This is Part II of my series of posts relating to the Japanese cultural phenomenon called “ero-guro-nansensu”, or erotic-grotesque-nonsense. Part I, which introduced and defined “ero-guro-nansensu” is found here.
Invariably, any examination of erotic grotesque nonsense will conjure up the name of the single most artistic contributor to that cultural phenomenon, and that name is Edogawa Rampo. In this post, I will introduce Rampo and briefly discuss his cultural legacy and creative output. Rampo serves as a common thread that links Japan of the 1920s-30s to the films I’ll be discussing in subsequent postings, as well as to the artwork of contemporary artists working with ero-guro style imagery. Of the five films I plan to discuss, three are adaptations of stories written by Rampo.
Edogawa Rampo was the pen name of Hirai Taro and the acknowledged grand master of Japan’s golden age of crime and mystery fiction. He is also a major writer in the tradition of Japanese Modernism, and exerts a massive influence on the popular and literary culture of today’s Japan. That his chosen pen name is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe is a pretty clear indication of his creative inspirations and early passions as a reader.
Even though Rampo has remained a household name in Japan since the 1930s, translations of Rampo’s fiction were not available in the West until 1956, with the publication of Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination. This collection of nine short stories remained the only dedicated volume of Rampo available in English-language translation up until the early 21st-century (some short stories had been translated and published in other anthologies, but there hadn’t been a dedicated volume of Rampo available). In 2008, the Edogawa Rampo Reader was published, which contained short stories and some non-fiction prose that had hitherto been unavailable in translation.
While a university student, Rampo read detective stories by Poe, G.K. Chesterton, and Arthur Conan Doyle, which appealed to him precisely because of their use of careful plotting, logic and reasoning, and dark overtones. Many of Rampo’s stories feature a main protagonist in the character of Akechi Kogoro, a private detective very much in the vein of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character. Like Holmes, Akechi is a brilliant but eccentric detective who consults with the police on especially difficult cases. He is a master of disguise and an expert at judo whose genius lets him solve seemingly impossible cases.
It is Rampo’s more bizarre, fantastic and darkly erotic works of fiction, however, that ultimately established him as the Godfather of Ero-Guro. Rampo’s stories were wildly popular during the turbulent interwar years in Japan, and it is their transgressive spirit that best captures the essence of ero-guro-nansensu.
“The Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo has been called the Father of Japanese Mystery Fiction. This statement, while not inaccurate, fails to adequately consider examples of his writing that border on the macabre or the fantastic. Many of his works tap into the elements of strangeness that Japan’s headlong rush into modernity after the Meiji Restoration had unleashed. Far more than conventional mysteries, these stories incorporate elements of the fantastic, the gothic, and the absurd, in ways that thrill and entertain, and also leave the reader unsettled, and they delve deeply into the fear of the unknown that all humans share.”
— (Quote taken from the foreword written by Patricia Welch in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination.)
I’ve selected two of my favourite Rampo short stories to discuss, the first being The Caterpillar, and the second The Human Chair. These are two of his best known and most celebrated stories, and have been adapted in both film and manga form numerous times throughout the years. First published in 1934, The Caterpillar was the only of Rampo’s stories to have been banned by the prewar Japanese authorities for being ‘anti-nationalist’.
The Caterpillar (1934)
The Caterpillar is a short story about an army wife named Tokiko and her severely injured husband, Lieutenant Sunaga. A recent returnee from an unnamed war, Sunaga has unfortunately become a horribly disfigured quadruple amputee who is deaf, mute and dumb. He is, of course, completely dependent on his wife for all his physical needs, and he communicates these to Tokiko through a series of animalistic grunts and the use of his eyes. While Lieutenant Sunaga is literally trapped within the limbless stump of his body, Tokiko is also trapped in an endless cycle of care for her husband because, as she is continually reminded by those around her, it is her “wifely duty” to do so. As she is told by the retired major general in whose cottage the couple now reside, “The loyalty and meritorious services of Lieutenant Sunaga are of course the boast of our Army.”
Given his condition, Sunaga devolves into something less-than-human and, much like the caterpillar (whose form he now physically resembles), his entire existence focuses on food, and sex. With her new position of power in their relationship Tokiko, resentful of her endless round-the-clock care of her husband, begins to cruelly toy with Sunaga. In a fit of rage at her husband, Tokiko gouges out his eyes with her fingers, thus removing his only sensory connection to the world. The sightless Sunaga manages an insectile crawl out of the cottage and plummets down a well to his death. (I plan to go into greater depth on this story when I discuss the film “The Caterpillar” (2010) directed by Kōji Wakamatsu, in a later posting.)
The Human Chair (1925)
The second Rampo short story I want to discuss is The Human Chair, which was originally published in 1925. The story involves a young woman writer named Yoshiko who receives a mysterious envelope in the mail. At first, she believes it to be a manuscript from an aspiring writer seeking her critique, but as she reads, she quickly realizes it is a rather long and confessional letter penned by an unnamed writer. The mysterious letter-writer, who describes himself as “ugly beyond description”, confesses to a series of increasingly bizarre and perverse crimes. He reveals that he is craftsman skilled in the art of chair-making, and that he had been commissioned by an upscale hotel to manufacture a large, custom chair for its lobby. Deciding that this commissioned chair is his masterpiece, and therefore reluctant to part with it, he opts to fashion a compartment in the inside back of the chair that would accommodate a human being (namely, him). He then accompanies the chair to the hotel lobby, where he hides inside of it during the day, sneaking out of it at night to steal valuable items from the hotel. The chair-maker soon realized, however, that he received a perverse, erotic thrill when female hotel guests sat in his chair — and thus, on top of him.
After months of this strange existence, the hotel came under new management and some of its contents, including the chair, were sold to private individuals. Coincidentally, Yoshiko’s husband had purchased an overstuffed chair a short while back at an auction, which his wife loves to sit in whilst she reads (so, you know where this is heading, right?). The letter-writer then goes on to describe the daily routine of Yoshiko, confessing that he had fallen in love with her. Horrified, Yoshiko jumps out of the chair and runs from the room. Within moments, she receives a second mystery missive – this time a telegram – stating that the confessional letter was, in fact, a work of fiction, and that the author hoped Yoshiko enjoyed the effectiveness of the story.
My next post in this series will discuss Teruo Ishii’s gloriously schlocky, psychedelic mashup of Rampo-with-butoh, Horrors of Malformed Men (1969).