Miri Nakamura. Review of The Strange Tale of Panorama Island. By Suehiro Maruo. 11/16/2014.

Suehiro, pharmacy Maruo. The Strange Tale of Panorama Island. Trans. Ryan Sands and Kyoko Nitta. Ed. Ryan Sands and Colin Turner. San Francisco, pilule CA: Last Gasp, 2013.  Based on the original novel by Edogawa Ranpo. Originally serialized in Komikku Biimu in 2007 and published as a graphic novel by Entaaburein in 2008.

Miri Nakamura

An eyeball scooped out with a spoon from its socket is inserted into a girl’s vagina; people make “dog deities” by burying dogs and starving them to death in the ground; a group of youngsters happily gather around the dinner table to eat their own shit. The perverse imagination of Suehiro Maruo (1956-) is boundless. Known for his pornographic, grotesque manga, Suehiro boasts a large cult following in Japan. His manga is usually extremely violent, often shocking its audience with its graphic depictions and bizarre plots. For this reason, his works are appropriately called muzan-e (atrocity art).

Suehiro has recently garnered much scholarly attention, and scholars see his violence as having a politically subversive message. He is best known among academics for his theme of war and has been dubbed a “critic of revisionist war fantasy.”[1] Numerous scholars have examined his Nihonjin no wakusei (1985, Planet of the Japanese), which offers an alternative history in which Japan has won World War II. As Luebke and DiNitto note, Suehiro purposefully borrows the iconographic images of ultranationalist, fascist Japan (military images, Mishima Yukio) to create a pastiche, detaching them from their original meaning.[2] Suehiro then combines this clever use of pastiche with excessive violence. In one of Wakusei’s notorious scenes, General McArthur is decapitated.  In another, Japanese soldiers murder an American family. But as Nagahara Yutaka argues, Suehiro’s violence is not simply gratuitous or right-wing. His manga evokes “not only past failed revolutionary attempts but more modestly, past failures to respond to calls for action.”[3]  In other words, Suehiro calls for taking belated responsibility for wartime Japan’s atrocities, while at the same time calling upon his audience to remember the violence done to the nation by U.S. forces.

Befittingly, Suehiro draws much of his artistic inspiration from the imperial era. It is well know that one of Suehiro’s favorite films is the German silent classic, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919, premiered 1920 in Japan).  His own art likewise reveals an expressionistic aesthetic — chiaroscuro depictions that emphasize the inner psychology of the characters. Frederik Schodt describes him as “one of the great retro artists working in the manga field today,” noting that his “heart is in the 1930s.”[4] In a similar vein, Luebke and DiNitto describe his works as “a pastiche of grotesque violence and sexual imagery,” that exhibit “a nostalgia for the hedonistic and violent artistic sensibilities of a 1930s fascist, erotic-grotesque-nonsensical (eroguro nansensu) Japan.”[5] Suehiro is indeed a modern-day heir to this prewar aesthetic that combined modernism and fascism, as the erotic and the pornographic emerged during the height of war to interweave literary and artistic discourses of deviance.[6] Suehiro has made numerous homages to prewar eroguro writers, most notably to Yumeno Ky?saku (1889-1936).[7]  In Panorama, he pays tribute to his most famous eroguro predecessor, Edogawa Ranpo (1894-1965).

Ranpo’s Strange Tale of Panorama Island (1926, Panorama kidan) is a story about an impoverished writer named Hitomi Hirosuke, who dreams of creating a utopian island. After he hears that his college classmate Komoda Genzabur? has suddenly died, Hitomi decides to take over Komoda’s life. The story is an example of Ranpo’s “one character two roles” (hitori futayaku) plot in detective fiction, in which there are two look-alike characters, and the crime revolves around one character impersonating the other. Hitomi and Komoda, though unrelated, were nicknamed “twins” (s?seiji) in college because of their utter similarity. Their classmates called Komoda “older brother” and Hitomi “younger brother.” The story follows Hitomi as he successfully impersonates Komoda, pretending to come back from the dead and taking over his friend’s seemingly infinite wealth and beautiful wife, Chiyoko. With his newly acquired riches, Hitomi builds an island that he bases on his utopian novel, where women dressed as mermaids swim and greet guests, people ride swans and horses as transportation, and naked people “play Adam and Eve” in an endless field of flowers.[8]

