By Edogawa Rampo (Shinbaku Books; 1935/2009)
I’ll admit upfront that I’m biased regarding this book. It’s the first-ever English version of MOJU: THE BLIND BEAST by Japan’s legendary Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965). Originally published in 1932, it was made into a mind-roasting 1968 film that remains a favorite of mine. I’m also quite partial to Rampo’s other translated writings, which include the collections JAPANESE TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION and THE EDOGAWA RAMPO READER, and the novels THE BLACK LIZARD and BEAST IN THE SHADOWS. Clearly I was predisposed to like this short novel, and like it I did–a lot.
In fact, I’d say MOJU is very likely the apotheosis of the Rampo stories I’ve read, incorporating nearly every element that makes his writing distinctive: it’s a vicious black comedy (a la his classic story “The Human Chair”), a disturbing peek into a perverse psychosexual hell (a la “The Caterpillar”) and a rollicking account of the outrages of a master criminal (a la THE BLACK LIZARD). Ultimately, though, it’s none of those things, being a consistently unpredictable, virtually unclassifiable work. Not even the film version, distinct though it is, can match this book’s confounding strangeness.
The protagonist is an ugly-as-sin blind man who’s learned to subsume his every desire into the act of touching women’s bodies. Having inherited a sizeable fortune, he creates a vast exhibit consisting of lifelike body part sculptures–eyes, noses, nipples, etc.–all contained within a claustrophobic underground room. In this place the guy can fondle and caress fake female appendages to his heart’s content.
But the blind man inevitably tires of his sculptures, and so kidnaps the flesh-and-blood Ranko, a singer renowned for her alluring figure. The blind beast shuts her away in the underground room, and the two become enmeshed in an increasingly psychotic morass of desire and madness. Ranko falls in love with the blind man, even coming to share his preference for touch over all other senses. Their relationship descends into violent sadomasochism until the blind man inevitably kills Ranko and chops her up.
The film version, which follows the text fairly closely, ends at this point. The novel, however, is only halfway finished.
Much of the remainder of the story follows the blind beast as he ensnares subsequent victims through his work at a massage parlor. His services as a masseuse become quite popular among the local female populace, and the blind man manages to lure several women into his sculpture room for further banquets of perversion and dismemberment. He also finds various creative–and increasingly brazen–ways of disposing of his victims’ body parts. Being blind, no one suspects him of the crimes.
You can rest assured that the whole thing is every bit as arrestingly bizarre as it sounds. You can also be sure that Edogawa Rampo’s conviction and narrative savvy hold it together. His fevered imagination and tight prose (ably translated by Anthony Whyte) add up to a wholly unique voice. In some respects Rampo’s work is quaint and old-fashioned, but in others (particularly the startling depictions of sexual deviance and bloodletting) it’s far ahead of its time–indeed, one cold argue we have yet to entirely catch up with it.