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Ranpo Kitan: A Twisted Metamorphosis from Page to Screen

by Rebecca Silverman,

Note: This article contains some spoilers for the first seven episodes of Ranpo Kitan.

You've probably heard the names Edgar Alan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before. They're two of English literature's greatest mystery writers, and Poe is generally credited with being the first to pen what we now call a detective story, Murders in the Rue Morgue, in 1841. Both of these writers influenced a lot of subsequent authors, including the man considered the father of Japanese mystery, Hirai Taro, who wrote under the name Edogawa Ranpo. (Ellery Queen, who also wrote under a pen name, commented that when said aloud, Ranpo's pseudonym sounds like “Edgar Alan Poe.”) Ranpo was a prolific writer during what is generally considered the Golden Age of Mystery, basically the time between the two world wars, though his work wasn't available in English until 1956. While you can get many more of his stories in English now, he isn't all that widely read, which can make understanding this season's Ranpo Kitan: Game of Laplace something of a challenge. While some of the thematic elements of his writing are clearly in place, such as mistaken identity and disguises, others are more obscure, such as the way the show turns his “dear reader” style of narration into an excuse to make it look like the characters are watching a play. All of the episode titles and plots are taken from Ranpo's short stories and novels, updating them so that we still get the shock value that the works had back when they were written. This means two things, basically: 1) that some of the originals get lost in translation and 2) that literary purists can find themselves getting really annoyed. Now, you can modernize the Brontës and Elizabeth Gaskell over my dead body, but Ranpo's works are intended to be shocking and, in some cases, sexually deviant. Let's face it - “sexually deviant” in 1925 can seem pretty vanilla in 2015. So let's see what it was that the writers might have been doing in...

The Human Chair
(Episodes 1 and 2; original published 1925)

Ranpo's story is about a carpenter who builds a Western-style armchair for a hotel lobby and then decides to create a hollow space inside for him to live in. He then thrills to the feeling of women sitting on him for years afterwards, creeping out only at night to eat and steal things. Later “he” is owned by a lady author, and he writes her a letter from the chair telling her how he's enjoyed feeling her body every time she sat on him. The story leaves it open as to whether or not this is a prank being played on the authoress, and is enough to make you decide never to sit in a plush armchair again. The implication is that the narrator of the story derives sexual pleasure from all these ladies sitting on him, so living in the chair is one big sexual experience for him. While that's really creepy, it's also not the kind of thing that sells anime. Oh no! Beware the old man inside the chair! You might sit on his lap! isn't a tagline that's going to move discs. But you know what is a sexual fetish that sells? Schoolgirls. Especially dead ones turned into furniture that allows someone to lean against their perky young breasts while sitting between their supple thighs. That's the direction the anime takes, and if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. The villain of the piece is still getting his jollies via chair, but rather than the passive role of the original story, he's the aggressor. He actively pursues the women, woos them, and convinces them that this is what they want. So rather than just being a creep, he's the more modern specter of the charming monster, the nice, good-looking young man whose pretty face hides a cruel mind. This idea of the beautiful hiding the ugly is very true to Ranpo's work and makes for a very natural update, and if you pay attention, it's present in almost every episode of Ranpo Kitan: Game of Laplace. If you think about it, you can also see it in the shift from old armchair to re-purposed human bodies: the female body is beautiful on its own. Turned into a chair? Well...

“The Human Chair” episodes are some of the best at taking Ranpo's idea of sexual deviance and turning it into something the modern viewer can appreciate. This next one is perhaps a little more difficult to see, but it still works in...

(episode 5, original published 1929)

Caterpillar is one of Ranpo's more disturbing short stories. The titular insect is actually a war veteran who was injured in a catastrophic explosion. He retains his beautiful face, but all four of his limbs were amputated, leaving him unable to move unless he squirms like a caterpillar. He is cared for by his wife Tokiko, but the strain of living in a remote cabin with a quadruple amputee, to say nothing of being praised as a heroine for her devotion, begins to wear on her. One night, in a fit of rage, she gouges her husband's eyes out, and it's implied that she also has sex with him. Now truly unable to function, he develops an infection, and a remorseful Tokiko runs for the doctor. Eventually her guilt eats and her and she confesses her crimes to the general who owns their cabin, but when she returns home, her husband is missing. She runs outside, only to find him squirming his way, bug-like, to an old well. He wriggles in and slips beneath the waters, ending his existence. It's a terrible story in terms of content, the kind that leaves a bad taste in your mouth even as you have to acknowledge that it was well written, but it's hardly a mystery. So what can Ranpo Kitan: Game of Laplace possibly do with it?

