Ōe, Kenzaburō (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Kenzaburō Ōe 1935-
(Also transliterated as Ōe Kenzaburō and Kenzaburo Oe) Japanese novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, editor, lecturer, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Ōe's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 10, 36, and 86.
One of the foremost figures in contemporary Japanese literature, Ōe is highly regarded for his intensely imagined and formally innovative fiction which examines the sense of alienation and anxiety felt by members of the post-World War II generation in Japan. Utilizing ideas from Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy of existentialism, Ōe portrays the unique agonies and dilemmas of his characters in ways that point to the more universal significance of their suffering. Characterizing life as profoundly absurd, Ōe's works are deeply concerned with the implications of nuclear power, particularly in light of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ōe received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994 for his overall career, only the second Japanese author to ever win the award, with the Nobel committee lauding Man'en gannen no futtobōru (1967; The Silent Cry) as “Ōe's major mature work.”
Ōe was born on January 31, 1935, in Ehime, a small village on the western Japanese island of Shikoku. He was raised in a prominent Samurai family in accordance with traditional Japanese beliefs. Like most Japanese children of his generation, Ōe was taught to believe that the Emperor of Japan was a living god. When Emperor Hirohito personally announced in a radio broadcast Japan's surrender to the Allied military forces at the end of World War II, Ōe and his schoolmates experienced a profound sense of devastation and disorientation which forever changed their perception of the world. While Ōe lamented the sense of humiliation and guilt which Japan's defeat and occupation by American troops imposed on his generation, he also embraced the values of democracy which were instilled through the educational system of the occupational forces. While a student at Tokyo University, Ōe read widely in both traditional Japanese and modern Western literature, graduating with a B.A. in French literature in 1959. He was particularly influenced by such existentialist philosophers as Sartre and Albert Camus, and by the American tradition of the “anti-hero,” as represented in the works of such authors as Mark Twain, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Norman Mailer. Reflecting his ambitious and erudite reading habits, Ōe's early stories were awarded a number of prestigious literary prizes. In 1964 Ōe's first son, Hikari, was born with severe mental and physical handicaps. While his works remained focused on the survival of heroic consciousness in an age of nuclear terror, Ōe subsequently incorporated the figure of his handicapped son into his fiction. A vocal anti-establishment, pro-democracy activist throughout his career, Ōe created a minor controversy in Japan when he rejected Japan's highest cultural honor—The Imperial Order of Culture, awarded days after he received the Nobel Prize—because he considered it a symbolic relic of the Imperial system and “would not recognize any authority, any value, higher than democracy.” Ōe has been awarded several awards and accolades for his writing, including the Akutagawa Prize in 1958, the Tanizaki Jun'ichirō Prize in 1967, the Noma Literary Prize in 1973, the Europelia Arts Festival Literary Prize in 1989, and the Italian Mondelosso Prize in 1993.
Ōe's early thematic interest in the convergence of the political and the absurd is reflected in his first novel, Memushiri kouchi (1958; Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids). The work is set on the island of Shikoku during World War II, where a group of juvenile delinquents are evacuated from a reformatory to a remote village. The boys are mistreated by the hostile peasants until the villagers, fearing plague, abandon them. The adolescent narrator describes how the boys band together, caring for each other and an abandoned girl and a young Korean boy. When the villagers return, they attempt to silence the boys about their abandonment at the hands of those meant to protect them. Ōe's short story “Shiiku”—translated both as “The Catch” and “Prize Stock”—relates the tale of a Japanese boy and an African American prisoner of war, whose friendship is destroyed by the senseless militarism and hatred of a foreigner. In the collection Warera no jidai (1959), Ōe presents a series of stories that examine the taboo subject of sex in Japanese culture. The short pieces emphasize the relationship between dominance and submission in occupied Japan, told through the perspective of a college student who comes under the influence of a local prostitute. Detailing the life of a teenager who becomes a terrorist, Ōe's novella Sebunchin (1961; Seventeen) explores the conflict between adolescents and the society of their elders, particularly as manifested through violence as well as escapism in the form of masturbation and sexual promiscuity. Based on the 1960 assassination of the chairman of Japan's Socialist Party by a right-wing youth, Seventeen portrays both political conservatives and liberals in an unflattering light.
After the birth of his son, Hikari, in 1964, Ōe began incorporating the theme of mental retardation throughout his writing. Ōe's first novel to gain international recognition, Kojinteki na taiken (1964; A Personal Matter) follows a twenty-seven-year-old man—nicknamed “Bird”—whose wife gives birth to a deformed child. Bird is so horrified that he chooses to let the baby die rather than face life tied to a disabled son. While his wife and child remain in the hospital, Bird retreats to the apartment of a young widow friend, where he escapes into a world of fantasy, sex, and alcohol. However, Bird eventually decides to accept his son and learns that surgery may improve the baby's condition. In the novella Warera no kyōki o ikinobiru michi o oshieyo (1969; Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness), the protagonist is a father who becomes so close to his mentally-handicapped son that he becomes convinced that he directly experiences any physical pain his son feels. Several of Ōe's subsequent works portray relationships between a father figure and his mentally-challenged son, who is alternately referred to as The Idiot Son, Eeyore, Mori, Jin, or Hikari. In 1983 Ōe published Atarashii hito yo mezameyo (Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age), a novel comprised of a short story sequence in which Ōe's disabled son character—called Eeyore in this work—is approaching his twentieth birthday.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Ōe further developed a thematic emphasis on the damaging effects of nationalism, the horrific aftermath of World War II, and the impact of modernization on Japan's emperor system. Hiroshima nōto (1965; Hiroshima Notes) records his opinions of the anti-nuclear movement from 1963 to 1965, focusing on the political bickering of the several factions and lashing out at their failure to recognize the real suffering of the victims of the atomic bombings. In The Silent Cry Ōe overlaps the images of two brothers in the modern age, Mitsusaburo and Takashi, with their great-grandfather, who had suppressed an agrarian uprising a century before, and the great-grandfather's brother, who had been the prime instigator behind the rebellion. As various truths about the legends surrounding these ancestors are revealed, the relationship between the modern-day siblings changes, concluding with the tragic death of the young brother, who tries to carry out his own uprising by reviving an old village festival. In addition to its complex narrative structure, The Silent Cry exhibits a preoccupation with violence and physical deformity which some critics have linked with the methods of grotesque realism, a brand of exaggerated satire which was pioneered by the French Renaissance writer François Rabelais. The novella Mizukara waga namida o nuguitamau hi (1972; The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears), inspired by Ōe's reaction to Emperor Hirohito's surrender, follows a loyal subject who attempts to spur the ineffective and incompetent emperor into action by bombing his palace. Pinchiranna chosho (1976; The Pinch Runner Memorandum) combines Ōe's dual concerns of the modernization of Japan and the effects of mental retardation, in the story of a technician who is injured in an accident at a nuclear generator plant and the son who is born to him after the accident. The father and son become involved in anti-nuclear protests and ultimately come into conflict with a businessman who attempts control Japan through his personal possession of nuclear weapons.
