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Examples of illustrations by M. Kuwata which accompany each of the stories in the collection.

Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination: A Review

Written by
Magali Nichol
and
and
November 30, 2023
Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination: A Review
Examples of illustrations by M. Kuwata which accompany each of the stories in the collection.

As an avid reader of mystery novels, I can confidently say that Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination stands out amongst many books of the genre. This compilation is a series of translated Japanese short stories written by Hirai Tarō, who is better known by his pen name Edogawa Rampo. The pseudonym is widely believed to be an homage to American mystery author Edgar Allen Poe, from which Rampo took a large deal of inspiration. 

These stories are original, and, depending on the reader’s interpretation, they can hold deeper social context and meaning. Although these stories date from the early 20th century, they challenge the notion of identity within the context of modernity, which is still a relevant topic today. In addition to this, Rampo’s use of logic and the unknown make the stories themselves very interesting and intellectually engaging.

In the book’s foreword, Patricia Welch gives insight into Rampo’s life and prolific career which began in the 1920s and continued until his death in 1965. As a student, he began to read and take interest in mystery stories by authors such as G. K. Chesterson, Arthur Conan Doyle and, obviously, Edgar Allen Poe. What seemed to be the most fascinating to him was the implication of logic, plotting and reasoning in these tales. 

After graduating from Waseda University in 1916, shortly before his writing career took off, Rampo filled his resume with a variety of jobs. Moving between Tokyo and Western Japan he worked at everything from editing a cartoon journal to selling noodles from a cart. This diversity of work experiences proved to be very useful to Rampo in his writing career; his characters often embody the role of “troubled city dwellers and business men”, roles that Rampo himself had embodied for years. 

Welch puts a heavy emphasis on the notion of modernity within Rampo’s writing. The period in which he wrote was one of rapid urbanization with an increasing influence of capitalistic values. This urban lifestyle brought about a growing middle class and an augmentation of consumerist culture. In his writing, Rampo often provides a critique or observation of modernity, more specifically, the struggle of uncertainty and identity within the context of its rapid development. 

Themes relating to monsters of modernity are common in his writing and they relate to interpersonal relationships or individual characteristics such as identity complexes and dangerous desires. 

According to Welch, Rampo’s consciousness of his wandering dialogue regarding these issues can be interpreted through his pseudonym; for much of his career, he used the Chinese characters meaning "staggering drunkenly along the Edo river" or "chaotic rambling" to write his name when publishing works. 

Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination includes 9 of Edogawa Rampo’s most famous short stories, these being “The Human Chair,” “The Psychological Test,” “The Caterpillar,” “The Cliff, The Hell of Mirrors,” “The Twins,” “The Red Chamber,” “Two Crippled Men” and “The Traveler With the Pasted Rag Picture.” Along with these, a translator’s preface, a foreword, and illustrations by M. Kuwata are included.

The stories in this book do not follow the standard for mystery stories; only “The Psychological Test” has a detective, evidence, etc. I would argue that the “mystery” aspect in these tales can lie in the mystery of the interpersonal impact of unknown personal characteristics, like motivations, reactions, internal conflicts, complexes, secrecy and obsessions. 

For example, in “The Human Chair”, a popular writer reads a letter from a fan that tells the story of a talented workman that builds a chair in which he lives. He uses his disguise to observe people (through all senses but sight), to steal and to experience his “love affairs” in which women unknowingly sit in the chair, with him fantasizing from its inside. This plays into the mystery of the workman’s psyche. The uneasiness that is evoked when he recounts his thrills and deep inferiority complex truly engages the reader. It makes the reader think about obsession, instability and freakish behaviour within interpersonal relationships, and the eerie possibility of unknown one-sided relationships, thus delving deep into the reader’s subconscious fears. 

In Rampo’s writing, there is a common trend of logic, objectivity, and intellect intertwined with erotic grotesque. The psychological horror stories in this collection heavily play into the fear and the strange lust for the unknown that almost everyone seems to experience. Rampo manages to intertwine logic and intellect with absurdity; he creates parallels between the mundane and freakish events. This is what makes his writing so captivating. In the foreword, Welch points out that his fascination of logic in the frame of twisted events and characters can be seen through his frequent use of “codes, disguises, doubling complexes, optics, thrill seeking, sexual fetishes and dangerous desires”. 

Another thing I love about this book is that the writing is fairly straightforward (to give credit where it's due, this also largely has to do with the translator, James B. Harris. Despite this, the stories still manage to give ample detail and room for interpretation. Especially since Rampo seems to provide a reflective gaze within his characters. We can all relate to the monsters of mundane modernity, and how they impact our identity. The concept of the constant desire for more in a consumerist society along with injustice, appearances and chaos are stretched to the extreme in these tales. Perhaps this is what makes them so engaging. 

Through these absurd stories, Rampo seems to question the human experience in the context of modern society. However, even without this deeper interpretation, the stories themselves are still extremely interesting and engaging. I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys macabre and grotesque tales.

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