Defining J-Horror: The erotic, grotesque ‘nonsense’ of Edogawa Rampo

by Eugene Thacker

Special To The Japan Times

In Japanese literature, there is a type of horror story that centers on an individual’s obsession with a single idea. It arises from the most innocent and everyday circumstances, but gradually this single idea becomes all-consuming, blurring the line between sanity and madness. In some cases, the transformations are not just psychological but physical, mutating a human being into something grotesque and unhuman.

Let’s say I’m a furniture designer who take great pride in their work. Nothing compares to the feeling of building a well-designed chair and then sitting in it for the first time. One day, I let my body slowly sink into a newly built chair, caressing the arm rests. The chair not only provides comfort and support, it seems to envelop me, to embrace me. Lost in my thoughts, my mind drifts and I stumble on a peculiar idea: I imagine myself accompanying the chair wherever it goes, experiencing what it experiences. I laugh to myself at such a ridiculous notion and dismiss it — but the idea keeps coming back.

“Quickly I took the armchair apart, and then put it together again to suit my weird purposes. As it was a huge armchair, with the seat covered right down to the level of the floor, and furthermore, as the back-rest and arm-supports were all large in dimensions, I soon contrived to make the cavity inside large enough to accommodate a man without any danger of exposure … I remodeled the chair so that the knees could be placed below the seat, the torso and the head inside the back-rest.”

After adding storage spaces for food, water and a catheter, I design (of course) a peephole. As I get inside the chair, “sitting” in it for a second time, it feels like a tomb.

“As soon as I entered the chair I was swallowed up by complete darkness, and to everyone else in the world I no longer existed!”

However, this is just the beginning. While I’m inside it, the chair is delivered to a hotel lobby, where a string of total strangers sit on it each day.

“No one, however, suspected even for a fleeting moment that the soft ‘cushion’ on which they were sitting was actually human flesh with blood circulating in its veins … .”

These quotes, and the even more bizarre events that follow, are from Edogawa Rampo’s short story “Ningen Isu” (“The Human Chair”), published in 1925 in the literature magazine Kuraku. Born Hirai Taro (1894-1965), Rampo is known as the originator of the modern mystery in Japan, but his horror stories were equally influential in Japan during the Meiji Era (1868 to 1912). Rampo ushered in an age of psychological horror, often depicting the most grotesque aspects of human nature with a clinical and eerily detached gaze.

“The Human Chair” is exemplary of a particular trope in Japanese horror where an innocuous, everyday event sends a character chasing a single idea — methodically, bit by bit — to its logical and terrifying conclusion.

Other Rampo stories, including “Kagami-jigoku” (“The Hell of Mirrors”), “Imomushi” (“The Caterpillar”) and even his 1953 essay “A Desire for Transformation,” feature characters who become obsessed — or, rather, possessed, though not in the supernatural sense. Strange and unnerving ideas occupy their whole being with a chilling, impersonal objectivity. These ideas seem to draw his protagonists toward the inorganic, inanimate and impersonal as their human forms gradually gives way to something shapeless and deformed. Their bodies undergo transformations matched only by the contortions of their minds. Quotidian objects — a chair, a mirror, a book, a sculpture — take on a life of their own, as the murky interiority of the human psyche becomes confused with the malice of inanimate things.

Since the 1956 publication of Rampo’s first English-language translation, “Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination” (the result of a close collaboration between Rampo and translator James Harris), numerous film, TV and manga adaptations of Rampo’s stories have been produced. Of these, Teruo Ishii’s 1969 film “The Horrors of Malformed Men” (based on several Rampo stories) stands out, with hallucinatory performances by butoh maestro Tatsumi Hijikata.

Rampo’s influence on modern horror has been further cemented by recent English translations of his work, including hard-boiled murder mysteries in “The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows” (2006), the surreal sci-fi novel “Strange Tale of Panorama Island” (2010) and “The Edogawa Rampo Reader” (2008), which includes his fiction and nonfiction writings spanning more than 50 years.

It has often been noted that the pseudonym Hirai chose — “Edogawa Rampo” — sounds a lot like “Edgar Allan Poe” pronounced with a thick Japanese accent. But this is more than a literary nod to a precursor. Both authors sought to portray the darker sides of the human psyche not simply as pure irrationality, but as a cold and impersonal rationality lying beneath our most unspeakable thoughts.

Rampo’s preoccupation with aberrant psychology and the estrangement caused by living in modern, urban industrialized Japan has had a decisive impact on contemporary J-horror. Popular films such as “Audition” (1999), “Marebito” (2004) and the under-rated, low-budget “Long Dream” (2000) all take up Rampo-esque themes. His influence has been so pervasive and long-lasting that, in the ’30s, a phrase was coined to describe his aesthetic: “ero-guro-nansensu” (“erotic, grotesque, nonsense”).

At the core of this aesthetic is the unruly plasticity of form, whether it be an everyday object, the human body or mind. Reversals, inversions and perversions rule the day in Rampo’s stories.

His novella “Moju: The Blind Beast” (published in Japanese in 1931, and adapted by Yasuzo Masumura in a psychedelic 1969 film of the same name) is perhaps the most extended meditation on these forming and deforming aspects of the grotesque. It is still unsettling, even by today’s standards. It features a blind sculptor fascinated by the human form — and all its permutations. What begins as an aesthetic passion, exploring the outer fringes of art, eroticism and sensory experience, soon becomes a metaphysical anomaly, whereby Rampo’s characters come to question reality itself. Doubles, reflections and shadows proliferate, and everything is unnaturally exaggerated, with surreal fusions and ambivalent metamorphoses. Bodies become things, knowledge leads to suspicion and images replace reality as the strange logic of the grotesque transforms human beings. Written during a period of rapid scientific and technological change, the bodies of Rampo’s characters become fragmented, dismembered and estranged from one’s own self.

Perhaps this is why Rampo’s tales speak to our own era, where myriad gadgets, devices and intelligent agents pervade our lives, bodies and minds. At their core, Rampo’s stories are a portrait of the ambiguous, unhuman elements that lie within human beings. These stories include no demonic possessions, no ghostly hauntings nor zombie apocalypses. Instead, Rampo details a horror of the impersonal that is intrinsic to the human being, and one that is all the more unsettling because it proceeds according to a calm and inexorable logic that his characters discover only when it is too late.

In tales such as these, human beings don’t have ideas; ideas have human beings.

This is the final installment in a three-part series on the literary origins of J-horror. Eugene Thacker is the author of several books, including In The Dust Of This Planet (Zero Books, 2011) and Cosmic Pessimism (Univocal, 2015).