50 Famous People – Edogawa Rampo

I first encountered the name Edogawa Rampo (also spelled “Ranpo”) in December, 2008, when one of my English students mentioned that Rampo was his favorite mystery writer.  I got my hands on two English translations of his works (Tales of Mystery and The Black Lizard) and wrote up reviews on my regular blog.

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

Back during the early years of the Meiji era (1868 to 1912), Japan was undergoing a series of changes that were directly related to a greater exposure to western culture and science, including a move to a democratic government, greater interest by the general population in intellectual pursuits, and a desire to bring western technology home to Japan. Newspapers and magazines sprang up based on existing western publications, and western novels were translated from English to Japanese.  There was a strong interest in Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the French writer Maurice LeBlanc.  But, for many years, there was no native Japanese writer to stand up and develop a home-grown mystery series him/herself.  Kido Okamoto did make an attempt with his The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi (serialized in the newspapers from 1917-1934), but he’s best known for his kabuki play Bancho Sarayashiki.  It wasn’t until Rampo’s debut in 1923 that Japan received its first dedicated, native mystery writer, and he’s the one that inspired other writers to follow him in this genre.

The intro manga has Merrino walking into the living room and discovering that all of the family’s snacks have been eaten.  He and Youichi go into detective mode, and based on forensic evidence (bite marks in food scraps, paw prints on the table, and fur tufts) deduce that Ken Oogami was the culprit.  Unfortunately for them, Ken was with Mami all day and they can’t break his alibi.  Actually, it was a recently-introduced trio – the Hungry Wolf Pack (two guys and one woman from Ken’s planet who came to earth to attack Merrino) – that stole the food.  In the wrap-up, they buy more snacks and put them in the house, causing Merrino to completely forget that there had been a mystery.

The main manga, by adult artist Kenji Mizuhara is still overly westernized, but his characters are recognizable, even though they’re not that close to their photos.  The backgrounds are well-drawn, and the pacing is good.  The story starts out with Rampo sitting in a room with his editor at Shin Seinen (New Young Men) magazine, Seishi Yokomizo and fellow writer Fuboku Kosakai.  Rampo is in a slump, and Seishi is panicking because they’re missing their deadlines.  Rampo is the magazine’s most popular new writer and readers are demanding his next new work.  Fuboku suggests that Seishi submit his own stories under Rampo’s name, and Rampo doesn’t care one way or the other.  That night, Seishi notices that Edogawa is up and wandering around, and when the writer returns to his room, asks what’s going on.  Rampo replies that he actually has been writing recently, but that he hates the current stories, and has just finished flushing them down the toilet.  He adds that he’s going to take a long trip to find himself, leaving Seishi in an absolute panic.

The manga flashes back to Rampo’s youth.  He was born Taro Hirai, in 1894.  His father was a government clerk and spent a lot of time on the road.  His mother and grandmother would read translated mystery stories to him as a child.  When he graduated from high school, his father lost the family’s savings to some bad investments, and Taro moved to Tokyo to take on part-time jobs to work his way through Waseda University.  The school’s library had English copies of Poe’s and Conan Doyle’s books, and Taro taught himself English in order to read them.  After graduation, he got a job at an export company, but left after a while.  He took on a variety of other jobs, while buying copies of Shin Seinen magazine.  One day, he asked himself why there were no Japanese mystery writers, and wrote up two short stories to submit.  They were returned unopened with a letter from the chief editor saying that the magazine wasn’t taking original works.  Taro wrote back, asking “why not”, and the editor decided to print “The Two-Sen Copper Coin” after that.  Taro used the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe’s name as a penname, debuting as Edogawa Rampo.  His stories appeared in Shin Seinen relatively regularly for a while, but then the slump started as Rampo realized that he was just regurgitating Poe’s and Conan Doyle’s ideas.  He disappeared for a year, again taking on different jobs.  When he returned to Tokyo, Seishi fell over himself to be the first person to read Rampo’s new story.  It was the beginning of the Kogoro Akechi series, introducing the villain Fiend of 20 Faces.  Seishi begged for Shin Seinen to get the publication rights, and Rampo agreed.  The manga ends with the statement that Rampo’s characters have been beloved by generations of children and adults alike.

