I&I

Recommended: The Strange Tale of Panorama Island

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The Strange Tale of Panorama Island is Suehiro Maruo‘s manga adaptation (2008) of Edogawa Rampo‘s short story of the same title (1926). I’ve had a copy of the manga since the summer and have been meaning to give it a proper review for ages, but wanted to read the original Rampo novella first, which took me awhile to get around to. (By happy coincidence, the English translation of the novella was released by the University of Hawai’i Press this same year!)

The plot is very similar in both the novella and manga: Hitomi Hirosuke is a poor and unsuccessful writer who bears an unnatural likeness to his former classmate, the wealthy businessman, Genzaburo Komoda. When Komoda passes away, Hirosuke contrives to take the man’s place by faking his own death and convincing Komoda’s family and associates that they were mistaken in pronouncing the man dead. With the industrialist’s wealth under his command, Hirosuke is finally able to act upon his desire to create a fantastical island of illusion and decadence, completely removed from reality.

While the manga follows the novella closely, the two versions differ in some interesting ways. Ranpo’s version offers a more psychologically fleshed out story in which the tension between redemptive love and escapist fantasy plays a much stronger role in driving the plot. Maruo, however, has the benefit of hindsight, and his manga places greater emphasis on situating the narrative within a historical context. The manga, unsurprizingly, also focuses more on the going ons of the island, with more attention paid to the minor characters that decorate Hirosuke’s version of the floating world.

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Maruo’s touch introduces circus characters into the island.

Being only familiar with Maruo’s more extreme work, I was expecting something more grotesque, but I should have known better because even though Rampo also delves into the bivalent realms of ero-guro, his writing never struck me as having the kind of sheer luridness and brutality that I’ve seen in Maruo’s work. Rampo’s approach is one of heavy psychological dread, a kind of growing unease that stealthily insinuates itself into your unconscious and sucks you into its vertigo, rather than going straight for the jugular. Make no mistake however, this by no means makes Panorama Island any less perverse than Maruo’s other works and Maruo successfully captures the subtlety of Rampo’s tale in his masterful execution.

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The are a number of stunningly detailed two page spreads that grace the manga

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Detail of above pic

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Another gorgeous spread

As far as stories go, Panorama Island, with its fantastical setting, is almost begging for a visual adaptation, if only as a challenge to an artist’s creative abilities. Maruo’s technical skill here is dazzling. But the story is more than a visual feast; it is also a direct commentary on the act of seeing. Many reviews have noted how the panorama must have been so entrancing/disturbing to “naive” viewers of early modernity and how this is all old hat to us now. (On that note, there’s been a great review written that gives a historical context of the panorama as it pertains to Panorama Island.) While I agree, I’d also like to suggest that in spite of that, the issues Panorama Island raises about the image are still just as pertinent to contemporary readers as they were to a modern audience, if not more so because we have become so inured to the fantastic/horrific illlusions the spectacle of modernity presents us with and we need to be reminded of it.

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“The glass distorts…”

Panoramas are more than an interesting historical curiousity; they existed during a time when our understanding of the image and our relationship to it was being revolutionized by technology. While we might be amused at the naivity of modern viewers of the panorama, I think we might be underestimating the enjoyment in irony these panoramas may have elicited in the early modern viewer. We also still exist in a world wallpapered by images in which the base and decadent fulfilment of our ids play out not in the panoramic realms of foreign lands and historical scenes, but the gratuitous cheapness facilitated by newer forms of technology: a constant stream of advertisements, image macros and our own self branding. Although the way we approach image is in some ways, fundamentally different than the viewers of the panorama, for the most part, our psychic lives are still oriented toward the surface spectacle: held in thrall, consumed even, by entertaining, propagandist images designed to arouse our instinctual selves.

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Note how Maruo cleverly perverts a 1920s art deco-esque background to inspire vertigo and unease rather than the rational, modern confidence the style is usually associated with

I picked up my copy of Panorama Island at TCAF 2013 and borrowed the novella from the library before getting the hard copy. Both versions should be fairly easy to find from retailers online.

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