Daily Graphic Novel Recommendation 220

The Strange Tale of Panorama Island

by Suehiro Maruo
Genre notes: psychological horror
272 pages
ISBN: 0867197323 (Amazon)

I have never in my life seen an actual panorama. I’d love to, but I haven’t. I’m sure most people living today haven’t had the pleasure—as panoramas were largely popular in the 19th century and were already well on their way out by 1900. I have of course seen panoramic photography and the inheritor of the ill-fated Cinéorama, Disneyland’s Circle-Vision 360°. Still, not the same thing and I regret that I will likely never have the opportunity to engage such staging and artistry in person. Reading about panoramas, while exciting the imagination to some small degree, really can’t do justice to what must have been a tremendous thrill for 19th century viewers.

Panoramas were sometimes built of painted panels alone (often staged at differing depths to confer a sense of dimensionality), but many featured three-dimensional elements as well—sculpted pieces in the foreground designed to trick the mind into seeing depth where none existed. Observers were brought into an arena of specialized lighting and visual manipulation, which could then govern the rational mind into a particular aesthetic experience. The panoramic scene would elicit a mediation between beauty (a concept derived from sexuality) and the sublime (a kind of awe in the face of the horror of the unknown). This balance between the two was known as the picturesque.

Panoramas were means by which people could be theatrically transported into a world outside their own—a world of the picturesque, of beauty and awe conjoined. The panorama’s chief conceit is that the viewer does not just take in a particularly lush painting but is installed within the painting itself. Canvas borders would be obscured by props such that the beginning and end of the panorama could not immediately be discerned. Having been enveloped within the panorama, the observer is made participant in the scene into which he or she has been placed—whether in landscape, cityscape, or the ferocious battles which dominated the later history of the artform.

It is in multiple levels of panoramic engagement that Suehiro Maruo’s adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s The Strange Tale of Panorama Island is concerned. The story’s central figure Hitomi, a man of stolen identity, uses the wealth he acquires surreptitiously to fund the construction of some version of an earthly paradise. His goal is to submerge the book’s characters in the titular island’s vision. Through painstaking planning, skilled construction, a talented ensemble of actors, and wanton expenditures of seemingly endless wealth, Hitomi creates a lavish illusion—a living panorama into which guests (and himself especially) can experience an unreal world in a visceral way. Hitomi is centrally concerned that his fantasy island feel like a real experience—though one that is immediately picturesque, drawing together eroticism and natural awe almost seamlessly. Hitomi’s strange and taled Panorama Island is an ode to hedonistic excess, a devotion to pleasure divorced from any context save for the immediate experience of that pleasure.

And of course it all goes horribly wrong.

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