The transformation of suffering is the dominant theme of Ōe's 1989 novel Jinsei no shinseki (An Echo of Heaven), which recounts the life of a Japanese woman, Marie Kuraki, who teaches foreign languages and literature in a Tokyo university. Marie marries and has two sons, one who is born severely brain-damaged. As teenagers, the boys decide to commit suicide together, and Marie's estranged husband devolves into a violent alcoholic. The novel focuses on Marie's efforts to rise above these tragedies, as she finally finds peace on a peasant commune in Mexico. Ōe's Shizuka-na seikatsu (1990; A Quiet Life) follows three nearly adult children, including his recurring character Eeyore, as they are left to cope alone when their parents move to the United States for eight months. The other two siblings experience waves of anxiety over the feelings and needs of Eeyore, whose communication is rare and often ineffective. Beginning in 1993, Ōe released a series of novels—Moeagaru midori no ki: Sukuinushi ga nagurareru made (1993), Moeagaru midori no ki: Yureugoku (Vashirēshon) (1994), and Moeagaru midori no ki: Ōi naru hi ni (1995)—that are known under the collective English title, the Burning Green Tree trilogy. These works, set in a village in the Shikoku mountains that acts as a microcosm for all of Japan, utilize mythic imagery and metaphors in the continuing story of Brother Gii, a handicapped healer who unwittingly becomes a savior figure to his people. After receiving the Nobel Prize in 1994, Ōe released Aimai na Nihon no watashi (1995; Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself), a collection of his Nobel speech and three other lectures on contemporary Japanese literature and culture. Also in 1995, Ōe published Kaifuku suru kazoku (A Healing Family), his first nonfiction account of his relationship with his son, Hikari. Though Ōe fictionalized his interactions with Hikari in past works, A Healing Family recounts a selection of true-life incidents, describing how Hikari enriches the lives of his family members. Inspired partially by the 1995 terrorist attack in Tokyo, when a Japanese cult released nerve gas into the city's subway system, Ōe's 1999 novel Chūgaeri (Somersault) centers around Patron and Guide, the founders of a Japanese religious group. The two men are forced into exile after they publicly renounce and ridicule the beliefs of their organization in an attempt to stop a radical faction from engaging in terrorist activities.
Critical reaction to Ōe's works has been mostly favorable, with several scholars arguing that Ōe's deliberate coalescence of modern Western and traditional Japanese forms has made him difficult to interpret and translate in either Japanese or English. However, due to the recognition from the 1994 Nobel Prize, Ōe has enjoyed a resurgence in attention from both academic and commercial Western audiences. Critics have commended the stylistic virtuosity of Ōe's fiction, lauding his exploration of the complexities inherent in living under the threat of nuclear annihilation and raising a mentally-handicapped child. His use of the “I-novel,” a form of autobiographical fiction, has been perceived as an attempt to further explore the impact of his son's condition on his family and as a means of blending Japanese and Western literary traditions. His explicit portrayal of sexual desires and relationships—in such works as Warera no jidai—has been identified by reviewers as one of Ōe's dominant recurring themes. Some commentators have asserted that Ōe's stylistic experimentation and ideological exploration has resulted in cold, distant, and overly dense prose. Such critics have also faulted Ōe's continuing fictionalization of his son's handicap as exploitative and disquieting. Many scholars have noted a wide range of diverse influences in Ōe's fiction, such as Norman Mailer, Malcolm Lowry, Flannery O'Connor, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Sanroku Yoshida has argued that, “Ōe stands alone among Japanese literati, not only as a novelist and a Nobel laureate but also as a thinker who has read widely in world literature and in cultural and critical theory. He is probably more concerned than any of his Japanese contemporaries with the human condition and the fate of humankind after the ominous mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Memushiri kouchi [Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids] (novel) 1958
Miru mae ni tobe (short stories) 1958
*Shiiku [The Catch] (novella) 1958
Warera no jidai (short stories) 1959
Okurete kita seinen (novel) 1961
Sebunchin [Seventeen] (novella) 1961
Sakebigoe (novel) 1962
Seiteki ningen [J] (novella) 1963
Kojinteki na taiken [A Personal Matter] (novel) 1964
Nichijōseikatsu no bōken (novel) 1964
Genshuku na tsunawatari (essays and criticism) 1965
Hiroshima nōto [Hiroshima Notes] (essays and journals) 1965
Man'en gannen no futtobōru [The Silent Cry] (novel) 1967
†Warera no kyōki o ikinobiru michi o oshieyo [Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness] (novellas) 1969
Mizukara waga namida o nuguitamau hi [The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears] (novella) 1972
Kōzui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi. 2 vols. (novel) 1973
Seinen no omei (novel) 1974
Pinchiranna chosho [The Pinch Runner Memorandum] (novel) 1976
Shōsetsu no hōhō (essays and criticism) 1978...
(The entire section is 370 words.)
SOURCE: Wilson, Michiko N. “Occupied Japan: Tales of a Gigolo.” In The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo: A Study in Themes and Techniques, pp. 22-32. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1986.
[In the following essay, Wilson discusses Ōe's preoccupation with sexual “submission and liberation” in Our Times, noting that most Japanese critics responded negatively to the work's avant-garde subject matter.]
In 1934 Henry Miller wrote Tropic of Cancer, which became available to the American public for the first time in 1960. He wrote Sexus in 1949, but it was not published in the United States until 1965. Norman Mailer's The Deer Park appeared in 1955, “The Time of Her Time” in 1959, by which time both American novelists were already causes célèbres in Japan. An avid reader of both writers' work, Ōe published in July 1959 Our Times (Warera no jidai), his best-known sexually “repulsive” work, which annoyed almost all Japanese critics. It is no exaggeration to say that, without the controversial works of the two avant-garde American writers, the unfavorable reviews of Our Times might have driven Ōe to total despair. He was acutely aware that the “assessment of the sexual in Japanese literature is the lowest, the worst, in comparison to any other subject matter under the sun.”1 His determination to employ the sexual as the most vital...
(The entire section is 5322 words.)
SOURCE: Wilson, Michiko N. “A Narrative of Simultaneity: The Football Game of the First Year of Manen.” In The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo: A Study in Themes and Techniques, pp. 48-60. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1986.
[In the following essay, Wilson argues that the narrative in The Football Game of the First Year of Manen is constructed as “an attempt to look simultaneously at the linear movement of historical events.”]
The 1967 award-winning novel, The Football Game of the First Year of Manen (Manengannen no futtobōru, hereafter Manen), tells of the adventures of two brothers who return to their native village in the valley on Shikoku, in search of their roots and to start a new life. As this story, set in 1960, moves toward the future, there is another story that moves back into the past, the tale of the two brothers' great-grandfather and his younger brother, who were involved in the Manengannen (1860) uprising. And crosscutting the development of the two stories is the private quest of the narrator, Mitsusaburo: to seek the meaning of his only friend's death. Manen is Ōe's first post-1964 novel that experiments with “multilayeredness” and simultaneity of narrative discourse. A reading of Manen requires more than tracking the “unfolding of the story”: it requires us “to recognize in it a number of ‘strata,’ to project...
(The entire section is 7381 words.)
SOURCE: Napier, Susan J. “The Lost Garden: Beginnings of a Mythic Alternative.” In Escape from the Wasteland: Romanticism and Realism in the Fiction of Mishima Yukio and Oe Kenzaburo, pp. 17-42. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Napier examines how the early works of Ōe and Mishima Yukio—particularly Ōe's “Prize Stock” and Pluck the Buds, Shoot the Kids and Yukio's Sound of Waves—represent a rejection of traditional Japanese narratives by focusing heavily on pastoral and dream-like themes.]
