I could provide any number of examples of Japanese popular literature whose only real exposure to English-speaking audiences came through adaptations into film. Many of Edogawa Rampo’s mystery / crime / thriller / horror stories fit that category nicely, Blind Beast (1932) being one of them. At least two movie adaptations found their way into English, one of them Yasuzo Maruyama’s 1969 version and the other a hybrid of that story and “The Dancing Dwarf” (featured in The Edogawa Rampo Reader) by Teruo Ishii. The former adapted only part of the story; the latter was intermixed with elements from too many other stories to allow a viewer to form an understanding of what the story was really like.
Now we have the original story itself in English for the first time, and it’s not hard to see why it’s been cited as a seminal work of ero-guro. That term is the acronymic fusing of the terms “erotic” and “grotesque”, used to describe not only many of Rampo’s own works but a whole genre of popular decadence that flourished in Japan in the 20s and 30s. Within Blind Beast alone we have sadism, masochism, dismemberment, cannibalism, misogyny — all the ingredients that make it “one of the key prototype ‘slasher’ stories,” as Jack Hunter puts it in his introduction to the book. What’s also there is a general atmosphere of dread and terror, something prevalent in the story even in the moments when very little is happening or all is over and done with. (Without spoiling anything, I will say that the conclusion features this in the form of one of Rampo’s favorite regular devices: that of horrible things being hidden in plain view, with the reader being one of the few in the know.)
The “blind beast” of the title is a sculptor who is like a walking compendium of all the attributes that go into making a Malevolent Other. He’s crippled — not just sightless, but frail in body — ugly, leering, and with a seemingly endless internal catalog of perversities. (The 1969 movie version threw out most everything except the blindness and the perversion, most likely for the sake of allowing actor Eiji Funakoshi to remain halfway appealing.) He kidnaps a popular dancer, Ranko, and drags her down into his studio — a phantasmagorical cave of body parts created by and appealing to the sense of touch alone. In classic Gothic-horror style, Ranko comes to adore her captor — in the darkness of his cave she learns the true pleasures of touch, and all that — and the two engage in brutal sex games that end with him literally pulling her apart.
This is where the movie ends, but in the novel the story continues quite a ways: this mutilation becomes for him the beginning of a much larger, more involved crime, one committed (and ultimately concluded) in public. The authorial voice Rampo uses for these goings-on complements the decadent subject matter: “His morbid habit allowed him to leave to the world an absolutely staggering legacy,” he writes, in what comes off as the ultimate vindication of art for art’s sake. Sure, the guy’s a killer, but look at those sculptures! Philosophically speaking, it’s twaddle, but in the context of the genre and the story Rampo’s telling it makes sense.
I couldn’t call myself an expert on horror, but for me the one thing that seems most crucial to any horror story is some way for the audience to create an emotional investment in what goes on. This was why Saw and Hostel didn’t work for me, but Jigoku or The Midnight Meat Train did. The goings-on may not be credible, but they are happening to people whom we have at least some provisional emotional link. We are disturbed because there but for the grace of god go we. Moju attempts the same sort of thing by placing the killer’s passions on display in something of the same manner as the child-killer from M. The latter had his obsessions dragged out in public once he was cornered by an angry mob; the killer here puts them on display obligingly, perhaps as much for the sake of understanding himself as evoking the previously-unenjoyed appreciation of others. Is he indeed a grotesque reject, or simply a misunderstood aesthete who towers over the petty morality of his age? The answer probably doesn’t matter; the story is more about how that question is asked — with severed limbs, dismembered torsos, and much groping in the dark.