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by Bamber Gascoigne

Kobo Abe (1924-1993)


Avant-garde novelist and playwright and a superb storyteller, who shared with Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco a similar, absurd sense of humor. Central themes in Kobo Abe's work are loss of identity, alienation, isolation of the individual in a bizarre world, and the difficulty people have in communicating with one another. In the West, Abe is best-known for his novels, such as The Woman in the Dunes (1962) and The Face of Another (1964).

"What were you looking at?"
"A window."
"No, no. I mean what were you looking at through the window?"
"Windows... lots of windows. One by one the lights are going off. That's the only instant you really know somebody's there."

(from The Ruined Map, 1967)

Kobo Abe was born in Tokyo to Abe Asakichi and Yorimi, but he grew up in Mukden in Japanese-occupied Manchuria (present-day Shenyang in Liaoning Province), where he moved with his family in 1925. His father, a physician, was a member of the staff of a medical school. As a young man Abe was interested in mathematics and insect collecting. Perhaps his many years outside Japan and its contemporary cultural life led him to study such Western philosophers as Heidegger, Jaspers and Nietzsche. In 1941 Abe moved to Japan and entered in 1943 the University of Tokyo to study there medicine. Because of respiratory illness, Abe was exempted from military service. During the war he returned to Manchuria.

After repatriation Abe continued his studies and graduated in 1948, with the promise that he would never practice. Instead Abe started his career as a writer. He became a member of an avant-garde group named Night Group (Yoru no Kai), a loose confederation of writers, philosophers, and intelligentsia led by the writer Kiyoteru Hamada. They were committed to the goal of fusing the techniques of Surrealism with Marxist ideology.

'The teacher smiled:" No, it's not the case that all these people are sticks. When I say that being a stick is excessively ordinary, I speak in the qualitative rather than the quantitative sense. It's the same thing as mathematicians not saying much about the properties of a triangle. Because there are no new discoveries to be made from it."' (from 'The Stick' in Late Chrysanthemum: Twenty-One Stories from the Japanese, 1986)

His first book Abe had actually written in 1943. His writing, often stiff and formal, reflected his preoccupation with ideas rather than stylistic techniques. Important writers for his own artistic development were Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel Beckett, Rainer Maria Rilke and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In 1947 Abe published at his own expense a collection of poems. His reputation as a writer Abe established with the novel Owarishi michi no shirube ni (1948), about the story of an opium addict. The defeat of the Japanese empire in World War II left Abe disillusioned about the future of his country. ". . . maybe there's no such thing as "Japan" after all," he wrote in Beasts Head for Home (1957), a story about a parentless young man who is searching his way to Japan in northeast China. The themes of loss, isolation and search for meaning recur constantly in Abe's work.

In the 1950s, Abe joined the Japanese Communist Party. However, in 1962 he was expulsed from the party because of critical articles towards JPC, partly as a result of a trip through Hungary, some months before the national uprising in 1956 against Communist rule. Abe supported the independence of Hungary from the Soviet Union. In 1961, Abe and twenty-seven other literary figures declared their opposition to JPC'S Stalinist policies.

Abe's experimental works first gained popularity among the younger generation of readers. He received prizes for his three stories, 'Akai mayu' (1950, Red Cocoon), 'Kabe' (1951), and 'S. Karuma-shi no hanzai' (1951). In the last mentioned, the style and subject matter are reminiscent of Kafka, and he also employed many elements from science fiction and detective stories. A broadcast of Bo ni natta otoko (The Man Who Turned into a Stick) won the Geijutsusai Shorei Prize. For Yurei wa koko ni iru (1958, The Ghost Is Here) Abe won Japan's highest drama award, the Kishida Kunio Drama Prize.

Abe's novels and plays are characterized by calm observations and avant-garde techniques. Often the situations which his characters face are surreal and their behavior is explored through the concept of free will. Dai-Yon Kampyoki (1959, Inter Ice Age 4 ), originally serialized in the journal Sekai from 1958 to 1959, was set in a future Japan threatened by the melting of polar icecaps. The protagonist, professor Katsumi, has developed a computer program that predicts the creation of genetically engineered children, who are adapted for life in the rising seas. The computer has also found out that Katsumi will oppose this progress and his unborn child is enlisted into the ranks of the mutated water-breathers.