Memushiri was a dream world, emphatically separated from the wretched smell of reality that filled so many Japanese novels, reeking as they did with wormy Naturalism.
Among the writings of Oe and Mishima are three works that consciously separate themselves from the reality of postwar Japan. These narratives offer some of the most all-encompassing and appealing alternatives to the wasteland of modern Japanese society that either writer has ever presented, a set of explicitly pastoral dream worlds that surprised and captivated the Japanese reading public, enervated by the dreariness of the 1950s. The works in question, Oe's “Prize Stock” (“Shiiku”) and Pluck the Buds, Shoot the Kids (Memushiri kouchi), both written in...
(The entire section is 12537 words.)
SOURCE: Wilson, Michiko Niikuni. “Kenzaburo Ōe: An Imaginative Anarchist with a Heart.” Georgia Review 49, no. 1 (spring 1993): 344-50.
[In the following essay, Wilson considers the major themes in Ōe's short stories and novels, primarily focusing on Ōe's works which revolve around father-son relationships.]
If there is one poem that captivated Ōe's imagination early in his career, it is “The Little Boy Lost” by William Blake. The poem projects the powerful image of a boy in quest of dialogue with his father, who has abandoned his son. The long, arduous soul-searching journey of Ōe, the Blakean “little boy lost,” began in a village in a virgin forest of Shikoku Island. This tiny village, which has become for Ōe the equivalent of García Márquez's fictional Macondo, is where the writer returns again and again to reaffirm the mythological world of what he calls the “village = nation = minicosmos.” Through the creation of the myth and history of this tiny nation which dares to assert its independence from Japan, the “little boy lost” encounters the “little boy found,” Ōe's central character of many different names: The Idiot Son, Eeyore, Mori, Jin, and Hikari.
Ōe's real son, the thirty-one-year-old Hikari (whose name means “light”), accompanied his father to the Nobel Prize award ceremony in the belief that he, not his father, was to receive the prize....
(The entire section is 3283 words.)
SOURCE: Ōe, Kenzaburō. “Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself: Nobel Lecture 1994.” World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 5-9.
[In the following transcript of Ōe's Nobel Lecture, originally delivered on December 8, 1994, the author outlines the dilemmas confronting post-war Japan and discusses the influence of his mentally-challenged son, Hikari, on his life and work.]
During the last catastrophic world war, I was a little boy and lived in a remote wooded valley on Shikoku Island in the Japanese Archipelago, thousands of miles away from here. At that time there were two books by which I was really fascinated: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. The whole world was then engulfed by waves of horror. By reading Huckleberry Finn I felt I was able to justify my act of going into the mountain forest at night and sleeping among the trees with a sense of security which I could never find indoors. The protagonist of The Adventure of Nils is transformed into a little creature, understands birds' language, and makes an adventurous journey. I derived from the story sensuous pleasures of various kinds. First, living as I was in a deep wood on the Island of Shikoku just as my ancestors had done long ago, I had a revelation that this world and this way of life there were truly liberating. Second, I felt sympathetic and identified myself with...
(The entire section is 4252 words.)
SOURCE: Yoshida, Sanroku. “The Burning Tree: The Spatialized World of Kenzaburō Ōe.” World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 10-16.
[In the following essay, Yoshida traces Ōe's literary development and asserts that the author's major thematic concerns “are closely related to his own personal problems and emotions, but he successfully distills them into a more universal context to produce a significant literary representation that is firmly grounded in human existence.”]
Late on the night of 13 October 1994, in front of his residence in a usually quiet Tokyo suburb, Kenzaburō Ōe entertained questions from a horde of newspaper and television reporters who had gathered there to interview the winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature. “I wonder what kind of life I would be leading now,” he reminisced, “if I had not met professor Kazuo Watanabe at Tokyo University and learned from him about Rabelais forty years ago.” Born in 1935 in a small village on the island of Shikoku, Ōe was a precocious boy; he had wished to study under Professor Watanabe even before enrolling at the university. Thus, for most of his writing career he has been attuned to Rabelaisian grotesque realism as the most effective literary technique with which to tackle the problems of the modern world.
As a student in the French Department of Tokyo University, Ōe avidly read Rabelais, Camus,...
(The entire section is 6091 words.)
SOURCE: Yoshida, Sanroku. Review of The Pinch Runner Memorandum, by Kenzaburō Ōe. World Literature Today 69, no. 2 (spring 1995): 439-40.
[In the following review, Yoshida delineates the unique stylistic aspects of The Pinch Runner Memorandum, noting Ōe's wealth of “linguistic and typographical idiosyncrasies.”]
Kenzaburō Ōe, the winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature (see WLT 69:1, pp. 5-16), wrote two major novels, among others, in which he deals with the fear of the possible annihilation of all humankind in a nuclear holocaust. One is the two-volume 1973 work entitled Kōzui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi (A Flood Unto My Soul), and the other is The Pinch Runner Memorandum, first published in 1976 as Pinchi ra'na chōsho.
Memorandum explores the violence of student street demonstrations against the renewal of the Mutual Security Treaty between the United States and Japan in late 1960s and the ensuing bloody struggles between the militant factions of the student movement. The central issue concerns which student group should have the right to manufacture a nuclear bomb. However, this later turns out to be a part of the social turmoil staged by a political magnate for his own interest. The characters involved in this typically Ōe-like “adventure” are a father and son. At the beginning of the novel the father is...
(The entire section is 663 words.)
SOURCE: Cargas, Harry James. “Fiction of Shame.” Christian Century 112, no. 12 (12 April 1995): 382-83.
[In the following essay, Cargas argues that guilt functions as a major component of the Japanese psyche and Ōe's fiction, particularly in A Personal Matter.]
The controversy over awarding a share of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize to Yassir Arafat was hardly surprising. What was surprising to some was the lack of controversy over the Nobel Prize for Literature. The selection of Kenzaburo Oe for the award suggests that the Swedish immortals decided that this was Japan's year and that somebody from that nation would be recognized. Or, as often happens, the Nobel Prize would salute not only the celebrated writer but also the national literature represented by that author.
Oe is not a insignificant in world literature, and he is a fine writer. Yet he is so little known that on the morning of the Nobel Committee's announcement, nobody answering bookstore phones knew the name. One of the problems the committee members may have faced was that they could not consider two of Japan's finest recent novelists. Both died in 1993—and the Nobel is not a posthumous award. Kobe Abe's Woman in the Dunes, Box Man and other riveting books were influential and widely read. Masuji Ibuse's Black Rain is probably the most beautiful novel written about Hiroshima....
(The entire section is 1023 words.)
SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Strange Beauty amid Horror, Grief.” Christian Science Monitor 87, no. 115 (10 May 1995): 14.
[In the following essay, Rubin notes that, although Ōe's writing explores uniquely Japanese issues and themes, the virtuosity of Ōe's prose has allowed his works to take “their place in the global pantheon.”]
One of the leading lights of Japanese postwar literature, Kenzaburo Oe was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1994, just as he was announcing his intention to write no more fiction. His novels and stories, as he explained, had been driven by his desire to speak on behalf of his handicapped son who, after years of struggle, had finally found his own means of self-expression through the beautiful music he taught himself to compose.
