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Posts Tagged ‘The Sandman’

In the Shinichi Hoshi short story Bokko-Chan (which, for those interested, can be found in The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories), a “bar-master” constructs an emotionless robot girl, who soon becomes the object of many of his patrons’ affections. A sort of futuristic folk tale, it combines dark humour and wordplay, with a clever and totally unexpected ending. While this isn’t the first appearance of a robot girl in fiction (Hoffmann’s 1816 short story The Sandman featured a similar gynoid character), Hoshi’s does seem to have been one of the predecessors to an archetype that would end up becoming quite popular in Japanese comics and animation.

 Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most well-known anime series of the nineties, as well as one of the most influential. The character of Rei Ayanami fascinated so many viewers that many of her clones began appearing in other series, to the point where she’s almost become a stock character. (There’s even a chapter of It’s Not My Fault I’m Not Popular where Tomoko attempts to imitate one, with little success.) Rei is not a robot, but she does bear some similarities to Bokko-chan, if only on the surface. With her blank face, bluish-white hair and inexplicable behaviour, Rei is a beguiling character.

The interesting thing about Rei is that she is more than a human who acts like a robot. She also embodies aspects of the kind of mysterious waif character who often appears in fairy tales and mythology. Rei’s true nature is never fully revealed, and there is always a hint of something otherworldly about her. Unlike those fairy tale characters, however, Rei has no knowledge of anything supernatural, and she seems almost as ignorant of the source of her otherness as everyone else is.

Despite her popularity, Rei was not my introduction to this kind of character. For me, it was Echo, from Pandora Hearts. She ended up becoming my favourite character in the manga, but it was only with a series I later watched that I started developing a proper interest in the archetype. (Though when I started reading Pandora Hearts, I had only a vague idea that this archetype existed.)

Echo.

Serial Experiments Lain (the greatest work of fiction ever made) came out in 1998, a few years after Neon Genesis Evangelion.  Its protagonist, Lain Iwakura, has a lot in common with Rei, though the creators of the series claim that they hadn’t seen Neon Genesis Evangelion when they first began working on the series. Serial Experiments Lain is my biggest obsession, so when I found out about this, I became interested in Rei, and other characters like her. The similarities between Lain and Rei are undeniable, but there are differences, too. While both have extreme problems with social interaction, Lain’s comes more from shyness, while with Rei it appears to stem from her upbringing. I see Lain as being what someone like Rei would be in real life, though she also has that same sense of otherness about her. Both have mysterious origins, and both blur the lines separating the artificial and the human.

Lain of the Wired.

Lain attempts to reach out to the viewers.

Despera, a kind of thematic prequel to Serial Experiments Lain, is supposed to be released sometime in the future, though sadly the director, Ryutaru Nakamura, died of cancer. Luckily, they plan on continuing it with a new director, though it will not be the same without him. With a protagonist who, like Lain, has a strange aptitude for computers, it will be interesting to see what sort of character Ain will be like.

Yoshitoshi ABe’s artwork is wonderful.

Rei was not the first socially inept, robotic girl to be featured in anime, anyway. Tokiko, from Key the Metal Idol, came before both Rei and Lain, and it’s difficult to imagine that she didn’t have an influence on either character. The show, with its experimental nature, paved the way for both series to follow. While I didn’t think it was as good as either of them, it’s still interesting watch, especially if you like nineties Science Fiction anime.

Even before Key the Metal Idol, characters of a similar nature existed in anime. Ami Mizuno from Sailor Moon is a quiet girl with blue hair, and Naoko Takeuchi had even planned for her to be a cyborg at first. Like the Zashiki Warashi from CLAMP’s xxxHolic, Ami shows that it’s possible to have a shy character who isn’t extremely troubled or dysfunctional.

Ami Mizuno.

The Zashiki Warashi.

Interestingly, Rei Ayanami was named after another Sailor Moon character, Rei Hino, in an attempt to convince Kunihiko Ikuhara, a friend of Hideaki Anno, to work on Neon Genesis Evangelion. Ikuhara’s own series, Revolutionary Girl Utena (which is often seen as the shojo counterpart to Neon Genesis Evangelion, a shonen anime), has two characters who resemble Rei: Anthy Himeymiya and Miki Kaoru (who is male). So far though, I’ve only seen two episodes of Revolutionary Girl Utena, so I still don’t know how far their similarities go.

Anthy Himeymiya.

Miki Kaoru.

While I do love this character type, there is one thing about it that unsettles me. Though I did not know about it at first, I later learned that there are some people who sexualise this sort of character. While there’s nothing wrong with feeling attracted to fictional characters, turning them into sex objects is not a good thing. All it shows is that you don’t have any respect for the character, and it reflects how you see people in real life, too. (And it’s also really creepy.)

