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.
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.
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.