Giving up fiction, however, does not necessarily entail giving up all forms of writing. Oe's creativity and his deep concern for his country's future, poignantly expressed in his Nobel acceptance speech, may well find other outlets. In the meantime, publishers have been busy issuing and reissuing earlier works by this powerful writer who has trained his eyes on darkness the better to see the light.
Born in a small village on the island of Shikoku, Oe grew up in the shadow of World War II. Even as a child, he began to harbor doubts about the nature of the war and about a system that demanded blind obedience to authority. Oe...
(The entire section is 801 words.)
SOURCE: Harris, Michael. “Born of Anger.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (2 July 1995): 3, 5.
[In the following review, Harris praises Ōe's unique narrative style and vivid use of detail in Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids.]
Only a pinch of suspicion is needed to theorize that Kenzaburo Oe was a substitute winner of the Nobel Prize in 1994, just as Yasunari Kawabata was in 1968.
The achievements of postwar Japanese literature surely merited one or more Nobels, but the leading contender was Yukio Mishima, and Mishima wasn't about to win one, for some of the same reasons the Swedish Academy has never given the nod to Norman Mailer.
Mishima's works, like Mailer's, were influential, often brilliant, but uneven in quality. They were overshadowed, in any case, by the flamboyance of his public persona—the weightlifting, the sexual ambiguity, the right-wing melodramatics that ended with his suicide by beheading at the hands of an acolyte in 1970. What could any mere prize add to a life like that?
So the Nobel honorees, instead, were Kawabata, an impeccable stylist but essentially a prewar sensibility; and Oe, an enfant terrible of the 1960s whose unremitting seriousness and uncompromising intellectualism had long since gone out of fashion in Japan.
It's a theory, anyway. But lest we take it too far, Oe's debut novel has just been...
(The entire section is 1603 words.)
SOURCE: Goff, Janet. Review of Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself: The Nobel Prize Speech and Other Lectures, by Kenzaburō Ōe. Japan Quarterly 42, no. 3 (July-September 1995): 355-56.
[In the following positive review of Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, Goff comments that all four lectures in the collection “reflect Ōe's abiding concern for the role of the writer in society and the place of Japan in the modern world.”]
This publication honoring Japan's new Nobel laureate [Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself] reproduces four lectures by Ōe, including his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. All four lectures reflect Ōe's abiding concern for the role of the writer in society and the place of Japan in the modern world.
In the first lecture, “Speaking on Japanese Culture before a Scandinavian Audience” (1992), Ōe reminisces about European writings that have stimulated his lifelong fascination with “travel and faraway places.” He points out the relationship between foreign learning and Japanese spiritual well-being in Murasaki Shikibu's 11th-century masterpiece The Tale of Genji and the works of Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916), as well as in his own novels. The only way that Japan can regain its moral compass today, he concludes, is “by establishing a sense of morality that can be shared with Western nations but that, for its own purposes, is founded firmly...
(The entire section is 516 words.)
SOURCE: Ōe, Kenzaburō, and Sam Staggs. “Kenzaburo Oe: After the Nobel, a New Direction.” Publishers Weekly 242, no. 32 (7 August 1995): 438-39.
[In the following interview, Ōe discusses his background as an existentialist and recounts the controversy surrounding his acceptance of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature.]
Kenzaburo Oe is the last existentialist. Changing trends in literature and philosophy have reduced the outsized reputations of such existentialist giants as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, but it seems no one has told Oe that—or if so, he paid no attention. “It doesn't matter,” he says flatly when asked to comment on the diminished fortunes of his literary parents. To him, the heroes of his youth are still big. It's literature that got small.
For almost 40 years, Oe has been the faithful Japanese acolyte of his French mentors, filling book after book with images and metaphors drawn from the existentialist canon: hospitals, disease, absurd violence, the death of children, crime and nausea. Put another way, Oe's fiction resembles the most didactic films of Jean-Luc Godard. His novels often read like philosophical treatises; characters interrupt the spare narrative line to deliver speeches on such topics as the pluralistic universe.
And so, in a sense, it's not surprising that Oe's first novel, Nip the Buds, Shoot the...
(The entire section is 1936 words.)
SOURCE: Loughman, Celeste. Review of Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, by Kenzaburō Ōe. World Literature Today 70, no. 1 (winter 1996): 242-43.
[In the following review, Loughman offers a mixed assessment of Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids but commends the novel's “sharpness of focus, narrative simplicity, and spontaneity.”]
War, pestilence, flood, famine, death—this is the context of Ōe Kenzaburō's first novel, Memushiri kouchi (1958), now translated as Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids. Unfortunately, the colloquial English title gives a misleading lightness and triviality to what is a grim book intended to convey the Japanese mentality during the Pacific War: “It was a time of killing. Like a long deluge, the war sent its mass insanity flooding into the convolutions of people's feelings, into every last recess of their bodies, into the forests, the streets and into the sky.”
Because of intensifying air raids, a group of reformatory boys is being evacuated to a distant village, which has agreed to maintain them. Their status throughout, as the narrator often indicates, is that of abandoned children. The boys in the group are those whose parents failed to respond to the request to reclaim them before the evacuation. They will be abandoned again when the villagers leave town stealthily in the night to avoid a plague and immediately set up barriers to...
(The entire section is 788 words.)
SOURCE: Ōe, Kenzaburō, and John Nathan. “A Mythical Topos: A Dialogue.” Grand Street 14, no. 3 (winter 1996): 39-46.
[In the following interview, Ōe discusses his relationship with his readers, translations of his works, and his intention of creating a new form of literary expression.]
[Nathan]: As a very young man at Tokyo University in the late '50s, you published a series of stories which were astonishing in the originality of their language and the freshness of their vision. Many who read those stories, in their youth in Japan, still remember their impact. You managed to capture the complex confabulation of betrayal, anger, despair, and hope that your entire generation experienced, growing up in Japan in the post-World War II period. A huge readership hung on your every word for a period of twelve to fifteen years. Since then, you have continued to grow at an alarming rate, you have read and deepened and become more and more complex. And that has cost you some of your readership in your own country. Despite your mounting isolation, you have continued your meticulous and ceaseless examination of the self, of moral responsibility, and of the relationship of the individual to post-war society. Your readers have, in some measure, been unable to keep up with you. That is to say, you have made demands which some of them have not been able to fulfill.
[Ōe]: My way of...
(The entire section is 3155 words.)
SOURCE: Iwamoto, Yoshio. Review of Hiroshima Notes, by Kenzaburō Ōe. World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 475.
[In the following review, Iwamoto commends Ōe's compassionate reflections on the Hiroshima tragedy and its impact on his own life in Hiroshima Notes but argues that the author's polemic tone becomes overbearing at times.]
The reissue by Marion Boyars Publishers of the English translation of Kenzaburō Ōe's Hiroshima Notes, originally published in Japanese in 1965 and first translated into English in 1981, will now enable a much wider Western audience to glean the thoughts of the 1994 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature (see WLT 66:1 pp. 74-75, and 69:1, pp. 5-16) on the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, an event whose fiftieth anniversary in 1995 sparked vociferous debates anew. These “notes,” the product of Ōe's visits to Hiroshima between August 1963 and May 1965 in the role initially of journalist to cover the activities of the various peace movements, reveal a man of unabashed humanism, beseeching understanding of the sufferings of the Hiroshima victims that may serve as a deterrent to a possible future nuclear holocaust which could well signal the annihilation of humankind as we know it. Rather than emphasize the awesome power of nuclear weapons, Ōe would put the spotlight on the human misery they perpetrate....
