Ranpo Kitan: Game of Laplace and the curious case of the detective novelist’s good friend’s hobby.
(Warning: Here there be honking big blockquotes – Game o Laplace mild spoilers too.)
The currently airing anime Ranpo Kitan: Game of (lets shorten it to) Laplace is of course a bit more and a bit less than a commemorative retelling of the iconic Japanese detective stories of Tarō Hirai/ Edogawa Rampo. There is also a toned-down re-visiting of the mood of the “erotic grotesque nonsense” (ero-guro) genre that played a prominent role in the original stories, with a deft updating of the tradition by laying out bait for otokonoko fanboys and yaoi fangirls. Anyone who wonders why this little weird thing exists is bound to do a quick peek at the wiki entry for Hirai/ Rampo.
From thereon however, things get odd and very, very Japanese.
Tarō Hirai, AKA Edogawa Rampo is considered the father of the Japanese detective story and was a great admirer of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His Akechi, the first recurring detective character in Japanese fiction was clearly inspired by Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In Laplace he is a grouchy 17-year-old genius with carte blanche from “The Imperial Household Agency” (we wont go there, just as we will not dwell too much on how the civilian casualties of the Ginza invasion in the anime version of GATE were kept low through the timely intervention of ‘higher authority’). Plagued by ennui and a never-relenting (per previous; caffeine withdrawal-get that kid to make you some strong coffee dammit!) headaches he ends up with two unwanted “assistants”. The first of these, Kobayashi is a diminutive junior high school (middle school) student who is often mistaken for a girl and displays a curiously amoral, detached passivity.
Grotesque murders – even those that he is accused of committing seem to be the only thing that interest him. His friend, serious rich-boy Hashiba has appointed himself as Kobayashi’s protector and gets dragged into the Boy Detective Club that updates an original Edogawa Rampo conceit. As well, Kobayashi has started to crossdress, whether for solving crimes or just to amuse himself. I recommend episode 6, A Glimpse of Hell; the remaining episodes so far try too hard but not hard enough at giving the viewer a pasteurized taste of both “ero-guro-nansensu” and “iki”, that fatalistic, refined detached air which was a big thing in Edo Japan and which I suspect is the hook for the Kobayashi character.
“As an aesthetic expression, iki alludes to a certain style of life and of art that was current in the amusement districts of Edo, reaching a fashionable climax around 1830. However, in spite of its mundane outlook, iki has spiritual roots enabling it to reconcile the idea of Buddhist renunciation with Bushido idealism. Kuki Shûzô (1888–1941) established iki as a more abstract, philosophical term by attempting to define it, in his famous book The Structure of ‘Iki,’ with the help of Western metaphysical and anthropological methods. Surprisingly, Martin Heidegger mentions the notion of iki in an essay published in 1959 entitled “Aus einem Gespräch von der Sprache.” Though Heidegger’s reflections are interesting as such, they do in not grasp the real concept of iki.
Kuki writes that “‘iki’ has its origin in the ‘World of Suffering’. […] Now, ‘resignation’, that is the disinterestedness in ‘iki’, is an urbane and well-formed heart which has gone through the polishing of the hard and heartless floating world”. Iki is produced through a “resignation to fate and the gaiety based on ‘resignation’”. Iki asks for the negation of an “everyday world” which Kuki calls the “con-ventional” world. If we resign from the “conventional” we discover style: “You will be chic when the conventional has been rubbed away”. In many ways iki comes close to a philosophical ideal of “coolness.” The decisive point is that through the negation of the “conventional,” iki will not be “dis-covered” as an “essence” that already existed “out there”, outside everyday life. On the contrary, the act of resignation from everyday life reveals a kind of iki that always exited within everyday life (and even within ourselves) but that was covered by the conventional. In this sense, Kuki writes: “If we are able to combine the abstract conceptual moments of transformation obtained through analysis, and to constitute the being of ‘iki’, that is because we already carry iki with us as experiential meaning” (73). The particular act of stylization through which the conventional is “cut off” depends on the stylistic cut called kire, which is essential to the aesthetics of iki.”
– The Structure of Detachment: The Aesthetic Vision of Kuki Shuzo: With a Translation of Iki no kozo. University of Hawaii Press 2004. Botz-Bornstein, Thorsten.
