Wednesday, January 4, 2017

La Demeure mystérieuse

「炎の宝物」 (Bobby)

This love of mine burns like a flame
I hope only you will understand
Embrace me with a bond with you...
"A Treasure of Flames" (Bobby)

I often comment on the covers of Japanese releases here, but I have to say, today's review has easily one of the best I've ever seen. People who are familiar with anime will probably recognize the style immediately.

In the outskirts of Nagasaki stands an old Western-style mansion, with a clock tower on top, It was built in the final years of the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) as a country villa by a wealthy man with a love for clocks. Rumors say he had a secret maze built inside the building to hide his treasures, and that he had actually gone missing inside the maze, with nobody being able to even find the entrance to the secret passages to save him. Just a few decades later, around the transition from the Meiji to the Taishou period (which started in 1912), a former servant of the household had gotten into possession of the mansion, but she was murdered in her bedroom by one of her adopted children. Since then, the building has been without an owner, and the people in the neighboring village started calling it the Phantom Tower. Six years after the murder, young Kitagawa Mitsuo finds himself wandering through this haunted mansion, as it recently became the possession of his uncle, who intends to make it his home. While Mitsuo is checking out what needs to be renovated, he finds a beautiful, mysterious woman in the room where the murder took place. Akiko, as her name turns out to be, explains she knows how to handle the mechanism of the clock tower and says she'd love to meet Mitsuo's uncle. But who is this woman, and why was she in the Phantom Tower in the first place? Little did Mitsuo know that this first meeting with the mysterious woman would turn into a grand adventure in Edogawa Rampo's Yuureitou ("The Phantom Tower", 1937).

Yuureitou is probably one of the better known novels by Edogawa Rampo, father of the Japanese detective story. But that is not only because it is a novel by Rampo, as there is a a whole convoluted history behind this novel. This book was originally published in 1937, but this was actually an extensive reimagined version of Kuroiwa Ruikou's Yuureitou ("The Phantom Tower"), first serialized in 1899-1900 in Kuroiwa's own newspaper Yorozu Chouhou. I don't write that often about Kuroiwa, but he's an important figure in early Japanese fiction: he was a journalist/publisher/translator/writer, who often translated Western novels (w/o actually securing the rights, mind you) for serialization in his (common-people-oriented) newspaper. But his translations are actually best described as adaptations, as Kuroiwa freely changed things in a story to suit his own preferences. But his adaptations were very readable, and popular among. He famously translated Dumas' Le Comte de Monte-Cristo for example as Gankutsuou, "The King of the Cavern", which is still a common Japanese title for the book. Kuroiwa's Yuureitou made such an impression on young Rampo in his youth, that he later decided to write his own version of it (Rampo did ask for permission from Kuroiwa's relatives, by the way).

What's confusing is that Kuroiwa blatantly lied about the original story he translated it from. In the introduction to his Yuureitou, he explained the original work was titled Phantom Tower, by a Miss Bendinson. This was just an fanciful invention however. The real original title was A Woman in Grey, a 1898 novel by Alice Muriel Williamson (there's also a silent serial film based on the book available). But as noted, Kuroiwa's Yuureitou was not an exact translation: the characters in Kuroiwa's version for example all had Japanese names (despite still being set in England!), and Kuroiwa also changed details of the story to make it more exciting for his readers (in general, he placed more an emphasis on the exciting parts of the story, meaning that the first half of the story was shortened, but the latter half was extended). So in short, this story started out as The Woman in Grey, was freely translated/adapted by Kuroiwa Ruikou, and then again reinvisioned by Edogawa Rampo, with both Kuroiwa and Rampo adding and changing things to suit their own style (Rampo's version is set completely in Japan, and he too changed the flow of the story among other details).

As a gothic thriller, Rampo's Yuureitou is fairly amusing. It's very much a Rampo-work, I'd say, with both the good and bad qualities of most Rampo stories. For example, this story is fun to read. As in, every time I think I'm going to stop now, but I feel enticed to read just a bit more. Rampo was a great writer in the sense of writing easy, but captivating texts. This is also true for Yuureitou. Part of this is because this was written as a serialized story, so each installment had to be able to lure new readers. On the other hand, this is also where Rampo's writings sometimes stumble, and that's also the case with Yuureitou, as the story can be repetitive at times (recap moments for new readers), and some events are perhaps not forgotten, but kinda disappear to the background, making the story at times seem more like a series of discrete events, rather than a straight line of cause-and-effect. I'd make the argument though that this problem is less apparent than usual with Yuureitou, as Rampo obviously had the Kuroiwa version available as a guideline.

