BORN: 1924, Tokyo
DIED: 1993, Tokyo
GENRE: Fiction, drama, nonfiction
The Woman in the Dunes (1962)
The Face of Another (1964)
The Ruined Map (1973)
The Ark Sakura (1984)
Kobo Abe. Abe, Kobo, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.
An important figure in contemporary Japanese literature, Kobo Abe attracted an international audience for novels exploring the alienation and loss of identity experienced by many in Japanese society after World War II. Abe’s novels, plays, and screenplays drew from developments in Western avant-garde literature rather than from Japanese sources. His work was successful abroad and often translated into English and other languages. His fiction is rich in allegory and metaphysical implications, employing an intriguing combination of detailed realism and bizarre, nightmarish fantasy. He was also a noted theater director and photographer.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Childhood in Manchuria
Kimifusa Abe was born in Tokyo, Japan, on March 7, 1924. When he was an infant, his father took the family to Manchuria, in northern China, where he served as a doctor in the city of Mukden. Japan captured Manchuria in 1931, going on to attack mainland China in 1937. Growing up in a foreign country occupied by Japanese forces gave Abe a certain ambivalence about his Japanese identity. Displaced from his home country, disgusted by militant nationalism and by the conduct of the occupying army, he changed his name from Kimifusa to Kobo, a more Chinese-sounding rendering. He had already discovered the sense of alienation that would pervade his creative work.
Postwar Japan. As a young man, Abe attended a private high school in Tokyo. He was a voracious reader, preferring works by philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Jaspers and literature by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Edgar Allan Poe, and Franz Kafka. In 1943, at the height of World War ii and following his parents’ insistence, Abe entered the medical school at Tokyo University. Yet he took no pleasure in preparing for a medical career; the stress was so intense that at one point he checked himself into a mental hospital. Abe began to experiment in writing poetry and fiction as the war was ending. His first novel, The Road Sign at the End of the Road, was published in 1948, the same year he earned his MD degree. Encouraged by his literary success, he never practiced medicine. Some critics believe Abe’s scientific studies may have developed his abilities to describe situations, and even emotions, with detached precision.
In the troubled years following Japan’s military defeat in World War II, Abe joined a group of avant-garde writers and intellectuals attempting to reassert humanistic values through art. Under the influence of Hanada Kiyoteru, Abe became interested in European surrealism and Marxism and how to combine them. He soon became known for his fiction. He won prizes for his short story ‘‘Red Cocoon’’ (1950) and his novel The Crime of Mr. S. Karuma (1951). The latter work typifies Abe’s thematic obsessions; its narrator loses the ability to communicate with other people. His popularity grew quickly.
Abe was the first major Japanese writer to present avant-garde narratives of urban alienation, in keeping with Japan’s rapid postwar urbanization. Some traditional Japanese artists remained committed to a more pastoral vision of the nation, which had largely disappeared by the early 1950s, when the American occupation ended. The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic weapons also hovered over postwar Japanese culture. Apocalyptic fears drive the absurdist plot of Inter Ice Age Four (1959), a science fiction novel set in a futuristic Japan threatened by melting polar ice caps.
Lost Identities. Abe garnered international acclaim for The Woman in the Dunes (1962). Both as a novel and as a 1965 film by the celebrated director Hiroshi Teshigahara, a hit at the Cannes Film Festival, this work remains one of the most widely appreciated pieces from postwar Japan. The Kafkaesque novel relates the nightmarish experiences of a teacher and amateur entomologist, Niki Jumpei, who is enslaved by a group of people living beneath a huge sand dune, including one fascinating widow who is determined to keep him with her. At first, Jumpei seeks to regain his freedom, but he gradually finds meaning in his new circumstances and rejects an opportunity to escape. The shifting sands that constantly endanger this community constitute a metaphor expressing Abe’s sense of the puzzle of human existence.
The Woman in the Dunes fully explores a central theme of Abe’s fiction: the obliteration of identity. The theme recurs in his next three novels. The Face of Another (1964) uses motifs from detective fiction to tell the story of a man who wears a mask to cover disfiguring scars. In his new guise, the protagonist, who seems to lose his identity, manages to seduce his own wife. The Ruined Map (1967) carries the detective genre to an outrageous conclusion: the hunter and the hunted merge as a detective who gradually assumes the identity ofthe man he has been hired to locate. Teshigahara directed films of both stories from screen adaptations by Abe.
