Tokyo Decadence: 15 Stories

Tokyo Decadence: 15 StoriesAuthor: Ryu Murakami
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
U.S. publisher: Kurodahan Press
ISBN: 9784902075786
Released: March 2016
Original release: 1986-2003

Ryu Murakami is a fairly prolific and multi-talented creator. In addition to being an author, he is also a filmmaker and has been involved in the music industry as well. Several of Murakami’s novels have been translated into English, many of them by Ralph McCarthy, including Audition and Popular Hits of the Showa Era which were my introduction to Murakami’s work. McCarthy is also responsible for compiling and translating Tokyo Decadence: 15 Stories, a sort of best-of collection bringing together fifteen of Murakami’s short stories originally published in Japan between 1986 and 2003. Nine of the stories had previously been translated and released in a variety of different periodicals, but the translations have been revised for their inclusion in Tokyo Decadence. The remaining six are being published in English for the first time. Published by Kurodahan Press in 2016, I was fortunate enough to be selected to receive an advanced copy through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.

The fifteen stories included in Tokyo Decadence are selected from five of Murakami’s short story collections and are presented chronologically. “Whenever I Sit At a Bar Drinking Like This,” “I Am a Novelist,” “It All Started Just About a Year and a Half Ago,” and “Each Time I read Your Confession” are from Run, Takahashi! and are all at least tangentially related to the baseball player Takahashi Yoshihiko. (It was this collection that seems to have ignited McCarthy’s passion for Murakami’s work.) The stories from Topaz—”Topaz,” “Lullaby,” and “Penlight”—are about call girls while the stories from Ryumiko’s Cinematheque—”The Last Picture Show,” “The Wild Animals” and “La Dolce Vita”—would appear to be at least semi-autobiographical. “Swans,” “Historia de un Amor.” “Se Fué,” and “All of Me” are taken from Swan, and most have something to do with Cuban dance and music and even share a few characters. Tokyo Decadence closes with the titular story from the collection At the Airport.

Having previously read some of Murakami’s work, I was rightfully prepared for Tokyo Decadence to be engaging while revealing a viciously dark sense of humor and dealing in gut-churning blood and gore. What I didn’t expect was that some of the stories, or at least parts of those stories, would be legitimately charming, compelling, and even occasionally heartwarming. Among the tales of gruesome murder, insanity, lust, obsession, and a myriad types of abuse are moments of love and humanity. That being said, Tokyo Decadence is very much a graphic and explicit collection of mature short stories, often disturbing and dark with very few characters who are anything but self-absorbed or self-indulgent. The stories are well-written, but the warped depravity and intensely twisted psychology exhibited will certainly not be to every reader’s taste and will likely offend or be found off-putting by many.

Surprisingly, Tokyo Decadence starts in a fairly lighthearted vein before delving into its more devastating and grotesque aspects. The portrayals of the various characters in the collection aren’t particularly flattering. Many of them are rather disturbed individuals, making Murakami’s use of first-person narration especially discomfiting. Interestingly, quite a few of the stories are actually seen from a woman’s perspective. This of course doesn’t soften the seedier nature of Tokyo Decadence which is quite frank in its exploration of sex and violence, the two subjects often closely intertwined with each other. Although some of the stories arguably lose some of their impact out of context from their original collections, overall I found Tokyo Decadence to be an interesting, engaging, and varied anthology; I would be very curious to read more of Murakami’s short fiction in translation.

Thank you to Kurodahan Press for providing a copy of Tokyo Decadence for review.

The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō

The Early Cases of Akechi KogorōAuthor: Edogawa Rampo
Translator: William Varteresian
U.S. publisher: Kurodahan Press
ISBN: 9784902075625
Released: November 2014
Original release: 1925-1926

Edogawa Rampo, the pen name of Hirai Tarō, was an extraordinarily influential author in Japan, especially when it came to the genre of detective and crime fiction. His influence can still be seen to this day and his work continues to inspire other creators. One of his most famous characters is the detective Akechi Kogorō. Previously, only a handful of stories featuring Akechi had been translated into English: “The Psychological Test,” found in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination; The Black Lizard, which was collected in a single volume along with Beast in the Shadows; “The Stalker in the Attic,” published in The Edogawa Rampo Reader; and The Fiend with Twenty Faces. I have always wished for a volume entirely devoted to Akechi mysteries and so I was very happy when Kurodahan Press announced The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō. Published in 2014 with translations by William Varteresian, the anthology collects four of the earliest Akechi stories written between 1925 and 1926.

