In my view, Dream Saga’s overarching theme is the strongest element of the series due to it being a constant presence at every turn of the story. That theme is responsibility — the obligation and accountability we have as humans as we, seemingly with supreme authority, shape the world and everything in it to our benefit; the obligation and accountability as we use nature’s resources, from the animals we kill, eat and process, to the vegetation, the air and entire habitats whose qualities we affect with our actions as we strive for more possessions, more comfort, more progress. Dream Saga’s story may contain many fantastic elements such as dream travels and mythology, but it is about the environmental strain humans cause first and foremost.
At the beginning of the story, Yuuki’s mission to come to Amaterasu’s aid emphasizes the sun’s indispensability to both worlds, nature’s balance and all life. In Nakatsukuni, the sun hasn’t come forward from behind the clouds in over a week, something which both the reader and Yuuki notice every time she wakes up and overhears the weather report, every time she looks out of the window and steps out of the house. The fact that Takamagahara’s sun is still shining is only due to Nakime giving it extra protection.
Binga also explains that the sun’s weakening disturbs nature’s balance, which, among other things, opens up weak spots in Takamagahara through which its creatures can pass over to Nakatsukuni — creatures that do not belong there.
Greed and Ignorance
As Yuuki travels, however, it is not the weakened sun that is the source of calamity she is faced with, but the selfish actions of humans. On her journey, she witnesses poachers and illegal traders so hungry for profit that even the extinction of entire species is of no concern to them. She sees people contaminate the sea and pollute the air, whether to harm others or because it’s convenient.
The capital city Lysha as the center of Tsukuyomi’s rule best demonstrates this: The newly-invented air automobiles are everywhere despite the pollution they cause, and the lower districts are full of waste — too much to be disposed of the usual way, even with part of it being dumped into the sea under Tsukuyomi’s orders. The gases in the air affect humans and nature: People have difficulty breathing, children in particular are falling ill, and trees and grass cannot grow.
Despite all of it, Tsukuyomi’s greed knows no bounds, as he is the one with the ultimate authority over what is built and what is thrown away. He had the automobiles mass-produced even though there was an alternative that wouldn’t strain the environment; he has the mines exploited even as it takes away the source of food for mineral-eating creatures and removes all the trees, all so that he can build weapons, wage war and make profit; he ordered the erection of the dome around the palace so that it alone would be surrounded by clean air — a dome whose properties demanded the extinction of a species.
Yuuki gradually learns that what’s happening to the sun is a direct reaction to the state of the world: It is the actions of humans that cause nature to cry out in pain and anger; seas, vegetation and creatures all terribly ill as they bear the brunt of human selfishness. Amaterasu stands at the center of nature’s wrath, fighting alone as nature rises against humankind with accumulated acts of retaliation, fully intending to eradicate humankind itself.
Blame and Accountability
Dream Saga also briefly raises the question where the burden of responsibility truly lies. When Yuuki’s group confronts poachers and traders, they shift the blame to demand: People desire certain things and purchase them without regard at what cost they come, thus establishing a market for them and encouraging more illegal activities on the side of supply.
At one point, the group comes across a mining village exploited by Tsukuyomi. There, a young child is threatened by the villagers for stealing minerals so as to feed the starving creatures within the mines that have been deprived of their natural food source. Once, the villagers used to treasure those same creatures as guardians, but for fear of Tsukuyomi’s punishment, they stopped caring, and many creatures died as a result. At the end of that episode, the child, along with Yuuki’s group, manage to make the villagers realize that they, too, play a part in this, as does their lack of resistance and deliberate ignorance.
The series also acknowledges that humans have factual authority and power over the world and that they live off animals and plants. However, being different from those organisms does not mean that they can do anything they want.
Awareness and Obligation
Some things can never be rectified once it’s too late — least of all with money, which is usually the motivation behind the actions. And by then, even holding certain persons responsible won’t change the state of things. Driving a species to extinction is one such thing, but so is the gradual pollution and the production of waste once it reaches a certain point.
Dream Saga’s narrative keeps making appeals to Yuuki’s group, the people she meets on the way and the reader to be conscious of their actions — not just in how those actions affect them directly, but also what implications they hold in the big picture. Ultimately, humans, too, are a part of nature, and share this world with many other organisms. Where nature cannot thrive, humans will one day not be able to thrive either.
