Ōe, Kenzaburō (Short Story Criticism)
Ōe, Kenzaburō 1935-
Japanese novelist, short story and novella writer, essayist, and critic.
One of the foremost figures in contemporary Japanese literature, Ōe is highly regarded for his innovative and intensely imagined fiction examining the sense of alienation and anxiety among members of the post-World War II generation in Japan. His writings are both profoundly intellectual and emotionally raw. Utilizing ideas from the philosophy of existentialism, Ōe portrays the agonies and dilemmas of his characters with concrete precision in ways that point to the universal significance of their suffering.
Born in a small village on the western Japanese island of Shikoku, Ōe was raised in a prominent Samurai family. Like most Japanese children of his generation, he was taught to believe that the Emperor was a living god. When the Emperor personally announced in a radio broadcast Japan's surrender to the Allied military forces, Ōe and his schoolmates experienced a sense of devastation and disorientation which forever changed their perception of the world. He described his emotions of this period in his memoir Genshuku na tsunawatari (Solemnly Walking the Tightrope): "the strange and disappointing fact was that the Emperor spoke in a human voice like any ordinary man." 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 occupation forces. While a student at Tokyo University, Ōe read widely in both traditional Japanese and modern Western literature. He was particularly influenced by existentialist philosophers such as Jean-Paul 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. Shaped by his ambitious reading habits, Ōe became an unusually erudite and serious young author, and his early stories were awarded a number of prestigious literary prizes. A vocal anti-establishment, pro-democracy activist throughout his career as a writer, 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 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature—because he considered it a symbolic relic of the Imperial system and "would not recognize any authority, any value, higher than democracy."
Major Works of Short Fiction
In many of his other short works Ōe depicts individuals who are alienated or isolated from a society that demands conformity and repression of desires—thus offering little opportunity for happiness. Detailing the life of a teenage boy who becomes a right-wing terrorist, "Sebunchin" ("Seventeen") explores modern youth's conflict with society, especially as manifested through violence as well as escapism in the form of masturbation and sexual promiscuity. Basing on the 1960 assassination of the chairman of Japan's Socialist party by a right-wing youth, this tale presents both political conservatives and liberals in an unflattering light. Other stories describe the damaging effects of nationalism and Japan's emperor system. In a subplot of "Mizu kara waga namida o nuquitamoo hi" ("The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away"), the incompetence and ineffectuality of the emperor drives a loyal subject to spur his leader into action by means of a surprise bombing of the palace. "Shiiku" ("The Catch") relates the story of a Japanese boy and a black American prisoner of war whose friendship is destroyed by the senselessness of war and hatred of a foreigner. Ōe also incorporates the theme of mental retardation—based on his own experiences with his impaired son—in some of his writings. For example, "Sora no kaibutsu aguwee" ("Aghwee the Sky Monster") tells of a father who helps arrange the euthanasia of his handicapped child before discovering that surgery would probably have improved the child' s quality of life. Another tale, "Warera no kyōki o ikiru michi o oshieyo" ("Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness"), depicts a father who becomes so close to his mentally retarded son that he is convinced he directly experiences any physical pain his son feels.
Ōe began to attract the attention of critics while still a university student and has garnered awards for his novels and short fiction throughout his career. Nevertheless, he has offended some Japanese readers with his controversial writing style and his questioning of cultural mores and the political system of their country. In the preface to Ōe's Kojinteki na taiken (A Personal Matter), John Nathan points out that "Ōe consciously interferes with the tendency to vagueness which is considered inherent in the Japanese language. He violates its natural rhythms; he pushes the meaning of words to their furthest acceptable limits. .. . But that is to be expected: his entire stance is an assault on traditional values. The protagonist of his fiction is seeking his identity in a perilous wilderness, and it is fitting that his language should be just what it is—wild, unresolved, but never less than vital."
*"Shiiku" ["Prize Stock"; also translated as "The Catch"] 1958
"Sebunchin" ["Seventeen"] (novella) 1961
"Chichi yo anata wa doko e ikuno ka?" ["Father, Where Are You Going?"] 1968
†Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness 1977
Atarashii hito yo mezameyo [O Rouse Up, Young Men of the New Age] 1983
"J" and "Seventeen" (novellas) 1995
*Originally translated as "The Catch" in Saeki Shoichi's antnology The Shadow of Sunrise, 1966.
