Edogawa Rampo: The Godfather of Japanese Crime Fiction

In a story entitled “The Human Chair,” an anonymous, physically repulsive furniture maker builds a large, beautiful chair that he can climb in and out of to enjoy the sensuous delights of having woman of all physical types sit on him. When the chair—with him inside it, of course—is moved to a luxurious hotel, he falls in love with not only his cocooned world, full of shifting female flesh relaxing on top of his own, but also various other “qualities found in…the sound of the voice, body odor.”

Welcome to Japan and welcome, in particular, to the fiction of Hirai Taro (1894-1965), who was such a fan of Edgar Allan Poe he wrote his stories under the name Edogawa Rampo (say it slowly). Just as Poe was the father of detective fiction, Rampo is widely considered to be the father of the Japanese mystery, creating original shorts for a mystery market that up until that point featured translations of numerous stories by western authors like G.K. Chesterton and, of course, Poe.

Rampo eventually spear-headed the rise of original Japanese mystery as a viable and thriving  local genre , as well as being a major stylist of the ero-guro (erotic grotesque) genre typified in such books as Moju: The Blind Beast (1932), which features a mass-murdering blind sculptor. Rampo was first translated into English with Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination in 1956, and it’s this book of fairly accessible noiry-weirdness we’ll focus on here.

The aforementioned “The Human Chair” opens this collection of nine shorts, where we discover that even the most hardened of Japanese perverts has his limits (if you continue to read further instalments of this column, you’ll discover just how impressive that is), but not in the way you’d probably imagine. Rather than our narrator tiring of his oddly masochistic method of finding affection, it’s instead the lack of permanence in his “love affairs” combined with a desire to have a Japanese posterior on him (rather than the cavalcade of Euro-ass he’s become accustomed to) that causes his emotional listlessness. Fortunately for our narrator, his chair is eventually moved into a Japanese home where a beautiful young woman soon finds him to be the most comfortable seat in the house. The story escalates the tension nicely before being nearly completely ruined by a too-cheeky twist ending that successfully un-creeps its pervasive atmosphere of Japanese bizarreness. It was, however, written in 1925, so I’ll cut Rampo some slack.

“The Psychological Test” is next up, which is pretty much Rampo re-writing Crime & Punishment for his audience, subtracting Raskolnikov’s long guilt-fuelled spiral down into existential crisis and adding instead a nihilistic shrug of the shoulders. It’s an effective piece that’s clever enough to have Fukiya, its main character, mock Raskolnikov’s spiritual torture over his actions as “sheer nonsense.” Fukiya’s callous dismissal of any resulting spiritual or psychological repercussions from his actions surely makes “The Psychological Test” (written in 1925) one of the earliest examples of the opportunistic sociopath to fall under the admittedly large, diaphanous plastic parasol that is Japanese mystery.

“The Caterpillar,” probably Rampo’s best-known work, is next. It’s a short, sick tale of a solider who’s lost all his limbs and most of his face in battle and is now tended to, in near-seclusion, by his pretty young wife, Tokiko. The strange, writhing thing on the tatami stirs some well-hidden perversities in Tokiko, who grows to love the cruelty with which she can now treat him. It’s a weird, strong brew, filled with grotesque descriptions of fleshy nubs and swollen bellies (left with nothing but an appetite, this caterpillar goes glutton). It’s a beautifully bizarre idea, with a grim ending and a horror-dominatrix additive to the anti-war message. Here, also, Rampo totally shreds notions of honor and traditional family life. Skipping ahead some, “The Twins” is another in the mastermind-murderer mold with the added twist of a man killing his twin brother and attempting to assume his life. “The Red Chamber” gives us a great set-up, with a group of men who regularly meet to out-gross each other with horror stories until one night, one of the group confesses to murdering ninety-nine people. Marred by another bullshit twist ending, “Chamber” is still a strong entry in the book, with the killer describing how he expertly lulls his victims to their own deaths.

Rounding out the book is “Two Crippled Men,” the tale of Saito, a crippled, disfigured war veteran, and Ihara, a man accused of a somnambulistic murder many years past.  It’s a surprisingly straight-forward number, with Saito sleuthing his way through Ihara’s backstory like a mangled Japanese Perry Mason. “The Traveller with the Pasted Rag Picture” is the last story, a Poe-esque tale of two men on an otherwise deserted train carriage, one of whom carries a portrait—and the couple pictured within seem to live and breathe.

While many of the stories coast by on the strength of their ideas and then fizzle out, the strength of Rampo’s imagination is clearly displayed and, combined with his literary notoriety, make for an obvious attempt at cinematic adaptation.

As a seeming attempt to revive the relentless creativity and artfulness of ‘60s/‘70s Japanese genre film (which we will cover in great depth in this space), Rampo Noir (2005) is a brave effort. It is nice to see the young punks of new Japanese cinema tackle the old man of Japanese crime literature, but when your film’s preview proclaims Rampo’s utter unfilmability (a strange, obviously untruthful boast), the viewer is automatically entitled to wonder why they even bothered. Divided into four parts, each helmed by a different director and linked by the oddly-neutered presence of the rock star of J-cinema, Tadanobu Asano (Ichi the KillerThor), this filmic Rampo-antho falls well short of the master’s work. Suguru Takeuchi’s “Mars Canal” is a short, mostly silent exercise with the stink of art film wankery about it. Akio Jissoji’s “Mirror Hell” is unrecognizable from its source material (found in Imagination), Hisayato Sato’s take on “Caterpillar” is needlessly modified to shoehorn in Asano and is stripped of much of the original story’s power.  Atsushi Kaneko’s take on “Crawling Bugs” is the final installment, and I admit to some bias here—Kaneko’s euro-spiced manga, Bambi (still never completely translated into English) is a favorite of mine and his directorial debut is a creative, lushly-coloured affair, at times resembling Sin City gone Technicolor.  All in all, though, Rampo Noir should be avoided at best, or at worst, shunted way down the list of J-films you need to see. Never fear, next time, we have something new and essential for you to watch.