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. Read more
Pilgrimage of the Sacred and Profane is the Vampire Hunter D novel I was hoping to read since this series got started. It takes all the best elements of the series as a whole — the otherworldly / futuristic setting, the grotesques and hardscrabble survivors that inhabit it, the menaces that boil up from inside it, and of course D himself — and puts them into a story that has real heart, real weight and real payoff. In the previous books — especially Raiser of Gales and The Stuff of Dreams — we got tantalizing hints about the main character that at most confined themselves to the background of the story. Here, they’re woven into its substance and made essential to how things play out. For most of the book it’s a fun ride (as all the D books are meant to be), and then at the end Kikuchi lobs a bomb of startling emotional impact right into our laps. Read more
More than anyone else I could name, Futaro Yamada is responsible for the fantasy mythology of the ninja as expressed in popular culture. Certainly more than anyone else who has yet been translated into English, and now that The Kouga Ninja Scrolls is at last available in a finely-wrought, officially sanctioned translation, it’s possible to see at least some of how all of this got started. Scrolls was the basis for the live-action movie Shinobi and the anime and manga Basilisk, but it preceded both of them by many decades, and in that intervening time the number of other things influenced by it — and most of the rest of Yamada’s popular fiction to boot — could be compiled into a catalog.
I’ve written before, with great enthusiasm, about the material derived from Yamada’s other works. The mythology of the ninja has been fodder for any number of books and stories, but Yamada gave it the form we have come most to know it in today — codified it, popularized it, and identified himself with it. His Makai Tenshō was the basis for a 1981 Sonny Chiba movie, a 2003 remake, an incomplete OAV, a direct-to-video pair of feature-length films so awful I could not bear to review them, and endless imitations and parodies. Scrolls, like Tensho, draws on both existing Japanese history and extant mythology to create a violent, wildly stylized fantasy. He was also known as a thriller/mystery novelist and cast plenty of influences right there; his novel Etsuraku (Pleasures of the Flesh) was filmed by Ream of the Senses director Nagisa Oshima and compares favorably to many of today’s non-linear thrillers. Read more
A man who builds himself a chair inside which he hides, the better to seduce a woman without her ever knowing it; a man who commits the “perfect” crime and discovers all too late he’s been a little too perfect about it; a man who builds a mirrored prison for himself and in it discovers madness or ecstasy — you decide; a wife who discovers her own fetish for cruelty when her husband returns home from the war with his body a ruined lump of flesh. Among the most remarkable things about these stories is not that they are from a Japanese author, nor even how striking and powerful they are, but that they were written many decades ago by a man now recognized as that country’s grand master of mystery and horrific fantasy: Edogawa Rampo, he who chose for his pen name a Nipponification of Edgar Allan Poe and remains one of the most criminally underpublished writers in any major genre. Read more