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positions: east asia cultures critique 13.2 (2005) 299-327

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Edogawa Rampo and the Excess of Vision:

An Ocular Critique of Modernity in 1920s Japan

In recent years, the works and life of the mystery writer Edogawa Rampo (1894–1965) have generated renewed interest in Japan.1 Commemorating the centennial of his birth in 1994, magazines carried retrospective and nostalgic features on Rampo, and special programs on his life and writing aired on television.2 Discussions of Rampo's literary fiction have tended to treat it as a corporeal representation of the liminal space that was excluded from Tokyo's emergent modernity. Certainly his stories are illuminated by the nostalgic scenery of Tokyo, particularly that of the amusement district of Asakusa before its destruction by the 1923 earthquake, and they seem to celebrate sensual bodily pleasures. Yet many of them deal centrally with sight, the sense that has often been privileged to be the rational foundation of modern subjectivity.

My readings of Rampo's stories attempt to document the reorganization of the body in the scopic field of modern Japan. Rampo struggled to make [End Page 299] this transparent vision—the sign of modernity—visible through his experimentation with the literary imagination. Rampo's writing continues to hold literary value for present-day readers not because of its self-induced exoticism, but because of its self-reflective gaze on the nature of modern society through its literary explorations of bodily senses.

Before turning to Rampo's own texts, it is necessary to trace the critical history that has relegated Rampo's literary imagination to the premodern past. The writings by Tanaka Yûko, Matsuyama Iwao, and Yumeno Kyûsaku provide representative responses to his writings. The early modern historian Tanaka Yûko finds a shared space between Rampo's literary world and the Edo (1600–1868) cultural sphere, both of which she defines as liminal spaces excluded from modernity. After stating that Rampo incorporates in his work the colorful displays of phantasmagoria, bloodshed, and the grotesque found in Edo's carnivalesque displays, she continues:

If [phantasmagoria, bloodshed, and the grotesque] appear nonmodern (hikindaiteki), that is because there was a style of carnivalesque shows in the Edo [culture] that satisfied the desire for them, and modern [Japan] excluded this style of shows from itself. However, that was only a superficial exclusion, and it was impossible to completely erase them. The "modern" is the surface: Rampo becomes the reverse side. Such a reverse side will never disappear. This is neither the early modern problem nor the modern problem: this is the problem of general human desire.3

By juxtaposing Edo culture and Rampo, Tanaka establishes a schematic dyad of the premodern and the modern, and the boundaries between the two categories stand rigid. The display of human bodies in Rampo's work represents the excess that was excluded from the rational, sanitary space of modern society. In other words, Tanaka construes Rampo's writings as the reservoir of the premodern that was repressed in the urban space of Tokyo.

Matsuyama Iwao's 1984 book, titled Rampo to Tokyo—1920 Toshino kao (Rampo and Tokyo—1920 the Face of the City), makes a similar claim about the relationship between Rampo's work and the premodern. Matsuyama argues that the senses play an important role. The emergent rational space of modern cities brings about the repression of the senses, and Rampo's excessively sensual writings excavate the repressed premodern layer of urban [End Page 300] life. Matsuyama's book is an attempt to historicize and situate Rampo's stories in 1920s Tokyo; Matsuyama claims that Rampo's obsession with the senses resonates with the historical conditions of the time. During the 1920s, particularly in urban areas such as Tokyo and Osaka, people experienced a fundamental reworking of human relationships due to the rapid transformation in the material conditions of daily life. In this process, sight emerged as a privileged sense since it helped to construct a rational, modern urban space. Matsuyama does not specifically...


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