Suna na Onna (1962, Woman in the Dunes) was a kafkaesque story of Niki Jumpei, a teacher and an amateur etymologist, who turns into a modern Sisyphus. On a holiday expedition, he intends to collect insects that lived on the dunes, but becomes imprisoned like an insect in a remote village. "The village, resembling the the cross-section of a beehive, lay sprawled over the dunes. Or rather the dunes lay sprawled over the village. Either way, it was a disturbing and unsettling landscape." Jumpei accepts shelter from a woman, who lives alone in a house, at the bottom of a sandpit. The house is in danger of being buried by massive sand dunes that threaten to bury the whole community. The woman's husband is dead and Jumpei is pressed to help, to shovel the eternally increasing sand so that the life in the community could continue. When a chance to escape comes, he refuses to take advantage of it – he gives up his freedom and stops questioning of his belonging to this, or perhaps to any organization. "The novel traces the evolving emotional responses of this rueful Robinson Crusoe as he adapts, rejects, then ultimately comes to terms with this most peculiar world. Abe uses every emotion, from pride and fear to sexual desire and despair, to force his protagonist, and so his reader, into an acute self-awareness of the absurdity of human condition." (J. Thomas Rimes in A Reader's Guide to Japanese Literature, 1999) Woman in the Dunes attracted the film director Teshigahara Hiroshi, whose film based on the book gained a huge success in 1963. The film won a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Kyoko Kishida, who starred in the role of the young widow, became later known for her voice-over work in Moomin and other animated films. Teshigahara Hiroshi cooperated with Abe also in The Pitfall (1962) and The Face of Another (1966).

In  Moetsukita Chizu (1967, The Ruined Map), alienated people have found new, alienated ways to use everyday items: "Actually, binoculars, if used in a certain way, give the effect of X ray. For instance, you can read more expressions and characteristics from a single photo of a given person than you can by meeting him face to face." Mikkai (1977) was a surrealistic detective story about an unidentified man searching for his wife in a hospital. The protagonist of Hako otoko (1974, The Box Man) leaves his ordinary life and starts to observe the mad world of Tokyo through a cardboard box, which he pulls over his head. Secret Rendezvous (1977) was set in an underground hospital, a labyrinth of of twisted logic and strange technological inventions, where a nameless jump-shoe salesman is on a search to find his missing wife. "This novel is short and almost indescribably unpleasant," said John Updike of the work, one of the weirdest of all Abe's novels.

In the 1970s, Abe wrote several plays, and directed his own theater company in Tokyo, the Abe Kobo Studio, which dissolved after seven years. His theater toured in the U.S. and performed in New York City in 1979. The themes of solitude and alienation in his plays were dealt with similar way as in the theatre of absurd and works of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

In Friends (1967) the apartment of an office worker is invaded by a family that takes control of his life, and finally, he is killed by one of the daughters. Although the members of the family claim to be devoting themselves to social good, their actions are cruelly destructive. The Suitcase (1973) depicts two women who worry over the contents of a suitcase, said to contain the ancestors of the husband of one of the women. With the death of Yukio Mishima, Abe gained status of the major dramatist of Japan. Abe died of heart failure on January 22, 1993, while writing his final novel, The Flying Man, which was published posthumously in 1993.

For further reading: Crisis in Identity and Contemporary Japanese Novels by A. Kimball (1973); Metaphors of Alienation: The Fiction of Abe, Beckett and Kafka by William Currie (1973); Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel, eds. by K. Tsuruta and T.E. Swann (1976); Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Traditions by J.T. Rimer (1978); The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature by H. Yamanouchi (1978); Fake Fish by N.K. Shields (1966); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Abe Kobo: An Exploration of His Prose, Drama and Theatre by Timothy Iles (2002); Sublime Voices: The Fictional Science and Scientific Fiction of Abe Kōbo by Christopher Bolton (2009); Beyond Nation: Time, Writing, and Community in the Work of Abe Kōbō by Richard F. Calichman (2016); 'Abe Kōbō's Manchurian Past and His Border Thoughts' in Territorializing Manchuria: The Transnational Frontier and Literatures of East Asia by Miya Qiong Xie (2022) - Muita teoksia suomeksi: työnimellä Kertomus meediosta vuonna 1943 julkaistu romaani on ilmeisesti Aben ensimmäinen teos, eikä useiden lähteiden mainitsema Owarishimichi no shirushibe (1948).

