If the name Edogawa Ranpo sounds strangely familiar, it should. Serving as a pseudonym for Japan’s father of mystery, horror and imagination, Hirai Taro, the name is meant to be a pun on none other than Edgar Allan Poe. When pronounced quickly, Edogawa Ranpo sounds exactly as it would if Edgar Allan Poe was said in Japanese, making it sound incredibly similar to how it would be pronounced in English. As Ranpo was heavily influenced by Western authors, in particular Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, the pseudonym is incredibly fitting. When seen alongside his works, it is no question that Edogawa Ranpo can be considered to be the Japanese Edgar Allan Poe.
Who is Edogawa Ranpo?
Edogawa Ranpo (1894-1965) is the pseudonym of traditional Japanese author, Hirai Taro. Interestingly enough, Ranpo’s early career is strangely similar to that of Edgar Allan Poe, as he worked a number of odd jobs despite receiving a college education, before obtaining literary recognition thanks to the publication of one of his short stories in a primarily Western literary magazine in Japan.
His first short story, “The Two-Sen Copper Coin” (二銭銅貨), was published in Shin Seinen, a popular adolescent magazine that had previously featured works by Poe and Doyle, in 1923. Although he was not the first Japanese author to toy with the mystery genre, he was the first to gain popularity within the genre, as such, he is often considered to be the father of modern Japanese mystery. Many of his early works mirror Poe and Doyle in theme and style as they focused on mysterious crimes, along with the process involved in solving them.
What is his style like?
Ranpo’s early works are very similar to Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective fiction. Over the course of these stories, incredibly complex crimes are detailed, followed by the methods in which the acts of crime are revealed and the resulting mysteries are solved. These stories vary where elements of mystery and horror are concerned and become increasingly unsettling in tone. “The Human Chair” (人間椅子) is one of his more perverse crime stories that is reminiscent of Poe and Doyle as it features a character who decides to live inside of a chair as it makes him feel more connected with the outside world.
Edgar Allan Poe’s influence can be seen in Ranpo’s fascination with the surreal and grotesque. Many of his works revolve around the idea of obsession as a form of horror. Human becomes inhuman as the narrators of his short stories become obsessed with a single object or idea. Often these obsessions form out of an appeal for a seemingly everyday object. Over time, the idea or object becomes all-consuming and brings on fits of hysteria in which the narrator in question undergoes a transformation. From grotesque physical transformations to psychological mutations, the narrators in many of Ranpo’s short stories are driven to madness in the most unbelievable, yet incredibly terrifying circumstances.
Through a blend of styles and themes, detective and horror, Ranpo created a unique style of horror that includes elements of mystery and imagination. In “The Human Chair” for example, a skilled craftsman who specializes in the construction of chairs develops a love for one of his creations that pushes him to create a secret compartment inside of it that will allow him to go where ever the chair goes. In “The Hell of Mirrors” (鏡地獄), a man becomes obsessed with his own reflection, which drives him to create an enclosure made up of different types of lenses that forms a human-sized ball. As he becomes more and more obsessed with his image, he begins to enter the contraption which has a kaleidoscopic effect that drives him mad.
Ranpo’s style can best be described by the Japanese phrase ero guro nansensu, often shortened to ero guro (エログロ), which is very literal in meaning and comes from the words: erotic, grotesque and nonsense. Throughout his career, Ranpo focused on the idea of the nonsensical through very grotesque means. Using psychological horror and elements of mystery and crime, Ranpo’s stories draw on the idea of corrupt human beings, wherein corruption comes from within. These ideologies are very reminiscent of Poe, whose stories often featured narrators who experienced fear as a result of personal obsessions that altered the ways in which their minds functioned, examples being “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Berenice” among many others.
Later on in his career, Ranpo’s work took on a more political tone thanks to Japan’s involvement in the Sino-Japanese war, which can be seen most prominently in his short story, “The Caterpillar” (芋虫). The story, which is a horrific and depressing tale featuring a disfigured war veteran, was a direct critique on the effects of war. The narrator is rendered nothing more than a human “caterpillar” – unable to move, talk, eat, or take care of himself. At the time, the story was seen as a distraction from war efforts, and subject to censorship, which caused him to work on political stories under different pseudonyms throughout his career. After the hit taken by censorship, Ranpo turned to detective fiction once more and developed a series of mystery novels featuring a detective named Akechi Kogoro.
Where should I start?
Unfortunately, not much of Edogawa Ranpo’s work has been translated into English, which makes
reading all of his works impossible unless you know Japanese. For a decent variety of short stories, including “The Two-Sen Copper Coin”, “The Human Chair”, “The Hell of Mirrors” and “The Caterpillar”, you can pick up Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination. The collection, which was translated through the cooperation of Ranpo and translator, James Harris, features nine short stories that will introduce you to Ranpo’s different styles.
A newer collection titled The Edogawa Ranpo Reader is also available, which includes short stories as well as non-fiction essays on the importance of the horror, mystery and detective fiction genres.
For those of you who are looking for something a bit longer, three of Ranpo’s novellas have been translated in recent years titled, The Black Lizard, Beast in the Shadows, and The Strange Tale of Panorama Island, respectively.
Why Edogawa Ranpo?
Edogawa Ranpo is considered the father of mystery and imagination in Japan for a reason. While he wasn’t the first author to incorporate crime or mystery into his works, he was arguably one of the most successful to do so. Not only did he use these genres to touch on themes and cultural attitudes important within Japan, but he encouraged writers to incorporate elements of mystery and horror into their works, which lead to the development of the term ero goro in Japanese.
Ranpo’s non-fiction essays brought attention to the mystery genre, while promoting the production of new mystery fiction. Furthermore, his essays brought to light the history of the genre from Japanese, American and European points of view.
Furthermore, Ranpo founded an organization dedicated to mystery fiction writing in 1947, which was originally named the Detective Author’s Club, but was eventually changed to the Mystery Writers of Japan, which exists to this day. There is also a prestigious literary award, the Edogawa Ranpo Prize, which is presented to aspiring authors each year by the Mystery Writers of Japan. The literary award, which honors unpublished authors who possess talent in the mystery and crime fiction genres, offers a reward of 10 million yen, as well as publication through Kodansha.