The episode, which is probably the strongest as of this writing, takes elements of Ranpo's ero guro tale and incorporates them into its version of The Fiend With Twenty Faces (episode 4, novel published 1936), another story that has gotten a significant revamp. In Ranpo Kitan, The Fiend is a name used by those who operate as vigilantes, punishing criminals the law has not or cannot. (In the original children's novel, he's basically Lupin III.) When he was Twenty Faces in 1936, the villain was uncatchable because he was so good at disguising himself. Now that he's 2015's Fiend, he has twenty faces because he's so many different people, which is an interesting update in and of itself. Going back to Caterpillar, however, The Fiend in episode five is also Tokiko, punishing a man for making him suffer. When an escaped criminal seeks vengeance by killing The Fiend's sister, his reaction is basically the same as Tokiko's: he destroys the man's body. Eyes gouged out, limbs cut off, The Fiend is both wife and bomb, turning the monster into the caterpillar in a more violently grotesque version of Ranpo's story. That it is done out of vengeance rather than strict frustration is more modern in terms of the sensibility; how many anime titles can you come up with where the hero becomes a killer out of vengeance for a family member? And how many of those are little sisters? (Coming winter 2016: My Cute Childhood Friend Killed My Little Sister and Now I Need to get Revenge, but She's Just Too Cute!)

While vengeance for a little sister has its own erotic component in today's anime world, that's not strictly where the “ero” part of Caterpillar's “ero guro” comes from. If we look back at both a single shot at the end of episode five and the original story, we see that what The Fiend does to the caterpillar is just what the caterpillar does to the little sister...who is named Tokiko. So there's a double dose of ero guro vengeance going on here: Tokiko, who was so cruel in the original story, has her limbs amputated and her eyes gouged out, but is then denied the suicide that freed the solider from suffering. The villain who did this to her receives the same treatment at the hands of her brother, but then is left to soak in a tub in a parallel to the soldier's fate in the short story – a watery coffin, but one where he most certainly will be seen in his grotesque state. So does it work as a modern update? Maybe a little less well than The Human Chair, but it's still a very compelling episode with real ties to the original story. Adaptation is more an art than a science, though, and that might explain how Ranpo Kitan has been handling the character of...

The Black Lizard
(First appears in episode 4; original published 1934)

In 1934, The Black Lizard was a lady art thief not too dissimilar to The Fiend With Twenty Faces. She had two major differences though: she absolutely did not frown on actually killing people, and she was in love with Akechi. The novel she stars in revolves around her plot to not only steal a fabulous diamond for her underground (literally) art museum, but also to kidnap the owner's daughter Sanae, whom she plans to preserve via taxidermy and keep as part of her collection. To pull this off, she and Akechi engage in a battle of wits that involves multiple body doubles, disguises, and henchmen utterly devoted to the queen of the underworld, and while it's all very over-the-top and kind of silly, it's also got a believably tragic undertone – it's clear from the start that Black Lizard is in love with Akechi and that he's not indifferent to her either, and the story ends with her dying in his arms. It's strangely beautiful, which might make the character's portrayal in Ranpo Kitan seem like an odd choice. Just look at the picture up there – she goes from being the elegant lady of the crime world to a dominatrix with a urine problem. (Incidentally, that picture is from the 1968 film, which cast a crossdressing actor as the leading lady. Originally she's biologically female.) So how on earth did we get from the one to the other?

It actually makes a little more sense than you'd think. The Black Lizard is described by Ranpo as an exhibitionist – she loves being in the spotlight and showing off her body. In the opening chapter of the book, she strips off all of her clothes and dances draped in jewelery at a party, something she's clearly done before, and she glories in it. Later she delights in stripping naked and climbing into a trunk, reveling in her sexuality and the ways she can manipulate it. Add to this the fact that Ranpo consistently refers to her henchmen as her “slaves” and the whole dominatrix angle starts to seem like a decent update of the character, especially since leaving her as-was might make her a little too similar to Fujiko in The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. She really sees herself as Akechi's equal, something which does come across in the anime, despite the fact that she's kept behind bars in a dungeon...a nod to her secret art museum from the book. Given that she has a collection of beautiful (taxidermied) people in her museum, the fact that she's surrounded herself with male “slaves” in the show again makes a certain amount of sense, particularly since most of them are shown just lying around not interacting with her. So now the question becomes where on earth those peeing and pain fetishes come from. While they both can still be explained by her exhibitionism and slave/minions, it actually feels more as if she's been combined with the heroine of a 1928 novella Ranpo wrote, Beast in the Shadows. That story features a woman named Shizuko who is a masochist, and along with her husband Rokuro she creates a fictional series of crimes in order to excite herself sexually. While we still may see a direct adaptation of this story in Ranpo Kitan's later episodes, there are facets of the show's Black Lizard that are much more in line with Shizuko than the book's Black Lizard. It's a logical combination, given that both stories are about femmes fatales (and were published together in one volume in English), and quite frankly book Black Lizard might be too mature for the anime's sensibility. She'd be a cougar after teen Akechi rather than a caged beast he can barely stand to interact with, and that's just so old-fashioned. Here in 2015, we need our fanservice to be more blatant and risqué, and this Black Lizard makes for that. (Plus she'll make a better body pillow after the Kobayashi ones sell out.)

