Edogawa Rampo wrote countless stories and novels about obsessed men who pen themselves up inside their obsessions, sometimes figuratively and often literally. Suehiro Maruo makes manga about Gothic, frenzied extremes, some so outré they remain unpublishable outside of Japan. The Strange Tale Of Panorama Island, one of Rampo's early but most celebrated works, riffs on his namesake's (Edgar Allan Poe) "The Domain Of Arnheim" to explore ideas that remain modern 100 years later: the "society of the spectacle", virtual reality, the all-consuming male gaze. Maruo gives all this the visualization it deserves, one that's as seductive to us as its visions are to its antiprotagonist.
A fellow writer once told me that Richard [Hell] once told her that the best thing about being a rock'n'roll star would be the option of constructing his environment so that he would never have to be around anyone he didn't want to know from, which not only sounds like building your own concentration camp but is just exactly what most of the declining rockstars of the sixties have done to themselves.
— Lester Bangs, "Richard Hell: Death Means Never Having To Say You're Incomplete" (January 1978)
A do-it-yourself paradise (or hell)
Rampo's short novel, published in 1926 (only three years after his first short story), dealt with a familiar Rampo archetype: an intelligent, artistic, but bored and unfocused man who falls prey to an obsession that consumes him. Here, it's Hirosuke Hitomi, a sometime writer of fantasy fiction and fulltime inveterate dreamer. His dream, unfulfillable as it is, is to create a kind of island paradise resort, an adult Disneyland that would require the resources (and the monomania) of a Howard Hughes to realize.
Then one day Hirosuke finds his Hughes. It's Genzaburō Komoda, his "older brother" — a former school chum who resembled Hirosuke to a stupefying degree. Komoda has just died, leaving his massive fortune and industrial holdings presumably to be divided amongst his squabbling relatives and his grieving wife. In classic "weird tales" tradition, Hirosuke seizes on the idea of passing himself off as Komoda, by digging up the dead man's body and passing himself off as the man, misdiagnosed as deceased and somewhat worse for wear, but still miraculously alive.
This being a Rampo story and not, say, a Scott Turow novel, this absurd ploy actually works. It helps that Hirosuke is a keen student of human behavior (read: borderline sociopath) and can fake it 'till he makes it. He pours the family's resources into realizing his dream, but all the while the dead man's wife — whom the impostor has come to adore despite himself — suspects something's amiss. When Hirosuke gives her the Ozymandias treatment so that she might look upon his works, she despairs, and he does away with her. But she wasn't the only one who could reveal his secrets, and so when a figure from Hirosuke's past steps up to do so, he decides to consummate a union with his creation that will, at the very least, cement his infamy.
Some of Rampo's stories have dated topically, but not emotionally, for the same reasons as Poe's own works. The technical details of genre fiction are the first to get old, but the implications remain as long as people are still somewhat human. Rampo was fascinated with the way human beings built artificial realities for themselves, whether by way of the movies or the "panorama", a sort of 3D diorama that used optical illusions to convince viewers of the presence of a much larger space. (What would Rampo have made of VR!) What mattered most, he sensed, was not the creation, but the escape into the creation. What made the impulse neurotic, or psychotic, was whether the person wanted to turn the creation outwards, or inwards — or, worse, drag everyone down into it with them.
The right manga-ka for the job
Rampo's stories of decadence and crime, and all those like them, came to have their own label: ero-guro-nansensu, "erotic grotesque nonsense". They came under increased censorship and disapproval as Japan grew more militarized through the 1930s, but the audience for Rampo and Rampo-esque weirdness never vanished completely, and others in future generations carried the torch for that style of work forward. Among them is manga creator Suehiro Maruo, whose gorgeous and detailed art not only has many of the same themes and conceits (decadence, perverse sexuality), but even looks like a product of the same time period, with its nods to silent cinema (German Expressionism in particular), Taishō-era advertising art, and boy's- and girl's-magazine designs. It's hard to think of a better artist to adapt this material, especially since Rampo is not the only author of the same period and persuasions that Maruo has adapted, either (e.g., Yumeno Kyūsaku's short story "Bottled Hell", a satanic take on The Blue Lagoon).
Manga adaptations of classics don't have to follow any particular path, but they do have to work on their own terms. If they reinvent the original material or bring it up to date, they need to discover new things about it, as Usamaru Furuya did with his excellent manga rendition of Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human, or risk losing the thread. If they faithfully reproduce the original, they also need to do it in a way that's illuminating. When Junji Ito did his own take on No Longer Human, he didn't so much fuse it with his own sensibilities (which would have been excellent enough) as bury it under them, and all that was important and interesting about the original story got smothered.
Maruo doesn't change much about the basic story, but he does make it his. The guided tour Hirosuke gives Komoda's wife of the island paradise he's created takes up a good third or more of the book, much as it occupied a significant chunk of the story. It's a showcase for some truly gorgeous art, but it also emphasizes an aspect of the story that feels far more visibly relevant now than it might have at the time — how it's about a guy who shows his wife his man cave and gets upset when she doesn't share his hobbies.
Most of Maruo's work is not available in English. Midori, a/k/a Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show, appeared in the early Nineties by way of Blast Books, but has been long out of print. Many of his other titles (e.g., The Laughing Vampire), would probably not be able to find distribution due to mayhem and sexuality involving minors — but then again, Usamaru Furuya's Lychee Light Club, an alpha-and-omega Maruo homage, pushes many of the same envelopes and has been available readily in English. Still, for now, Panorama Island is the one title most readily available in English from Maruo's catalog, and kudos go to Last Gasp for keeping it around over several printings in a gorgeous hardback edition. What with there being so few good introductions to Maruo generally, this title might as well be the first place to start.