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.) Read more
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. Read more
The label historical novelist usually brings to mind someone like Robert Graves, whose I, Claudius has become something of a staple reference point for such work. It’s no coincidence Graves is namechecked in the introduction to The Roof Tile of Tempyō, but not because this slender and spare work is any kind of sequel in spirit to Graves’s books. The whole reason it’s mentioned is as contrast, since Yasushi Inoue’s approach to reconstructing history is consistently minimalist. He isn’t interested in battle scenes or souped-up drama; he takes the facts that are available, presents them plainly, and adorns them with only such novelistic embellishment as he feels are needed.
For the most part this approach works, and works so well the competition just feels overblown and self-indulgent. It was like that with The Blue Wolf, his remarkable history of Genghis Khan’s life and empire; it was most definitely like that with Tun-huang, his masterwork (written the same year as The Blue Wolf, incredibly), wherein he merged history and fiction to provide an explanation for the treasure found in the Thousand Buddha Caves. Roof Tile is not quite in the same category, if only because the history it retraces is highly specific to Japanese (and Chinese) readers and demands a lot more effort from the reader to assimilate the material. That doesn’t make it a bad book — just not the first Inoue one should read. That distinction I leave to either of the other two mentioned before. Read more
The seaside landscape of ancient rural Japan depicted in Shipwrecks makes the moors of Wuthering Heights seem downright inviting. What little beach exists is surrounded by rocky shoals, and the villagers unfortunate enough to live there eke out an existence either by fishing or evaporating sea water to make salt. Both such enterprises are barely enough to sustain single families, let alone an entire community; small wonder one of the few ways to escape — and to provide for one’s family at the same time — involves selling one’s self to be a bonded servant.
The central character of Shipwrecks is nine-year-old Isaku, who sees all this with the clear-eyed, sad understanding that is common among children of hardscrabble life. When we first meet him, he’s fishing driftwood out from between the rocks to create a funeral pyre for one of the village’s recent dead. His thoughts are less on the one who has died than on how good wood like that would be put to better use heating their own hut. His own father has sold himself off for a three-year stint, leaving him, his mother and his little sister to fend for themselves — and forcing him to grow up that much more quickly. There is no childhood in a place like this, only infancy and then whatever grueling work a boy can perform at his age. Read more
A while back I wrote about Baian the Assassin, one of any number of samurai-era TV shows that Japan created for itself rather than an international audience. Times have changed, and what Japan once considered insular and wholly theirs has since filtered out and become part of the larger galaxy of cinematic and storytelling tropes. You don’t need any particular background in Japanese history to find Baian enjoyable; most of the period details either explain themselves or exist solely as exotica for their own sake.
I was vaguely aware that Baian had been adapted from a series of novels by Shotaro Ikenami, whose mainstay was samurai adventure stories. They not only sold well but lent themselves to being adapted: Hideo Gosha filmed Ikenami’s Hunter in the Dark (starring Tatsuya Nakadai and Tetsuro Tanba, two of the most dependable and charismatic Japanese actors of the last few decades), and when Baian was filmed for TV it featured Ken Watanabe (Last Samurai, Inception) in the lead role. The movies proved easier to find than the books, so when a copy of Ninja Justice — a Kodansha paperback reprint of an earlier offering in hardcover — turned up relatively cheap I pounced on it. Read more
Nisioisin has a palindromic name, and a mind that also seems to double back on itself in one knotty convolution after another. He writes novels that have elements of mysteries, thrillers, surreal comedies and what Japanese sometimes call “erotic grotesque nonsense” — three-way mixes of sex, violence and absurdity. The audacity of the whole thing is at least as important as any of the other elements, to say nothing of the plot.
I was not thinking of the plot a great deal during Death Note: Another Note, if only because the conventions of murder mysteries guarantee that their plots only exist as a framework for authorial witchcraft of one kind or another. They’re as ultimately unimportant to the story as the color of the tarmac at the Indy 500, which in turn only exists to give the cars something to run on really fast. But unimportant doesn’t mean useless, and so novel murder weapons and bizarre ways of obtaining (or obscuring) clues are part of the author’s showmanship. This is a big part of how Nisioisin’s Zaregoto and Anotherholic worked: they were arenas in which the author could get away with hitching together the most improbable and colorful of elements. That was part of the fun. We know the story’s a contrivance with all the “reality” of the patter a stage magician tells us when he’s doing a card trick, so why get hung up about it? Isn’t all this stuff about consenting to have our legs pulled in a creative way? Read more
First, a statement: The last volume of Peepo Choo is a satisfying ribbon for the gift that this whole series has been, a way to tie everything together and give everyone more or less what they deserve. Second, a promise: I’ll try not to ruin too much when talking about the book, since the how of the final installment is as important as the what.
What’s clearest, now that the series is over, is how more than anything else Peepo Choo has been about delusion and illusion. The Japan that Milton saw through otaku-colored glasses wasn’t the Japan he ended up in when he finally got there. That Japan ended up being wall-to-wall with what turned out to be the same sort of prosaic, mundane folks he thought he was getting away from. His buddy Jordy is equally deluded, seeing either endless opportunities to get laid (none of which pan out) or some fleeting kinship in a fellow “gangsta” (who turns out to be far more of the real thing than he can handle). In fact, most everyone in this story — male, female, black, white, Japanese, American, law-abiding, law-breaking — is really looking for one thing: companionship. It’s only after the delusion is wiped away that they have a chance at finding it. Read more