Monday, December 31, 2012

Edogawa Rampo Noir

My daughter, bless her, gave me a DVD entitled Rampo Noir for Christmas (Japanese with English subtitles).  Shortly after Christmas I visited Sioux Falls and found a copy of Edogawa Rampo’s Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination, from which two of the stories in the film are ostensibly taken.  That adds up to an East of Evil blog post!
Edogawa Rampo was the pen name of Tarō Hirai, the author of stories that have been compared with those of Edgar Allen Poe, whom Hirai admired.  The title of the above translation is obviously intended to be an illusion to Poe.  I commit here on one of the stories. 
The Hell of Mirrors
This is the only Rampo story I have read so far.  It is a solid work of horror fiction.  The narrators tells of his “queerest friend”, Kan Tanuma, who was obsessed from an early age by “anything capable of reflecting [or carrying] an image”.  Tanuma collects mirrors and telescopes.  He studies optics in college.  He builds telescopes and periscopes with which he spies on neighbors and his own female servants.  He builds bizarre optical devices in which he dances for his own amusement.  Ultimately, he builds a circular room in which he is alone with his reflection.  He comes to a bad end.  The story narrator himself is horrified by his own reflection, which adds to the intensity of the horror. 
Japanese horror frequently focuses on obsession.  One or more characters become obsessed with something rather ordinary, and the obsession leads to madness or something worse.  Japanese culture puts a high premium on the perfection of simple activities such as flower arrangement or brewing tea.  The dark side of this hunt for simple perfection is conjured up as a self-devouring obsession.  In reality, of course, the reach of an obsession is generally limited to the personality of the obsessed.  In horror fiction, it leaks out to contaminate the external world and gobbles up the innocent. 
The brilliance of the story lies in the idea that one might transcend the strict physics of mirrors.  A mirror only shows us one perspective.  If you stand between two or more mirrors focused on the same point, you get a glimpse of infinity: mirror after mirror recedes into the distance.  However, your own image is blocking the view.  Perhaps this is God’s way of keeping his name holy or, what is the same thing, of protecting us from being destroyed by the sight of the infinite.  Rampo’s story suggests the horror that awaits someone who managed to go beyond those limits.  

Mirror Hell
Unfortunately, Jissoji Akio’s contribution to Rampo Noir has almost nothing to do with Rampo’s story.  It is a solid, if not particularly inventive piece of J-horror film.  The story begins in a Tea House, a place where brewing and serving tea are taught as a ceremony full of simplicity and grace.  Two women in the house die, their faces burned down into the bone.  The link is a hand mirror made by a beautiful and, let us say, obsessive man who had a relationship with the deceased.  We get a pseudo-scientific explanation of how the mirror microwaves its victims and a pseudo-Freudian explanation of the mirror maker’s motives.  If you like J-horror, you will certainly enjoy the tale but you will not rank it near the top of your list.  

Good horror always plays with ideas.  Great horror plays with fundamental, universal ideas.  Ringu, my personal favorite, blends the intersection of science and the occult and presents them in the context of new technology.  The spirit world is always connected with the dream world that every person who sleeps is familiar with.  Any reflection, in water, in a mirror, on video tape, has an element of the dream world in it.  That is where the ghosts and demons find their avenue of attack.

Both Rampo’s original story and Akio’s film short play with the mirror as a challenge to waking reality.  I wish, however, that Akio had found a way to bring us the original story.  I haven’t given up hope for J-horror just yet. 

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