When Kōji Suzuki’s novel Ring, the basis for whole franchises of movies on both side of the Pacific, was published in English not long ago, I commented to a friend that English-speaking audiences are now finally seeing the literary side of Japan that the Japanese themselves experience and not simply the literature they offer up to the rest of the world. There’s more to this than simply “trying to understand the Japanese psyche”, or some equally stilted pseudo-psychological explanation. The reason people want to read such things and see them translated into English — myself included — is because there’s a lot of really good work to be read there. Dozens of authors, whole genres of work, are as-yet-untapped. Translating all of that into English increases the size of its potential audience by at least an order of magnitude.
Edogawa Rampo is a case in point. For decades he was probably the most famous and influential mystery author in Japan, a country which had devoured mystery novels in translation from English but had few creators of its own. Rampo (a pen name coined from a Nipponification of Edgar Allan Poe) changed all that. He wrote grotesque psychological mysteries that were something of a genre unto themselves, and which are not only appreciated today but have been revisited endlessly as movies — Rampo Noir and Gemini, just to name two recent examples. After the Second World War and the difficulties he encountered with censorship, he actually broadened his approach instead of narrowing it; he wrote works for younger audiences, became an influential critic and exponent of mystery and detective fiction, and even managed to personally oversee a translation of a meager selection of his works into English through the venerable Charles S. Tuttle publishing house. That one volume, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, has been about all anyone has ever read of Rampo’s work in English until now.
Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows, published together here in one volume by Kurodahan Press, go a long way towards closing that gap. They’re two of Rampo’s best and most representative works — the former a delirious noir romp, the latter a plunge into some of the blackest places in the human spirit with only the procedural wrapping of the detective novel as an anchor for the reader. Lizard is the longer of the two, but mostly because it moves fast and has a great deal of amused byplay on the part of the writer about the goings-on — the sort of thing that you can only pull off with tongue firmly ensconced in cheek. Rampo pulls it off, and the results are just plain fun — in fact, he goes so far as to make wholly blatant references to other works in his catalog, and in the gleefully excited tone of a man only too happy to share his secrets.
Lizard is actually one of several novels Rampo wrote with a regular protagonist, Detective Kogoro Akechi, who matches wits with a whole array of criminals and has spent “several years abroad”, giving him a convenient repository of skills to draw on in his work. The Black Lizard of the title is a femme fatale with a passion for collecting precious things — actually, not just things, but people as well. She’s brazenly announced in advance her intention to kidnap the daughter of a wealthy businessman: what matters to her is not so much having her, you see, but taking her. The fact that she can commit such a crime and get away with it is what matters most to her, much as Detective Akechi is professedly interested in “doing justice” but really just enjoys knowing that he can go up against someone like her and win. This sets the stage for how they clash, with each character striving to one-up the other in a variety of outlandish circumstances.
Black Lizard’s status as a cultural touchstone in Japan can be gauged by the fact that it’s been adapted enthusiastically into other media, and with great success. The infamous Yukio Mishima created a stage adaptation of it that teetered between camp and noir (much as the original story did); the play was the inspiration for a movie directed by none other than Kinji (Battle Royale) Fukasaku. The Black Lizard herself was played by female impersonator Akihiro Maruyama, a friend of Mishima’s; Isao Kimura — the boyishly handsome Okamoto of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai — played Detective Akechi; and Mishima himself turned up as one of the Black Lizard’s human statues, so manly in death that his chest hair is still growing. Aside from a brief release on VHS, it hasn’t shown up much at all in the States, but its gaudy widescreen imagery and camp-noir atmosphere make it a shoo-in for a good DVD version.
Then there is Beast in the Shadows, which is as despairing and horrified — not horrifying, horrified — as Black Lizard is bouncy and fun. Told in the form of a first-person after-the-fact confession, it deals with a crime novelist who entertains a dalliance with a married woman, only to find that she is being menaced by a figure out of her past. This former flame now goes by the pen name Ōe Shundai, and writes detective fiction as well — but of a kind diametrically opposed to the author’s own work, stuff that revels in “the cruel psychology of the criminal.” He’s also a notorious recluse, making it all the more difficult to track him, but the narrator applies the full gamut of his skills to the job. By the end of the story, he wishes he hadn’t, and outside of the wonderfully convoluted mechanics of the plot there is a plunge off the edge into an amoral abyss. I was reminded of Rampo’s contemporary, Junichiro Tanizaki, a markedly more literary author but no less fascinated by the perverse and ghastly in the human psyche; the double-reverse gutpunch ending of Oldboy (a story Rampo himself probably would have wished he’d written) also came back to mind.
There is unquestionably still something of a stereotypical perception of the Japanese as being marvelous imitators but awkwardly uncreative, even if this hasn’t been remotely true for a long time now. If the rest of Rampo’s body of work is half this enjoyable (and I’m betting it is), that’s all the more evidence that the stereotype is out of date by almost a century.