(The entire section is 592 words.)
SOURCE: Yoshida, Sanroku. Review of Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself: The Nobel Prize Speech and Other Lectures, by Kenzaburō Ōe. World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 475-76.
[In the following review, Yoshida lauds Ōe's insights into the complexities of Japanese culture in Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, calling the collection “a valuable glimpse into the soul of Japan's greatest contemporary writer.”]
Kenzaburō Ōe stands alone among Japanese literati, not only as a novelist and a Nobel laureate but also as a thinker who has read widely in world literature and in cultural and critical theory. He is probably more concerned than any of his Japanese contemporaries with the human condition and the fate of humankind after the ominous mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The four lectures collected in Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself are addressed to a Western audience, for whom Ōe elaborates on the unique cultural and historical idiosyncrasies of Japan. Although in Asia, Japan has been, and still is in an exploitative way, hostile toward other Asian countries: as a result of her zeal for material wealth, which is the real reason for her westernization since 1868, she has pushed herself into an abrasive competition with Western countries. Thus Japan, according to Ōe, has lost her identity, and her contemporary literature at best reflects only...
(The entire section is 466 words.)
SOURCE: Wood, Michael. “Like Apollinaire.” London Review of Books 18, no. 7 (4 April 1996): 24-5.
[In the following review, Wood underscores the importance that Ōe places on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, A Personal Matter, and Hiroshima Notes.]
Perhaps all books are messages from other times and places, even the ones written yesterday and just down the road. But these three works by Kenzaburo Oë, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, have an unusual flavour of missives cast into the sea long ago, only now arriving on our island beach. Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids was published in Japan in 1958, and is now translated for the first time. A Personal Matter was published in Japan in 1964, and in an American translation, here reprinted, in 1969. Hiroshima Notes was published in Japan in 1965 and first translated, in this version, in 1981. So the youngest of the books is thirty years old, half Oë's own age. The effect of reading them now is not to make us feel we have been there before, because we haven't, even if we have been to Japan and read other Japanese novels. The effect, on me at least, was to make me try to remember these books' English and American coevals, whatever it was we were reading in the wake of Sartre and Camus, and before the Sixties became the Sixties. William Golding, Iris Murdoch, Saul Bellow, Bernard...
(The entire section is 2348 words.)
SOURCE: L'Heureux, John. “Flannery Will Get You Nowhere.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 May 1996): 4.
[In the following review, L'Heureux notes the influence of Flannery O'Connor on An Echo of Heaven.]
In 1994, Kenzaburo Oe was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature and in his Stockholm speech, describing his vocation as novelist, he quoted Flannery O'Connor: To write novels is for him “a habit of being.” It is not by chance that to define the concrete he resorts to abstraction, nor by chance that to talk about himself this quintessentially Japanese writer quotes an American Catholic whose every story worried the problem of nature and grace, mystery and manners, reason and revelation.
An Echo of Heaven, surely the most abstract of Oe's novels, takes as its starting point O'Connor's idea of God's interference in the daily business of this world. He takes it further than O'Connor would be willing to go.
Nor are the ideas alone abstract. Set in Tokyo, California and Mexico, the events of this novel could take place anywhere or nowhere or, more properly, in the region of the mind. And indeed it is the narrator's mind that provides the filter through which we view the extraordinary events.
The narrator, K (yes, K!), is a successful novelist and the father of a brain-damaged child. Through this child, K meets Marie Kuraki, the mother of...
(The entire section is 802 words.)
SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “A Portrait of a Woman Who Transcends Culture.” Christian Science Monitor 88, no. 143 (19 June 1996): 14.
[In the following review, Rubin praises Ōe's multi-layered portrayal of Marie Kuraki, the protagonist of An Echo of Heaven.]
Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, Japan's Kenzaburo Oe has distinguished himself not only as an innovative artist but also as a voice for humanitarian values. He consistently tackles difficult and troubling subjects without flinching, but with an attitude of careful deliberation and open-mindedness, whether he is dealing with the dehumanizing effects of war (as in his novel Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids) or the anguish of a parent of a handicapped child (as in The Silent Cry).
A child of World War II and the father of a retarded son, Oe tends to write about what he has experienced. In An Echo of Heaven (published in Japan in 1989, appearing now in English translation), he tells the story of a Japanese woman, Marie Kuraki, who endures an overwhelming tragedy but who, despite her personal despair, lives on to become an inspiration to other people, spending her last days working alongside poor rural folk on a cooperative farm in Mexico.
The book opens after Marie's death, when the author/narrator—Oe—is approached by some men who want to make a film based on her life, to serve as a...
(The entire section is 869 words.)
SOURCE: Dalglish, James. “An Author in Search of a Story.” Japan Quarterly 43, no. 3 (July-September 1996): 90-2.
[In the following review, Dalglish asserts that An Echo of Heaven can be viewed as a wholly original novel within the context of modern Japanese literature, labelling it as “a work riven with postmodern uncertainty.”]
An Echo of Heaven, the English translation of Nobel laureate Ōe Kenzaburō's 1989 Jinsei no shinseki, is an intriguing work that evades definition. It is sprinkled with diversely engaging themes—sexuality, religion, literature and (possibly) saintliness. There are handicapped children (no surprise), suicide pacts, cults, whiffs of millenarianism and abrupt shifts of scene among Japan, the United States and Mexico. It also features an author (Ōe) in search of a story.
What kind of book is it? It might be a novel, as the publisher implies, but it reads more like a memoir. At times, it plods like an essay, at others it leaps into parable or allegory. In other words, it is a work riven with postmodern uncertainty.
Marie Kuraki, the focus of the novel (if it is a novel), is an intelligent, sensitive woman with a Ph.D. in English whom Ōe meets in the sophisticated, late-1960s Tokyo milieu of leftist causes and parents with liberal concerns. Like Ōe, she is the parent of a retarded son, Musan. Marie might well have...
(The entire section is 1717 words.)
SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Dynamite Dangling on a Thread.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 August 1996): 2.
[In the following review, Eder discusses the recurring themes of anger and shame in Ōe's early novellas Seventeen and J.]
Splitting doesn't always weaken; it can transform and empower. Think of the atom, or the Japanese novelist and Nobelist Kenzaburo Oe. The vision that torments and lights him up emanates from a brutal divide.
Born in 1935, Oe was churned in the tide and riptide of a history that had him pledging, as a child, to slash open his belly whenever the emperor required it. As a youth in the 1950s, it carried him into the combative left, repudiating both the old warrior mystique and the new national accommodation with the United States.
Finally, after a personal tragedy beyond such dialectics—for three decades he has nurtured the life and talents of a brain-impaired son—it led him along a precarious high pass between two abysses. Or, as he puts it in several of his writings, it made him “a grave tightrope walker.”
An American reader may find Oe hard, but not because of his style. If anything, his writing bewilders by its odd simplicity, considering the load it transports: dynamite dangling on a thread. What is hard is the sensibility.
In one way, Oe loathes his country—its fanatical right-wing...
(The entire section is 1149 words.)
SOURCE: Ryan, Marleigh Grayer. Review of An Echo of Heaven, by Kenzaburō Ōe. World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 229.
[In the following positive review, Ryan finds parallels between Ōe's narrative voice in An Echo of Heaven and the Nō theater of Japan.]