After an excellent and informative introductory essay about Edogawa Rampo and Akechi Kogorō, The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō opens with Rampo’s very first mystery featuring Akechi, “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill,” a short story about the death of Akechi’s childhood friend, the wife of an owner of a secondhand bookshop he frequents. Rampo hadn’t initially intended for Akechi to become a recurring character in his fiction but readers liked him. The second story in the volume, “The Black Hand Gang,” is narrated by the same protagonist as the first, a relatively new acquaintance of Akechi, and the two of them become involved with an investigation into the disappearance of a young relative. In “The Ghost,” Akechi doesn’t appear until rather late in the story to deal with a peculiar case of a wealthy man suffering from a rival’s deep-seated grudge. The volume concludes with The Dwarf, a short novel well-received by the public but apparently disliked by Rampo himself in which Akechi is faced with an increasingly complicated murder mystery with numerous twist and turns.

All four stories in The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō were written towards the beginning of Rampo’s career. As is noted in the introduction, Rampo largely wasn’t very happy with them. Although The Dwarf became fairly well-known in part thanks to its film adaptations, the cases collected in the volume are generally not examples of Rampo’s best or strongest work, lacking the polish of later stories. An important component of “The Black Hand Gang” doesn’t even translate very well into English since it relies on a cryptographic method based on the Japanese writing systems. Overall, the included mysteries are still enjoyable but somehow not quite as compelling as many of Rampo’s other tales. He would, however, reuse, rework, and refine many of their elements in subsequent writings. One of the things that makes these four stories particularly notable, and the reason that they have been collected together in the first place, is that they reveal Akechi very early on in his development before has become Rampo’s iconic detective and even before his character has been firmly established.

I’ll admit, I like this early Akechi in all of his eccentricities. In “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill” he begins as a well-read and intelligent young man with a particular interest in and fascination with detective and mystery fiction. The small apartment that he rents is so full of books that there’s barely any room to stand, let alone sit or entertain guests. He’s a flashy dresser and an eloquent speaker with a fondness and flair for the dramatic. By the time of The Dwarf, Akechi has begun to transform into the master detective that he will later be remembered as. He is no longer just an amateur sleuth seeking out strange cases in his spare time as some sort of hobby; Akechi has become a skilled and famous investigator with contacts in the judicial and police forces and a cohort of men working under him. I enjoyed The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō a great deal specifically because it provides a glimpse of the earliest incarnations of Rampo’s great detective. I do hope to have the opportunity to read even more of Akechi’s stories in translation in the future.

The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows

The Black Lizard and Beast in the ShadowsAuthor: Edogawa Rampo
Illustrator: Kawajiri Hiroaki

Translator: Ian Hughes
U.S. publisher: Kurodahan Press
ISBN: 9784902075212
Released: January 2006
Original release: 1934 and 1928

After being introduced to the works of Edogawa Rampo through Strange Tale of Panorama Island and Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, I have slowly been making my way through the rest of his work available in English. Compared to his total output in Japan where he was and continues to be an extremely influential author, relatively little has actually been translated. Happily, in recent years Kurodahan Press has been releasing more and more of Rampo’s stories and essays. The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows became the first volume of Rampo’s work to be published by Kurodahan Press in English in 2006. Translated by Ian Hughes and with an introduction by Mark Schreiber and illustrations by Kawajiri Hiroaki, the book collects two of Rampo’s short novels. The Black Lizard, originally published in Japan in 1934, features Rampo’s famous detective Akechi Kogorō. The second, shorter story, Beast in the Shadows, was first released in 1928 was one of Rampo’s earlier major works.

In the Japanese underworld the Black Lizard reigns supreme. A woman of exceptional beauty and intelligence, she has become one of Japan’s greatest criminals with an entourage of underlings ready and willing to carry out her schemes and to do her bidding. Most recently the Black Lizard has had her eye on the “Star of Egypt,” the most precious diamond in Japan. Her intent isn’t to steal it. Instead, she has put into motion an audacious plan to kidnap the owner’s daughter Sanae and demand the diamond as ransom. The brilliant private detective Akechi Kogorō is called in to prevent the kidnapping, but he may have met his match with the Black Lizard. The battle of wits between these two opponents in The Black Lizard is marvelous. Both are masters of disguise and both are extremely clever. A large portion of the novel consists of their daring and unexpected tactics as they try to out-think and stay several step ahead of each other. The plot of The Black Lizard take the readers through numerous twists and turns, some of which are difficult to believe but all of which are exciting.

