Kenzaburō Ōe Essay - Critical Essays

Kenzaburō Ōe Short Fiction Analysis

Prewar Japanese writers such as Jun’ichir Tanizaki and Yasunari Kawabata, who continued to build their literary reputations after the war, focused on the introspective (notably in the so-called I-novel), but New-Left writers emerging after the war, such as Kenzabur e, are as indebted to Western literary traditions as they are to those of Japan. Like his contemporary Kb Abe, e writes about alienation from modern society and the loss of identity in modern Japan. He does so by using as themes his childhood in a small village, the war and subsequent occupation by Americans, and the personal tragedy of his son’s birth defect.

One of the most prolific and popular writers in Japan, e clearly reflects the concerns of the postwar generation, a generation that saw the fall of old symbols such as the Emperor. The war and defeat of Japan left a void in which his characters try to find themselves, groping for meaning. In “The Catch,” the harmony of rural Japan is shattered as a young boy is disillusioned by the adults around him. In “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away,” a boy sees his father’s death as a sacrifice to the old values. This same hero appears in e’s later writing—older, but trying to escape through sex and deviant behavior. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is a powerful tale of the importance of telling the truth, even when doing so can be painful. e’s unique style, heavily influenced by Western traditions and directness, is fresh and controversial, undergirding the issue addressed in most, if not all, of his fiction: the cultural disharmony that his generation has experienced as a result of World War II and its aftermath. In writing about his own personal crisis, e deals with the larger themes of modernity and meaning in Japan. Like the hero in his favorite novel, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), e sees life as a quest for adventure, whether in Africa or in the back streets of Tokyo—a quest for truth.

“The Catch”

In “The Catch,” the boy-narrator is combing the village crematory looking for bone fragments with friends when an American plane roars overhead at treetop level. The next morning, the children awaken to an ominous silence. The adults are out searching for downed American airmen. They return late in the day from the mountains, leading an enormous black man. The boy is reminded of a boar hunt as the hunters silently circle around the captive, who has the chain from a boar trap around his legs.

The enemy excites both fear and curiosity among the children. He is put into the cellar of the communal storehouse and a guard is posted. The storehouse is a large building, and the boy and his young brother live on the second floor with their father, an impoverished hunter. The boy is excited at the thought of sleeping in the same building as the exotic prisoner who has fallen into their midst.

At first the captive is treated as a dangerous animal. The boy goes with his father to town to report the capture. He is uncomfortable in the town, aware of his poverty and dirtiness. The local officials refuse to take the prisoner until they receive orders from the prefecture offices. The boy and his father return to the village at sunset with the unwelcome news.

The boy carries food down into the dark cellar, guarded by his father with shotgun ready. At first the captive only stares at the food, and the boy realizes in shame that the poor dinner might be rejected, but the black man suddenly devours the meal. Gradually the boy loses his fear of the American as they bring him food every day. The children begin to take a proprietary interest in the captive. As time passes, the adults return to fieldwork, and the children are left with the American. Noticing that the man’s leg is wounded from the boar trap, the boy and his friend release him with trepidation, but they find him well behaved. Even the adults in the village accept the idea that the black man is human, coming to trust him.

Eventually the children let the captive out of the cellar to walk through the village. The adults come to accept this, and he is even allowed to wander around the village alone. The women lose their fear and give him food from their own hands. The children take him to the village spring, where they all strip naked and splash in the water. The boy considers the man a splendid animal, an animal of great intelligence.

Trust and respect evaporate, however, when an official appears on a rainy day. As the adults assemble, the prisoner senses that he is about to be taken away, and he grabs the boy and drags him to the cellar, locking the door behind them. The boy is shocked and hurt as he realizes his sudden danger and sees the airman reverting to the dangerous beast he was when first captured. The grown-ups break into the cellar, and the boy’s father plunges a hatchet into the prisoner’s skull. They plan to cremate the black man but are ordered to keep the body for identification.

The story ends in irony. Paying another visit, the village official notices the children using the lightweight tail of the American plane as a sled on the grass. In a playful mood, he decides to give it a try, but he hurtles into a rock and is killed. He will be cremated with the wood that villagers collected to cremate the American captive.

Although the story is set during the war years and the events occur in the context of unusual hardship, its major theme, a youth’s coming-of-age, is a universal one: The young boy finds his childhood innocence and trust betrayed by the black captive and the adults who rush to rescue him in a frenzy of hatred. There are echoes of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in this story: in the young boys’ spirit of adventure, in their unaffected wonder and curiosity, and in their rejection of adult attitudes. (It is not surprising that, during his trip to the United States in 1965, e visited Hannibal, Missouri, the birthplace of Mark Twain.) The coming-of-age theme also underscores another major concern in the story: man’s (as opposed to boy’s) inhumanity to man. e uses juxtaposition to create a realistic yet somehow absurd view of the world; the young narrator allows him to introduce humorous elements of childish enthusiasm that make the final tragedy all the more appalling.

“Aghwee the Sky Monster”

In the short story “Aghwee the Sky Monster,” a young father is haunted by an imaginary baby that flies down from the sky, reminding him of his own baby, whom he killed in the false belief that it had a malignant brain tumor. The story is told through a young college student, who is hired to take care of a banker’s son. The student is told that the son, a composer, is having delusions and requires supervision. Needing the money, the student agrees to act as a chaperon, to help keep the son’s mind off his delusions. The student accompanies the composer on trips about Tokyo, wary of the possibility that his charge may, at any moment, be joined by the imaginary Aghwee.

He learns that Aghwee is a fat baby, dressed in a white nightgown, who is as big as a kangaroo. From time to time, the composer believes that he sees Aghwee flying down to his side; this naturally alarms the student chaperon, who worries about a possible suicide attempt. In time, the student learns to step aside to leave room for the imaginary baby as they make excursions to bars, motion-picture theaters, and swimming pools, where they invariably turn back without entering the water. When the composer gets his chaperon to take a message to a former lover in Kyoto, the student learns that the lovers were in bed together in a hotel room when a call came from the hospital informing them of the death of the...

(The entire section is 3186 words.)