In An Echo of Heaven, a lively, intelligent translation of Ōe Kenzaburō's 1989 novel Jinsei no shinseki (see WLT 67:3, p. 678), the author assumes a narrative voice resonating the chorus in the traditional Nō theater of Japan. As in the theater, Ōe moves deftly from direct accounts of events in which he is a participant to observations and analyses provided by others through letters and diary entries.
Like the Nō chorus, the K. of the novel, himself a prominent writer with a profoundly handicapped son named (like the author's own son) Hikari, expresses the horror and pain of the leading character. An American-educated Japanese intellectual named—not surely coincidentally—Marie, she speaks to us through her own words in direct discourse and through personal records. Marie too has a profoundly disabled son, and it is this connection that brings her into K.'s life. Her son, together with a “normal” brother who is disabled in a school-bus accident, dies in a suicide pact, in what is surely the novel's most devastating passage. This pact too resonates Japan's literary past, here...
(The entire section is 617 words.)
SOURCE: Loughman, Celeste. Review of “Seventeen” and “J”: Two Novels, by Kenzaburō Ōe. World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 229-30.
[In the following review, Loughman offers an overview of the major thematic concerns in Seventeen and J.]
Ōe Kenzaburō (see WLT 69:1, pp. 5-9) has never made a secret of his affinity with those postwar writers who sought to decentralize the value of the emperor and “to liberate the Japanese from the curse of the emperor system which haunted their minds, even at the subconscious level.” At the same time he understands the collective need for unity expressed in the acceptance of the emperor as the absolute authority. Both these ideas bear on Seventeen (orig. Sebunchin, 1961), the first of two short novels in the volume under review. The time of publication is significant, right after a year of violent demonstrations culminating in the October 1960 assassination of the Socialist Party leader by a seventeen-year-old fanatical rightist. That event was the inspiration for Seventeen, a two-part work of which only the first section is included here. The second part, “A Political Youth Dies” (“Seiji Shonen Shisu,” 1961), subtitled “Seventeen Part II” and published one month after part I, includes the assassination and the boy's subsequent suicide. The outrage and threats which followed publication were...
(The entire section is 1055 words.)
SOURCE: Iwamoto, Yoshio. Review of A Healing Family, by Kenzaburō Ōe. World Literature Today 71, no. 3 (summer 1997): 653-54.
[In the following review, Iwamoto commends Ōe's sensitive and poignant exploration of his relationship with his mentally and physically handicapped son, Hiraki, in A Healing Family.]
The relationship between Kenzaburo Ōe and his mentally and physically handicapped son Hikari has furnished the author with the materials and inspiration for countless works—short stories, novels, lectures, commentaries, and essays. From the novel A Personal Matter (1964; Eng. 1968) to the collection of nonfiction short pieces A Healing Family (orig. 1995) under review here, the subject matter has been treated with an astonishing variety of perspectives. Another recently translated Ōe novel, A Quiet Life (1990; Eng. 1996), for example, is narrated by the author's daughter, who is left to care for her brother when their parents spend an extended period at the University of California in Berkeley.
In A Healing Family, a considerably more reduced version than the original Kaifuku suru kazoku that was written over a span of years, Ōe speaks in his own unmediated voice to draw sketches of incidents that illustrate, directly or indirectly, how Hikari's presence has enriched his family's life. Hikari's birth in 1963, with a large lump on his...
(The entire section is 706 words.)
SOURCE: Swain, David. “Something Akin to Grace: The Journey of Kenzaburo Oe.” Christian Century 114, no. 37 (24 December 1997): 1226-31.
[In the following essay, Swain investigates the major influences on Ōe's fiction and nonfiction, particularly the impact of the birth of his mentally and physically handicapped son.]
On the occasion of receiving the 1994 Nobel Prize in literature, novelist Kenzaburo Oe explained that “the fundamental method of my writing has always been to start from personal matters and then link them with society, the state, and the world in general.” Oe's personal starting point was a heavily wooded mountain area on Japan's Shikoku Island, where he was born in 1935. Oe (pronounced Oh-eh) loves trees and has a lifelong habit of talking to them on long walks. According to critic Masao Miyoshi, Oe “remembers everything” and can cite the names of almost all the trees in the world in Japanese, English and Latin. His sense of primal identity is securely rooted in his native place; even now, despite international fame and longtime residence in Tokyo, he speaks of himself as a “marginal” person with only an “off-center existence in the world.”
Even so, he is authentically cosmopolitan, at least in the world of literature. After his father died in 1944, Oe immersed himself in reading; one early favorite was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The...
(The entire section is 4422 words.)
SOURCE: King, Francis. “Variations on a Simple Theme.” Spectator 280, no. 8844 (7 February 1998): 33-4.
[In the following review, King criticizes Ōe's “disturbing” fictionalization of events from his personal life in A Quiet Life.]
A single event soars up, a sheer, jagged, snow-covered peak, from the otherwise temperate landscape of Kenzaburo Oe's life. This was the birth, in 1963, of a first child with a cerebral defect which, over the years, has had increasingly tragic consequences for the boy's physical and mental development. From this event, an avalanche of short stories, novels and essays has swept down. The latest in what Oe himself has, chillingly, called the ‘idiot son narratives’, this book [A Quiet Life] is a fictionalised account of further episodes in the life of this boy, now seen not, as in the past, through the eyes of Oe himself but of the boy's 20-year-old sister.
Many novelists have fed to bloated satiety off the experiences of those nearest to them; but there is something particularly disturbing in the way in which, making no attempt at concealing their identities, Oe has appropriated his wife's and his three children's existences. Might not his daughter prefer to produce her own narrative, rather than have her father use her as his ventriloquist's doll? And how does his son react to being called an idiot and to have revealed—as in this...
(The entire section is 836 words.)
SOURCE: Reinsma, Luke M. “The Flight of Kenzaburo Oe.” Christianity and Literature 48, no. 1 (autumn 1998): 61-77.
[In the following essay, Reinsma traces Ōe's treatment of existential matters in A Personal Matter and maintains that the novel is central to the author's oeuvre “for reasons that are at once literary and personal.”]
There is a Shinto prayer about a woman who dies, and when she reaches the boundary hill of the nether world, she thinks back on a troublesome child she left behind; soul-freezing loneliness and terror assault her, forcing her to turn back to look at the world of the living. When I think about the ancient poet who composed that prayer, I recognize that soul-freezing cold whipped through the world in those times as well. But we don't live in his historic time, when a communal society existed. We live in a world which is fragmented, alienated, disintegrating. This is our number one problem. We can't keep on screwing things up. We've got to rebuild, restore, reintegrate the world. Shouldn't we strive to do just that?
—Kenzaburo Oe, The Pinch Runner Memorandum
In A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe, Bird wanders through the streets of Tokyo, a lonely figure striding on thin legs through a vacant landscape. Idly dreaming of Africa while in headlong flight from fatherhood, he finds...
(The entire section is 7818 words.)
SOURCE: Loughman, Celeste. “The Seamless Universe of Oe Kenzaburo.” World Literature Today 73, no. 3 (summer 1999): 417-22.
[In the following essay, Loughman explores Ōe's use of “simultaneity—of past and present, fact and dream, history and myth” in The Silent Cry, arguing that Ōe constructs an ambiguous moral universe in the novel.]