In less elegant words; stray kittens, beautiful prostitutes, pretty boys and attractive boi-dykes get into horrible life situations. Life is messy and cruel, only the fleeting moments of beauty redeem it – be careful not to over-react to these. You can pet them and occasionally feed them; you can admire the sublime moment but nothing can save them. Falling in love or sympathy with any of these is folly and will only drag you and everything around you down with them. We’re all going to die and they will die sooner, in messy circumstances. “The flame that burns twice as bright burns only half as long” and dwelling on this ruins the moment, so shut up and enjoy the cherry blossoms. Note that Iki predates the European idea of the flanneur by half a century or more. Also note that “the floating world’ was a miserable place to be stuck in for either sex; bond-servitude prostitution (slavery) remained open and accepted until the advent of the post-war constitution.
As well, Kobayashi embodies another aspect of the homage-a-Rampo-ness in Laplace; the True Crime/ Tokyo Reporter nudge nudge wink wink “deviancy” of all sexuality, be it riajuu or minority. It may seem odd to the Western mind, but high levels of Japanese literacy and cultural engagement, combined with the heavy hand of the state resulted in tons of important discussion on sexuality, gender and society being carried out during the twentieth century in sensational, lurid vernacular publications. Imagine if Masters and Johnson had to release their landmark sexuality studies in Real Man’s Manly Adventure Monthly, sharing space with “Flesh Eating Marmoset Attack!!!”.
When he was not writing detective stories Hirai/Rampo spent time with his friend Jun-ichi Iwata, who appeared to have been determined to prove that a separate, long-standing nihon-jinron ‘gay in Japan’ tradition existed independent from contaminating Western notions of sexual and gender minorities.
“Another of his interests, especially during the late 1940s and 1950s, was bringing attention to the work of his dear friend Jun’ichi Iwata (1900–1945), an anthropologist who had spent many years researching the history of homosexuality in Japan. During the 1930s, Edogawa and Iwata had engaged in a light-hearted competition to see who could find the most books about erotic desire between men. Edogawa dedicated himself to finding books published in the West and Iwata dedicated himself to finding books having to do with Japan. Iwata died in 1945, with only part of his work published, so Edogawa worked to have the remaining work on queer historiography published.”
— (per Jeffrey Angles, Writing the Love of Boys: Origins of Bishōnen Culture in Modernist Japanese Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-6970-7.) – Wiki enty for Edogawa Ranpo/ Rampo, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edogawa_Ranpo
… And here I do a bit of link following and lookie what turns up! A Cliff’s Notes summary of the whole ball o wax by Brad Borovitz, academic, cultural critic and conceptual/ software artist originally written back in 1993. (This is damn fine, take some time later and read the whole thing)
“Iwata’s friend Edogawa relates that he was completely disinterested in Western materials on sexology while Edogawa found them both fascinating and important. In fact, Iwata refused to treat the ethnographic dimension of homosexuality; but his relationship to ethnography is complicated. He did do other “ethnographic” work (such as a study of Toba area pearl divers) and was associated with minshukugaku (民衆苦学) especially through his correspondence with Minakata Kumagusu (南方熊 楠). If, as I assert, Iwata’s historical project is a response to a new sexuality that has everything to do with the West, his refusal is significant; it seems to suggest a reactionary positioning. It may represent a reaction against the ethnographic attentions of the West—Edward Carpenter (1911), Ferdinand Karsch-Haack (1906) and Magnus Hirschfeld, all wrote about the phenomenon in Japan —and an enactment of defiant self-definition, a “writing back”; or, it may be defensive appeal to tradition in response to the undesirable influence of Western notions of sexuality. In doing history, Iwata performs an implicit rebuff of a privileged foreign knowledge and in a claim for identity and consciousness absents the imposing voice of the West.”