Humans are responsible for the world they live in, and have an obligation to all organisms to use its resources with deliberation and to look out for other organisms and their needs. This goes for those who are in positions of power, but also for those without authoritative power: Being able to live comfortably does not justify any cost, and sometimes one must band together and take a stand for what’s truly important rather than cower before authority.
A big part of living consciously and responsibly is to act with regard to environmental sustainability: creating things that aren’t at odds with nature, not destroying and exploiting more than necessary, choosing options that put less strain on the environment. But it also includes being mindful of one’s own consumption, and to make an effort to compensate for the resources that are exploited, such as by growing new resources or to maintain existing ones with care.
Appreciation and Coexistence
Subsequently, Dream Saga stresses the value of all life (especially whenever Yuuki asks Takaomi not to take lives), and its characters wish for a world where humans, animals, spirits and nature can live together even as they’re dependent on each other — and precisely because of that mutual dependence.
One of my favourite moments in the series is when Souta tells Yuuki in Takamagahara that humans owe nature and should appreciate the sacrifices that are made to sustain their way of life, especially in terms of nutrition. Yuuki takes those words to heart as she travels back to Nakatsukuni, realizing that she has to live more consciously in order to show her appreciation.
Again, when the series — through Souta in that scene — speaks of giving back to nature in some way, that isn’t just directed at people with power or organized groups. It’s about what individuals can do on a large scale, and Yuuki as Horacty in particular shows that even little acts of consideration and kindness help and can go a long way. It’s very fairy-tale-like how she releases a fish into the ocean and it later returns to help her even after everything that humans have done to its habitat, but it’s a good way to get the message across.
Lastly, I think it’s remarkable that in a fantasy adventure with comrades who are specialists in their respective field (compare this to RPG roles or Magical Girl series), the Magatama’s powers aren’t offensive, but instead focus on restoring and understanding: seeing the source of harm, understanding the pain of creatures that do not have a human voice, reaching out to them and learning how to best utilize resources without causing harm. The situations the characters find themselves in mostly don’t require violence to be solved either, and the only offensive power — Taizou’s — is never used against another living being.
This remains true even during the final battle, which I won’t spoil here, but that is very much decided by an act of compassion and love rather than fighting hate versus hate, making it a fitting end for a series that is so strongly about understanding and finding better alternatives.
I think it’s easy to overlook all these elements that contribute to Dream Saga’s main theme when speaking of the series or recommending it to others, mostly because this thematic point is not expected in a manga of Dream Saga’s genre, and thus also isn’t what readers specifically look forward to when picking up the series. Moreover, there are other, flashier elements to Dream Saga — namely all the things I mentioned in this shrine’s Preface. When people speak of a fantasy adventure, it is naturally the fantastic parts that are exciting — the worldbuilding, the special powers, the secrets.
Dream Saga, however, puts the world at its center: Not just the fantastic world, but the world that concerns us all, along with matters that concern all of us — nature itself and our place in it. It accomplishes that by not strictly separating the fantastic from the mundane: Characters continuously travel from one world to the other whenever they fall asleep, creatures are able to cross borders to seek help, what happens in one world makes an impact on the other, and what lessons the group learns are carried over. Dream Saga’s characters in Nakatsukuni are about the age of the intended audience, and they’re all elementary school students who are still just learning about the world around them. It is their experience in the fantasy that helps them grow in their everyday life, which, I think, is much the same as what a young reader — the intended audience — can take away from Dream Saga.
I feel like the series is also mindful of those young readers in how it presents its content and those themes. The figure of Tsukuyomi, for example, is introduced as an antagonist and a villain, and there isn’t anything about him that isn’t clearly evil. It’s a very simplistic picture to paint, but it fits the setting, the (short) length of the manga and the audience. The message isn’t lost either, because the story makes it clear that Tsukuyomi is not the sole person to blame for the state of the world. Rather than an individual, he is more like the personification of human greed and self-indulgence, a representative of all those who choose to ignore what they destroy while relentlessly pursuing their own profit.
I wouldn’t say that Dream Saga is particularly deep, and it isn’t necessarily what you’d call thought-provoking when you compare it to other works of fiction. But to a young reader, it can be all of that — it certainly was for me, and I think there should be more series like that. In retrospect, I also think it’s pretty amazing how the series has such good pacing while staying dedicated to its theme throughout.