The textbook section details Rampo’s childhood, initial rejection, and subsequent slump.  There are short sidebars on Poe, Conan Doyle, Seishi Yokomizo (Shin Seinen editor, and creator of the Kousuke Kindaichi series) and Fuboku Kosakai (a doctor and short story author; he died at age 39 and Rampo was responsible for getting his works published posthumously).  2 pages are dedicated to descriptions of Rampo’s stories, his founding of the Japan Mystery Writer’s Association, and the “detective goods” packaged in boy’s magazines.  The last 2 pages describe various famous fictional Japanese detectives, including Kogoro Akechi, Kousuke Kindaichi, and TV’s Ninzaburo Furuhata and Ukyou Sugishita.

The TCG cards include: Shah Jahan, Thomas Hobbes, Cardinal Richelieu, Rene Descartes, Pocahontas, Hong Taiji, Charles I of England, Diego Velazquez and Oliver Cromwell.

Summary: I think that Edogawa Rampo is underappreciated in the U.S., and that it is worth exploring Japanese mystery writers in more depth.  So, this volume is recommended.


50 Famous People – Osamu Tezuka

For those of you not immediately familiar with the name, Tezuka created Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu), Kimba the White Lion (Jungle Taitei), Black Jack, The Phoenix (Hi no Tori) and Ribbon Knight (Ribon no Kishi).  He published roughly 700 different books and drew over 150,000 pages of finished art.  His company, Tezuka Productions (Mushi Pro) produced Japan’s first 30 minute B/W anime series (Tetsuwan Atomu) and the first color anime (Jungle Taitei).  Many of the tropes he created in his manga are still used by other artists today.  There’s little surprise in knowing that he’s generally referred to as the “Father of Modern Manga” and “The God of Manga”.

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

So, it’s kind of a shame that the 50 Famous People series decided to use an artist that so blatantly westernized his features for volume 18.  If the name weren’t on the cover, there’d be no reason to think that this character design is supposed to represent Tezuka. The artist, Kanko Amanatsu, only has 2 titles to her name right now, and doesn’t yet have a Japanese wiki entry.  So, it’s difficult to compare this issue with her other work. But, given how little any of the other “Famous People” look like their photos (Galileo being a good example), I have to assume that photo realism wasn’t all that important to the editors.

The intro manga has Mami and Ken Oogami in a park on a school field trip to practice drawing.  Mami’s picture gets ridiculed by Merrino and her classmates, while Ken does pretty well.  In desperation, Mami calls to Study Bell to start the next presentation.  In the wrap-up, Mami praises Ken’s drawings, and he’s so pleased that he forgets to hide his tail and wags it in front of witnesses.  He then runs away.

(Tezuka’s crisis of faith.)

The main manga is so simplified and fictionalized to appeal to a younger audience that it’s hard to tell if any given part of it is really accurate.  The story starts in Mushi Pro, with a nameless assistant new hire being tasked to pick up a sheet of artwork from Tezuka for finishing.  The scene jumps to when Osamu was in elementary school.  He was a weakling so the local bullies would pick on him. He’d also come home covered in dirt after hunting for insects.  Eventually, he made friends in the 3rd grade because the manga he drew was good enough to attract a fanbase made up of classmates and teachers.  At the same time, his father was an avid collector of manga and movie films and Tezuka grew up watching and reading what his father brought home.

During WW II, Osamu, like his classmates, had to work at a factory while still in school, and his supervisors would tear up anything he drew.  After the war, he produced Shin Takarajima and moved from Osaka to Tokyo.  The scene returns to his studio, and the new-hire casually comments on Tezuka’s constantly working all the time.  An older assistant then relates the story of when Tezuka, in 1973, went through a crisis of faith because modern children found his stories old-fashioned. The “gekiga boom” (dramatic pictures) was catching on and titles like Ashita no Joe, Kamui and Golgo 13 were on the ascendancy.  This was when he came up with the more serious Black Jack, and got his groove back.  The flow jumps ahead to 1982 and his passing due to stomach cancer.  The final scene shows him going to heaven surrounded by his main characters.

