Edogawa Ranpo’s “The Two-Sen Copper Coin” as the Representation of Georg Simmel’s Metropolitan Individuality Style

Introduction

The problem of existence and people’s place in life has been represented in the works of many philosophers and sociologists. According to Georg Simmel, the greatest dilemmas of modern life appear due to individuals’ claim to sustain the autonomy and individuality of one’s existence “in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and the techniques of life” (130). These issues are among the central problems of Edogawa Ranpo’s story “The Two-Sen Copper Coin.” The story is one of the most well-known pieces of detective fiction of the period preceding World War II.

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Being a fan of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing, Ranpo tried his luck in creating pieces full of suspense and mystery. It is impossible not to agree that he reached considerable success in his endeavors. “The Two-Sen Copper Coin” is a shining example of Ranpo’s ability to tell a story excitingly and intriguingly, intermingling the Western and the Japanese elements in it, and keeping the reader interested till the very end. The paper aims at analyzing the endeavors of the story’s main characters in respect of Simmel’s definition of the metropolitan type of individuality. The paper’s central idea is that in an attempt to reach such individuality, people frequently forget that they should build relationships with other individuals rather than focus on the achievement of their selfish desires.

The Definition of Simmels’ Individuality Type and Its Reflection in Ranpo’s Characters

According to the philosopher, the psychological grounds for the metropolitan individuality type are “the intensification of nervous stimulation” (Simmel 131). Such intensification appears as an outcome of the rapid and uninterrupted alteration in inner and outer stimuli (Simmel 131). This idea can be adjusted to Ranpo’s characters: the narrator and his friend. The story covers several crucial aspects: poverty, people’s ability to adapt to harsh life circumstances, wit and wisdom, and the desire to obtain others’ property. The narrator of the story is one of the two poor young men living on the periphery of Tokyo (Ranpo 271). Both friends may be considered as what Simmel calls “a differentiating creature” (131). Their minds are stimulated by the “difference between a momentary impression and the one which preceded it” (Simmel 131). In particular, these young men are severely affected by the psychological conditions created by the city (Simmel 131). They are poor, and their misery pushes them to make some strange steps to try to survive.

The first sentence of Ranpo’s story immediately draws the audience’s attention. When the narrator’s friend, Matsumura Takeshi, says “that thief makes me jealous!” the reader understands that young men are in a miserable financial situation (Ranpo 271). The narrator describes an occurrence of some notorious robbery and explains that it has something to do with his and his friend’s lives. In the course of the narration, the detective story becomes more and more intriguing up until the end when it becomes clear that what Matsumura considered as luck appeared to be nothing more than a joke. Such a course of events is a direct reflection of Simmel’s theory. The philosopher argues that the city sets up the conditions in which individuals involuntary live (Simmel 131). Unlike the rural life the rhythm of which is more slowly, the city urges its citizens to look for immediate solutions (Simmel 131). Otherwise, they are doomed to failure.

Ranpo’s Story as the Attempt to Remodel The Japanese Detective Genre

In his story, Ranpo managed to revolutionize the Japanese detective genre by mixing the concepts of a traditional Western detective with the features of his national culture. The coin, the code, and other elements of the story make it more Japanese, thereby increasing the interest of the reader. Moreover, the author employs subtle irony when talking about poverty, which makes the audience sympathetic to the two young men. When describing the despair of their situation, Ranpo mentions that “even in the midst of misery,” they “managed to be happy” (276). He goes on to say that “such happiness is a secret known only to the poor” (Ranpo 276). Thus, the author creates an atmosphere that is sad and comic at the same time. Moreover, the lads are constantly arguing and trying to show who of them “is the smarter in the pair” (Ranpo 280). Their desire to outwit one another is the main source of mystery in the story.

Since the city is the reason for “cosmopolitanism,” it affects the quantitative elements of life and changes them to qualitative character traits (Simmel 133). In this respect, the aspects of the Japanese culture depicted in Ranpo’s story acquire a new meaning, which leads to the growing concern of the reader. The coin is probably the central “Japanese” feature. With its help, Ranpo manages to explain the character of one of the heroes. Matsumura thinks that he found the answer to a tricky question, and he tries to conceal his excitement until he can present the whole story to his friend (Ranpo 278). The code used to decipher the hidden message is another representation of the traditional culture. By using these features, Ranpo tries to add more integrity to the story and unites the present with the past. Matsumura is depicted as the one performing “diligent research,” and his friend watched him “with mounting interest” (Ranpo 278). Thus, Ranpo creates a connection between an interesting hook in the story and the traditional elements of Japanese culture.