†Contains translations of stories that were initially published over several years: "Prize Stock"; "Aghwee the Sky Monster" ("Sora no kaibutsu aguwee," 1964); "Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness" ("Warera no kyōki o ikiru michi o oshieyo," 1969); and "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away" ("Mizu kara waga namida o nuquitamoo hi," 1971).
Other Major Works
Memushiri kouchi [Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids] (novel) 1958
Warera no jidai [Our Age] (novel) 1959
Okurete kita seinen [The Youth Who Came Late] (novel) 1961
SakebigŌe [Outcries] (novel) 1962
Kojinteki na taiken [A Personal Matter] (novel) 1964
Hiroshima nōto [Hiroshima...
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SOURCE: "Circles of Shame: 'Sheep' by Ōe Kenzaburō," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 4, Fall, 1974, pp. 409-15.
[In the following essay, Richter examines the role of shame in the short story "Sheep. "]
On the surface it is paradoxical that Ōe Kenzaburō (b. 1935), a spokesman for the Japanese New Left, admirer of Mao, and student of Sartrean Existentialism, should give thematic treatment to anything quite so traditional as the notion of "shame," a complex emotional response to a variety of situations in Japanese society. Although very much the modern writer and liberated from many of the complexes that burdened older literary figures such as Tanizaki Jun'ichirō and Mishima Yukio, Ōe, in the short story "Sheep," directly confronts the experience of shame with power, subtlety, and insight. Whereas other major Japanese writers generally deal with shame as incidental to their primary thematic concerns, only as part of the psychological makeup of their characters, Ōe pushes his creations headlong into shameful situations where reader and characters are afforded a deeper insight into the na ture of shame, and at times a full-fledged revelation oc curs in which the self is strengthened and achieves a new identity through the ordeal. The originality of Ōe's achievement in his young career lies in the fusion of shame in its traditional setting, calling for a traditional interpretation, with an...
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SOURCE: "Abe Kōbō and Ōe Kenzaburö: The Search for Identity in Contemporary Japanese Literature," in Modern Japan: Aspects of History, Literature and Society, edited by W. G. Beasley, University of California Press, 1975, pp. 166-84.
[Yamanouchi is a Japanese educator and author. Here, the critic details various literary methods employed in the works of Abe Köbö and Ōe and explores thematic parallels between the two authors, including alienation, isolation, and the search for identity.]
The literary scene in Japan during the last five years or so has been eventful. The award to Kawabata Yasunari (1898-1972) of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 brought Japanese literature into the international arena for the first time. Tanizaki Junichiro (1886-1965), who had been reputed to be a candidate for the Prize for many years, did not survive to witness the event. Kawabata himself ended his life by a rather anti-climactic suicide in 1972. This had been preceded eighteen months earlier by Mishima Yukio's (1925-70) more dramatic and ostentatious ritual suicide (seppuku). With the death of Shiga Naoya (1883-1972) we have scarcely any writer of importance left who began his career in the Taish period (1912-26). Of the writers who started working before the Second World War, Ibuse Masuji (1897-) and Ishikawa Jun (1899-) deserve special mention, but the major roles in the contemporary literary scene...
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SOURCE: An interview in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 369-74.
[In the following interview, which was conducted in 1986, Ōe discusses such topics as the literary and cultural forces that have influenced him and the style and techniques of his fiction.]
[Sanroku Yoshida]: I met with Yōtarō Konaka yesterday. He said that recently Japanese society has created a peculiar mood in which it is rather difficult to discuss matters antinuclear, and that one may be considered childish or immature if one is antinuclear. The major theme of your Flood unto My Soul (1973), The Pinchrunner (1976), and other works is the deracination of mankind by nuclear holocaust. As the author of these novels, do you agree with such an assessment of the social climate?
[Kenzaburō Ōe]: I published a book called Hiroshima Notes (1965; Eng. 1981) twenty-three years ago. So it has been about a quarter of a century since I started to think about "Hiroshima." During that time, I have participated in the activities of a group called the Japan Confederation of A-Bomb and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations; I have written and spoken in public in support of such movements as "Abolishment of Nuclear Weapons" and "Relief for Victims"; I have organized committees and councils for these movements as well; yet I do not think things are particularly difficult today. Twenty-four...
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SOURCE: "The Device of Repetition: In Quest of Dialogic Narrative," in The Marginal World of Ōe Kenzaburo: A Study in Themes and Techniques, M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1986, pp. 61-82.
