Quoth the Raven “Nevermore”… in Japanese

Posted by Katarzyna Ancuta on November 03, 2007 in Dr Katarzyna Ancuta, Guest Blog tagged with

Although my affair with Edogawa Rampo cannot truly be described as particularly intense, I must admit that I have become somewhat of a fan of the man whose darkly twisted tales of imagination certainly deserve more attention in the Gothic world than they are currently getting.

Edogawa Rampo in his trademark pose with a gun.

Edogawa Rampo is a pen name of a Japanese mystery and detective story writer Hirai Taro (1894-1965). And although this may not be immediately obvious to everyone, it is in fact a Romanised transcription of the Japanese pronunciation of the name of one of Rampo’s literary role-models, Edgar Allan Poe. Fascinated with the works of European and American mystery writers, such as Conan Doyle, Poe or Chesterton, over the years Rampo produced a massive bulk of writings that brought him well-deserved fame in his native Japan.

Having said that, until today Rampo remains relatively unknown to the non-Japanese readers. A selection of his short stories translated into English by James B. Harris was published in 1956 as Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination. I have also seen a more recent translation of two of his novels, The Black Lizard and the Beast of Shadows, on Amazon but I haven’t been particularly successful in finding anything beyond that.

Similarly to Poe, the stories of Rampo have fuelled many a film narrative. Still, as the films in question have mostly been Japanese productions, the non-Japanese audience persists in blissful ignorance aware perhaps of the existence of a few. Among the more recent Rampo-inspired films we find, for instance, Shinya Tsukamoto’s Gemini, loosely based on Rampo’s story “The Twins,” and certainly worth giving it a try if only for its visual appeal. Expanded by Tsukamoto beyond the original concept of stolen identity and fratricide, Gemini manages to stay close to the exuberant vision of Rampo’s world.

What’s with those Japanese wells? Dr Yukio Daitokuji thrown into a well by his murderous twin brother. A still from Shinya Tsukamoto’s GEMINI (1999).

Tsukamoto’s version of the story focuses on the trials and tribulations of a young Japanese doctor dividing his time between fighting the plague in the poverty-ridden suburbs of Tokyo, spending quality time with his beautiful amnesiac wife and escaping certain death at the hands of his frustrated disinherited twin brother.

And here he is again relaxing with his wife, Rin. Or is it his evil twin brother?

Although quite obviously I cannot comment on the original Japanese stories, what struck me when reading Rampo’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination was how his (or was it perchance his translator’s?) rather Poesque stylistics (complete with live burials, somnambulism, doppelgangers, deformity, eccentric pastimes, and psychological ruminations of criminal minds) matches the sensuous, carnal and carnivalesque themes of his stories.

A still from a biopic, RAMPO (1994) by Kazuyoshi Okuyama showing a form of erotic entertainment in which the body of a submissive mistress of a very Dracula-like Marquis is used as a live canvas for the projection of vintage pornographic films.

We may only wonder whether Rampo’s fascination with carnal desires and perverse sexual practices is a mark of sexual repression or a remainder of the Shintoistic tradition promoting a guilt-free attitude to human sexuality. Still, whatever the case, the exuberant sensuality of the stories certainly contributes to the creation of a unique if excessive universe.

Not sure what I mean? Well, picture this then: a man who describes himself as being “ugly beyond description” spends months living inside a large leather armchair to indulge in the thrill of having anonymous women seated on his lap; a rich eccentric is driven mad by the unseen pleasures of being incarcerated naked within a large spherical concave mirror. Or how about a story of a deaf and mute quadruple amputee war veteran with no face tortured by his lascivious wife who sees him as a giant caterpillar? Have I got your attention?

The Marquis himself dressed as his late Mother. Another still from RAMPO. Notice a strategically placed sample of Catholic-kitsch art in the middle – degenerate feudal aristocracy at its best.

My personal acquaintance with Rampo began three years ago after I bought a HK-Japanese film production called Face to Face, directed by Casey Chan. Although featuring one of the more recent HK heartthrobs, Stephen Fung, the film itself did not seem to attract much attention in HK (nor anywhere else, I should add). Having said that, I wouldn’t agree such a cold reception was completely well-deserved. But then, I have my reputation for being overenthusiastic for many bad movies…

Dead Beauty and the Beast. A shot straight from the Phantom of the Opera. A still from FACE TO FACE (2004) by Casey Chan.

Face to Face tells a story of two friends separated by the unexpected appearance of a beautiful woman. Having to choose between a rich Chinese aristocrat and his poor Japanese artist friend, the girl surprisingly (yeah, right…) chooses the first. But if you think the guy is in luck then think again. Not only does the poor fellow fall victim to the typhoid fever while his wife keeps getting very well acquainted with his artist friend and in effect disappears for 9 months under a pretence of some unknown skin disease, but also shortly after his wife miraculously recovers he ends up with his head smashed by his best friend during a skiing trip.

The living dead or rather the not quite dead Bowie (Stephen Fung) grinning triumphantly (or trying to) having avenged himself. Another still from FACE TO FACE.

Having said that, the artist friend does not fare that much better as he is soon to find out that his new bride-to-be is more interested in money than in him. Not to mention a few private obsessions that begin to steal his sleep.

Can you guess what’s been troubling the artist? Would that have something to do with unborn babies, perhaps?

Fellow fans of Roger Corman’s cinematic interpretations of Poe’s stories will not be completely disappointed with Chan’s little Gothic tale of murder, greed, lust and revenge, although it goes without saying that the visual quality of Rampo’s tales is perhaps best depicted in the more hallucinogenically excessive Japanese films, such as Rampo Noir / Rampo Jigoku, or the biographical Rampo.

Rampo Noir remains my absolute favourite, based on some of Rampo’s stories directed by four Japanese directors: Suguru Takeuchi, Akio Jissoji, Hisayasu Sato and Atsushi Kaneko. As I don’t think that any plot description would do the film justice here are a few of the stunning shots.

Mirrors, mirrors everywhere. An opening shot of "The Hell of Mirrors" part of RAMPO NOIR (2005).

Rampo’s story "The Hell of Mirrors" has been given a more contemporary treatment in the film. But what really catches the eye are the stunning shots and compositions involving dozens of mirrors. One can only wonder how did they lose the reflection of the film crew?

 The ripples visible in the pool are one of the many reminders of the great Tokyo earthquake to which the film alludes more than once.

The film version of "The Hell of Mirrors" builds up the narcissistic motif of Rampo’s story exchanging the eccentric mirror collector with a young mirror-maker in love with his reflection.

Mirrors, mirrors on the wall, on the floor, on the ceiling… Can you tell which part of the picture is a reflection?

The final episode of Rampo Noir, "Crawling Bugs" focuses on a rather fatal attraction of a chauffeur to a stage actress and a love affair that takes us beyond death.

The stage actress is being munched on by a blood-drinking bug from Outer Space. Another still from RAMPO NOIR.

The chauffeur develops a strange obsession with flesh-eating bacteria and embarks on a mission to stop decomposition of his lover’s body after death.

Whatever remains of the stage actress after her chauffeur has attempted to rescue her from the said bugs.

The final scene of the movie is certainly one of the most memorable moving images I have ever seen. But let’s save some mystery for those who’d like to see the film.

Last but not least, click here to see some interesting artwork of a Japanese artist Amano inspired by Rampo’s stories.

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