Ōe, Kenzaburō 1935–
Ōe, one of Japan's most popular novelists, is a leading member of his country's "new left." His wide knowledge of Western literature is evidenced in his fiction, which shows Occidental influences in both its philosophy and style. Ōe is also an editor, short story writer, and critic.
Ōe has been accused, with some justice, of writing Japanese that reads like a translation from a Western language. His long and complex sentences have neither elegant simplicity nor effortless flow, but are knotty challenges for the mind to unravel. Crammed with adjectives and similes, they consciously—occasionally almost self-consciously—prod the reader along, constantly forcing him to make unexpected associations, or emphasizing the author's analytical self-awareness.
In a sense, perhaps, the Japanese language is being made to do something for which it was never intended; one can well imagine some Japanese readers finding the style overladen or self-assertive. But though it is obviously to the literatures of the Western languages—their syntax, vocabulary, analytical approach—rather than to the Sino-Japanese heritage that Ōe looks to enrich the expressiveness of modern Japanese, what is still more important is that the ideas and, even more, the imagery are consistently and unmistakably his own. The density is an essential part of Ōe's artistic fiber, the sense of strain intrinsic to his themes.
A similar density is to be found in the structure of his works. In A Game of Football, each chapter is organized solidly and intricately; the narrative moves to and fro in time and space, tied by a close web of inter-relationships to what has preceded and what is to come. Great use is made of leitmotifs—repeated references to incidents, constantly recurring imagery, repetitions of actual phrases—that gradually lead the reader, almost against his will, into the world of the author's sensibility.
On their first appearance, the references are sometimes unexplained, their part in the whole structure only becoming apparent as one reads...
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When Bird [protagonist of A Personal Matter] makes his final choice [to reject an adventurous life in favor of tedious domesticity], he is fulfilling, not [an] imported nineteenth-century romanticism, but an attitude native to Japan for almost as many centuries as [Westerners] have taken the attitude that action is intrinsically good, that rebellion is under a number of circumstances virtuous, particularly if it allegedly gives greater individual freedom, that fighting to the death against insurmountable odds carries with it its own honor. Bird and Ōe reject these convictions. Japan has a long tradition of accepting the inevitable which, in the West, is called resignation, which like "derivative," is an earnestly prejudicial term. For the Japanese, to assume the responsibilities imposed upon one by one's superiors, by filial piety and the like, is an act of virtue. To maintain existent orders is preferable to change, and certainly the subjugation of the individual to a wide structure of relationships and responsibilities is considered right and honorable. Meeting demands and fulfilling obligations are required. Bird, therefore, is commendable in his actions from a Japanese perspective. By doing all the wrong things from a western point of view, he succeeds from a Japanese point of view by making the hard decision to stay within his social structure. The decision is for him the hard way and not, as with us, the easy.
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On the surface it is paradoxical that Ōe Kenzaburō …, 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 nature of shame, and at times a full-fledged revelation occurs 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 understanding of shame informed and shaped by Sartrean Existentialism, with its implications for the self in the world. (p. 409)
The soldiers … use the young man and his fellow victims as a means to an end: that of venting their anger and as an object of amusement. This is a constituent in the structure of shame, to become an instrument of possibilities that are not our possibilities. But what is crucial in the case of the soldiers is that the incident begins and ends spontaneously. While the humiliated victims existed as objects for them,… the motivation for their behavior does not extend beyond the simple emotions of...
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Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is the best of [Ōe's] novels. Among those who will highly value it are parents, especially parents of retarded or autistic children. For doctors and other health-care personnel, it is prescribed as part of continuing education. The I-Thou experience, and beyond it the feeling for what Philip Berrigan calls Equal Jeopardy … are here exquisitely clear. As the courtroom scene in Wilder's Heaven's My Destination is a classic short comedy, the ophthalmological consultation in Teach Us is a drama of classic power.
The existential problem of stigma is met by Ōe as it is met by John Gardner, Bellow, Maxine Kingston: met, recognized, and then transcended. A man is fat to the point of disgust, blind, hypochondriacal. A child is moronic or autistic or blind or all three. The man is beautiful. The child is beautiful….
Ōe is a sophisticated and unerring writer, a great thinker and lover, not to be missed. (p. 198)
Cornelia Holbert, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1977 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), October, 1977.
Kenzaburō Ōe [is] the most talented writer to emerge in Japan after World War II. Like his previous publications (A Personal Matter, 1968,… and The Silent Cry, 1975), [Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness] is certain to surprise some Western readers who have come to expect delicate prose and exquisite imagery from a Japanese novelist. Having learned his craft from postwar American authors such as Norman Mailer and French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, rather than from The Tale of Genji, Ōe writes fiction that is more brutal and savage than exquisite or quaint….
"Prize Stock" [one of four novellas that compose the collection] is a tightly knit tale of a black American flier's captivity in a mountain village during the War. Ōe referred to it as a "pastoral." But what a pastoral! Ōe superimposes a mythic, primeval society on the village and reveals the nature of man and conditions of human existence through a densely woven pattern of animal images…. It is a powerful story that exploits all the elements of fiction. (p. 345)
The four novellas vary in technique and style as well as subject matter but are alike in the theme of alienation …, in their absurdist, ironic, black-comic view of life and the use of anti-heroes. Artistic excellence characterizes all four…. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is a book that should be read by everyone interested in contemporary fiction, for Ōe is as important a writer as Mailer or Updike. (pp. 345-46)
Emiko Sakurai, in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 2, Spring, 1978.