Selected bibliography:

  • Mumei shishu, 1947
  • Owarishi michi no shirube ni, 1948
  • Ueta hifu, 1952
  • Kabe atsuki heya, 1953 (screenplay; prod. Shinei Productions, dir. by Masaki Kobayashi, starring Ko Mishima, Torahiko Hamada, Keiko Kishi, Eitarô Ozawa, Eitarô Ozawa)
  • Kiga domei, 1954
  • Seifuku, 1954 (play)
  • Doreigari, 1955 (play)
  • Aru rokuju-ni go no hatsumei, 1956
  • Moken no kokoro ni keisanki no te o, 1957
  • Kemono tachi wa kokyou wo mezasu, 1957
    - Beasts Head for Home (translated by Richard F. Calichman, 2017) 
  • Toou o iku, 1957
  • Bo ni Natta Otoko, 1957-69 (plays)
    - The Man Who Turned into Stick: Three Related Plays (translated by Donald Keene, 1975)
  • Hakareru kiroku, 1958
  • Yuurei wa Koko ni Iru, 1958 (play)
    - The Ghost Is Here (in Three Plays, translated by Donald Keene, 1993)
  • Dai-Yon Kampyoki, 1959
    - Inter Ice Age 4 (translated by E. Dale Saunders, 1970)
    - Välijääkausi 4 (suom. Anna Paljakka, 1972)
  • Yurei wa koko ni iru, 1959
  • Ishi no me, 1960
  • Otoshi ana / The Pitfall, 1962 (screenplay; prod. Teshigahara Productions, dir. by Hiroshi Teshigahara, starring Hisashi Igawa, Sumie Sasaki, Sen Yano, Hideo Kanze)
  • Suna na onna, 1962
    - The Woman in the Dunes (translated by Dale Saunders, 1964)
    - Hiekkaa (suom. Antero Tiusanen, 1967)
    - F ilm: Suna no onna, 1963, dir. by Hiroshi Teshigahara, starring Eiji Okada, Kyoko Kishida, Hiroko Ito
  • Tanin no kao, 1964
    - The Face of Another (translated by E. Dale Saunders, 1966)
    - Film: Tanin no kao, 1966, dir. by Hiroshi Teshigahara, starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Machiko Kyo, Mikijiro Hira, Kyoko Kishida, Eiji Okada, Miki Irie
  • Toki no gake, 1964
  • Mukankei na shi, 1964
  • Omae ni mo Tsumi ga aru, 1965 (play)
  • Enomoto Buyo, 1967 (play)
  • Moetsukita chizu, 1967
    - The Ruined Map (translated by E. Dale Saunders, 1969)
    - Film: Moetsukita chizu, 1968, prod. by Katsu Production Co. Ltd., dir. by Hiroshi Teshigahara, starring Shintarô Katsu, Etsuko Ichihara, Osamu Okawa, Kiyoshi Atsumi
  • Tomodachi, 1967 (play)
    - Friends (translated by Donald Keene, 1969)
    - Film:  Friends, 1988, prod. SVT Drama, dir. by Kjell-Åke Andersson, starring Dennis Christopher, Sven Wollter, Stellan Skarsgård, Lena Olin
  • Ba, 1969 (play)
  • Abe Kobo-shu, 1970
  • Abe Kobo gikyoku zenshu, 1970
  • Uchinari henkyo ron, 1971
  • Mihitsu no koi, 1971 (play)
    - Involuntary Homicide (translated by Donald Keene, in Three Plays,1993)
  • Abe Kobo zen-sakuhin, 1972-1973 (15 vols.)
  • Four Stories by Kobo Abe, 1973
  • Nise Sakana, 1973 (play)
  • Hako otoko, 1974 (play)
    - The Suitcase (translated by Donald Keene, in The Man Who Turned into Stick, 1976) / The Box Man (translated by E. Dale Saunders, 1974)
    - Animation film 2002 (6 min), dir. by Nirvan Mullick
  • Midori iro no sutokkingu, 1974 (play)
    - Green Stockings (translated by Donald Keene, in Three Plays, 1993)
  • Ue: Shin Doreigari, 1975 (play)
  • Annaijin, 1976 (play)
  • Mikkai, 1977
    - Secret Rendezvous (translated by Juliet W. Carpenter, 1979)
  • Imeiji no Tenkrankai Hitosarai, 1978 (play)
  • Warau tsuki, 1978
  • S. Karma-shi no hanzai, 1978 (play)
  • Abe Kobo no Gekijo: Shichinen no Yyumi, 1979
  • Kozo wa Shida, 1979 (play)
  • Hakobune sakura maru, 1984
    - The Ark Sakura (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, 1988)
  • Kangaru noto, 1991
    - Kangaroo Notebook (translated by Maryellen Toman Mori, 1994)
  • Beyond the Curve, 1991 (short stories; translated by Juliet Carpenter)
  • Three Plays, 1993 (translated by Donald Keene)
  • Tobu otoko=The Flying Man, 1993
  • Abe Kobo Zenshu, 1997 (30 vols.)
  • The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kobo, 2013 (edited, translated, and with an introduction by Richard F. Calichman)

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