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A while ago, I talked about Hoffman’s short story, The Sandman, in which a childhood trauma causes the protagonist to lose himself completely in his obsessions later in life. Probably the most haunting image from this short tale was that of Olympia, the reclusive and laconic daughter of Professor Spallanzani.

While in the beginning of the story, it is the Sandman himself, a fictional (it seems) character whom Nathaniel is convinced truly exists, who serves as the main object of Nathaniel’s obsessions. However, once he spies the figure of Olympia sitting alone in her bedroom, all of that seems to have been forotten. Soon, he can think only of her, and of how very beautiful she is, even attempting to court her despite the fact that he’s already in a relationship with his childhood friend. Maybe it’s the fact that Olympia is such a mystery to him- she never speaks, except for the odd sound of “ah ah ah”, and has never been introduced by the Professor to anyone until he has her play music at a dinner party -but Nathaniel is unable to banish her from his mind. (And soesn’t seem to want to, either. He’s pretty much oblivious to how much he’s weirding people out with his behaviour.)

olympia

Artwork by Hans Bellmer.

Artwork by Hans Bellmer.

Nobody seems to understand why Nathaniel cares so much about her. For all her beauty, there’s something not quite right about her. I won’t reveal here as to what her true nature is, but you might be able to guess yourselves anyhaps. I will say, though, that Olympia possesses a gew rather inhuman qualities about her. And this is one of the things that makes her a Strange Girl. Combined with her eerie beauty, she makes for a haunting figure. She reminds me very much of those ladies dressed in white lace from Paul Delvaux’s painting All The Lights. (Which happens to be one of my favourites.) Olympia was certainly my favourite thing about The Sandman. 

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Remember Struwwelpeter? That rather deranged German book of cautionary tales, where a little boy got his thumbs chopped off just for sucking at them? Well, the guy who wrote it was named Hoffman. And, it turns out that there wasn’t just one dead German writer named Hoffman who enjoyed writing about traumatising kids. E.T. Hoffman wrote many short tales for adults, most of which seem to have been strange, creepy and unusual. One of these was The Sandman, which seems to be Hoffman’s way of showing that, just because you’re writing for an older audience, it doesn’t mean you have to  abandon the theme of making children miserable! (Seriously, this fellow makes the Lemony Snicket books seem cheerful in comparison.)

The Sandman is a short story about a childhood bogeyman figure that causes the protagonist to descend into utter madness. Nathaniel is a youth who finds himself constantly haunted by the Sandman, who casts a shadow inside of his mind. Nathaniel is convinced that the Sandman had a hand in his father’s death, but of course, everybody else dismisses this as ludicrous, telling him ’twas just his childish fears that conjured up such ideas in him. And the Sandman himself never actually appears in person- at least, as far as we know. The darkness here is more psychological than fantastical, as Nathaniel becomes increasingly obsessive over the character.

When Nathaniel was a little boy, his mother would send him away from his father’s study when it came to his bedtime, saying that the Sandman was coming. Not knowing what the Sandman was, he believes that it is Coppelius, the man who visits his father regularly, and has some sort of unexplained influence over him. When Nathaniel asks his nanny who the Sandman is, she tells him that he steals the eyes from ill-behaved children and feeds them to his own offspring on the moon. (‘Tis never explained why exactly she tells him this. My own theory is that everyone in Hoffman’s universe just delights in traumatising little kids.) And, as you may imagine, that didn’t really end well. Too bad there weren’t any therapists or anything around back then! (At least, I think there weren’t.) His father later dies in an accident (probably from some sort of alchemical experiment) and since Coppelius vanishes around that time, Nathaniel naturally places the blame on him. Now, many years later, Nathaniel has encountered Coppola who sells barometers, and believes him to be none other than Coppelius himself. His best friend and fiancee tell him this is ridiculous, but he refuses to listen. And so, his obsession grows. Soon, though, it ends up being transferred onto somebody else entirely: Professor Spalanzani’s mysterious, reclusive daughter Olympia. And that’s when his sanity really starts to go downward.

The Sandman is a tale which brings up many interesting ideas, and due to its ambiguous nature, can be interpreted in many different ways. I feel that Nathaniel almost represents Hoffman himself; Nathaniel too is a dreamer and a writer. Perhaps he meant the story as a sort of warning to himself about the dangers of going too far into one’s own fantasy world? Then again, Hoffman seems to have been both a practical man and an artistic one- this could be a message to anyone about balancing them both, and what could happen to you if you stray too far to one side of thinking, or viewing reality. Of course, there have been many interpretations made of this tale, most of them by people far more clever than I am (including none other than Freud himself), so please ignore my babblings on what it all might mean. Anyhaps, the story itself is meaning enough, as far as I am concerned. One thing I really liked about this story was how the Sandman didn’t play that much of a physical, tangible role in it- he can be found in the protagonist’s demented mind only, for the most part. And also, it depends on the reader to determine how much the Sandman really is present in it, if at all. The character of Olympia was undoubtedly my favourite part of the work though, but more on her later, when I write an individual post focusing on her.

