Edogawa Ranpo has become synonymous with Japanese horror and mystery fiction. Using a pen name based off of Edgar Allen Poe, (try saying it three times fast), the author Taro Hirai wrote many short stories and novels as Edogawa Ranpo (sometimes Romanized as Rampo). Like his namesake, Ranpo wrote mostly horror and mystery stories, basically introducing the genres into Japanese literature. While Ranpo has a plethora of material to choose from, here are my recommendations on where to start with his writing and films based off his work.
The Human Chair (人間椅子 Ningen Isu) – 1925
Easily one of Ranpo’s creepiest stories, The Human Chair is about a young female writer named Yoshiko who receives a strange letter from a fan. Yoshiko’s pleasure soon turns to horror and dread as the writer confesses his disturbing actions. Unbeknownst to anyone, the writer has been secretly entering a chair in Yoshiko’s house because of a bizarre fetish to be turned into a piece of furniture. The descriptions and motives are enough to give you the chills even today. On a side note, check out horror manga artist Junji Ito’s retelling/sequel to The Human Chair.
Black Lizard (黒蜥蜴 Kuro-tokage) – 1934
Starring Ranpo’s most memorable character, Detective Kogoro Akechi, this is easily one of Ranpo’s most famous works. In it, the star private detective matches wits with a female master criminal, the titular Black Lizard. The prize is the illustrious gemstone, the Star of Egypt, and the Black Lizard will stop at nothing to get it, even kidnapping its owner’s daughter. Twists and turns abound as Akechi and the Black Lizard outsmart and double-cross each other, all the while dealing with the thick sexual tension they share.
The Blind Beast (盲獣 Mōjū) – 1931
If The Human Chair is Ranpo’s creepiest story, then The Blind Beast is his most outright horrific. The titular beast is a blind man who kidnaps women and imprisons them in his strange dungeon with sculptures of female anatomy. Obsessed with the sense of touch, the blind man uses and degrades his captives, before tiring and disposing of them in grotesque and theatrical ways. For example, he ties a severed arm to a balloon, encouraging schoolchildren to chase after it. As mentioned, The Blind Beast is not a mystery novel, but pure horror, and there is Detective Akechi to bring the killer to justice.
The Caterpillar (芋虫 Imomushi) – 1929
Tokiko’s husband, Lieutenant Sunaga, is horribly wounded in an unspecified war but survives. Well, ‘survives’ is a strong word. His arms and legs being amputated, and losing the ability to speak. Ever the dutiful wife, Tokiko cares for her mutilated husband without complaint but resent grows inside her. Soon, her kindness turns to sadism as she enjoys torturing her husband, reduced to a wriggling human caterpillar.
Horrors of Malformed Men – 1969
Based off of Ranpo’s novel The Strange Tale of Panorama Island, this movie has earned an infamous reputation over the years. An amnesiac named Hirosuke escapes from an insane asylum and discovers that a perfect doppelganger of his has recently died. Investigating leads him to a mysterious island, where the inhabitants have been transformed into hideous monsters. Hirosuke delves further into a labyrinthine mystery full of horror and insanity, before learning the truth about his own tortured past.
Black Lizard – 1962
A relatively faithful adaptation of the 1934 novel, this movie once again pits the dashing Detective Akechi against the arch criminal, the Black Lizard. However, the film shifts the setting to the 1960s instead of the 1930s. The other main difference is while the novel is relatively straightforward and somewhat serious (despite Ranpo literally addressing the audience from time to time), this movie is campy in the vein of Adam West’s Batman (which would debut a few years later). Some prefer the 1968 Kinji Fukusaku version with famous drag queen Akihiro Miwa (美輪 明宏)as the Black Lizard, I still prefer this one for its more polished tone.
Watcher in the Attic – 1976
The 1925 short story Stalker in the Attic forms the backbone of this movie but it borrows heavily from many other of Ranpo’s works, notably The Human Chair. The landlord of an apartment building has a disturbing habit of crawling around the attic and spying on his tenants. Just as he is growing bored with his passive voyeurism, the landlord is discovered by a woman. As she is being eaten out by a clown (I’m not joking) she purposely suffocates him while the landlord looks on. Convinced she’s his soul mate, the landlord decides to prove his love by claiming a victim of his own. Set in the Taisho Era of the early 1920s, this movie exemplifies the ero-guro nansensu of the period where so many Ranpo adaptations are set. There are many versions of this, but get the 1976 version, made during the age of the ‘Roman Porno’ subgenre of Japanese cinema.
Edogawa Ranpo’s works are spread across many different publications. Here are just a few.
The Human Chair and Caterpillar are collected in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, available for purchase here.
The novel Black Lizard is available for purchase here.
The Blind Beast is available here.
Arrow Video has released a Blu-ray with English subtitles of Horrors of Malformed Men.
I’ve never seen a physical copy of the 1962 Black Lizard but it pops up on streaming sites from time to time.
Watcher in the Attic is out of print but can be ordered here.