But now for the elephant in the room. If Black Lizard and Fiend With Twenty Faces have both been changed for the contemporary anime audience, what about the show's best-known characters? What about...

Akechi Kogoro and his Boy Detectives
(Akechi's first appearance, 1925, Kobayashi's in 1930, and Hashiba's in 1936 )

Probably the character who has gotten the most “authentic” treatment as far as the books go is Kobayashi, who basically serves as the entry point character for Ranpo Kitan. Original Kobayashi is a young teen boy who lives with Akechi as his ward (and Akechi's wife, so Bob Kane didn't totally rip this off for Batman and Robin), and he first showed up in the 1930 novel The Vampire. Kobayashi is usually described as having large eyes and “apple cheeks,” so the anime's really not too far off with his not-all-borderline feminine design. In fact, his amazing cross-dressing skills are right in line with one of Ranpo's favorite tropes: disguise. The major difference between the two Kobayashis is that Ranpo Kitan's is much more innocent, at least on the surface. Book Kobayashi has some street smarts that the anime version lacks thus far, though the anime variant still has his ambition when it comes to solving crimes. But there's also something a little creepy about Anime Kobayashi that feels more in line with Ranpo's villains, so he probably bears keeping an eye on...

Hashiba, on the other hand, has pretty much just retained his name and his family's wealth. He first appears in The Fiend With Twenty Faces when his family's artwork is targeted by the thief. Twenty Faces kidnaps him in order to obtain the desired art, and Hashiba is so impressed with Kobayashi and Akechi that he runs right out and forms the Boy Detectives group to help them. He's two years younger than Kobayashi and has a case of hero worship that has morphed into a serious crush in the anime version. Again, this becomes understandable when we look at the show from the perspective of selling to the contemporary viewer: a little BL might keep the fujoshi coming back for more, if just the fact that the show features a cast of primarily attractive men doesn't do it. Anime Hashiba is still pretty concerned with not letting taking a bite out of crime affect his schoolwork, something which is explicitly stated in the books, but most of all with staying safe, which is much less of a concern in 1936.

“Safe,” however, isn't really a factor in Book Akechi's life, or Kobayashi's for that matter. Neither of them think anything of running headlong towards the danger, and while Kobayashi is still totally willing to do that, Anime Akechi seems to have developed a sense of self-preservation. He's a strange amalgamation of original and redone, with his stomach issues and youth, as well as his disdain of Black Lizard, being the most striking changes. In the stories, Akechi Kogoro is a private detective who gives the appearance of being annoyed by most of the cases he takes, though he always solves them and expends a ridiculous amount of energy on crazy schemes to do so. Anime Akechi seems genuinely annoyed by his profession, although that is likely going to be explained in later episodes. He does look right, though - the detective is always described as wearing a black suit and having kind of wild black hair, so the show basically just modernized him a bit while making him young and hot enough to be appealing and slightly less creepy in his relationship with the younger boys. It also makes him more like that favorite teenage anime hero: the wounded soul with amazing skills that even adults lack, forced to see the harshness of life too soon. Give that guy a giant robot and you've got the hero of any number of other shows, and I have to say that I think that Ranpo's original Akechi would have loved to get his hands on some mecha, so he might not be too upset with how he's been updated to suit a more modern world.

And really, that's what Ranpo Kitan: Game of Laplace has done with the Golden Age works of Edogawa Ranpo: updated the stories and characters so that they have more appeal for viewers who aren't classic mystery buffs. I don't always agree with their choices, but looking at them more closely, I can see what they may have been trying to do. And most importantly, underneath the changes, the tell-tale heart of Edogawa Ranpo still beats, and his stories continue to live on.

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