While the manga does mention that the break-out Shin Takarajima was a collaborative effort, it implies that Tezuka did all the work with little outside guidance.  The accompanying illustration of the book cover also implies that it was a fully polished work.  In fact, Tezuka had gotten a small start with a 4-panel gag strip in an Osaka newspaper right after WW II (called “Maa-chan no Nikkichou”, (Maa-chan’s Diary)) before established artist Shichima Sakai became his mentor.  Shin Takarajima was based on Sakai’s idea, and he made all of the decisions regarding which pages to cut or how each character would look.  The first version of the book looks very childish and amateurish.  Tezuka hated it so much that he redrew the entire book for later reprint and wouldn’t authorize the original before his death.  While Tezuka did hire Sakai as an animator later on, the two remained on bad terms.  The textbook section of mook #18 does refer to Sakai as having come up with the original idea for Shin Takarajima, but doesn’t elaborate any further.

As for the “crisis of faith” section… I can’t pontificate directly.  However…  Garo magazine was the first gekiga publication, and it started in 1964.  Kamui ran in Garo from 1964 to 1971.  Ashita no Joe started in 1968, and Golgo 13 in 1969.  Tezuka launched COM magazine in 1967 to compete directly against Garo, but let it fold in 1972, a year before his so-called “crisis” because the gekiga fad was already fading.  While he may have been losing readers to Tetsuya Chiba and Takao Saito, I find it hard to believe that being accused of being old-fashioned at such a late date was the primary reason for his developing Black Jack (which did start serialization in Nov., 1973.

The textbook section is a bit better, but it’s still pretty superficial.  There is the mention of Tezuka’s deciding to go to medical school to get his license, and the fact that he’d been drawing manga for himself from the third grade, due to the influence of his father’s hobby of collecting films and manga.  During WW II, at age 15 he had to work in a factory for the war effort, and he drew manga in the toilet for entertaining his co-workers.  This was frowned on by his superiors for being too frivolous.  Right after the war, he ran Maa-chan’s Diary in the local Osaka newspaper, which brought him into contact with Shichima Sakai, who was working at the paper at the time.  The two of them produced Shin Takarajima as a rental book, which brought Tezuka a level of fame.  He decided to move to Tokyo where there were more magazine publishers, but couldn’t get any of the doors to open for him.  In 1947, Kenichi Katou, an editor at Kodansha, decided to start up his own magazine, called Manga Shonen, and started using Tezuka’s stories from 1950 until the magazine folded in 1955.  Jungle Taitei and Hi no Tori both debuted in Manga Shonen. There’s a brief mention of Tokiwa Mansion, and 4-5 of the other artists living there from 1952-1955.  A sidebar discusses “Uso Mushi” (Osamu the Liar); because Osamu had several manga running simultaneously in different magazines, he developed a reputation for missing deadlines and for disappearing for days at a time to focus on one specific story.  So, his editors would call him “Usamu”.  The section closes out with examples of his more famous works.

The TCG cards are for: John Wycliffe, Charles IV, Petarch, Ibn Khaldun, Edward the Black Prince, Emperor Koubu, Je Tsongkhapa, Tamerlane and Li Seikei.

Overall, not one of the better mooks.  As always, the textbook section is good, because of the pictures and the supporting information backing the story.  But the main manga is painful to look at and kind of misleading, in my opinion.


50 Famous People – Kenji Miyazawa

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

Kenji Miyazawa may not be a household name in the U.S., but as a writer and poet, he’s right up there with Natsume Soseki on the fame ladder in Japan.  Born the first son to a well-to-do family, Kenji was raised spoiled by his parents in the countryside of Iwate Prefecture, in the northeast end of Japan.  He was smart, and spent a lot of time outdoors with his younger sister, Toshi.  He attended the better area schools and got top marks on his tests.  The problem was that his family ran a pawn shop and he hated seeing how his father treated the poorer farmers.  After graduating from college, he essentially disowned the family and moved to Tokyo, working at a small print shop to support himself as he wrote short stories and poetry.  Being intelligent and well-educated, he liked coining new words from German and Esperanto for his works.  However, after only a couple of years of freedom, he received a letter saying that Toshi had fallen ill.  He returned home and, after tending her for a year, she passed away at age 24 of tuberculosis.

