Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"It would be better to die than eke out an existence in this dreary world"

"...but no matter how entertaining they were, he regarded human beings as the most idiotic of all living things. Every-where you looked, you found the same thoughts, the same expressions, the same words, repated over and over again. Despite his change of lodgings and encounters with new people, Saburo sunk back into the bottomless depths of ennui before the week was over.", "The Stalker in the Attic"

During my year in Kyuushuu, I am supposed to write a research essay in Japanese. The research plan has already been filed in, which I focused on Japanese detective fiction. While I am pretty sure the research scope has to be narrowed down quite a bit, I intend to keep the foundation intact, that is, Edogawa Rampo will play a big role in it. I first got to know about this writer due to the manga Detective Conan. With my interest piqued, I searched for English translations of Edogawa's work, which with recurring themes as mirrors, identity crises and people unable to cope with the dreariness of reality were so engrossing I really wanted to do research on him and his work.

While one of the giants in Japanese literature, not that many of his works are translated in English. A pity, but it does mean I might still get a chance to translate stuff from him in coming years. Which will probably take some time, as Edogawa Rampo is a pre-World War II writer, which means his writing style, especially concerning the usage of kanji is quite difficult, with Edogawa using kanji for words which in modern Japanese are written in plain hiragana, as well as the usage of old kanji. Which explains why I still rejoice when I hear new English translations of Edogawa's work appear. Apparently, a new translation (Mojuu, "Blind Beast") was released during the time I was in Japan, so I'll have to pick that one up too, but for now, a overview of what is available in the English market.

Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination
(Tuttle Publishing, 1956)

The very first translation of Edogawa Rampo's work. Or can it even be called a translation? Trivia for aspiring-translators: the translator of this work couldn't read Japanese, but could speak Japanese. Edogawa couldn't speak English, but could read English. Combined with the Power of Friendship though, this led to an very unique translation effort.

Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination is a short story collection which includes 11 of Edogawa's most famous works. It also offers a good selection of the types of stories Edogawa wrote, ranging from mystery-crime stories, dreamy stories to sadistic horror erogurononsense stories. If anyone wants to get an introduction in Edogawa Rampo's work, this should be it. Over 50 years after its first publication, this is still the best Edogawa work available in English.

Batshit-Edogawa-Insane Awesome because: Wife abuses crippled husband who has no limbs. Mirrors are scary. Scary man hides in chair to get physically close to people and steals stuffs. What makes it even more Batshit-Edogawa-Crazy Awesome: it happened in reality.

The Boy Detectives Club (Kodansha, 1988)

Quite an obscure translation, as this is an English translation meant for the Japanese market (i.e. for English students). This is a translation of the second book in the Shounen Tantei Dan ("Boy Detectives Club") series (yes, the title would suggest it's the first book), which is a series of books targeted on kids. Which by the way are the only books written by Edogawa I can read without going crazy due to dictionary rage.

The series chronicles the detective Akechi, his sidekick Kobayashi and the Boy Detectives Club and their battles against The Monster with 20 Faces, a disguise-expert-thief. This book is pretty much the same as the first book in the series. And probably the sequels. Adventure stories with the kids as protagonist and Arsène Lupin-esque capers of The Monster with 20 Faces. Or it's someone else who turns out to be the Monster in the very end. Enjoyable, but quite different from Edogawa's other works. However, these characters are probably the most famous of all of Edogawa's creations, with many Japanese manga, movies and TV-series either being based upon or borrowing from the Monster with 20 Faces and Boy Detectives Club.

Batshit-Edogawa-Insane Awesome because: Kids Have Guns. No, wait, I mean, Akechi willfully gives guns to kids to threaten somebody they hate. Even famous detectives must have their moments of insanity. And Amano Yoshitaka of Final Fantasy fame drew the cover of this release.

The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows (Kurodahan Press, 2006)

This bundle features two of Edogawa's more famous works. The Black Lizard tells the story of the detective Akechi and his battles with the woman-thief The Black Lizard (as in a female thief. Not a thief of women. Though she does that too). Very pulpy. It was also made into a 1968 movie (Kurotokage), which probably only because Mishima Yukio wrote the screenplay and played a part in the movie, was actually released on VHS in the United States. The movie was also very, very pulpy.

