Review: The Strange Tale of Panorama Island
The Strange Tale of Panorama Island (Panorama-tou Kitan) — Last Gasp, 2013
Now-classic manga novel from Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show creator Suehiro Maruo echoes the decadent era in which its source story by Hirai Taro (aka ‘Edogawa Rampo’) was originally written, while anticipating one of the 21st century’s most infamous American political and sexual scandals
It’s taken even the most obsessive American horror genre devotees almost an entire century to even begin to catch on to, much less catch up with, the strange fictional universes of prolific popular Japanese author 平井 太郎/Hirai Tarō, better known in his native country and the rest of the world under his nom de plume Edogawa Rampo (an affectation emulating the phonetics of his own favorite author, Edgar Allan Poe). In Japan, Tarō/Rampo is revered as one of the most popular writers of detective fiction (including young adult mysteries featuring the Boy Detectives Gang), but it has been his unnerving strain of horror fiction that has seared his name and notoriety upon the international scene. Go ahead, just do a quick internet search for Rampo’s “The Human Chair” (人間椅子/Ningen Isu, 1925), then come back and join us.
I first experienced Rampo’s work via almost impenetrable bootleg videos of the most notorious and extravagant of the cinematic adaptations (Teruo Ishii’s 江戸川乱歩全集 恐怖奇形人間/Edogawa Rampo Zenshū: Kyoufu Kikei Ningen/Horrors of Malformed Men, 1969; Noboru Tanaka’s 江戸川乱歩猟奇館 屋根裏の散歩者/Edogawa Rampo ryōkikan: yaneura no sanposha/Watcher in the Attic, 1976). In 1995, the Samuel Goldwyn Company imported and had some art circuit success with Japanese feature らんぽ/Rampo (1994) under the title The Mystery of Rampo, a semi-surreal drama following a haunted delusional protagonist — a caricature of Rampo himself, played by Naoto Takenaka — which unexpectedly spawned a Sega Saturn videogame the same year. We’ve since had Shinya Tsukamoto’s Rampo adaptation 双生児/Sōseiji/Gemini (1999) and many others. No doubt Rampo’s ongoing osmosis into 21st century American pop culture has been fueled more so by the procession of manga and anime odes (as detective characters in manga and anime like Case Closed/Detective Conan and Bungo Stray Dogs) and manga adaptations that continue to trickle into the market in English editions.
Prominent among these are manga creator Suehiro Maruo’s graphic novel The Strange Tale of Panorama Island (2008) and “The Caterpillar” (serialized in Enterbrain’s Monthly Comic Beam in 2009). The latter adapts one of the first Rampo short stories ever translated and published for American readers, his infamous 1929 tale of a horribly disfigured quadriplegic war veteran that anticipates (while handily eclipsing forever) Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun; 芋虫/Imomushi/”The Caterpillar” was featured in the 1956 Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination collection of translations by James B. Harris (published in my home state of Vermont by Rutland’s own Charles E. Tuttle Company, and kept in print for decades). But we are here to celebrate The Strange Tale of Panorama Island, which Ryan Sands and Kyoko Nitta helpfully translated into a handsome Last Gasp hardcover graphic novel edition (2013, reprinted 2019) that has proven to be the most popular English edition of Maruo’s manga to date.
Freely adapted from Rampo’s novel パノラマ島奇談/Panorama-tō Kidan (1926, available in an English translation as a prose novel, should you care to compare the original text to Marou’s elegant visualization), Marou’s manga is as exquisitely delineated and surgically paced as Maruo’s seminal rite-of-passage ero guro 少女椿/Shōjo Tsubaki/The Camellia Girl (1984, originally serialized in Monthly Melon Comic), in both its original short manga form and Marou’s expansive reinterpretation in the manga novel form published stateside by Blast Books in 1992 as Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show. The jarring assault on uninitiated Western eyes and minds — the seeming disconnect between Maruo’s always seductive, absolutely ravishing representational fine-line illustrations, and the increasingly unbearable power of the eroticized body horrors being depicted — has had a few decades to percolate into American pop culture sufficiently to make The Strange Tale of Panorama Island seem positively stately by comparison. Then again, paralleling the gradual acceptance of Maruo’s confrontational manga as in and of itself the highest level of Anglicized ero guro — ero guro chic, if you will — we’ve also had the gradual mainstreaming of formerly reviled cult erotic genre fare from European directors like Jess Franco and Jean Rollin (now available in a growing library of definitive blu-ray and streaming editions), all of which has performed the alchemical feat of elementally changing Maruo’s infamous ero guro into 24-karat gold.