— The Discourse on “Love Between Men” in Interwar Japan: Iwata’s History of Homosexuality by Brad Borovitz http://onetwothree.net/writing/discourse-%E2%80%9Clove-between-men%E2%80%9D-interwar-japan-iwata%E2%80%99s-history-homo
Unfortunately, there were not that many academic journals available to social anthropologists in inter-war Japan, so…
“Edogawa Rampo relates that Iwata spent a great deal of time searching in old book stores for sources and meticulously taking notes on his material before he ever wrote anything for publication. It was apparently at Edogawa’s urging that he published the series of essays called Honcho Nanshoku Ko, “Reflections on Love Between Men in Our Country,” in Hanzai Kagak, “Criminal Science [Magazine],” starting in June of Showa 5 (1930). This first series proceeded chronologically from the beginning of recorded Japanese history—citing the Nihon Shoki (c. 720) and the Shoku Nihon Gi (c. 797)—up to through the Kamakura era (1185-1333). Other essays, published mostly in the in the same journal, also covered the Muromachi era (1333-1573). He went on to publish, less systematically, work that dealt with the Tokugawa (1603-1868), but he tended to focus more and more on the literature of nanshoku, through collections of stories. His final work, never published in his lifetime, was Nanshoku Bunken Shoshi (男色文献書誌), “An Annotated Bibliography of Male Love.” The manuscript was finished in 1943, but it was not published until Showa 31 (1956). Nanshoku Bunken Shoshi is a 370 page long carefully annotated bibliography of all references to nanshoku in Japanese literature from the Manyoshu and early chronicles through the literature of the Edo period. Considering even just the scope and form of his project, it seems that a great deal of rhetorical force is collected behind an assertion that, as something that pervades the history and literature of Japan from the earliest time, nanshoku is thoroughly Japanese.” – Ibid Borovitz
Other vernacular publications at the time included “Sex-Customs Storybook Magazine”, “Sex-Customs Science Magazine” “The Grotesque Magazine” and “Hallucinatory Literature Magazine” (per,Jeffrey Angles, Index, Ibid, passim.) Rampo made his living writing demi-monde thrillers and critics argue that he went from cerebral detective fiction to straight pulp sensationalism very quickly.
“The prescriptive literature of Habuto, Sawada and other experts who offered their counsel to the officials of law enforcement and education, found another audience in the bored urban middle class. Valued for their ability to titillate with descriptions of deviant sexuality, these works became part of a growing underground culture of sexology, part of the era’s popular fascination with ero-guro-nansensu (エロルロナンセンス), erotic-grotesque-nonsense. Iwata’s work, published as it was mainly in crime magazines, may teeter on the line between these genres of academic sexological discourse and popular erotic interest.” – Ibid Borovitz
See also this short passage from Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s by Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano
Lets see if I can get the embed to work for Google Books:
Despite his “fall” the move proved popular and ultimately secured his place in the popular imagination. A flanneur detective who can slip through the seedy underbelly of Tokyo proved to be a durable creation.
Recall as well from an earlier post how 1950’s discourse on minority sexualities ended up in pulp magazines:
“The second characteristic of the genre was the animated exchange that took place between specialist researchers, amateur researchers and the readers themselves. The hentai magazines frequently organised round-table talks where medical doctors, writers, readers and editors came together. Here the discourse of modern medicine which categorised perverse sexual desires as ‘abnormal’ stood alongside testimony from people who themselves had interest in these marginal sexualities. This queer space of the hentai magazines, then, allowed the official scientific discourse of the sexologists to interact with personal testimony from people designated ‘abu’ [abnormal]. That is, these magazines themselves functioned as a type of ‘contact zone,' in which hegemonic and subaltern representations encountered and interacted with each other. Hentai magazines like Kitan kurabu created readers’ columns that stimulated discussion about articles and encouraged exchanges between their readers. Such readers’ columns not only functioned as personal advertisements which offered people with the same interests the opportunity to meet, but also they enabled readers with different sexual interests to engage in dialogue together.” – ‘The Process of Divergence between ‘Men who Love Men’ and ‘Feminised Men’ in Postwar Japanese Media’ by Ishida Hitoshi and Murakami Takanori, translated by Wim Lunsing http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue12/ishida.html
The point of this excursion into pulp fiction is that like “Pulp Fiction” or better, “Blue Velvet” anything that did not lead a salaryman and a mom to raise normal offspring had one foot already into a strange and probably lethally dangerous hentai demi-monde.
So put aside this childish stuff, shape up, marry and reproduce!
The feminization of men and the masculinization of women and the neutered gender that results is a modernistic tendency that makes it impossible for the individual, the society, or the nation to achieve great progress. Accordingly, since the manliness of man and the femininity of woman must forever be preserved, it is imperative that we not allow the rise of neutered people who defy nature’s grace.
