It’s not often that I get to review manga, and when I do it’s almost certainly not based on a story nearly ninety years old. But when I saw the beautiful coloured covers for The Strange Tale of Panorama Island, showcasing rich flowers, beautiful women and exotic birds all lovingly represented in an art deco style with gold lettering, I couldn’t help but look inside.
Suehiro Maruo isn’t an artist I have encountered before, and with good reason – only two of his previous works have been released in English, both of which come under the style of “ero guro”, or erotic grotesque. In comparison with his other work, it’s pretty apparent that Panorama Island is a toned-down version of his usual themes, but contains them nonetheless – the kind of gory, intestinal horror you can see in Akira, furtive sexuality, and the threat of eyes constantly observing. By the standards of 1926 Japan, this novella from Edogawa Rampo (a pen name homage to Edgar Allen Poe) would have been explicit, gory and modern, although now it seems positively tame in comparison with other works Maruo has illustrated, which include a contemporary version of the Muzan-e, arguably the very first popular example of ero guro.
The story follows Hitomi, a failing writer struggling with malaise. In 1926, the Taisho Emperor dies and as the mass media culture begins to permeate Japan, Hitomi fears being left behind. All he wants to write are fantastical stories, but his publisher is more concerned with the realities of contemporary Japanese life, knowing these themes will sell better. He then hears of the death of an old friend of his, the son of a wealthy industrialist for whom he is the splitting image, and a plan begins to form.
Immersing himself in horror fantasy, he digs up the rotting corpse of his old friend, removing his wedding ring – along with the finger – and his false tooth, ripping out his own tooth as part of the masquerade. As he assumes the life of the wealthy Komoda, he realises that his biggest obstacle will be convincing his friend’s beautiful wife Chiyoko of his seemingly miraculous return from the dead. Knowing that she will know her husband’s body better than anyone else, he fears becoming intimate with her – only leading to more suspicion on her part. His evident lust for young women makes this act even harder to sustain.
Using the wealth of the man whose life he has stolen, he begins to build the dreamworld he always wanted as an impoverished writer on a nearby island, claiming at first to turn it into an amusement park. But it becomes apparent before long that this island is not for others – and especially not children – to visit. He essentially builds himself a hedonistic paradise filled with exotic flowers, naked nymphettes and optical illusions. The island resort is based on and named after the late nineteenth century panoramas, indoor buildings which used painted canvases and clever positioning of objects and actors to create the illusion of a much larger landscape. They were used as an escape from the ever-growing population of Japan, and it’s clear that Hitomi needs this fantasy world to live in.
An ongoing visual theme in the artwork is of eyes watching. In the first instances of seeing Hitomi, he almost always has one eye hidden behind the lense of his glasses; Chiyoko’s bedroom is filled with decorative masks and dolls, with eyes that seem to stare all the time, perhaps representing the scrutiny she would feel as a wife to this rich man. When Hitomi takes her to the semi-completed island, she becomes horrified by the eyes that appear everywhere, in the feathers of a peacocks tail or in the glimmering specs of the exotic fish they see while walking through an underwater tunnel. In this panorama, Chiyoko is part of the landscape, a beautiful figure to be observed in the same way that the circus performers and naked frolicking women, just part of the scenery. The scale of the island only serves to enforce her suspicions that this man isn’t her husband but her imposter – but in the way of a classic horror her revelation comes too late to save her, and he makes her the eternal Queen of Panorama Island.
The artwork is something really quite special, at times an ero guro horror masterpiece and at others an art deco work complete with scrolling patterns and perfect, curvaceous women. The cultural influences for the island come from many places; sometimes he is watching Salome as she bears a copy his head aloft, and at others he seems like the sultan of his own kingdom, complete with turban. The intricacy of the background work is astounding, and while it’s difficult to imagine the optical illusions in real life they are awe-inspiring to see even on this scale.
It’s difficult to judge the writing, as it is the translation of a dead writers work, but as with most manga and comics the words are often secondary to the illustrations. What occurred to me more about the piece however were its references to other art, including Poe’s literature, Shakespearean images of Ophelia floating as the most beautiful corpse in all the world, and Arnold Böcklin’s famous painting of the Isle of the Dead.
Some critics have taken issue with the deus ex machina style of the story, but I felt that it worked perfectly with the idea of dreamscapes as intangible, only worth something because they are so temporary in nature. When his plan is exposed he is able to let go of the fantasy with ease, even though – or perhaps especially because – this fantasy has become his life. This serves to show that dreams are only worth something as long as they remain just that, and that the human condition is to become complacent even when faced with our desires come true.
The Strange Tale of Panorama Island is most definitely an adult book; while the eroticism is tastefully done in the first few sections, it becomes more graphic and explicit as the manga goes on. Themes of grave robbing and necrophilia, as well as images of deformities and “circus freaks” make this artwork at times repulsive and at other times emblematic of 1920s aesthetic perfection. The book is a conventional graphic novel size in hardback, with a cover worthy of a position on your living room table – just make sure no kids get their hands on it!