This island is the eponymous “Panorama Island.” A panorama was a new element in the, visual culture of Sh?wa Japan, which, in the words of Ranpo translator Elaine Gerbert,

drew viewers into a large, circular space and surrounded them on all sides with spectacular paintings whose lifelike nature was enhanced by the natural, indirect sunlight illuminating them from above. Ramps between the viewing platforms and canvases that prevented visitors from going too close to the paintings further ensured their realistic effect. The scale of the painted canvases was enormous, and the impact of their landscapes was made all the more dramatic by the sudden transition into the light from the darkened corridor and staircase through which visitors passed to access the high viewing platforms — passageways that removed them psychologically from the streets outside where they had been walking just minutes before.[9]

These spaces were supposed to create a kind of visual pleasure and new sensation akin to today’s virtual reality.  Audiences would enter a fantastic world, completely different from what they considered their “real” world, to enjoy a Baudrillardian mechanism in Sh?wa Japan that made the reproduction more “real” than the actual referent.

Suehiro’s 2007 manga is the long-awaited visual companion to Ranpo’s narrative. Ranpo’s text is extremely graphic and sexual, as if it were meant to be recreated as erotic art. Suehiro creates the overwhelming, panoramic effect by using large panels that emphasize strange angles, shadows, and non-linear lines. When Chiyoko first lands on the island and goes through the aquarium maze, Suehiro depicts a tunnel that also seems to swallow the reader along with Chiyoko.[10] In his typical style, he mixes photorealistic drawings of fish and landscape with simpler character depictions. He often fills panels with multiple objects that are hard to identify (e.g. horses with webbed feet, people with pig masks cutting a shark, random statues) and places his characters amidst these objet d’art. He thus creates a collage-effect, or what Miriam Silverberg identifies as the key expression of eroguro nansensu, montage, in which fragments separated by time and space are combined to form a whole.[11] Through multiple pages bedecked with scenes of decadence and wild orgies, Suehiro goes beyond the original words of Ranpo, visualizing freely what would have been censored in Ranpo’s times.

At the same time, Suehiro is careful to respect the intention of the author. A key passage from Ranpo’s original story reads:

You know what a panorama is, don’t you? They were one of the attractions that were still extremely popular in Japan when I was an elementary school student. To see it, you first had to pass along a narrow, pitch-black passageway. And the moment you emerged from it, suddenly a field of vision, a world, lay before your eyes. A world completely different from the world the spectator had been living in up to that moment. A perfect, self-contained world as far as the eye could see.

     What a surprising trick! Outside the panorama hall, streetcars were running, stalls were selling goods, eaves of merchant houses were lined up, and townspeople were passing to and fro the same way as yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I could pick out my own house among the eaves of the merchant houses. But once I stepped into the panorama hall, all of those things disappeared, and the wide Manchurian plains extended as far as the distant horizon line. And there a gory battle, frightening to behold, was being waged.[12]

Translator Elaine Gerbert mentions in her Introduction that there is a strong connection between panorama and Manchuria in Ranpo’s tale.[13] The story after all is about one man’s dream to turn a primitive island into a utopian, fantasy island.  When situated in 1926 amidst Japan’s fervor for the creation of Mansh?koku (imperial Japan’s name for the puppet state of Manchuria), the protagonist’s desire to create a panorama can be aligned with Sh?wa Japan’s imperialist desire to expand its colonies abroad. Simply put, the utopian dream is the imperial fantasy.

Suehiro does not miss this connection in his manga. He seems to have been aware of this alignment of the panoramic space with colonial geography. In his manga, he quotes a shortened version of the passage and draws a panorama covered with posters that say “Sino-Japanese War” (nisshin sens?). He leaves the last sentence about Manchuria in the original passage intact and depicts over a couple of pages Japanese soldiers marching in the field of Manchuria. Then he closes the story with the image of an ominous display of fireworks amidst a dark rain. Suehiro emphasizes this firework image by ending one page with a panel inscribed with the onomatopoeia “dododododo” (explosion sound), and devoting the entirety of the next two pages to the same fireworks. Next we see all the main characters showered in “rain” and running around in panic. Although the firework image is not that of a mushroom cloud per se, the scene is highly reminiscent of the image of the atomic bombs with their accompanying black rains.[14]

In this aspect, Suehiro’s manga is a very close adaptation of Ranpo’s story, which is after all about “dreams of greatness, and how those dreams might lead to destruction and death.”[15] Ultimately, it is about the danger of unbridled colonial desire and the dangers of such an expansionist dream. Ranpo’s story uncannily foreshadows the fall of the empire in 1945, and Suehiro does not miss the author’s prophetic message.