Like Woman in the Dunes, The Box Man (1973) advances a narrative through a striking metaphor. The narrator of this work casts off his ordinary, middle-class existence to live in a cardboard box, which he equips with enough items to sustain his daily life. Free from the constraints of society, the narrator invents his own idyllic life.
Visual Theater. Kobo Abe was also a notable playwright. His early stage works showed the influence of Marxism and existentialism. His most successful work for the theater, Friends (1967), critiques Japanese communal values, which Abe sees as stifling individual creativity. The ‘‘family’’ that invades the apartment of the hapless protagonist manages to take over and eradicate him over the course of the play. In 1973 Abe began his own theater group, the Kobo Abe Studio, which produced many of his best-known dramas. His wife, artist Machi Abe, prepared many of the stage designs for these plays. Many of these productions emphasized movement rather than dialogue, as Abe attempted to create a theatrical style to express surrealistic images visually.
Abe’s novel Secret Rendezvous (1977) emphasizes setting—a cavernous hospital—rather than character. Searching for his wife at the facility, a shoe salesman discovers that the hospital is run by an assortment of psychopaths, sexual deviants, and grotesque beasts. The novel presents the reader with a puzzle, but no solution. Abe took seven years to write The Ark Sakura (1984), a farcical version of the story of Noah’s ark. Mole, the protagonist, has decided to load a few people into an ark, for protection from an impending nuclear holocaust. His vision of a postapocalyptic society inside the ark is thwarted by three confidence men he has enlisted as crew members and by the invasion of street gangs and cantankerous elderly people. Abe’s dark humor conveys troubling ideas about nuclear war, old age, and those on the margins of society. Abe died of heart failure on January 22, 1993, in a Tokyo hospital.
Works in Literary Context
Because of his alienation from Japanese culture, Kobo Abe remained aloof from classical Japanese literature. His work is far removed from the aesthetic vision and strategies of older Japanese writers such as Kawabata Yasunari, or of traditional cultural forms such as Noh theater. Instead, his literary influences are primarily Western. Among them are Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Poe, and Lewis Carroll. Abe recalls reciting the stories of Poe, one of his earliest inspirations, to his high school classmates in Manchuria. When he ran out of Poe stories, he began making up his own.
Objective Style. The objectivity of Abe’s style resembles that of other writers who were also trained in medicine, such as Russian playwright Anton Chekhov or the Japanese Meiji writer Mori Ogai. Although their works read quite differently and are composed with vastly different aims, these writers resemble each other in the cool dissection of their perspectives. William Currie, in Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel, finds Abe’s stress on concrete and specific details to be a culturally Japanese trait.
Urban Loneliness. Despite the obvious differences of tone and design among Abe’s novels—from science fiction to detective stories to biblical allegory—they all display his consistent thematic concerns of alienation and loss of identity. In addition, they all betray the author’s concern with the impersonal, isolating features of the urban landscape. In a 1973 interview, Abe claimed that loneliness, although a universal phenomenon, ‘‘is a new theme for the Japanese. The reason is that the concept of loneliness appeared in the urban mode of life.’’ Abe perceived, and loathed, the growth of futuristic megacities; his Japan is an urban, not a rural, nation, and his cities are futuristic, claustrophobic, and labyrinthine.
Ambassador to the Absurd. During his lifetime, Abe was the foremost Japanese exponent of avant-garde, absurdist literature. With the development of another generation of Japanese writers such as Haruki Murakami, whose vision of contemporary life bears similarities to Abe’s view of the human condition, Abe’s work may foretell a broad new Japanese sensibility.
Works in Critical Context
Kobo Abe achieved critical and popular success fairly early in his career; Woman in the Dunes, the novel and film, brought him to worldwide attention. Several of his novels were translated into English in the 1960s. Although some of his books earned better reviews than others, Abe remained perhaps the most ‘‘translatable’’ Japanese writer of his generation.
Japanese and Overseas Reception. Abe’s critical reception, both in Japan and abroad, has sometimes been ambiguous. For some Japanese readers, Abe sheds too much of the Japanese literary tradition and no longer seems to mirror their perceptions of their culture. Abe himself, who proclaimed his lack of strong ties to his home country, seemed to support this notion. His work shares this unattached vision with that of many other postwar writers around the world, such as Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Abe expresses a strong conviction that the parochial is irrelevant as modern culture develops. The universality of his concerns, and the absence of notably Japanese cultural markers in his writing, may be the key to his international reputation, in the opinion of critics such as Hisaaki Yamanouchi, author of The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature. On the other hand, some Western critics, seeking some special Japanese quality in works they read in translation, come away disappointed with reading Abe’s work.