This only adds to the allure of Maruo’s transgressive rendition of the corruptive Gilded Age glamour fueling Panorama Island in ways he is sly enough to pander to. There’s as much of eccentric closeted outsider Henry Darger’s disturbing The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion as there is of Aubrey Vincent Beardsley resonating through Maruo’s epic visualization of Rampo’s parable (specifically, it’s as if Darger and Disney had unfettered their strangest impulses and collaborated in some terrible alternate universe). It is, when one has sufficiently supped and become intoxicated by its beauty and its toxic overabundance, The Great Gatsby of manga, sliding ever so dangerously from the humble origins of its obscure, failed protagonist Hitomi and his initial crime into the successful execution of a seemingly impossible deception founded upon yet another crime (grave robbery and presenting himself as the wealthy dead man he supplants). The escalation of Hitomi’s crimes and chameleon act — and the unavoidable, inevitable intimacy he aches for, but properly dreads, with the dead ringer’s widow — is what the narrative hinges on, but Maruo is far more interested in the spectacle spawned by Hitomi’s impossible dream and irrepressible arrogance.
The titular Panorama Island resort is the fruit of Hitomi’s daydreams, a hedonist paradise where nothing is forbidden and all desires are indulged. In one way, it is as grounded in the 1920s Jazz Age as, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” (originally published in The Smart Set, June 1922), making it not at all the cultural leap much of Maruo’s ero guro usually is. After all, how different is Hitomi’s delusional scheme from that which Walt Disney sculpted out of 16 acres of Anaheim, California real estate to create Disneyland — a conceit even his closest confidents considered crazy, until its completion and opening in the summer of 1955 set a new standard for theme amusement parks — or; more to the point circa 2021, the now-infamous compound American financier Jeffrey Epstein built on his private island of Little St. James in the US Virgin Islands? Such palatial decadence can no longer be considered an unrealizable Sadean fantasy, as the still-unfolding revelations connected to Epstein’s case history (and now that of Ghislaine Maxwell, as well as other Epstein associates) have demonstrated; if anything, the ways in which the Epstein/Maxwell cases penetrate into the most powerful circles of the contemporary American elite lends uncanny gravitas to Maruo’s adaptation of Panorama Island. If this manga wasn’t an essential read before, it certainly is now.
Once his tale leads us onto and into the multi-layered excesses of Panorama Isle, Maruo packs every page and panel with a seemingly ceaseless tsunami of imagistic erotic overstimulation—surely, the point of the entire exercise, for the artist and reader.
Anything goes in Maruo’s (and, by proxy, Hitomi’s) crazy-quilt cultural appropriations and geographic anachronisms: orgiastic flesh fluidity and the panoply of multiple gender orientations and couplings are matched with mercurial landscapes fusing elements from the futuristic gardens of Fritz Lang Metropolis aristocracy with iconic outsized sculptures lifted from Lazio, Italy’s Sacro Bosco (aka the Park of the Monsters aka Garden of Bomarzo). Nothing can truly live up to the promise of the premise — the sheer excess becomes oddly quaint, even risible, but it’s nevertheless a remarkable feat and spectacle.
Perversely, “the ultimate transgression” central to Tarō/Rampo’s narrative is for all intents and purposes subsumed by the orchestrated overabundance, but that, too, is why The Strange Tale of Panorama Island remains such a potent reading experience. What could little ol’ Hitomi possibly do to supersede all that Maruo brings to the feast?
©2021 Stephen R. Bissette
Mountains of Madness, VT