Strange Tale of Panorama Island
Japanese Title: パノラマ島奇談 (Panorama-tō kitan)
Author: Edogawa Ranpo (江戸川 乱歩)
Translator: Elaine Kazu Gerbert
Publication Year: 1927 (Japan); 2013 (United States)
Publisher: University of Hawai’i Press
Strange Tale of Panorama Island is a short novel about murder, misdirected passion, and artistic delusion that climaxes with an explosive conclusion.
The story’s antihero, Hirosuke Hitomi, is a writer who is neither living his dream nor making a living. His life is horribly bleak until he receives news that a college friend named Genzaburō Komoda has passed away from a rare illness. Although Hirosuke was never close to Genzaburō, he knows that he was the sole heir of a wealthy family. He also knows that he resembled the recently deceased young man to such a strong degree that he could have been his doppelganger.
Hirosuke sees his chance, and he takes it. He fakes his death by leaping from a ship, an act interpreted as a suicide by the newspapers that report the event. He then disinters Genzaburō’s body, destroys it, and crawls to the Komoda family estate, claiming to have experienced a miraculous recovery. As Genzaburō, he blames his disorientation and seeming loss of memory on the trauma, knowing that the family’s doctors will be too embarrassed by their “mistake” to interrogate him.
Hirosuke is not content to live an easy life of luxury in the company of Genzaburō’s beautiful widow Chiyoko, however. Instead, he uses the vast wealth of the Komoda family to buy an island and fill it with aesthetic marvels, creating a sensualist utopia outfitted with near-future technology. The wonderland he names Panorama Island is both a museum of the fantastic and an amusement park for adults.
The short translator’s introduction explains the cultural context of the novel, specifically the public interest in panoramas during the 1920s in Japan, but none of this information is necessary to appreciate the marvelous imagery Edogawa dreams up to dazzle the reader as Hirosuke leads Genzaburō’s widow across the island. If Chiyoko knows Hirosuke’s secret, which she almost certainly does, what will become of her? Like Chiyoko, the reader can only be amazed by the island while disturbed by the troubled genius that created it.
Edogawa is interested, like his namesake Edgar Allan Poe, in the precise mechanics of how Hirosuke’s series of crimes might be possible. The novel contains a touch of the pulpy adventure story, as well as an earnest foray into the realm of medical science. Thankfully, the narrative never becomes mired in superfluous details, with most of the science remaining staunchly fiction. Hirosuke’s degeneration as a human being receives much more attention, as does his erotic and grotesque fascination with the confused and powerless widow of his former friend.
Although it’s published by a university press, Strange Tale of Panorama Island is a pleasure to read. The introduction and endnote sections are short, discrete, and quite interesting. If you’ve read and enjoyed any of the books in the Penguin Horror Classics series, including the handsome reprints of the work of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, you’ll more than likely have a lot of fun with Strange Tale of Panorama Island. The novel was originally written for a broad but intelligent audience, and it’s aged extremely well, partially thanks to the excellent translation.
I also want to recommend the manga adaptation drawn by Suehiro Maruo and published in English translation by Last Gasp Press. Maruo, a gekiga artist who has adapted numerous other works of dark mystery fiction, delights in the lurid imagery of the story, which he depicts with his signature detailed linework and bold panel compositions. Readers should be cautioned that, although this is a “classic” that’s taught in university classes, it is most definitely not safe for work.