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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Strange Tale of Panorama Island

Edogawa Ranpo

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To purchase Strange Tale of Panorama Island

Title: Strange Tale of Panorama Island
Author: Edogawa Ranpo
Genre: Novel
Written: 1927 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 121 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Strange Tale of Panorama Island - US
Strange Tale of Panorama Island - UK
Strange Tale of Panorama Island - Canada
Strange Tale of Panorama Island - India
L'île panorama - France
La strana storia dell'Isola Panorama - Italia
El extraño caso de la isla Panorama - Deutschland
  • Japanese title: パノラマ島奇談
  • Translated by Elaine Kazu Gerbert
  • A 'manga' version by Maruo Suehiro was published in 2008, and in English by Last Gasp in 2013

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Our Assessment:

A : beautifully fantastical

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 19/5/2013 Stephen Mansfield

  From the Reviews:
  • "Very much of its time, the story embodies the prevailing taste for the grotesque. Superimposed on this are the Taisho Era’s flirtation with liberated ideas and the erotic. (...) Ranpo’s strengths were plot and descriptive brilliance." - Stephen Mansfield, The Japan Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Strange Tale of Panorama Island is a strange little novel. Poe-influenced, the story is repeatedly pulled and pushed back into the constraints of a mystery-story -- complete with a conclusion that has a detective-stand-in who confronts the protagonist and reveals how he determined his guilt -- but also escapes these (and most other curbs) in its wild and wonderful fantasy (including, very satisfyingly, in its striking, shocking final scene).
       "The story begins in Tokyo", the narrator writes -- but only in starting the second chapter. Before going back to the beginning, the narrator reveals some of what is to come -- the unusual things that happened -- in a suggestive but only partially revealing first chapter, where the narrator introduces the now-deserted island of: "Okinoshima, the Island of the Offing".
       Okinoshima was not a well-known place -- the novel's opening lines are: "Few residents of M Prefecture may know of its existence" -- and, "scarcely five miles in diameter" and difficult to reach, and in an out of the way corner of Japan, far even from the other local islands, it never attracted much attention. Briefly, however, there was a flurry of activity there -- and, as the narrator notes, anyone who went looking now would likely still find: "the remains of a strange man-made landscape there".
       From here the story goes back to its beginnings, to far-off Tokyo, and Hirosuke Hitomi. A university graduate, he remained an idler who didn't get a job after graduation and had dabbled in a variety of fields -- philosophy, literature, architecture, painting -- without much ambition:

He was satisfied to live life on the level of his imagination. Nothing was truly important. He lay about in the dirty lodging house all year round lost in daydreams of a kind that practical men never experience. In other words, he was nothing but an inveterate dreamer.
       But he does dream of something: his very own utopia. Inspired by the likes of William Morris' fantasies, Étienne Cabet's Travels in Icaria, and, especially, Poe's 'The Domain of Arnheim' [text]:
His one outstanding dream was to create a huge work of art using nature itself, its mountains, rivers, grasses, and trees as his materials.
       With the possibilities of realizing his dream out of reach, he is limited in his outlets:
In the beginning, he had some interest in art, and was able to discover not a little solace in publishing his dreams in the form of stories in the manner of the utopian writers of yore, and he did this with some passion for a time. But the things he wrote, aside from the translations, were not well received by the magazine companies. One would have to say that this was to be expected, because they were extremely dull, self-indulgent works in which he merely described his utopia in minutest detail, using various styles.
       Hirosuke Hitomi suddenly sees opportunity, however, when an old classmate mentions that another classmate of theirs, Genzaburō Komoda, has passed away. While the two hadn't been close at university, there was a connection:
Hirosuke Hitomi and Genzaburō Komoda, the wealthiest man in M Prefecture, had been classmates at the university and strangely enough looked so alike that the other students nicknamed them "the twins." Their faces had the same shapes; they had the same physiques and even the same voices. They were exactly like two peas in a pod.
       To step into Komoda's place as the head of an immensely wealthy family -- it would allow Hirosuke realize his wildest dreams. Except, of course, that it is hard to step into a dead man's place.
       If not entirely realistic, the switch Hirosuke pulls off is nevertheless sensationally done. Edogawa excels at vivid, intimate description, and Hirosuke's plan allows for exactly this.
       This audacious plan would be enough to carry the book, but Edogawa follows it up with the next stage, Hirosuke-as-Komoda indulging in his truly spectacular vision, creating a: "paradise on earth" on the island of Okinoshima.
       From its underwater glass tunnel entranceway to the many visual illusions that make the whole appear even grander, he transforms the island into his fantastical vision. Except perhaps in over-populating the place with naked maidens, Edogawa handles this exceptionally well as well. His descriptions are evocative -- and mind-bending -- but not laboriously detailed, and readers are easily swept along the way Komoda's wife, Chiyoko, is:
     Each and every landscape was on a completely different plane. She felt that she had leapt from a third-dimensional world into a fourth-dimensional one, and before she could catch her breath, everything about the spot that she had been looking at up until then, from the forms to the colors to the smells, changed into something completely different.
       Hirosuke treads carefully around the Komoda family, knowing that if anyone is likely to suspect that he's an impostor it is them. Most can safely be kept at a distance -- and paid off -- but Chiyoko poses a problem, and he sees her as potentially dangerous, vacillating between doing away with her and letting her into the secret that she has already sensed.
       Ultimately, it is a writer, Kogoro Kitami, who is the cause of Hirosuke's -- and his vision's -- downfall. Not in his role as writer, but as reader, familiar with the works of one Hirosuke Hitomi .....
       If the denouement is almost ridiculously like a 1920s mystery novel -- albeit with a nice additional clue that gives the would-be-detective all the evidence he needs of Hirosuke's deeds and guilt -- Edogawa still manages to give his visionary hero a fitting and spectacular send-off in a grand closing scene.
       Despite a translation that doesn't feel entirely sure, and a narrative that repeatedly falls back to the conventional -- as if Edogawa was trying to force the story to be a more conventional kind of mystery novel -- it soars at its (frequent) best. Even as the main ideas in the novel aren't necessarily original, Edogawa's handling of Hirosuke replacing Komoda, as well as the workings of his 'Panorama Island' are very good indeed. And for all its being conventional in many ways, there are several scenes that are exceptional by any measure, rivalling Poe, Akutagawa, or Verne.
       This is, in many ways, a novel of its times, but like the best decadent-era French fiction (which it resembles in many ways) it holds up very well -- and deserves to be much better-known than it is.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 November 2016

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Strange Tale of Panorama Island: Reviews: Other books by Edogawa Rampo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Edogawa Rampo (江戸川 乱歩; actually Hirai Tarō (平井 太郎)) lived 1894 to 1965.

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