Beast in the Shadows is told from the perspective of a detective novelist who accidentally becomes involved in a case surrounding his fellow mystery author Ōe Shundei. The novelist has fallen in love with Oyamada Shizuko, the wife of a wealthy entrepreneur, and it is for her sake that he begins investigating Shundei. Shundei is a misanthrope and stays out of the public eye so not much is known about the author. However, Shizuko has come to the determination that Ōe Shundei is the pen name of Hirata Ichirō, an ex-lover who has been harassing her and threatening her through letters. Hirata seems to have been spying on Shizuko and her husband and knows things about their private, intimate lives that no one else should. Instead of going to the police, Shizuko turns to the novels as her confidant in order to keep the matter discreet. Though shorter than The Black Lizard, Beast in the Shadows incorporates just as many surprising plot developments if not more, include a fantastic twist ending.

When I first started reading The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows I wondered why those two particular novels, other than being some of Rampo’s better known works of suspense, had been collected into a single volume. But by the end it became clear that there is one particular similarity between the two stories that tie them together thematically. I’m afraid that revealing it would spoil the mystery, though. However, I will say that the Black Lizard isn’t the only incredibly cunning character in the book. Another important element in both The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows is the role that fiction plays in the stories and specifically how crime inspires and influences fantasy and vice versa. This is particularly prominent in Beast in the Shadows where two primary characters are novelists, giving them a unique perspective on the investigation. But fiction is influential to The Black Lizard as well, Rampo’s very own short story “The Human Chair” being a pivotal reference. I already knew that I enjoy Rampo’s work, but I found The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows particularly fascinating because of the power granted to stories in the volume.

Oh, Tama!

Oh, Tama!Author: Mieko Kanai
Translator: Tomoko Aoyama and Paul McCarthy
U.S. publisher: Kurodahan Press
ISBN: 9784902075670
Released: January 2014
Original release: 1987
Awards: Women’s Literature Prize

Oh, Tama! is the third volume of Mieko Kanai’s work to be translated into English. The first was The Word Book, a collection of her short stories from the 1970s, while the second was a short novel called Indian Summer. Both Oh, Tama! and Indian Summer are a part of Kanai’s Mejiro Series—a group of novels tied together more by location and characters than by an overarching plot (though some events do cross over from one novel to another.) Indian Summer is actually the third volume in that series while Oh, Tama!, even though it was translated later, is the second. Oh, Tama! was originally serialized between 1986 and 1987 before being collected and released as a single volume which went on to win Kanai the Women’s Literature Prize in 1988. The English-language translation by Tomoko Aoyama and Paul McCarthy, released by Kurodahan Press in 2014, is based on the 1999 Japanese edition of the novel. I was very pleased to receive a copy of Oh, Tama! through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.

Tsuneko is pregnant. No one except for her and maybe her half-brother Alexandre (if he really is her half-brother) is entirely sure who the father is. Natsuyuki was one of the candidates, but for various reasons instead of being given the role of “father” he has had the responsibility of caring for Tama—Tusnkeo’s pet cat, also pregnant—thrust upon him by Alexandre. It’s a rather strange turn of events, especially when Tusneko leaves the country and Tama becomes one of the only remaining links to her left in Tokyo. The other potential fathers-to-be are trying to find or at least contact Tsuneko, which eventually leads them to Natsuyuki and Tama. In yet another bizarre twist of fate, one of them, Fuyuhiko, actually turns out to be Natsuyuki’s very own long-lost half-brother, making for a rather odd meeting.

There’s actually not much of a driving plot to Oh, Tama!. Instead, Kanai focuses on the mundane lives of the characters. Even the novel’s setting is unremarkable—almost the entire story takes place within the confines of Natsuyuki’s small apartment. Tama provides a focal point from which Kanai explores the interpersonal relationships between Natsuyuki, his friends, family members, and neighbors. The characters in Oh, Tama! aren’t particularly exceptional people although they’re all slightly quirky, eccentric, and offbeat. Their relationships also follow that same pattern of being just a little peculiar and unusual. I actually quite like Natsuyuki and the others and find their interactions, though fairly low-key, to be delightfully amusing as well as realistic. According to one of Kanai’s afterwords, the characters in Oh, Tama! are actually based on real people, so perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that their relationships, in all of their strangeness, should also feel so natural.

