My theory goes something like this. The more popular an author is in a given country, the greater the odds they will be that much more difficult to bring to audiences in other languages — because their popularity in their original locale comes at the cost of being rooted that much more in it and dependent on it. It’s far from a perfect theory, since there’s a great deal it can’t explain, but in my mind it does go a long way towards describing how some of Japan’s most popular authors remain woefully under-translated in English. A variant on this theory involves the availability of rights and permissions, but that doesn’t explain why authors like Yumeno Kyūsaku or Juran Hisao are not in English despite their work being out of copyright.
Edogawa Rampo should have been a shoo-in for being more widely translated, since most of what he wrote was nominally in the mystery / thriller / horror mold. Such stories find easy audiences in almost any language; Agatha Christie has sold literally billions of copies of her work in over forty languages. But for decades Rampo had exactly one book translated into English, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, an anthology of stories that only appeared in English after an arduous five-year collaboration with the translator. His imagination drew on the strains of “erotic grotesque” that ran through the popular imagination of Japan during the 20s and 30s, giving his work a decadent flavor. Perhaps it was exactly that flavor which made translation that much more difficult, but the more likely explanation in Rampo’s case is twofold: simple lack of awareness on the part of a prospective audience that wasn’t Japanese.
This situation has started to change, albeit slowly, in the last few years. Kurodahan Press brought us translations of Black Lizard and The Beast in the Shadows, and a translation of another highly influential (and quite grotesque) Rampo work The Blind Beast also showed up recently. The Edogawa Rampo Reader, another Kurodahan offering, is much in the same vein as the original Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination — a collection of short stories, some no more than a page or two, as well as a number of essays culled from many such pieces Rampo wrote for daily papers for decades. (There is in Japan a culture of drawing on popular novelists and critics to comment on current events; after WWII Rampo was consulted frequently for his viewpoints on various sensational crimes.) This anthology widens the door into Rampo’s imagination that much more, where before all we had was second-hand descriptions of his work or adaptations into other media that we were lucky enough to see in English (e.g., Rampo Noir, or the film version of Blind Beast itself, which only follows perhaps a third of the plot of the original story).
Few authors in Japan can ignore Rampo’s impact on their work and the genres they write in. He was far from the first mystery writer in that country but he became its most influential, both in terms of the types of stories he told and the atmosphere he evoked. It’s not difficult to read someone like Nisioisin and see individual traits in his work that stretch back, almost unbroken, to Rampo. And more than that, Rampo was compulsively readable: he tweaked your interest from the first line of every story and kept you hooked all the way through. He wouldn’t have sold as much as he did if he hadn’t been an entertainer first, either. He also kept sight of the oddly conservative morality that pervades much crime and mystery fiction: that the evil men do is a palpable thing, like a miasma that seeps under doors and poisons men in their sleep.
Rampo’s main theory about crime seemed to be that it sprung from the union of great intelligence and great boredom — a thesis which, I fear, unintentionally gave fuel to the very Guardians of Morality who censored his work during the 30s and 40s. (Some of that was incorporated into the movie Mystery of Rampo, which used some details from his life and fiction as a jumping-off point into a fantasia.) One of the star entries in this volume, “The Stalker in the Attic”, serves nicely as the most immediate embodiment of that concept — and not just because it was one of Rampo’s most influential and oft-cited pieces. It was not only made into a movie on its own, but its storyline was incorporated into other films that used pieces of Rampo’s work in new contexts (e.g., Horrors of Malformed Men). In this story, a young antihero named Gōda Saburō finds himself bored by life until he begins studying crime. He decides to make use of the peculiar construction of his rooming-house as a way to commit various undetectable murders. Then Rampo’s long-standing detective hero Kogoro Akechi arrives on the scene and bursts Saburō’s bubble … and while Saburō evades prosecution, he’s punished in a way that might be more effective than any jail cell.
“The Appearance of Osei”, a cleverly-constructed story about an adulterous wife who exploits an opportunity to do away with her husband, was used as the starting point for Mystery of Rampo. The movie opens with a beautifully-animated version of the story, which then segues into Rampo (Naoto Takenata) facing government censorship for the story and then being propelled into a series of intrigues that seem to stem from or eventually become encapsulated by different parts of his imagination. But the story’s fine for reasons apart from that, not least of them being how the Osei of the title skillfully uses everyone else’s preconceptions about her to avoid prosecution.
“The Daydream”, the opening story, begins with a line that might well preface any of Rampo’s stories: “Was it a nightmare of a daydream, or did it actually happen?” This “nightmare of a daydream” involves a vaguely similar mechanic: a man commits a murder, conceals the evidence in broad daylight, and the narrator’s horrified realization that the corpse is in display for all to see is shrugged off as being part of the act. This story is not to be confused with Junichiro Tanizaki’s story of the same name, which inspired a movie version widely credited with being Japan’s first “pink film” — released, much to the authorities’ embarrassment, right when Tokyo was hosting the 1964 Olympics.
I wonder what Rampo thought of such films, especially since one of his essays in this book is titled “The Horrors of Film” and opens with the confession “I am terrified of movies.” Everything from simple close-ups to slow-motion scenes to — gasp — stereoscopy inspire primal dread, and the way the essay is worded and constructed conveys his creeping dread with unexpected effectiveness. If he ever saw any of Japan’s most masterful experiments in filmed unease and terror — Jigoku, or Kwaidan — he might well have fled the theater.
If the movies left him aghast, lenses fascinated him; they received an essay all to themselves, and he paid due homage to his own fascinating in the story “Hell of Mirrors” (another Rampo Noir segment). And writing, of course, enthralled him — hence the essay “My Love for the Printed Word”, where his early work in the newspaper trade (and his childhood experiments with a printing press) allowed him to be “effectively wedded to the married word”, as he put it, in his career as a mystery novelist. He felt dismayed that the purer impulses of his boyhood were “devolved” into “vulgar” journalism, but happy all the same that he was able to regain some of that connection to fantastic purity through his fiction.
Rampo also commented avidly and intelligently on other people’s writing — in “Fingerprint Novels of the Meiji Era” he looked at the way forensic evidence (fingerprints, specifically) were used in previous Japanese detective stories; and in “Dickens and Poe” he compares the two authors’ approaches to the mystery story — especially from the point of view of Poe’s critique of Dickens’s own Barnaby Rudge. And in “An Eccentric Idea” he catalogs several “sleight-of-hand tricks” as used by other mystery authors — e.g., unexpected murder weapons, or how to make things disappear. (The easiest way to do this is to set things up so that they were never there in the first place, and to allow the reader to delude himself.)
More of Rampo’s work is to be translated. All of it is eagerly awaited, such as his story The Strange Tale of Panorama Island — a manga version of which was created by none other than the master of the erotic grotesque in that format, Suehiro Maruo, and which will also be released in English by Last Gasp. The man’s closet of treasures has just barely been opened; who knows what else will come spilling out over time.