The Woman in the Dunes. When The Woman in the Dunes was first published in English, it was recognized as unique if not entirely successful. Stanley Kauffmann, writing for the New York Review of Books, stated that because of the book’s structure, ‘‘Unless the author is able to keep us concentrated on the present moment with interest of character and richness of texture, we become impatient. This is too often true of Abe’s book.’’ Writing for Saturday Review, Earl Miner agreed that the book requires a delicate balance to work, but noted that ‘‘the tone and meaning are well sustained.’’ Armando Martins Janiera, in his Japanese and Western Literature, called it ‘‘a novel of exceptional force.’’
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Abe's famous contemporaries include:
Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998): Japanese filmmaker; his films The Seven Samurai and Rashomon are among the most famous works of world cinema.
Tadeusz Rozewicz (1921- ): Polish poet and dramatist whose works defy literary conventions.
Truman Capote (1924-1984): American author of Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood.
Yukio Mishima (1925-1970): Japanese author and playwright who committed ritual suicide in a political stunt.
Harold Pinter (1930- ): British playwright whose works were produced by Kobo Abe Studio; Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005.
Kenzaburo Oe (1935- ): Japanese novelist influenced by existentialism and concerned with social justice; Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994.
Responses to Literature
1. Explore Abe’s vision of the city; how does he use urban settings to reinforce a message or convey a mood?
2. Several of Abe’s works center on a startling image, such as the cardboard box that becomes the home of the Box Man. Write an extended analysis of a single image from one of Abe’s prose works and its meaning.
3. Some critics contend that Abe’s writing is intentionally universal, rather than embedded in a specific culture. What do you think is notably Japanese about his work?
4. Alienation is a major theme in Abe’s work and a major theme of twentieth-century literature in general. Use Abe’s writing as a source for constructing a detailed interpretation of what ‘‘alienation’’ means.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The Woman in the Dunes, The Box Man, and other works by Kobo Abe exemplify the mind-bending possibilities of the absurdist genre, a mixture of satire, shock, and surrealism. Here are some other great works of literary absurdity:
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), a children's book by Lewis Carroll. Alice falls down the rabbit hole into hilarious adventures that make this an enduring landmark of nonsense literature: ''Curiouser and curiouser!''
''The Metamorphosis'' (1912), a short story by Franz Kafka. The classic work of absurdist fiction that begins: ''As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.''
Catch-22 (1961), a novel by Joseph Heller. This black comedy, ranked as one of the most important novels of the twentieth century, provides a blistering satire of the insanity of military and bureaucratic logic.
Bus Stop (1983), a play by Gao Xingjian. A group of people waits for a bus—for years—in this absurdist play by the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1998), a novel by Haruki Murakami. The protagonist of this novel loses his cat, his job, and his wife; to find them, he must delve into the modern soul of Japan and the legacy of its conquest of Manchuria. Written by the leading Japanese novelist of the generation after Abe.
Janeira, Armando Martins. Japanese and Western Literature. Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle, 1970.
Kimball, Arthur G. Crisis in Identity and Contemporary Japanese Novels. Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle, 1973.
‘‘Kobo Abe (1924- ).’’ In Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Sharon R. Gunton and Jean C. Stine. Vol. 22. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982.
Pollack, David. Reading against Culture. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992.
Rimer, J. Thomas. Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Traditions: An Anthology. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.
Shields, Nancy K. Fake Fish: The Theater of Kobo Abe. New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1996.
Tsuruta, Kinya, and Thomas E. Swann, eds. Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel. Tokyo: Sophia University, 1976.
Yamanouchi, Hisaaki. The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Hardin, Nancy S. ‘‘An Interview with Abe Kobo.’’ Contemporary Literature 15 (1974): 439-56.
Levy, Alan. ‘‘The Boxman Cometh.’’ New York Times Magazine, November 17, 1974.
Motoyama, Mutsuko. ‘‘The Literature and Politics of Abe Kobo.’’ Monumenta Nipponica 50 (Autumn 1995): 305-23.