The translators’ introduction to Oh, Tama! describes the novel as “a treasure chest of rich and varied parody, allusion and intertextuality.” Since I haven’t actually read many of the works being alluded to, many of the references (even when pointed out) were a little lost on me. However, I could appreciate what Kanai was doing. Personally, what appealed to me most about Oh, Tama! were the characters themselves. Natsuyuki is a fairly laid back sort of guy, but this tendency (mostly because complaining or actually trying to change things would take too much effort) puts him into some odd situations. Alexandre, who seems to delight in messing with people, is often more concerned about Tama and the kittens than any of the people around him. I found their slightly antagonistic friendship and their interactions with Fuyuhiko and the others to be highly entertaining. I greatly enjoyed Oh, Tama! and its quirky, understated humor. So much so that I plan on reading the next novel in the Mejiro series, Indian Summer, in the very near future.

Thank you Kurodahan Press for providing a copy of Oh, Tama! for review.

The Fiend with Twenty Faces

The Fiend with Twenty FacesAuthor: Edogawa Rampo
Illustrator: Tim Smith 3

Translator: Dan Luffey
U.S. publisher: Kurodahan Press
ISBN: 9784902075250
Released: March 2012
Original release: 1936

Edogawa Rampo, the pen name of Tarō Hirai, was one of Japan’s preeminent authors of the erotic grotesque nonsense movement. However, he was also well-known for his detective and mystery stories. Later in his career he even wrote a series for children called The Boy Detectives. The first and possibly best-known novel in this series was The Fiend with Twenty Faces, originally serialized in the boys adventure magazine Shōnen Club in 1936. The English translation of The Fiend with Twenty Faces by Dan Luffey was published by Kurodahan Press in 2012 with illustrations by Tim Smith 3. Although Rampo was a prolific and extremely influential author in Japan, relatively few of his works have been translated into English. So far, The Fiend with Twenty Faces is the only example of Rampo’s stories for a young audience to have been made available. As a fan of Rampo’s ero guro works, I was curious to read something a little different of his.

Terrorizing the wealthy of 1930s Tokyo is a criminal known only as Twenty Faces, a master of disguise who can change his appearance with such ease that no one has been able to uncover his true identity. Using his skills of disguise and his tremendous intellect, he steals whatever suits his fancy—priceless jewels, family heirlooms, works of art—nothing is safe. He has even been known to resort to kidnapping. To make things even worse, Twenty Faces announces exactly what it is he intends to steal and when. But even armed with this knowledge, no one has yet been able to put an end to his crime spree. The only person who might be a match for Twenty Faces is the famous detective Akechi Kogorō. Unfortunately, he is currently overseas working on an important case. However, he has left behind Kobayashi Yoshio, his young assistant and protégé, to attend to his affairs. Kobayashi may be extremely clever, but Twenty Faces is cleverer still. With Akechi away, there is little hope that the criminal can be stopped, but maybe Kobayashi can at least make things a little more difficult for him.

Rampo very clearly draws from other great mystery writers in his creation of The Boy Detective series in general and in The Fiend with Twenty Faces specifically. Influences from Maurice Leblanc’s series featuring the infamous gentleman thief Arsène Lupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s mysteries with the master detective Sherlock Holmes can particularly be seen in The Fiend with Twenty Faces. Twenty Faces shares similarities with Lupin and Akechi exhibits many of the same skills that Holmes possesses. Having previously read many of Rampo’s short stories (at least those available in English), I was already familiar with Akechi from his mysteries aimed at adult audiences. I’m actually rather fond of Akechi and so was quite pleased when he made his appearance in The Fiend with Twenty Faces, even if it did take nearly half of the novel before he finally returns from overseas.

The Fiend with Twenty Faces was highly entertaining and a tremendous amount of fun. Despite being a mystery, the novel is a fairly straightforward adventure story written for a younger audience. As someone who is fairly well-read, I was able to anticipate most of the twists and turns in the plot of The Fiend with Twenty Faces. If something seemed to be too convenient or unlikely to be a coincidence, it’s most likely because it was. However, I still enjoyed the story a great deal. The characters are also fairly engaging. Twenty Faces himself is a bit of an arrogant bastard and his rivalry with Akechi is marvelous to watch unfold. I could easily imagine reading the novel aloud; Rampo’s writing addresses the reader directly and would be well-suited for performance with very little modification needed. I’m not sure if any more of the novels in The Boy Detectives series will be translated, but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to discover firsthand one of the other reasons why Rampo’s influence has been so enduring in Japan.