As of September 2013, eight years after I started posting reviews at Experiments in Reading, I have decided that I will no longer be updating at this blog. Thank you to everyone who has read my thoughts here over the years. Although I will no longer be updating Experiments in Reading, I am still reviewing books. You can find my reviews of manga, Japanese literature, and related materials at Experiments in Manga. And if you're just interested in the book reviews, you can also check out my reviews at LibraryThing. Happy reading!

Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination

~written by Edogawa Ranpo
~translated by James B. Harris

After reading and enjoying Edogawa Ranpo's novella Strange Tale of Panorama Island I decided to seek out more of his work. What better way to start than with Ranpo's debut in English? Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, translated by James B. Harris and first published in 1956, was reissued in 2012 by Tuttle Publishing with an additional and quite useful foreword by Patricia Welch putting the collection and Ranpo into historical and literary context. Despite Ranpo's prolificacy, influence, and popularity in Japan, relatively few volumes of his work are available in English although his short stories can often be found in anthologies. In addition to being Ranpo's introduction to English-reading audiences, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination is particularly interesting in that Ranpo worked very closely with Harrison on its translation.

Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination collects nine of Ranpo's short stories selected to represent some of his best work. Eight of the nine stories were originally written in the 1920s. The collection opens with what is perhaps Ranpo's most well-known story "The Human Chair." (At least, it was the story with which I was most familiar before reading the volume.) Next is "The Psychological Test" which features Ranpo's famous detective Kogorō Akechi. "The Caterpillar" is another story I was previously aware of and for a time was even banned in Japan. The collection continues with "The Cliff." Written in 1950, it is the most recent example of Ranpo's work in the volume. Other tales of mystery include "The Twins," "The Red Chamber," and "Two Crippled Men" while other tales of imagination include "The Hell of Mirrors" and "The Traveler with the Pasted Rag Picture." Though, as Welch points out in the foreword, Ranpo frequently blurs the lines of genre and many of the stories have significant crossover.

Ranpo is an incredibly clever and imaginative writer. Even when working with similar themes and plot elements, each story in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination exhibits Ranpo's creativity in narrative technique and structure and he throws in enough plot twists that they all feel fresh. Each story is a little peculiar and each story is vaguely disconcerting--the erotic and the grotesque and macabre are no strangers to Ranpo's work--but in the end the tales are all different from one another. The culprits of his crimes stories are often undone by their arrogance, belief in their infallibility, or on occasion their guilty consciences, but the paths to their downfalls vary. Ranpo's more fantastic tales rely on subtle and not so subtle horror, but their thrills and terrors are all distinctive.

Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination is a captivating collection of short stories and would make a fine introduction to Ranpo's work for the uninitiated. If I had to choose, I think that I personally prefer Strange Tale of Panorama Island and its outrageousness slightly more, but the selections in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination show evidence of the elements in the novella that I particularly enjoyed: the tight plotting, the light style of narration with slight touches of humor, the unexpected turns in the story, the inherent strangeness of the characters and their accounts. Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination has stood the test of time well. Nearly fifty years after it was first released, and more than a half-century since the stories were originally written, the volume remains an intriguing and engaging collection.

Forbidden Colors

~written by Yukio Mishima
~translated by Alfred H. Marks

In Japan, Yukio Mishima's novel Forbidden Colors was released in two parts. The first eighteen chapters were compiled in 1951 while the collection with the final fourteen chapters was published in 1953. The English translation of Forbidden Colors by Alfred H. Marks was first published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1968. Like Mishima's earlier novel Confessions of a Mask, Forbidden Colors deals with prominent homosexual themes, although the two works approach the material in vastly different ways. Also like Confessions of a Mask, and many of Mishima's other works, Forbidden Colors contains some autobiographical elements. In addition to being my introduction to Japanese literature, Mishima and his works fascinate me. I've been slowly making my way through all of his material available in English, but I was particularly interested in reading Forbidden Colors.

After being betrayed time and again the aging author Shunsuke Hinoki has developed an intense hatred of women. Seeking revenge, he enters into a peculiar arrangement with a beautiful young man by the name of Yuichi Minami. Yuichi has come to realize that he loves men and is tormented by what that means living in a society which doesn't accept homosexuality. Shunsuke is willing to assist Yuichi in hiding his secret by helping to arrange his marriage and to develop a reputation as a philanderer. In exchange, Yuichi promises Shunsuke to make the women he seduces miserable. They may fall in love with him, but he will never love them in return. The agreement is advantageous for both men. Yuichi will have a perfect cover allowing him the freedom to explore his sexuality--no one would suspect a married man and a womanizer to have male lovers--and Shunsuke will have the revenge he so greatly desires.

Shunsuke is an unapologetic misogynist. His anti-women rhetoric can be difficult to take, but without it the plot of Forbidden Colors would never go anywhere. It is necessary and important as the story's catalyst. Mishima has very deliberately created a distasteful character who at the same time is enthralling in his extremes. Yuichi, despite being loved by all, isn't a particularly pleasant person, either. However, I did find his portrayal to be much more sympathetic. He's vain and self-centered, but he also has an air of naivety and innocence about him. Both men and women fall victim to his charms but Yuichi himself is often manipulated as well. Forbidden Colors is an absorbing tale as Yuichi struggles to keep his two lives separate, sinking deeper into Japan's underground gay community while trying to keep up appearances in his public life. It's an outlandish battle of the sexes that is hard to look away from and no one comes out unscathed.

Forbidden Colors explores and deals with a number of dualities: homosexuality and heterosexuality, love and hatred, youth and old age, beauty and ugliness, truth and deceit, cruelty and kindness, morality and immorality, and so on. Mishima plays the dichotomies off one another, but also reveals how closely intertwined they can be. The complexities of the characters' relationships show that opposites are rarely just that and how at times in the end they aren't really all that different. Yuichi, for example, comes to genuinely care for his wife but in his twisted way of thinking expresses that love through cruelty. There is a certain logic to his decision and his concern is real, though someone else might not reach the same conclusion. At it's heart Forbidden Colors is a fairly dark story with erotic underpinnings and characters who, though often unlikeable, are captivating. I found the novel to be incredibly engrossing.