Suehiro Maruo‘s The Strange Tale of Panorama Island has been out of print for years, but fortunately got a recent reprint by Last Gasp Publishing. The evocative and lurid tale transposes the political with the obscene, capturing the anxiety of Western influence that marked the Taisho era and commentates on Showa era’s push toward Imperialism and the horrors it wrought. Make no mistake that in all its strange beauty, The Strange Tale of Panorama Island is first and foremost a case study of how one man’s utopia is another’s hell.
Hitomi is a mediocre novelist obsessed with the concept of a paradise. It’s all he writes about, to the frustration of his editor. He idolizes Edgar Allen Poe and multicultural poetry pioneer Daigaku Horiguchi and dreams of an impossibly built paradise full of European castles, Greek columns, French manicured guardians, beautiful women. Horiguchi’s paradise is a facsimile, as his editor points out, of the Poe story The Domain of Arnheim. In fact, much of The Strange Tale of Panorama Island is a retelling of this same story through a different lens. This isn’t surprising though; the manga is based on a short story written by none other than Edogawa Ranpo, an author that admired Poe so much he took on his name. The Strange Tale of Panorama Island mirrors many of the themes of the original; illusion, paradise, Heaven, and Hell while focusing on specific anxieties of Western influence of Imperial expansion.
The Library of America has a very interesting post about Poe’s story if you want to delve deeper. His story follows a protagonist named Ellison who inherits a vast sum of money and uses it to create his paradise, just at the expense of “violating a few simple laws of humanity.” Hitomi plans to follow suit but having not been born as fortuitous as Ellison, he’ll have to get his hands dirty. Six months after his story is rejected, Hitomi learns that his school friend and “twin” Genzaburo Komoda died suddenly. The two men are of no relation but always looked strikingly similar. This is when Hitomi sets about in his idea to recast himself as Genzaburo and take on his fortune. He’ll just have to dig up a corpse, fake his own death, and convince Genzaburo’s wife and many associates that he regained consciousness post burial.
Hitomi is able to get by with his knowledge of his dead friend’s life, but the two men could not be more dissimilar in personality. As characters, they function as opposing images of Japan’s social climate as it entered the Showa era. Genzaburo was a wealthy traditionalist. In death he was buried instead of cremated and his head is customarily shaved. Despite his fortune, he continued to live in the rural area of Kishu instead of moving to the bustling Osaka and much of his money is tied up in kilns used to make construction supplies; a technology that is close to becoming obsolete. Not long after Hitomi takes over his life, he reads that author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa has committed suicide. The figure that thought Western and Japanese thought could be united in literature has died with the words “I feel vague uncertainty about the future.” At this point in the story, Hitomi abandons his careful impression of the late Genzaburo and sets his sight on expansion (and, metaphorically, subjugation).
Seemingly at random, Hitomi points at an island off the coast as the stage for building his paradise. The island is inhabited by local fisherman who Hitomi hand-waves off with the promise of money and relocation. He assures himself that his plan is actually good as its construction will provide jobs to locals. In fact, his creation will include technology like none of have ever seen before. If this sounds like an expansionist war metaphor, that’s because it is. War profiteers have government contractors have always brought jobs into the area of whatever plant or factory, but that hardly changes the nature of what’s being manufactured. Yet, Hitomi marches forward, balking at anyone that questions his judgment in funneling money into an amusement park. The only person standing in his way is Genzaburo’s wife Chiyoko, but even after she’s sleuthed out that her husband isn’t who he seems, there’s little she can do stop him.
Hitomi’s paradise comes to fruition and it is a cacophony of neo-Renaissance sculpture, illusionary beauty, and sex. Hitomi spared to expense to recreate the marvels of ancient Europe including a striking imitation of the Colossus of the Apennines. Everything on his secluded Japanese island is dominated by Western art aesthetic in a way that apes it more than honors it. Hitomi was never one for originality anyway, his dream, like his writing and his new life, is just a mirror of someone else. Similarly, so is his Panorama Island and not just as a myriad of G-Reco-Roman art. As Hitomi explains to his wife, he utilizes the panorama illusion for his island like one he saw as a boy—depicting the First Sino-Japanese war; an expansionist feud between China and Japan over Korea. Somewhere in the distance, Hitomi’s gears of war churn.
“What are the machines doing?” Chiyoko asks, to which Hitomi replies, “These are dream machines that produce nothing.”
The panorama illusion on the island reinforces that Hitomi’s paradise is Hell on Earth. Reality and the imaginary continue to blur as Chiyoko and other inhabitants become confused; did that statue just move? Is it a performer or really made of stone? It’s at this point that the manga descends into total madness (and graphic sex). Maruo makes the hellish symbolism even more overt, placing visual references from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights directly in the art, specifically the impossible organic structures and reoccurring human-legged owl. Hitomi, too, has fallen to madness. His appearance has changed; his once businessman hair cut has grown long on the sides to both subtly invoke horns and mirror that of illustrious ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Nijinsky is briefly referenced in the manga’s final chapter and Hitomi alludes to wanting to invite the performer to come to the island but was unable. Nijinsky famously succumbed to schizophrenia in 1919 and was unable to return to dance.
The reference pulls into question how much of the story is happening at all. Our first glimpse of Panorama Island was but a dream of a poor novelist hoping to make rent. What’s to say that this incarnation isn’t just another dream fed by a desire for fortune and power? The story ends with the introduction of Rampo’s detective Kogoro Akechi having pieced together Hitomi’s strange life. The confrontation is capped with a rain of blood, a manifestation of Hitomi’s conquest made physical, and an explosion of entrails in the sky. The king of the island is dead and the excesses borne from his anxieties will crumble, for now.