– General Ugaki Kazushige [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazushige_Ugaki], per Borovitz, Ibid
If you want more ero-guro nonsense in updated form, hunt out a copy of the 1968 film Black Lizard, directed by Kinji Fukasaku:
” The movie was adapted from Rampo’s novel of the same name by noted author Yukio Mishima, who also appears briefly in the film. The story pits the detective against a female mastermind, known as the Black Lizard, who is played by transvestite actor Akihiro Miwa. The film is considered high camp with its bizarre conventions and over-the-top performances but has a loyal following among fans and critics alike.” — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kogoro_Akechi
Yukio Mishima and his transvestite lover ??? Laplace’s cheesecake derivative is a pale shadow! Many years later this Black Lizard will re-appear as the voice of the witch in Howl’s moving Castle. Miwa is alive and well today and still getting TV gigs. The soundtrack was composed by the now-famous composer Isao Tomita [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isao_Tomita] who would later go on to score a slew of renown anime classics and collaborate with an orchestral composition for Hatsune Miku [http://www.crunchyroll.com/anime-news/2012/08/27-1/hatsune-miku-to-collaborate-with-japan-philharmonic-orchestra]. Mishima’s cameo in the film was as an embalmed corpse.
With Eng subs – https://youtu.be/5S1k9Uq-Zaw (hope it stays up for a while)
Later: try this: https://youtu.be/xCV2_3AgPlU
A little more digging turns up a bit more info on Rampo’s original Akechi character:
“Kogoro Akechi is a tall, handsome man with heavy eyebrows who dresses well. He is married to a woman named Fumiyo (文代) and lives with Yoshio Kobayashi, the leader of the Boy Detectives Club. Kobayashi often plays an important part in solving cases. Like his mentor, he is an expert at disguise and is especially adept at posing as a young woman. Aside from these relationships little is known of the detective’s personal life, which always takes a back seat to the mystery in his adventures.
Modern references to him can also be found in Gosho Aoyama’s popular and long-running manga series, Detective Conan. One of the characters, Detective Kogoro Mori is a persistent and courageous yet highly flawed and lecherous private detective—almost a parody of Kogoro Akechi. He has his cases solved for him by the youthful main character, Conan Edogawa. The name of young Conan’s elementary school detective club is the “Detective Boys”. Akechi himself is highlighted in volume 2 of the manga, in “Gosho Aoyama’s Mystery Library, a section of the graphic novels (usually the last page) where the author introduces a different detective (or occasionally, a villain) from literature. Further Akechi references can be seen in Aoyama’s other series, Magic Kaito, where a master thief who steals high-profile items for recognition.
Both Akechi and the Black Lizard are referenced in the Sakura Taisen series of video games and anime. One of the musicals performed by the Teikoku Kagekidan is Benitokage (“Crimson Lizard”) and features the title character, a criminal femme fatale, along with a handsome young detective named Akechi Kojiro. The manga and anime Nijū Mensō no Musume, or the Daughter of Twenty Faces, focuses heavily on Akechi’s arch-rival. Akechi himself is featured as well, but as a much more minor character. Akechi is also referenced in the character of Police Superintendent Akechi Kengo in Kindaichi Case Files, a popular detective manga series. In the media franchise, Tantei Opera Milky Holmes, Akechi is represented by a girl police detective named Kokoro Akechi.
Recently, a new Anime series entitled Rampo Kitan: Game of Laplace has been created, based off the Mystery novels of Edogawa Ranpo, and in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his death. The story follows Kobayashi (a reference to the leader of the Boy Detectives) who becomes assistant to eccentric 17 year old Akechi. In this Anime Twenty Faces also makes an appearance as a vigilante serial killer.”
Back to Laplace and Kobayashi. Like the second iteration of the Genshiken, the point of view shifts to the otokonoko character; Akechi, the nominal hero is a grumpy cypher. Unlike Kenjiro Hato though, Kobayashi is a far more problematic character. Wake up in a pool of blood holding a hacksaw to find the dismembered body of your home room teacher nearby? “Wow! Neato, school was beginning to bore me!” When the case resolves, it turns out that the murder victim was himself a murderous pervert who in turn was killed by a jealous complicit almost-victim who suddenly was tossed over as the dead perv began to fixate on the beautiful but emotionally vacant Kobayashi.
What follows after this is a sad parade of child murderers, vigilante killers, sex crazed female criminal masterminds, industrial magnate sex cultists and other assorted freaks.
One wishes that this Akechi gets a Fumiyo to calm the whole mess down a bit.
