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Professor translates 1920s Japanese writers who helped shape country's literature

Friday, September 05, 2014

LAWRENCE – A University of Kansas professor is helping bring the macabre and bizarre fiction of 1920s Japan to American readers.

Elaine Gerbert, associate professor of East Asian languages and cultures, is working to translate Japanese authors who were part of the cultural movement known as “erotic grotesque nonsense,” which took hold in the 1920s and went on to shape 20th century Japanese literature and film.   

Among the most well-known of these authors is Edogawa Ranpo, known as the founder of the modern Japanese detective novel. American author Edgar Allan Poe influenced him so much that Ranpo’s pen name is a rendering of Poe’s. Like Poe, Ranpo’s work explores themes of doppelgangers, optical illusions, premature burial and the grotesque.

In 2013, Gerbert translated Ranpo’s 1926 novella “Strange Tale of Panorama Island,” a work that is popular in Japan and was made into a comic book by well-known Japanese manga artist Suehiro Maruo. Gerbert’s translation of the book is the first to be printed in English.

Gerbert picked the piece to translate because she wanted a work that represented the visual culture of modern Japan and because Ranpo’s fiction is always a favorite among students. Gerbert noted the same audience that likes Japanese horror films tends to appreciate the lurid and imaginative work of Ranpo.

“He’s always the most popular author on the reading list. He’s very contemporary and appealing to young readers,” she said.

“Strange Tale of Panorama Island” is about a young man who steals the identity of his former wealthy classmate after the classmate dies. Since the two look alike, the young man is able to convince everyone that he is the heir and receives the family fortune. With that fortune, the man builds a utopia on an island and presides over it as king. Both the dead man’s wife and a former classmate begin to suspect the imposter. The novella ends with the island exploding.   

Gerbert notes that the novella’s utopian vision mirrors Japan’s expansionist dreams that fed the colonization of the Asian continent. And its ending is a harbinger of the collapse of those dreams.

 “I was quite taken by it,” Gerbert said of the novella. “It has beautiful passages interwoven throughout it.”

Gerbert is working on a soon to-be-published translation of a story by Koji Uno, which was written in 1923 and roughly translates to “The Dream Room.” Although Uno is said to have influenced Ranpo’s work, he isn’t well-known in Japan today.

Uno had a quixotic imagination, Gerbert said. While Ranpo’s work would go on to become stranger and more lurid, Uno had a lighter and more comical touch.

“The Dream Room” is set in 1920s Tokyo and centers on a writer who rents a room to get away from his family so he can work on his manuscripts. But he uses the time to indulge in a dream world, which focuses on a geisha he once loved from afar while he was staying in a rural province. He places photos on his wall that remind him of the geisha. On a walk, he sees a roof of a museum. From a distance, it reminds him of a lake in the province where he fell in love with the geisha. He indulges himself by taking walks to look at the roof, so he can recreate the pleasures of the days he spent in the province. The story ends when the roof is destroyed to make way for the 1922 Tokyo Exposition.

The work highlights a time when Japan was engaged in putting on expositions to showcase its modernity and a period when writers showcased their individuality by writing about themselves and their feelings. By having his characters fall victim to their illusions, Uno’s work spoofs this genre of writing.

“The idea of the individual who existed apart from the group was very modern,” Gerbert said. “And the 1920s saw parallel movements of self-representation on the individual level and the national level.”