As with many of Rampo's later stories, Yuureitou is not a straight-up mystery thriller novel, but also features elements of the adventure novel and even science-fiction works. While there is a murder in this book, it's not the main mystery, as that revolves around the mysterious Akiko and the secrets of the clock tower, but even so, I have to admit I think this story feels a bit different from most other Rampo novels I've read. It has a more distinct gothic feel to it, probably because of the original story underneath. Sure, it has typical Rampo elements like an adventurey feel to the flow of the events, but whereas a lot of Rampo's novels are actually set in urban environments, this book is mostly set around the Phantom Tower, with a focus on Akiko and the past of the Phantom Tower. I wouldn't say it's not Rampo-ish, but Yuureitou does put its weight in different places than usual. Reading it as a mystery novel will probably result in some disappointment, as most of the plot twists can be read miles away. It is definitely an old-fashioned story, with plot twists that are rather predictable (I suspect they were even back in 1939), but Rampo still manages to present it in an entertaining way. 

The clock tower plays a big role in this story, obviously. Kuroiwa didn't change the title from The Woman in Grey to The Phantom Tower for nothing, and Rampo even expanded upon the theme of a phantom tower and its secret passages in his version of the story. In fact, the clock tower would prove to become a very important part of animation history. Like I mentioned at the start of this post, the version of Yuureitou I read featured a special cover by none other than the renowed film director Miyazaki Hayao. The (former) Studio Ghibli director famous for animated features like (Academy Award winner) Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Laputa Castle in the Sky, was a big fan of Rampo's Yuureitou. In 1979, he directed his first animated feature, Lupin III: The Castle of Caglistro, based on the Lupin III franchise (he had directed episodes of the TV series). The climax of this (classic adventure!) film is set at... a mysterious clock tower with a secret. This climax scene also formed an inspiration for the scene in Disney's 1989 animated feature The Great Mouse Detective (and in turn also the climax in the Batman: The Animated Series episode The Clock King). So in a way, the clock tower from A Woman in Grey has been a surprising part of popular culture throughout time. I actually wonder whether a game series like Clock Tower was also partly inspired by Yuureitou (the first game too featured a clock tower with secret passageways).

In 2015 Miyazaki opened an exhibit at the Ghibli Museum in honor of Yuureitou: he had designed and built his own model of the titular Phantom Tower, and wrote a short comic introducing the history behind the novel, and explaining about his own meeting with the novel. What's more, he even drew several (detailed!) storyboard pages for the first scenes of the book, explaining how he would animate it (he does note he won't do it though). All this material he created for his exhibit is included in this hardcover version of Yuureitou, published in 2015 (in full-color/high grade paper). For Miyazaki fans, this version is certainly a treat. I'm personally a big fan of Miyazaki's comic art, which is actually quite different from his style in his animated features (his comics are overly detailed, something you can't do in animation), and it's great to see how he envisioned the Phantom Tower.

I would not even dare to suggest Yuureitou is a classic of mystery fiction, but it is definitely an amusing read, even if a bit predictable and simple. But this particular version, with Miyazaki's beautiful artwork providing a commentary on the story and visualizing the image of book, is definitely something special. For people interested in both Rampo and Miyazaki, I can recommend this wholeheartedly.

Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩(原)、宮崎駿(絵) 『幽霊塔』


  1. On the subject of the Phantom Tower story, I'd have to mention Nogizaka Tarou's brilliant Yuureitou. It weaves together various Phantom Tower stories with lots of what this blog would call "batshit-Edogawa-insane-awesome". The author clearly has a deep appreciation for the Japanese pulp fiction of Rampo's time.

    1. Oh, now you mention it, I think I saw it once in one of those promotion pamphlets included with manga, though I had totally forgotten about it. Sound interesting! Lessee if there's a bunko release...