I must preface this review with the disclaimer that I am shamelessly enamoured of just about all (if not all) of Neil Gaiman's work. I am also shamelessly intrigued by most things Japanese these days, especially anime. So imagine my delight upon first hearing of this cross-genre collaboration between the author of the highly acclaimed Vertigo Sandman series and the character designer for such noted anime as G-Force and Vampire Hunter D and the Final Fantasy games.
Those admissions aside, this graphic novel is all I expected, and then some. The story is simple and familiar -- for all that it is populated with exotic creatures and characters -- one of star-crossed lovers and revenge. The lovers are a unique pairing: a young Buddhist monk and a kitsune, or fox spirit, who often takes human female form in this tale. They meet when the fox wagers with a neighboring badger which of them can drive the lone monk from his temple, thus claiming the temple as the winner's abode. The monk's astuteness and bravery quickly drives the badger away in fear, and elicits an ashamed apology from the fox, who immediately falls in love with him.
Such a relationship would be complicated enough, but the fox discovers the monk has an enemy, a distant onmyoji -- diviner -- who wishes him dead, and intends to accomplish this through the monk's dreams. The fox gives up her most treasured possession, a dragon pendant, and braves the dreamlands to speak with the king of dreams. This is Morpheus as we've never seen him, a colossal and majestic black fox. He cautions the mortal fox against her love, but also tells her how she can save the monk.
And rescue her love she does, at the cost of her waking life. The monk, upon awakening from the dream which should have killed him, is faced with living, or with saving the fox, whom he has slowly come to love. As did the fox, he too chooses love, and finds himself eventually facing the dream king, in yet another guise -- a bishounen, or lovely young man, as Amano has depicted him. The monk's ultimate choice frees the fox, much to her regret, to a life without him. Awake again, the fox buries her love, sets about extracting an elaborate and fitting revenge upon the onmyoji, then takes her place in the dreamlands, presumably joining the monk.
A simple tale indeed. But lovely in the rendering, both in prose and in picture. Gaiman, as he notes in his afterward, did considerable research for the story and so we get an enchanting glimpse into the world of Japanese folklore. There is mention of tengu (birdlike demons); oni (demons) help the onmyoji with his evil-doing; the fox must catch a baku (tapir-like eater of dreams) in her quest to save her love; and Morpheus' gryphon gatekeeper has been replaced by an itsumade (giant bird with a lion's head and snake's tail).
Gaiman's blending of traditional Japanese folklore with the Vertigo universe is all but seamless. The insertion of Morpheus could have been jarring, but was handled with subtlety and care, the only "anachronisms," as it were, being the dream king's ever present raven, and Cain and Abel (presented here as a pair of Japanese brothers fishing the Dreaming's waters).
Amano's illustrations are a perfect complement to Gaiman's prose. Primarily soft, flowing strokes and muted colours, there are also a handful of striking, bright pictures, generally depicting the Dreaming itself. His fox is gentle and delicate, whether animal or human. Morpheus as a fox is mysterious, majestic; in human form, lovely, fey and distant. His itsumade is a starburst of colours, regal and powerful. The pictures are integral to the story, rendering it whole.
Simple. Stunningly beautiful. Two artists at their finest. These words are not praise enough, but they will need to suffice. There's an implication in Amano's afterward that this is but the first of several collaborations between the two to come. I certainly hope that is true.