The City as the Locale of Freedom

Probably the major reason why Ranpo’s story became so popular was that it incorporated the logic and rationality of a conventional detective genre in combination with traditional Japanese settings. The “Gentleman Burglar” was an interesting character, but not more interesting than the story that followed his triumphant robbery (Ranpo 273). The description of old Japanese codes, how the narrator created the riddle and the approach with which his friend solved it, the portrayal of traditional clothes, professions, and style of living – all of these elements made Ranpo’s story successful. The suspense lasts till the final paragraph, and even there, the narrator leaves one thing unrevealed, which makes the audience come up with their ideas of where and under what circumstances he obtained the coin. Since there is no final answer as to whether their assumptions are right or wrong, every reader may feel that his or her answer is the correct one.

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Such a choice of an ending is associated with Simmel’s definition of the city as “the locale of freedom” (133). Simmel remarks that the city suggests “decisive conditions of the division of labor” (133). In this respect, it becomes obvious why Ranpo employed such a diversity of occupations in his story. He depicted both well-paid jobs and low-paid ones to show the diversity of the conditions of people living in the city. It is true that the city’s horizon “expands in a manner comparable to the way on which wealth develops” (Simmel 133). The narrator and his friend live in “the depths of poverty” due to not having the possibility to earn much money (Ranpo 276). At the same time, individuals who have a higher education or specific skills and dexterity can find better positions and arrange better living conditions for themselves and their families. The examples of such freedom of choice are the manufacturer and the shop owner (Ranpo 272-276). The author thus demonstrates that by gaining skills and experience, people can alter their lives.

The Development of Culture in the City

A significant aspect of living in the city, as defined by Simmel, is that it has altered the “struggle with nature for livelihood” into an “inter-human struggle for gain” (134). Indeed, this argument holds when considering Ranpo’s characters. The two young men hardly have money to sustain their miserable existence while there are people around them who can afford prosperous living without any difficulties (Ranpo 271-273). Simmel remarks that to find a source of income that has not been “exhausted” yet, it is crucial to specialize in one’s services (134). This argument is further related to the fact that the city dictates the ways of transition to the “individualization of mental and psychic traits” of citizens (Simmel 134). The reflection of this opinion can be found in Ranpo’s story.

The characters’ choices and attitudes are dictated by their spirit, both objective and subjective. This mood and attitude are the features outlining the peculiarities of citizens’ existence (Simmel 134). The spirit of the narrator in Ranpo’s story is affected by his financial difficulties and the impossibility to sustain the level of life he wants (271-276). Even the expenditure of sixty sen for a masseur is considered as an “outrageous luxury” (Ranpo 177). The two friends have to save on everything to be able to feed themselves, but even this little need cannot always be covered. However, despite their extreme poverty, their culture helps the young men to remain cheerful and not lose interest in life (Ranpo 286-287). Thus, it is possible to agree with Simmel that the spirit is what defines people’s destiny (134). Indeed, anyone can change if not the circumstances in which they find themselves, then at least their attitude to these circumstances.

Conclusion

Edogawa Ranpo’s “The Two-Sen Copper Coin” may be considered as a good example of Georg Simmel’s idea of metropolitan individuality style. The story offers numerous aspects of living in the city and the impact of such a life on people. In his story, Ranpo dwells on the question of existence and the possibility to maintain one’s individuality and autonomy. The main characters of the narration are poor, but they manage not to lose their cultural ties and interest in life. The story is a great example of connecting the Japanese and Western features. It is justly regarded as one of the best detective stories of the pre-World War II period.

Works Cited

Ranpo, Edogawa. “The Two-Sen Copper Coin.” Modanizumu: Modernist fiction from Japan, 1913-1938, edited by William J. Tyler, University of Hawai’i Press, 2008, pp. 270-289.

Simmel, Georg. “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Blackwell, 1992, pp. 130-135.

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