Kenji stayed in Iwate, getting a teaching position at the agricultural school.  He published a couple of his books, but they didn’t sell until after his death.  He’d suffered from lung problems (pleurisy) for several years and eventually died of pneumonia at age 37.  The wiki entry doesn’t describe the details of how his writings were rediscovered, but they were all published posthumously.  The two most popular works are The Restaurant of Many Orders and Night on the Galactic Railroad.  It’s this last item that is of primary interest here, since it was turned into a highly revered children’s anime.

Issue 13, Miyazawa Kenji, starts with the intro manga, where Merrino dreams that he’s being prepared for a lamb dinner.  He wakes up to discover that he’d fallen asleep using The Restaurant of Many Orders as a pillow.  Mami and classmate Utako Aozora ignore him, choosing instead to concentrate on their book reports for the next day.  Merrino challenges them to a writing contest then falls asleep again on another book.  The wrap-up manga has the two girls feeling sad at how Kenji’s life turned out, and then forcing Merrino to actually read the books instead of just sleeping on them.

(Toshi’s last moments.)

The main manga is pretty much biographical, and follows the summary given above. Kenji and Toshi are playing in a stream, and Kenji shows his knowledge of the rocks and gems that can be found there.  Toshi pushes him into the water and they go home.  There, their father is cheating a farmer out of money for a pocket watch, but he drops everything when he sees Kenji dripping wet and rushes to dry him off.  Kenji does well in school, but he’s not happy.  One day, he sees a butterfly trapped in a web, and Toshi asks him what he’s thinking.  He answers that his family is the spider preying on the farmers.  Later, he graduates from school and has to tend to the family business. An old woman comes in asking for a few dollars (yen) in exchange for a bolt of cloth.  Kenji takes pity on her and is about to agree to the trade when his father interrupts, saying that you can’t let your emotions get in the way of business and just gives her a few pennies (sen).

Disgusted, Kenji leaves the house and finds a small apartment in Tokyo. He spends his days working at a printshop, and his nights writing poetry.  But after just a couple years, he gets the letter calling him back home.  He’d discovered that Toshi really liked a particular ice cream, and he’d run the distance to the town where it was sold and back every day.  Toshi remained bedridden, and after one year, while Kenji is trying to give her the ice cream, she dies.  He jams his head in some blankets in the closet and screams his lungs out.  He completely loses all interest in writing, but one day when he’s out walking next to the lake, he sees a vision of Toshi, and she tells him that she’s in everything he writes.  This spurs him into writing his most popular work – “Night on the Galactic Railroad”.

The textbook section gives his biography in greater detail, describes his activities as a teacher, and displays photos of his hobbies, which included collecting volcanic rocks (he was the first to discover a specific type of rock that no one had known could be found in Japan before), playing music (he learned the cello, among many other instruments) and painting.  The final 2-page spread is a color map of the lands reached by the Galactic Railroad.

The TCG cards are: Charlemagne, Yang Guifei, Du Fu, Kou Sou (黄巣), Bai Juyi, Harun al-Rashid, Emperor Taizu of Liao, Emperor Taizu of Later Liang and Alfred the Great.

Kenji Miyazawa’s primary popularity now probably stems from his love of nature, and his support for the lower classes.  He’d attended an agricultural university, and used his background to bring modern farming techniques to Iwate.  Some of his other works have been adapted for children, and The Restaurant of Many Orders was animated by a British team.  If you are a fan of animation, and not just anime, it’s worth checking out both Restaurant and Galactic Railroad.  If you like poetry, most of his works have been translated into English.  Overall, the artwork in this mook (by Hiroshi Yamazaki) isn’t too bad, although it has been westernized and cleaned up a bit too much.  Neither the real life Kenji nor Toshi had looked quite this attractive.  Still, this mook is recommended.