Death Note and Irregular Detective Fiction

1 01 2010

Happy New Year and a very belated post… Hopefully I can provide more musing (and not a dire example of procrastination) in 2010.

It seems counterintuitive that an audience that appreciates the detective genre’s analytical rigor could be reconciled with fantastic or absurd narrative elements but the popularity of the fantasist detective manga Death Note is not unprecedented. Death Note shares many elements with a unique genre of Japanese popular literature established in the early 1920s - irregular detective fiction.

Death Note (Desu nōto) is a 12 volume manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata. It was serialized in Weekly shonon jump in Japan from late 2003 to mid 2006 and subsequently complied into a run of 12 tankōbon. Between 2005 and 2007 the tankōbon were translated into English and published in North America by VIZ Media‘s Shonen Jump Advance  imprint. Both an anime television series and a series of live action films based on the series have been produced in Japan as well as “guide books”, light novels and a series of Nintendo DS games that further explore the mechanics of the eponymous death note/s.

In the 1920s, in the nascent years of Japanese science fiction and detective writing, a genre emerged that combined the influence of Western detective and mystery literature with a distinctly Japanese stylistic approach and a culturally-specific focus on political and social concerns. The genre is referred to as henkaku tantei shōsetsu (irregular detective fiction). It’s an apt description for narratives that employ the rationalist, objective detective novel template and its investigative methodologies while also incorporating elements of the fantastic, gothic and postmodern absurdity.

A collection of Edogawa Rampo’s writing provides a sample of early irregular detective fiction . In 1956 Hirai Taro’s Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination was first published in English translation by the Charles E. Tuttle Company under his pen name, Edogawa Rampo. (The collection is still in print, ISBN 0804803196.) In the preface, translator James B. Harris briefly recounts Rampo’s beginnings as a writer. With the acceptance of his short story “Nisen-dohka” (The Two-Sen Copper Coin) to the publication Shin seinen (New Youth) in 1923 Rampo became Japan’s first modern writer of detective fiction.[1] Up until that point, mystery was not an established genre in Japanese fiction and detective and mystery fiction were considered specifically Western.

Rampo developed his own style and, in founding the Japanese Mystery Writer’s Club, encouraged other Japanese writers to take an innovative and adaptable approach to writing mystery and detective fiction. While this new genre was inspired by the works of Western writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rampo wanted to advance the genre and imbue it with specifically Japanese sensibilities rather then adhering to the established template set by Western writers.[2]

Just as with the beginnings of the gekiga movement there was a desire to explore challenging themes within the confines of a popular genre. Certainly, Rampo himself excels at taking the sublimated psychological implications like those expressed in Edgar Allan Poe’s Berenice (1835) and following them to extreme and lurid conclusions in stories like Imomushi (The Caterpillar, 1929) and Ningen isu (The Human Chair, 1925). This bold, psychologically revealing, fantasist and often viscerally excessive quality began to be described as ero guro nansensu (erotic grotesque nonsense) and was associated directly with the literary movement being established by the writers who were published in Shin seinen. “The erotic-grotesque-nonsense texts were targeted mainly at adolescents and seen as avant-garde and trendy. In other words, a huge consumer market for the bizarre…”[3] This seemingly outré popular fiction appealed, at the time, to a mass audience and Rampo became a well known public figure based on his expertise on the topic.[4]

While Ohba’s shinigami (death gods) and their meddling in the mortal sphere contribute the obviously fantastic elements of the plot of Death Note there is also a resonance between Rampo’s star detective, Dr. Kogoro Akechi, and Ohba’s idiosyncratic sleuth, L. In Rampo’s short story Shinri shiken (The Psychological Test, 1925) Akechi devises a way to entrap a precociously intelligent and entitled student who has murdered an old woman for her money. Some of the interior and spoken dialogue in “The Psychological Test” is entertainingly evocative of L and Light Yagami’s exchanges in Death Note.

“Now, had you been an ordinary criminal, you would not have answered my questions as you did. You would have tried to deny knowing anything about anything. But I had sized you up from the beginning as being a real intellectual, and as such, I knew you would be as outspoken as possible so long as you did not touch on anything dangerous. But I anticipated your moves, and played my hand accordingly.”[5]

- Dr. Kogoro Akechi, “The Psychological Test”

There are a number of other very interesting Japanese writers who published their work in Shin seinen in the 1920s but it is difficult to find their work in English translation. Miki Nakamura’s excellent historical and thematic analysis of the work of Yumeno Kyūsaku and some translated excerpts of his  fascinating novel Dogura magura (1935) can be found in Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime (2007, University of Minnesota Press) ISBN 0816649731.

We can anticipate an English translation of manga based on Edogawa Rampo’s work. Ryan at Same Hat! Same Hat! posted in June 2009 that Last Gasp has announced it’s intention to publish artist Suehiro Maruo’s interpretation of the Rampo story Panorama-tō Kidan (The Strange Tale of Panorama Island, 1926). Maruo’s style is the very epitome of ero guro so this should be an inspired interpretation. This manga was the winner of the 2009 Annual Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize, New Artist Prize.[5]

Maruo is currently working an adaptation of Rampo’s short story Imomushi from which, again, Ryan at Same Hat! Same Hat! has graciously provided some images. (Please do check out this excellent blog – certainly a great source for erotic grotesque nonsense.)

Irregular detective fiction could resonate with the wider international audience that have embraced Death Note. Death Note is a nice introduction to some of irregular detective fictions themes because while it does have elements of “irregularity” it isn’t too deep a plunge into the wider genre’s potential for oppositionality to established social norms. Light Yagami may be a sociopath but his behaviour is predicated on a pathological and assiduously preserved sense of distance from other people. His deviance is expressed in a very cold and clinical way that avoids some of the messier and more potentially lurid possibilities explored in more ero guro examples of irregular detective narratives.

While the mechanics of the main characters relationships are quite strictly heteronormative, wider social order is not restored at the conclusion of Death Note despite the presence of incisive intellect, rational methodologies and ethics. As with irregular detective fiction it is the ascending peculiarity of chaotic and subjective reality that prevails.

[1] Rampo, Edogawa and James B Harris (translation). Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1956), English ed., Charles E. Tuttle Company. pg. ix.

[2] Rampo, Edogawa and James B Harris (translation). Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1956), English ed., Charles E. Tuttle Company. pg. xi.

[3] Nakamura, Miki. pg. 9. Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime (2007, University of Minnesota Press) ISBN 0816649731.

[4] Riechert, Jim. Deviance and Social Darwinism in Edogawa Ranpo’s Erotic-Grotesque Thriller “Kotō no oni”, by Edogawa Ranpo and Jim Reichert Journal of Japanese Studies © 2001. pg.114

[5] Rampo, Edogawa and James B Harris (translation). Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1956), English ed., Charles E. Tuttle Company. pg. 61.

[6] Anime News Network http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2009-04-19/13th-tezuka-osamu-cultural-prize-winners-announced. retrieved July 7 – 09

[7] Yoshikuni Igarashi. Edogawa Rampo and the Excess of Vision: An Ocular Critique of Modernity in 1920s Japan. positions: east asia cultures critique 13.2 (2005) 299-327 Duke University Press. pg. 302. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/positions/v013/13.2igarashi.html








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