Beast in the Shadows, a story about a man helping a woman who suspects her husband is planning her murder, is more interesting as it mingles several of Edogawa's recurring themes like sexual deviation, doubts about identity, crime and the mingling of reality and dreams. Combined with an excellent preface attached to this book, this was an excellent release of Kurodahan, paving the way for more recent Edogawa releases.

Batshit-Edogawa-Insane Awesome because: People hide in chairs. Again! And everyone disguises as everyone! Nobody's identity is sure! And Wandering in the Attic.

The Edogawa Rampo Reader (Kurodahan Press, 2008)

Edogawa Rampo wasn't just a writer of mystery novels, he was also a prolific essay writer. Ranging from expositions about what kind of tricks appear in a detective novel to expositions about the wonders of lenses and film, he wrote a lot and The Edogawa Rampo Reader is the first English publication that includes several of his essays. The other half is made up by stories, of which I personally love "The Stalker in the Attic", the story of a man who has enough of this world, until he discovers he can crawl up to the attic of his lodge house and spy upon the other tenants for some needed thrill in his life. Crazy voyeuristic crime story.

Batshit-Edogawa-Insane Awesome because: Killing dwarfs. Hypnotic mirrors. And people wandering in attics, peering into private lives from above.

It is kinda sad to realize that this probably doesn't even amount to 10% of Edogawa's total work, which in pocket form was a) impressive and b) kinda expensive and hard to carry back home. As a pre-war writer who still inspires manga-artists, movies, bands and real crimes in Japan, why is so little of his work translated?

Today's song: Shogun - Bad City (Opening theme of "Tantei Monogatari")


  1. shounen tantei dan? So their name comes from his works too?

    So little is translated so that you can do it ;)

  2. Yes, it's a pity so little of his work has been translated, but let's be honest: the stories that have been translated are very uneven in quality.

    The short story collection "Japanese Stories of Mystery and Imagination," the short story "The Stalker in the Attic," and the essays are excellent, while the other stories are poor or average at best.

    I haven't read "The Boy Detective Club" yet (very obscure indeed) and I'll put "Moju: Blind Beast" on my to-buy list for after the summer. My to-be-read pile (read: mountain) has started rebelling against me and refuses to accept any more new books until I've read at least 20% of it's current body mass away. :/

  3. Great post! I'm a huge fan of Rampo and enjoyed this summary of his work in ENglish.

    I have a copy (japanese edition) of Shounen Tantei Dan as well, and use it to try to flex my atrophying Japanese Reading brain and skills!

    I'm a big fan of "The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadow" from Kurodahan, mostly because they represented the first presentation of his stories in English since the tuttle collection. That collection (as you probably noticed) were translated from Japanese to English in collaboration with Rampo himself :) Quite exciting.

    To add to the list, LAST GASP will be publishing Suehiro Maruo's manga adaptation of Rampo's novella The Strange Tale of Panorama Island. Should be exciting (I'm editing the book for them!)


  4. @エリ: Not only is their name based on Edogawa's work, I suspect they had to uphold the tradition of being obnoxious kids too. Oh, and the leader of the Shounen Tantei Dan, Kobayashi, has all kinds of gadgets to help him ;) (Including a pet bird who sadly is kept in a pocket)

    @Ryan: Thanks for the comment! I bought Maruo's "Panoramatou Kidan" (twice actually) in Japan after I read about it on Same Hat and enjoyed thorougly. Pretty excited it's going to be released in English too (though not nearly as excited as about Maruo's adaption of "The Catterpillar")

  5. I am a devout reader of Edogawa Rampo's writings hence my arrival here.
    I really hope more of Edogawa's work manages to find its way into english language translation. I am hungry for more.
    I have never seen The Boy Detective Club so thank you for mentioning it.

  6. Has "the stalker in the attic" been translated in english?

    1. Hmmm, well, I specifically mention "The Stalker in the Attic" as being included in "The Edogawa Rampo Reader", which I also specifically mention as an English-language publication, and this whole post is obviously solely about English-language Edogawa Rampo publications, so yes, it is available in English. To be honest, I thought that was obvious considering the whole objective of this post..

      Which reminds me, I should make an update post or something, because there have been more English Rampo releases the last few years...