My only problem with Hoffman’s story was that it was way too short. There are so many ideas here that to fit it all into so few pages seems such a waste. I wish he had made this into a whole novel. It felt kind of rushed to me, with no time to expand upon the ideas. Instead, he just presents them to the reader pretty rapidly, and so no real atmosphere is created to do the intricate plot justice. The ending comes out of nowhere, and is kind of abrupt. Ultimately, though, this is one of the best odd tales I’ve read in ages, and it gives a very original take on a nusery rhyme character we all thought we knew.

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The third volume in Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series, this is basically just a collection of four short stories, with the only thing linking them being the character of Morpheus himself. His appearances in them are only very brief ones however, and he manages to make a far deeper impression on the reader because of this. The Sandman is the type of character who always seems most noticeable through his absence.

The first story is about a writer who is struggling to find his muse- and so, he buys one, in the form of Calliope from Greek Mythology. Keeping the Muse locked up and abused, he uses the inspiration she is forced to give him to write many bestselling novels. However, Calliope is the former lover of Morpheus and asks him to save her. What happens next is too good for me to give away here, but I shall tell you that Morpheus’ punishment for him is both fitting and ingenious. This story was excellent, and the artwork, as always, was beautiful. I’m very impressed that Calliope’s ordeal wasn’t depicted in the sort of exploitative, leering fashion that many other comics would have stooped to.

Then we come to my personal favourite in this volume: A Dream of a Thousand Cats. Here we get to see the Dream King in feline form, as this is a tale told entirely from the perspective of a group of cats, who gather together in a graveyard one night (how very, very Goth) to listen to a Siamese, as she tells them of how they could bring about an incredible change in reality- as long as they are able to dream. If you are somebody who is interested in how the worlds of fantasy and reality connect, and how they can have effects on one another, then you will find this quite thought-provoking, and perhaps even a little bit chilling.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as the title suggests, is a sort of homage to Shakespeare. In fact, the Bard himself is a character in this tale; his troupe are performing his latest play for a very special audience: the Fair Folk. This comic actually won a World Fantasy Award, and as far as I am concerned, it definitely deserved it. While reading it, I did get a little distracted by the crossdressing members of the troupe, though, so I wasn’t paying enough attention to it as I probably should have. (I love crossdressing.)

Façade doesn’t feature Dream in it at all, but it does include his much-loved sister Death instead. (Every volume is meant to have at least one small appearance by her; Gaiman didn’t want to make her too prominent a character for fear that his readers might lose interest in her, though she did get her own spinoff graphic novel eventually.) The focus this time is on a superheroine named Element Girl, a distaff counterpart to Metamorpho. Unable to stand the way she looks (her skin is a variety of colours, and has a sort of odd-looking texture to it), she wants only for her life to end, but, one of her powers being immortality, she has no means to do so. She pleads with Death to help her. This was my second-favourite piece, as it had a very strange and unlikely beauty to it. It was definitely a good idea to put this as the last of the short tales, as it serves as a perfect and bittersweet ending to the collection.

If you want to know more about the origins of the Sandman character, I suggest you read this very interesting blog post on him, written by somebody who’s basically an expert on folklore and other such things. Also, I plan to do a review on Hoffman’s short story in time- a work which certainly must have influenced Mister Gaiman.

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As you know, or should know, I like fiction that is strange, surreal and unusual. So of course, I enjoy both Serial Experiments Lain and The Sandman. But there’s one interesting thing about both of these series’. You see, the first features the Wired, which is a cyberpunk-style version of the internet, while the other has the Dreaming, Morpheus’ realm and home of all dreams and stories. And the thing I find most interesting about both of these is that they really could exist.

Okay, well they could if you think in the same way I do. Which is not in straight lines, but in squiggly circly triangular things. That continuously change shape. But anyway, the internet and the Wired are practically becoming the same thing as we speak. The gap is closing all the time. As for the Dreaming, well I actually believe there is some sort of dreamworld which we travel to while we sleep. But what if our dreams just weren’t connected and we each belonged to our own seperate dream universe? And so I have concocted a theory that will combine both the Wired and the Dreaming. Be warned, since this is Serial Experiments Lain, there are kind of spoilers ahead (not that it matters anyway; Lain is pretty much incomprehensible and I like it that way).

So here’s my theory: there is this idea that when everyone on the Wired is connected, then every mind in the universe shall be connected too! We shall be one collective mind! And if that’s true, then so shall our dreams! And that means that there would be one world made up of all our night-time imaginings: the Dreaming! So they can both exist! It is possible! But when this happens, will it be for the better or for the worse?

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