Posted 11/16/14.

Miri Nakamura is Assistant Professor of Japanese Literature at Wesleyan University and is the author of Monstrous Bodies: The Rise of the Uncanny in Modern Japan (Forthcoming, Harvard East Asia Center).


[1] Matthew Penney, “’War Fantasy’ and Reality—‘War as Entertainment’ and Counter-narratives in Japanese Popular Culture,” Japanese Studies 27, no. 1 (2007): 43.

[2] Peter C. Luebke and Rachel DiNitto, “Maruo Suehiro’s Planet of the Jap: Revanchist Fantasy or War Critique?” in Manga and the Representation of Japanese History, ed. Roman Rosenbaum (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), 84-85.

[3] Nagahara Yutaka, “The Corporeal Principles of the National Polity: The Rhetoric of the Body of the Nation, or the State as Memory-Apparatus,”  trans. Gavin Walker, in Perversion and Modern Japan: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Culture, eds. Nina Cornyetz and J. Keith Vincent (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), 61-101.

[4] Frederik L. Schodt, Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga (Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1996), 159-163.

[5] Luebke and DiNitto, “Maruo Suehiro’s Planet of the Jap,” 82.

[6] The most respected definitions of eroguro nansensu belong to Jim Reichert’s insightful article on Edogawa Ranpo and Miriam Silverberg’s impressive book on the topic. Reichert describes eroguro nansensu as a discourse of “deviance” that incorporated the social Darwinistic hierarchy and stereotypes brought about by modern sciences like sexology. Miriam Silverberg points out that the phrase ero guro nansensu itself is a montage, and hence paradoxical in the sense that it is a fragmentation unified by consumer culture. She defines “ero” as the sexual promiscuity of the female body, “guro” as the malformed and obscenely criminal social inequities, and “nansensu” as slapstick humor and ironic humor. Jim Reichert, “Deviance and Social Darwinism in Edogawa Ranpo’s Erotic-Grotesque Thriller ‘Kot? no oni’,” Journal of Japanese Studies 27, no. 1 (Winter, 2001): 113-141. Miriam Silverberg, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2006), 30-31.

[7] Suehiro has produced works like Yume no Q-saku (Mr. Q of Dreams, 1982) and Inugami hakase (Dr. Dog Deity, 1994), which are named after Yumeno Ky?saku’s name and his famous work, respectively.

[8] Edogawa Ranpo, Panormat? kidan, in Edogawa Ranpo zensh? (Complete works of Edogwa Ranpo) (Tokyo: T?gensha, 1961), 5-88, quote on 68. I used both the Japanese original and the English translation by Gerbert as reference. Edogawa Ranpo, Strange Tale of Panorama Island, trans. Elaine Kazu Gerbert, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013).

[9] Gerbert, “Introduction,” in Edogawa Ranpo, Strange Tale of Panorama Island, trans. Elaine Kazu Gerbert, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013), ix-xxiii, quote on x.

[10] Suehiro, see for example, 160-168.

[11] Silverberg, 4.

[12] Ranpo, 72. Gerbert’s translation.

[13] Gerbert, xvii. This evidence of the colonial imagination in Ranpo’s story is intriguing. In my book Monstrous Bodies: The Rise of the Uncanny in Modern Japan, too, I also analyze “Twins” (1923, S?seiji), where Ranpo uses a similar plot of an evil twin brother impersonating the other. T A colony appears in that story as well, as the former fakes his death by pretending to go to Korea, and the story is marked by a discourse of fear towards “sameness” (indistinguishability of race expressed through the metaphor of twins). I read Ranpo’s story as a kind of allegory of the massacre of Koreans and other foreigners that took place during the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and it is fascinating to see a similar kind of critique of the empire here in both the original story and in Suehiro’s own rendition.

[14] Chris Randle also notes the bomb image in his review of the book, “Suehiro Maruo: The Perverse Decadence of Panorama Island.”

[15] Gerbert, xvii.