Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Author: Edogawa Rampo
Translator: James B. Harris
U.S. publisher: Tuttle
ISBN: 9784805311936
Released: May 2012
Original release: 1924-1950

After reading and enjoying Edogawa Rampo’s novella Strange Tale of Panorama Island I decided to seek out more of his work. What better way to start than with Rampo’s debut in English? Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, translated by James B. Harris and first published in 1956, was reissued in 2012 by Tuttle Publishing with an additional and quite useful foreword by Patricia Welch putting the collection and Rampo into historical and literary context. Despite Rampo’s prolificacy, influence, and popularity in Japan, relatively few volumes of his work are available in English although his short stories can often be found in anthologies. In addition to being Rampo’s introduction to English-reading audiences, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination is particularly interesting in that Rampo worked very closely with Harrison on its translation.

Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination collects nine of Rampo’s short stories selected to represent some of his best work. Eight of the nine stories were originally written in the 1920s. The collection opens with what is perhaps Rampo’s most well-known story “The Human Chair.” (At least, it was the story with which I was most familiar before reading the volume.) Next is “The Psychological Test” which features Rampo’s famous detective Kogorō Akechi. “The Caterpillar” is another story I was previously aware of and for a time was even banned in Japan. The collection continues with “The Cliff.” Written in 1950, it is the most recent example of Rampo’s work in the volume. Other tales of mystery include “The Twins,” “The Red Chamber,” and “Two Crippled Men” while other tales of imagination include “The Hell of Mirrors” and “The Traveler with the Pasted Rag Picture.” Though, as Welch points out in the foreword, Rampo frequently blurs the lines of genre and many of the stories have significant crossover.

Rampo is an incredibly clever and imaginative writer. Even when working with similar themes and plot elements, each story in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination exhibits Rampo’s creativity in narrative technique and structure and he throws in enough plot twists that they all feel fresh. Each story is a little peculiar and each story is vaguely disconcerting—the erotic and the grotesque and macabre are no strangers to Rampo’s work—but in the end the tales are all different from one another. The culprits of his crimes stories are often undone by their arrogance, belief in their infallibility, or on occasion their guilty consciences, but the paths to their downfalls vary. Rampo’s more fantastic tales rely on subtle and not so subtle horror, but their thrills and terrors are all distinctive.

Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination is a captivating collection of short stories and would make a fine introduction to Rampo’s work for the uninitiated. If I had to choose, I think that I personally prefer Strange Tale of Panorama Island and its outrageousness slightly more, but the selections in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination show evidence of the elements in the novella that I particularly enjoyed: the tight plotting, the light style of narration with slight touches of humor, the unexpected turns in the story, the inherent strangeness of the characters and their accounts. Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination has stood the test of time well. Nearly fifty years after it was first released, and more than a half-century since the stories were originally written, the volume remains an intriguing and engaging collection.

The Strange Tale of Panorama Island

Creator: Suehiro Maruo
Original story: Edogawa Rampo

U.S. publisher: Last Gasp
ISBN: 9780867197778
Released: July 2013
Original release: 2008

I have been looking forward to Suehiro Maruo’s The Strange Tale of Panorama Island with great anticipation ever since the license was announced by Last Gasp in 2009. After years of delay, the manga was finally released in English in 2013 as a gorgeous, large-format hardcover. Maruo’s The Strange Tale of Panorama Island was originally released in Japan in 2008. The manga is an adaptation of the renowned author Edogawa Rampo’s novella Strange Tale of Panorama Island which was initially serialized between 1926 and 1927. (Coincidentally, the novella was also released in English for the first time in 2013.) After reading Edogawa’s Strange Tale of Panorama Island, I couldn’t think of a more perfect artist to adapt his work than Maruo. I didn’t think it was possible, but I was somehow even more excited for the release of Maruo’s The Strange Tale of Panorama Island after reading the original.

As the Taishō Era draws to a close, failed novelist Hirosuke Hitomi finds himself behind in his rent and the prospect of his work being published slim. His latest novel, The Tale of RA, is a utopian fantasy which allows him to dream about what he would do if he had limitless riches. His editor encourages him to write about something closer to his real life instead. Months later Hitomi is confronted with an almost impossible opportunity that could be straight out of his novel. His former classmate Genzaburō Komoda, to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance, has unexpectedly died, leaving behind an immense fortune. Devising an outlandish scheme to take Komoda’s place and take control of his wealth, Hitomi plans on devoting all of it to the creation of a hedonistic paradise, Panorama Island. The plan proceeds surprisingly well, but there is still one person who could reveal Hitomi as a fake—Komoda’s wife.

