There has long been a taste in Japan for the bizarre and abnormal. The experimental Taisho Era was no exception. A desire for sensory experience existed even in cinema. During a funeral scene, for example, an attendant might light sticks of incense in the theater, drawing the audience into the ritual.

Strange Tale of Panorama Island, by Edogawa Ranpo, translated by Elaine Kazu Gerbert. University of Hawaii Press, 2013, 113 pp., $17 (paperback)

In her helpful introduction to this novella, translator Elaine Kazu Gerbert describes the period’s love of illusion, altered states and perspectives. Panoramas were especially popular. Imposing circular structures with ramps and viewing platforms, visitors were treated to a series of large-scale realistic paintings lit up from above. The images depicted historical events and exotic locations. A huge panorama stood on what sounds, from descriptions, very like the site of the present, endearingly dilapidated Hanayashiki amusement park in Tokyo’s Asakusa entertainment district.

Edogawa Ranpo is best known as the father of the contemporary Japanese detective novel. Ranpo was not a science fiction writer in the manner of H.G. Wells or later masters like Michael Moorcock, but the visionary nature of “Panorama Island,” its prescience in regard to future technologies, places it in the fabulist category. Ranpo’s island has its antecedent in Edgar Allen Poe’s 1847 story “The Domain of Arnheim,” in which a huge inheritance provides the funds to realize a fantasy island landscape.

When the head of a wealthy household dies under suspicious circumstances, a clever wastrel by the name of Hirosuke Hitomi, who happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to the deceased, formulates a plan to assume his identity and inherit the family’s vast fortune. It is a scheme that will involve staging a fake suicide and disinterring a recently buried corpse.

A number of optical illusions intensify the beauty and strangeness of the island Hitomi creates, one whose design principal seems to be that you have to feel oppressed before beauty can fully take hold. This requires a transit from the dark and creepy to the uplifting. The unconscious question that surfaces in the mind of the reader is whether Hitomi is a visionary or a madman. The unhealthy, febrile air of the island and the fact that he is prepared to kill to achieve the supreme heights of ecstasy and illusion, are clues to this question.

In the end, without the abominable passion and funds to sustain it, the island and all its strange machines and devices gradually turns into the equivalent of a haikyo, those abandoned factories, theme parks and other once vibrant sites now overgrown and decaying.

Very much of its time, the story embodies the prevailing taste for the grotesque. Superimposed on this are the Taisho Era’s flirtation with liberated ideas and the erotic. It would be tempting to see Ranpo’s depiction of the obsessive, self-destructive actions of Hitomi as an oblique broadside against the rising materialism and militarism of the period, but there is no particular evidence to suggest that Ranpo was interested in taking a political stand on the so-called dark valley that Japan was about to enter. There were few writers during Japan’s expansionist period who were prepared to question the value or humanity of colonialism and warfare. One recalls a contemporaneous haiku by Taneda Santoka — Leaving hands and feet/Behind in China/The soldiers return to Japan — but such sentiments were few and far between. It is possible, however, to interpret Ranpo’s story as a commentary on the absurdity of squandering resources on chimeras.

Ranpo’s strengths were plot and descriptive brilliance. Though unapologetically melodramatic, his account of the felon Hitomi prizing open the lid of the coffin and confronting a premonition of his own decomposed state is enough to send shivers, as it was no doubt meant to, down the spine of the reader.

Stephen Mansfield is a British photo-journalist based in Japan. He is the author of several books on Japanese and Asian subject.

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