[In the excerpt below, Wilson studies the narrative structure—especially the function of repetition—in "Father, Where Are You Going?," "Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, " and "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away. "]
"Father, Where Are You Going?" ("Chichi yo, anata wa doko e ikuno ka?," 1968, hereafter "Father"), "Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness" ("Warera no kyōki o ikinobiru michi o oshieyo," 1969, hereafter "Teach Us"), and "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away" ("Mizu kara waga namida o nuguitamō hi," 1971, hereafter "My Tears") show an obsessive repetition of characters, events, images, and dialogues, sometimes repeated word for word, paragraph for paragraph. It is as though Ōe had rewritten the same draft again and again, and had found in all the versions independently satisfying stories. Repetition becomes the fabric of the stories, shapes their structure, and provides an impetus to their narrative movement.
"Father, Where Are You Going?" a line taken from Blake's pŌem "The Little Boy Lost," opens with the confession of the narrator (whose name we are not told): "I write, [[. . . while my father spent his days in self-confinement,]] and have again realized that I have...
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SOURCE: "Death and the Emperor: Mishima, Ōe, and the Politics of Betrayal," in The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 48, No. 1, February, 1989, pp. 71-89.
[In the essay below, Napier analyzes the contrasting roles that the Japanese Emperor plays in the works of Ōe and Yukio Mishima. While Ōe is severely critical of the imperial system, Mishima, who came of age during the 1930s, supports the Emperor for patriotic reasons.]
In Japan in the late 1980s, a society that is arguably one of the most modern, pragmatic, and materialist in the world, the problem of the emperor system initially seems almost irrelevant. And yet the imperial house continues to excite controversy and concern, as is clear in the full-scale media coverage given to an imperial visit or an imperial illness, and this controversy is on a far deeper and more divisive level than would be the case for such ostensible equivalents as the British royal family. The reasons behind this excitement are both obvious and problematic: the emperor is of course tied to the war and the whole complex of emotions that middle-aged Japanese feel toward it, but on a broader level the imperial house is also tied to modern Japanese history as a whole and thus to the conception that Japanese have of themselves in the postwar period.
In this [essay] I discuss the role of the emperor in relation to the work and life of two of Japan's major...
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SOURCE: "Günter Grass's The Tin Drum and Ōe Kenzaburô's My Tears: A Study in Convergence," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 34, No. 4, Winter, 1993, pp. 740-66.
[In this essay, Nemoto compares Ōe's "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away" to Günter Grass's The Tin Drum, arguing that the two works use similar techniques to critique the actions of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany in World War II.]
The German novelist Günter Grass (b. 1927) and the Japanese novelist Ōe Kenzaburö (b. 1935) are equally well known for their political activism and their writing. They met each other in Japan in 1978, for an interview conducted through the interpreter Iwabuchi Tatsuji, and they met again in Germany in 1990, for an interview conducted through the interpreter Mishima Ken'ichi. Prior to these personal encounters, however, in Grass's The Tin Drum and Ōe's "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away" (hereafter "My Tears"), they had arrived at an array of remarkably similar narrative techniques to express, in both cases, a profound distrust of the authoritarian tendencies visible in their societies. To serve this purpose, many of the same elements—a three-year-old child, a hospital setting, the writing of memoirs, references to music in association with weeping—occur in both novels. The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) was published in 1959, "My Tears" ("Mizukara Waga...
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Wilson, Michiko N. "Selected Bibliography." In his The Marginal World of Ōe Kenzaburö: A Study in Themes and Techniques, pp. 145-49. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1986.
List works by Ōe, including stories, and sources of critical commentary.
Sakurai, Emiko. "Kenzaburö: The Early Years." World Literature Today 58, No. 3 (Summer 1984): 370-73.
Surveys Ōe's life and career through 1960.
Gold, Ivan. "A Ray from the Rising Sun." Book World—The Washington Post (11 September 1977): E4.
Reviews Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness and declares Ōe a "supremely gifted writer."
Montgomery, Scott L. "Abe Kôbô and Ōe Kenzaburö: The Problem of Selfhood in Contemporary Japan." Book Forum VII, No. 1 (1984): 30-1.
Compares the achievements of Japanese author Abe Kôbô and Ōe, commenting that "the styles and subjects of their work have moved Japanese literature into the international arena, have transcended the mannerism of their predecessors and examined with acumen and empathy the cultural landscape before their eyes."
Sakurai, Emiko. A review of Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness. World Literature Today 52, No. 2 (Spring 1978): 345-46.
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