No term or concept appears more frequently in Ōe Kenzaburō's writing than “ambiguity.” Ōe made it the focus of his 1994 Nobel Lecture, “Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself,” and has acknowledged directly its prominence in his thinking: “I wrote a book entitled The Methods of the Novel (1978) in which I explained that the concept of ambiguity was very important to me” (“Interview” with Yoshida, 372). Closely associated with ambiguity is the idea of simultaneity—of past and present, fact and dream, history and myth—which results in the ambiguity or blurring of distinctions and boundaries that constitutes Ōe's seamless universe. At the same time, however, Ōe counterbalances ambiguity with a vision of human history connected by an underlying structural certitude.
In a discussion of his novel The Game of Contemporaneity (orig. Dōjidai gēmu, 1979), Ōe mentions coming in contact with the Mural Movement during a visit to Mexico:
Octavio Paz said that Mexico is a...
(The entire section is 5144 words.)
SOURCE: Ōe, Kenzaburō. “An Attempt at Self-Discovery in the Mythic Universe of the Novel.” World Literature Today 76, no. 1 (winter 2002): 6-18.
[In the following essay, Ōe discusses his attitude toward and utilization of the “I-novel” form and reviews significant influences on his life and work.]
Looking back upon my literary career, I would say that, from the outset, the setting of my literature has been my native village in a small valley deep in the forests of Shikoku, one of Japan's four main islands. The village is roughly in the central part of the island, just north of the watershed of the Shikoku Mountain Range. The premonition of a young writer is all I can say that prompted me to start writing about my native village. In the beginning, I wrote without much perspective that the village would later occupy a large core part of my literature.
My first work was a short story titled “The Catch” [also translated as “Prize Stock”—Ed.]. The time of the story is near the end of the Pacific War, and the account begins with the shooting down of a U.S. bomber on an air-raid mission. A black airman falls by parachute into the deep woods that surround the mountain village and is taken prisoner by the villagers, most of whom are farmers. I have been told that during the Pacific War, at least, there were no black American airmen. During my boyhood years, however,...
(The entire section is 9167 words.)
SOURCE: Iwamoto, Yoshio. “Ōe Kenzaburō's Warera no jidai (Our Generation).” World Literature Today 76, no. 1 (winter 2002): 43-51.
[In the following essay, Iwamoto offers a critical reading of the relationship between politics, power, and sex in Warera no jidai.]
“Power is sexy,” the pop psychiatrist Dr. Joyce Brothers recently declared1 in commenting on the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy liaison, the latest in a seemingly endless succession of messy sex scandals involving high-profile Washington politicians. In fact, the varied ways in which sex, politics, and power are linked have now been discussed extensively for a very long time by pundits of all stripes, including in more recent years those scholars engaged in colonial and postcolonial discourses. Prominent in the latter deliberations are the works of such eminent intellectuals as Michel Foucault and Edward Said, whose contributions to studies in sexuality and colonialism respectively in the 1970s and 1980s have played important roles in the formulation of their ideas.
Ōe Kenzaburō too has participated in debates over this issue. Already in the 1950s, the youthful author directed his attention to the interlocking forces of sex, politics, and power in order to represent the plight of the youths of his generation, mired in what he perceived to be a debilitating passivity under the weight of the...
(The entire section is 6800 words.)
SOURCE: Tachibana, Reiko. “Structures of Power: Ōe Kenzaburō's ‘Shiiku’ (‘Prize Stock’).” World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 37-48.
[In the following essay, Tachibana analyzes thematic aspects of Ōe's “Prize Stock,” perceiving the story to be a study of power in a Japanese village community.]
The literary talents of Ōe Kenzaburō, winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature, were recognized in Japan in 1958, when his short story “Shiiku” (Eng. “The Catch” or “Prize Stock”)1 won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize.2 Ōe, age twenty-three, was then a student at Tokyo University. Drawing in part on childhood memories—memories he acknowledges were preserved as “not factual but mental” (Kaku no taika to “ningen” no koe, 100)—“Shiiku” is set in a remote village in a valley, rather like Ōe's hometown on the island of Shikoku, and its main character is a boy who has a younger brother, as Ōe did.3
As a child, Ōe later explained, he had been taught that people from outside his little village were what Alfred Kurella calls “aliéné” (crazy or mad).4 Indeed, there had been few such strangers among the village populace. The quiet homogeneity of the village, however, started to change during the war, when unwelcome evacuees from the cities moved in. Under those circumstances, Ōe...
(The entire section is 10041 words.)
SOURCE: Ryan, Marleigh Grayer. “‘And a Little Child Shall Lead Them’: The Agency of the Innocent in an Early Story by Ōe Kenzaburō.” World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 49-57.
[In the following essay, Ryan identifies the deception and corruption of children by adults as the central theme of Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids.]
Ōe Kenzaburō was ten and a half years old when he heard tell of the emperor's fateful message ending World War II. He has written—and continues to write—of the impact that message had upon his life and the lives of his compatriots. The time immediately before and after that day has resonated in his fiction with an intensity unequaled in that of his contemporaries. The closing year of that terrible war, those months when countless thousands of Japanese died in an already lost cause—that time of killing, as he names it—appears as a powerful force in his writing, engraving an indelible image in the minds of his readers and teaching us over and over that we must not forget. He sets forth without compromise the tragedy suffered by his country as a result of the terrible hypocrisies and deceptions visited by the elders upon the young at every level of Japanese society.
Beyond this, Ōe has used his fiction to portray the breakdown within Japanese society precipitated by these deceptions stretching far beyond the war and its immediate aftermath....
(The entire section is 7555 words.)
SOURCE: Ward, Elizabeth. “Innocence and Experience.” Washington Post Book World 32, no. 23 (9 June 2002): 7.
[In the following review, Ward asserts that, despite Ōe's dense narrative style, Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age is ultimately a rewarding novel.]
Considering that Kenzaburo Oe won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994, he still isn't very widely read in English. But then he still isn't very widely read in Japanese. Oe's work is difficult, obsessive and rambling—and that's as true of his fiction as it is of his nonfiction, which are hard to tell apart anyway. Even his admirers concede that you don't read Oe for anything as shallow as pleasure; you read him to experience what he calls “layers of sorrow and pain.” Obviously an acquired taste—and yet, for the few, it does offer rewards. This book is a good example.
Oe's temperament is such that most things cause him pain: Hiroshima, the fate of Okinawa, the emperor system, Japanese politics and most contemporary Japanese fiction, among other things. He has the gloomy hypersensitivity of a prophet, alternately berating and weeping over the world in which he finds himself. But one thing has caused him more pain—and shaped his life's work more profoundly—than any other: the experience of raising his mentally handicapped son, Hikari, now 38. That might have traumatized the most insensitive of men; for Oe,...
(The entire section is 1127 words.)
SOURCE: King, Francis. “The Doubtful Wisdom of Eeyore.” Spectator 289, no. 9077 (27 July 2002): 39.
[In the following review, King faults Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age as a “narrow and self-referential” work.]
The inspiration of Kenzaburo Oe, Japanese winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature, has repeatedly derived from an obsession. In turn that obsession has derived from a tragedy. In 1963, the first of his three children, Hikari, was born with brain damage so severe that it was doubtful if he would survive. Now 38, Hikari still survives, doubly incontinent, subject to epilepsy, unable to read and scarcely able to express himself, but miraculously gifted with the ability to compose short pieces of music.