I have been an admirer of Maruo’s work ever since I first discovered it. At this point, only two other volumes of Maruo’s manga have been published in English: Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show and Ultra-Gash Inferno. As I have come to expect, Maruo’s illustrations in The Strange Tale of Panorama Island are exquisite. With its sensuality, eroticism, and shades of the macabre and grotesque, Maruo’s artwork is ideally suited to Rampo’s story. Even in all of its beauty, The Strange Tale of Panorama Island has an ominous and vaguely disconcerting atmosphere that is extraordinarily effective in setting the mood of the work. Hitomi’s paranoia and madness is captured in ink for all to see. And then there’s the island itself—Maruo’s portrayal is breathtaking with stunning reveals, careful attention to detail, and beautiful design and perspective work. The art in The Strange Tale of Panorama Island is simply marvelous.

Maruo’s The Strange Tale of Panorama Island is a superb adaptation and a spectacular work in its own right. The manga is not at all a slavishly executed interpretation. While staying true to Rampo’s original, Maruo allows himself to put his own touches and flourishes on the story. The ending is admittedly abrupt and somewhat disorienting (this was true of the novella as well), but what comes before more than makes up for this weakness. In part, Maruo’s The Strange Tale of Panorama Island is about the end of one era and the beginning of the next, the start of a new life after the old has been discarded. Hitomi begins as a penniless author only to become intoxicated with his own ideas as he slips into a life of debauchery and excess. Maruo’s vision of his descent is both captivating and unsettling, alluring and abhorrent. In the end, I am absolutely thrilled that The Strange Tale of Panorama Island is finally available in English.

Strange Tale of Panorama Island

Author: Edogawa Rampo
Translator: Elaine Kazu Gerbert
U.S. publisher: University of Hawai’i Press
ISBN: 9780824837037
Released: January 2013
Original release: 1926-1927

Tarō Hirai, better known as Edogawa Rampo, was an extremely influential author, often credited as the father of the modern Japanese detective novel. His novella Strange Tale of Panorama Island is considered to be his first major work. I actually first learned of the story thanks to Suehiro Maruo’s manga adaptation of the tale. I was very excited when I learned that the original novella was being translated into English. Elaine Kazu Gerbert’s translation was released by the University of Hawai’i Press early in 2013. Strange Tale of Panorama Island was initially serialized between 1926 and 1927. The English translation is based on the 1992 edition of the novella edited by Betsuyaku Minoru. Much like Edogawa’s name (Edogawa Rampo is a Japanese rendering of and play on Edgar Allan Poe’s name), Edgar Allan Poe is believed to be an inspiration for Strange Tale of Panorama Island, particularly his story “The Domain of Arnheim.”

Off the coast of Japan at the end of a cape that juts out into the Pacific Ocean is a remote, deserted island with a peculiar history. Known by the locals as Okinoshima, most people make a point to avoid the island and its dangerous waters. But a few years past an immense garden and construction project was initiated by the island’s owner, the head of the Komoda family, Genzaburō Komoda. Strange circumstances surrounded Genzaburō as well. After being pronounced dead, he seemingly returned to life but with a drastic change of personality. What very few people realize is that Genzaburō has been replaced by Hirosuke Hitomi, and old classmate of his who shares a striking resemblance to him. It is Hirosuke who has taken advantage of Genzaburō ‘s death and wealth in order to pursue his bizarre interests and desires on Okinoshima.

Gerbert has done an excellent job with the translation of Strange Tale of Panorama Island. The narrator is very personable, especially towards the beginning of the novella. The reader is addressed directly and there is an underlying sense of humor. The tone is very conversational, but it also very evocative. Edogawa’s descriptions of the beautiful, grotesque, and surreal are marvelous. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Mauro chose to adapt Strange Tale of Panorama Island as a manga; the story with its fantastic landscapes nearly begs to be visually expressed. A significant portion of Strange Tale of Panorama Island is spent exploring Okinoshima itself and its wonders. The island has been deliberately filled with tricks and illusions. The effect as Hirosuke reveals one of his creations after another is both mesmerizing and disconcerting.

Strange Tale of Panorama Island with its macabre elements and peculiar plot and characters is very reminiscent of the stories by Edgar Allan Poe that I have read. It is an engrossing tale. There is a surprising amount of story in Strange Tale of Panorama Island for such a short work: assumed identities, stolen inheritances, grave robbing, murder, intricate schemes, and more. His characters, particularly Hirosuke, also leave a strong impression. Hirosuke, who even at the beginning of the story was a rather strange man, becomes increasingly unbalanced and unhinged as the novella progresses. While his decline follows a natural progression and isn’t at all surprising, the change is still unsettling. Strange Tale of Panorama Island is a fantastic work of psychological drama and suspense. It’s actually the first story by Edogawa that I’ve read but it definitely won’t be the last.