Aside from Akechi and Laplace, the weird circumstances of the study in Japan of minority sexuality and gender expressions in the twentieth century remains. The first and for a long period thereafter, the sole comprehensive examination of historical Japanese homosexuality was midwifed/ or mid-husbanded by the formost pulp detective writer of 20th century Japan. The Legendary Professor Munakata also makes an appearance. There is a strong feeling that he is modelled on the famous Japanese folklorist/ biologist Minakata Kumagusu[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minakata_Kumagusu] [The Legendary Musings of Professor Munakata http://myanimelist.net/manga/24090/Munakata_Kyouju_Denkikou]
“The well know biologist and folklorist Minakata Kumagusu initiated a correspondence with Iwata about nanshoku after reading Honcho Nanshoku Ko in Hanzai Kagaku. The fact that Minakata read Hanzai Kagaku, and took Iwata’s work seriously enough to engage him in dialogue shows the degree to which popular and high culture were integrated and the extent to which ero-guro-nansensu was part of both. The correspondence lasted from 1931 through 1934, a total of 58 letters that take up over a hundred of pages in Minakata’s collected works. ” — Ibid Borovitz
The odd circumstance of the evolution of early Japanese sexology as topic for popular discussion was that it was often soaked in “Japan-ness vs foreign-ness”, the discourse of nihon-jinron. Faced with Western research that pathologized minority sexualities and/or wrote them as a symptom of societal breakdown, the historicist approach held the possibility of rebutting at least some of the wild claims that were beginning to wash up on Japanese shores. From the inescapable historic fact that throughout human existence some folks experienced same-sex desire and others felt that they don’t quite fit into how their genders were supposed to behave, all manner of mapping and other-ings can be invented to fit the whims of the moment. Years later, in the West, some theorists will throw up their hands as well and look warily at nature/ nurture, convinced that either or both approaches can and have been too often refashioned into crude cudgels to be turned upon the subjects of their speculations. A historicist approach instead normalizes, with a message of “it has always thus so been”. Only the tales that the nosy neighbours tell change.
What we are left with is a curious and long-standing tradition in Japan of using vernacular cultural spaces, normally the locus of cheesy stories, as contested space (or spaces) for competing views, interests and arguments over sexuality, gender and therefore identity. That this practice continues today, in the myriad spaces of Contemporary Japanese Visual Culture is part of a long running dialogue, and inseparable from the larger project of modernity. (1)
In this wider context, the common complaints levelled at otaku and fujoshi seem beside the point. We must wait to see what larger projects emerge from these hobbies.
The Genshiken lacks an ero-guro otaku, though I suspect that Rika is written as knowing most of the historical materials. The lack of guro even if there is sufficient ero is curious.
Bonus: Ero-Guro nonsense – with Yakuza!
Track down Branded to Kill and its over-the-top sexploitation yuri remake Pistol Opera”
Here is a short vid on the director; Seijun Suzuki
LATER: The approach taken in this post risks trivialising and sensationalising in a way that mirrors the tone of the pulp magazines that ended up serving as the informal channel for important social discourse. The point should not be lost that without these discussions and the localised historicist approach taken by Iwata et al., Japan might have been even more open to the extreme pathologizing impulses that characterized ‘western’ approaches. Pulps may sound cheesy, but there are far worse ways of discussing the lives of others and then putting them into little boxes.
Once more I must position myself; this is not my battle, I see only small parts of it and I will make clumsy mistakes. One would be to give the impression that ‘the west‘ pursued a more enlightened or scientific or principled approach to understanding and ensuring the rights of those with minority sexuality and or gender expressions. No. No we didn’t. We fucked up. We let the discussion be led by barbarians, idiots, bullies, thugs and charlatans, as we usually do in our ‘other-ings‘.
For some reason, I tend to get annoyed, even worried when I find that the life-support systems on my section of the planet are being tampered with, or worse run by barbarians, idiots, bullies, thugs and charlatans. You would not want your airline pilot or surgeon to suddenly start announcing their ideas about how ‘those people’ are somehow ‘a problem’ and need to be ‘dealt with’ in mid-flight or mid-operation, but sadly this is too often the condition of past and current social discussion in my neck of the woods. A reminder of this effect popped up in a recent book review in Slate: A 750-Page Journey Through Gay American History (Review of Lillian Faderman’s The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle) by Victoria A. Brownworth
I also suspect that the aforementioned barbarians, idiots, bullies, thugs and charlatans made good, well paid careers out of their mischief, as the current crop is doing. We live in a democracy, so we must liek it this way. Reading the review saddened but did not surprise me.