In recent times we have seen increasingly numerous cases of victims attempting to find solace for devastating experiences—sexual abuse, near-fatal illness, the loss of a partner, a parent or a child—through the transfiguration of writing. Inevitably, often without the author's realising it, this process can involve subtle changes to reality. So it has been in the case of Oe and his tragic son.
As though to indicate to the reader that here are not literal transcriptions, the son in Oe's novels has a different name, Eeyore, from his real one. Hikari, by all accounts, has little to say and experiences extreme difficulty in saying it....
(The entire section is 624 words.)
SOURCE: Havel, Amy. Review of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age, by Kenzaburō Ōe. Review of Contemporary Fiction 22, no. 3 (fall 2002): 145.
[In the following review, Havel offers a positive assessment of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age, praising the author's “gift for the portrayal of the inevitable emotional blunders of human beings.”]
Fans of Oe's work will recognize the author's alter ego K and his disabled son Eeyore in this latest novel [Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age] by the Nobel Prize winner. The chronicling of the father-son relationship continues, but the latest developments seem more serious, as they pertain to Eeyore's onset of adulthood and his family beginning to see him as a physically intimidating person with a sexual identity. K's intellectual concerns are centered on his analysis of William Blake's poetry as it has influenced his life and how he has tried to raise his son; this analysis, with its wonderful explication of Blake's writing, is a sort of bonus for any reader. While less poetically stunning than A Personal Matter or A Quiet Life, this volume is more complex in its storylines, including K's attempts to understand Eeyore's vision of the world: how his imagination works, whether he dreams, etc. Translator John Nathan adds an afterword and provides helpful information about Oe's past work and its relation to his family...
(The entire section is 364 words.)
SOURCE: Allen, Brooke. “Foreign Voices.” New Leader 86, no. 1 (January-February 2003): 24-5.
[In the following review, Allen contends that although Somersault is replete with beautiful images and compelling ideas, the novel is both “alienating and boring.”]
Ever since World War II Japan has been our partner, whether willingly or unwillingly, in the creation of a consumer society and the development of a business-friendly world order. Yet despite the postwar proliferation of films and television, not to mention the current explosion in global communications and Internet technology, the Japanese remain strangely mysterious to Americans. We avidly buy Japan's cars, sound systems and TVs, but we have taken little interest in its cultural products, except for some comic strips and a few benign children's creations like Pokémon and Hello Kitty. There are no Japanese shows for adults on American television. Only the most fervent American cineastes make any effort to see Japanese films. And the vast majority of Americans will never in their lives purchase or read a Japanese novel.
Even a Nobel Prize-winning author like Kenzaburo Oe has had a quite modest impact here. Thanks to his becoming a laureate, though, he is perhaps the one serious Japanese novelist of the second half of the 20th century whose name is familiar in the West. At least there is an awareness that over four...
(The entire section is 1388 words.)
SOURCE: Maristed, Kai. “Faith Tangled Up in Reality.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (20 April 2003): 7.
[In the following review, Maristed argues that Somersault is an “extraordinarily dense novel,” noting that Ōe's detached authorial voice distinguishes the work from his previous novels.]
A heraldic first line of jacket copy announces that Somersault is Kenzaburo Oe's “first new novel … since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature” and goes on to describe the novel's 570 extraordinarily dense pages as “a magnificent story of the charisma of leaders, the danger of zealotry, and the mystery of faith.” If this reviewer can't quite sign on to the thumbnail characterization, she can also hardly fault its anonymous writer. No significant concept in Somersault—and there are a great many—lets itself be caught for an instant resting in a single definition or attitude.
Earlier (and by the way, shorter) Oe novels such as The Silent Cry, A Personal Matter and Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids have become, simply put, modern classics, thanks to the author's ability to mire a thoroughly individual, flawed yet sympathetic character in a nightmarish dilemma that twists and tightens despite the character's desperate efforts to escape. In other words, Oe is a master of the somewhat sadistic stock-in-trade of any accomplished novelist....
(The entire section is 1345 words.)
SOURCE: Picone, Jason. Review of Somersault, by Kenzaburō Ōe. Review of Contemporary Fiction 23, no. 2 (summer 2003): 131-32.
[In the following review, Picone lauds Ōe's “disquieting” world view in Somersault and argues that the novel broadens “the scope and form that the author's future fiction might take.”]
In his first new novel since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kenzaburo Oe offers an examination of the nature of faith when it is balanced against the potential for human self-annihilation in the twenty-first century. A complete departure from Oe's fiction concerning his retarded son, Somersault is a conventional narrative about a fictional religious cult, partly influenced by Aum Shinrikyo and their 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway. Ten years before the novel begins, a religious group's two founding leaders, Patron and Guide, betray their own movement because a radical faction within the group threatens large-scale terrorism. The leaders contact the authorities and publicly ridicule the values and beliefs their group espouses, a complete disavowal labeled a somersault. After the somersault, Patron and Guide go into exile for ten years, but reemerge as a new group of followers converges to restart Patron's movement. If Oe's previous novels have often concentrated on a father trying to decide what role his retarded son can play in the world, here Patron...
(The entire section is 382 words.)
SOURCE: Lovell, Julia. “The Country's Cults.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5239 (29 August 2003): 21.
[In the following review, Lovell complains that the narrative in Somersault is too formulaic and flat, asserting that Haruki Murakami's Underground offers a much more compelling portrayal of Japanese cults.]
Only three contemporary Japanese novelists—Banana Yoshimoto, Haruki Murakami and Kenzaburo Oe—seem to get much attention in English translation; each has a few signature themes. Yoshimoto specializes in stories of female drifters, dysfunctional families and comfort food. No Murakami novel would be complete without alienated protagonists, alternative realities and spaghetti. Kenzaburo Oe's preoccupations and motifs, though more serious, have been equally recurrent: the nuclear threat, handicapped young men with a talent for musical composition (based on his own son Hikari), the spiritual condition of modern Japanese. Somersault, published in Japan earlier this year and Oe's first new novel since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, brings together these elements once more, but with a new thematic focus: the rise of religious cults in late twentieth-century Japan.
Cults in Japan made the international news in March 1995, following the sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway carried out by members of the Aum Shinrikyo sect, in which twelve people...
(The entire section is 957 words.)
Cameron, Lindsley. “Fiction in Review.” Yale Review 85, no. 2 (April 1997): 150-60.
Cameron elucidates the autobiographical elements of Ōe's fiction and essays.
———. The Music of Light: The Extraordinary Story of Hikari and Kenzaburo Oe. New York, N.Y.: Free Press, 1998, 207 p.
Cameron presents a critical examination of Ōe's relationship with his son, Hikari, and how their relationship influences Ōe's fiction and nonfiction works.
Duplain, Julian. “The Sense of a Nation.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4806 (12 May 1995): 21.
Duplain explores the political and literary themes of Ōe's essay collection Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself and describes Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids as a “parable with one overwhelmingly obvious interpretation for post-war Japan.”
Harrison, Kathryn. “Kenzaburo Oe's World of Honor and Suffering.” Chicago Tribune Books (9 July 1995): 6.
Harrison contends that Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids introduces thematic concerns that resonate throughout Ōe's later works.
Jaffrey, Zia. “Postmodern Canary.” Nation 263, no. 9 (30 September 1996): 34-6.
Jaffrey offers a positive assessment of An Echo of Heaven, labelling the work a...
(The entire section is 414 words.)