrated in color on every spread by Yoshitaka Amano.

The Dream Hunters is set in a mythological Japan, and at the back of the book Gaiman’s one-page, small-type afterword describes how he developed the story:

[For another project] I read all the books I could lay my hands upon that dealt with Japanese history and mythology, and it was in the Rev. B. W. Ashton’s Fairy Tales of Old Japan that I encountered the tale that Mr. Ashton called “The Fox, the Monk, and the Mikado of All Night’s Dreaming” and was struck by the similarities—some of them almost disquieting, between the Japanese tale and my own Sandman series. . . .

I asked Mr. Amano and his sterling lieutenants, Ann Yamamoto and Maya Shioya, to see if they could find me any other versions of the story in English translation.

The version they found for me (in photocopy form) is from one of Y. T. Ozaki’s collections of Japanese tales, a strange version in which the King of Dreams is a shadowy figure, barely mentioned, who appears to be some sort of dragon, and in which the central character is the Onmyoji, the Master of Yin-Yang. (I am indebted to this work for much of Chapter Three, and some of the final chapter.) They also found me a Buddhist text in which the tale is alluded to, and in which the old man upon the road is explicitly identified as Binzuru Harada.

For the rest, I am indebted to the good reverend. As I write this I have my copy of Fairy Tales of Old Japan on the table in front of me. The leather binding is flaking and discoloured, the pages are ragged, spotted, and slightly water-stained. I felt strangely honoured to realize that, despite the battered condition of the book, I was still the first person ever to read it: many of the book’s pages were still uncut. At first I cut them open with a letter-opened, then realized that they separated more easily if I simply parted them with my fingers.

I haave tried to amplify, to expand and to retell the story as best I could, while taking as few liberties as possible. Most elements of the old story were close enough to their Sandman analogues that I would not have dared to put them in, had they not been there already. . . . students of folklore must simply find it in their hearts to forgive me for, at one stroke of my pen and my heart, changing Ashton’s Hototogisu bird into a raven.

In my efforts to retell the story I made a number of errors (and in several cases, I discovered I had compounded several of Ashton’s errors). Steve Alpert, from Studio Ghibli, was kind enough to catch and correct some of these. . . . Other, I am sure, remain in the text, for the sharp-eyed to discover.
With the requisite apology for “errors,” Gaiman is apparently comfortable with appropriating a Japanese folktale with religious overtones and not only rewriting it, but changing its characters to better match the intellectual property of DC Comics. That raven comes from Gaiman’s Sandman series. A pair of men not named in the story are obviously Cain and Abel from the House of Mystery and House of Secrets comics, whom Gaiman had further developed in Sandman.

TOMORROW: Or is that really what happened?

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