Ōe, Kenzaburo (Vol. 86)
Kenzaburo Ōe Nobel Prize in Literature
Born in 1935, Ōe is a Japanese novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic.
For further information on Ōe's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 10 and 36.
One of the foremost figures in contemporary Japanese literature, Ōe is highly regarded for intensely imagined and formally innovative novels examining the sense of alienation and anxiety among members of the post-World War II generation in Japan. Ōe's fiction is both profoundly intellectual and emotionally raw. Utilizing ideas from Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy of existentialism, Ōe portrays the unique agonies and dilemmas of his characters with concrete precision 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.
Born in a small village on the western Japanese island of Shikoku, Ōe 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 was a living god. When Emperor Hirohito 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. Ōe described his emotions at this point in his life in his memoir Genshuku na tsunawatari (1974; 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 such existentialist philosophers 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. 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 was born with brain damage. While still concerned with the survival of heroic consciousness in an age of nuclear terror, Ōe subsequently incorporated the figure of his handicapped son into his fiction. According to the critic and translator John Nathan, Ōe began to write of heroes who "turn away from the lure of peril and adventure and seek instead, with the same urgency," a life of "certainty and consonance." A vocal antiestablishment, 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."
While still a university student, Ōe established his literary reputation with his first novella, Shiiku (1958; The Catch), which tells the story of a Japanese boy and a black American prisoner-of-war whose friendship is destroyed by the brutality of war. Ōe's first novel to gain international recognition, however, was Kojinteki na taiken (1964; A Personal Matter). The story of a twenty-seven-year-old man nicknamed "Bird" whose wife gives birth to a physically deformed and brain-damaged son, the novel ends on an apparently hopeful note with Bird's decision to keep his son alive. However, most critics emphasize that the style and overall thematic structure of A Personal Matter are more closely aligned with the pessimistic worldview of existentialism than with traditional narratives of tribulation and triumph. Ōe's concern with sickness and sexual perversion, as expressions of a deeper spiritual malaise, undercut the "happy" ending and signal Ōe's commitment to honestly portraying the darkest neuroses of contemporary humanity. Ōe's most universally acclaimed novel, Man'en gannen no futtoboru (1967; The Silent Cry), is a formally innovative and densely poetic portrayal of Takashi and Mitsusaburo, two brothers who clash over their differing interpretations of their tumultuous family history. Utilizing a method of temporal displacement and unity, Ōe constructs the narrative as the surreal juxtaposition of a political uprising in 1860 (the year Japan was forced to ratify a treaty opening up commerce with the United States) and the brothers' struggle a hundred years later. Violent to the point of psychosis, Takashi commits a brutal rape and murder, and betrays his elder brother in a secret land deal. To retaliate, Mitsusaburo conceals a crucial piece of knowledge about the Manengannen uprising, which has been Takashi's consuming obsession. Takashi's eventual suicide bears an ironic correspondence to the story Mitsusaburo has concealed, and the novel ends with his guilty resignation to a life of passivity and regret. 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. In subsequent works, Ōe continued to employ complex methods of narrative displacement and juxtaposition, notably in Dojidai gemu (1979).
Critical reaction to Ōe's works has been mostly adulatory. Despite the minor reservations of some critics with regard to its "happy" ending, A Personal Matter was internationally recognized as a masterpiece and a triumph of personal expression—a novel clearly autobiographical in content, but which transcends its literal narrative to symbolize the entire postwar spirit of malaise among Japanese intellectuals. The Silent Cry was lauded by the Nobel committee as "Ōe's major mature work," and its complex narrative framework has been compared with the "magic realism" of Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez. Many critics argue 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, and the fact that few of his works have been translated into English has limited the amount of criticism devoted to him outside of Japan. However, with the recognition attendant on his acceptance of the Nobel Prize, scholars foresee an influx of English translations and criticism in years to come.
∗Shiiku [The Catch] (novella) 1958
Memushiri kouchi (novel) 1958
Warera no jidai (novel) 1959
Sakebigoe (novel) 1962
Hiroshimo nōto [Hiroshima Notes] (essays) 1963
Kojinteki na taiken [A Personal Matter] (novel) 1964
Man'en gannen no futtoboru [The Silent Cry] (novel) 1967
Nichijo seikatsu no boken (novel) 1971
Kozui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi (novel) 1973
Genshuku na tsunawatari [Solemnly Walking the Tightrope] (essays) 1974
Seinen no omei (novel) 1974
Pinchiranaa chosho [The Pinchrunner Memorandum] (novel) 1976
†Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (novellas) 1977
Dojidai gemu (novel) 1979
The Crazy Iris, and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath [editor] (short stories) 1984
Natsukashii toshi e no tegami (novel) 1987
Yureugoku (novel) 1994
∗This novella was translated and published as The Catch in The Shadow of Sunrise, edited by Saeki Shoichi.
†This English-language collection contains the translated novellas The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away, Prize Stock, Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, and Aghwee the Sky Monster.
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Michiko N. Wilson (essay date Winter 1981)
SOURCE: "Ōe's Obsessive Metaphor, Mori, the Idiot Son: Toward the Imagination of Satire, Regeneration, and Grotesque Realism," in The Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1, Winter, 1981, pp. 23-52.
[Wilson is a critic and educator specializing in Japanese and comparative literature. In the following essay, she analyzes Ōe's variations on his most recurrent themes in five of his works and elucidates its relation to the genres of satire and "grotesque realism" as defined by structuralist theory.]
Ōe Kenzaburo (1935–) is regarded in Japan and the United States as a leading postwar novelist. Deeply involved in contemporary issues, he makes a clean break from the literary traditions that nurtured such writers as the Nobel Prize winner Kawabata Yasunari (1899–1972), Shiga Naoya (1883–1972), and Mishima Yukio (1925–1970).
What is most innovative about Ōe's works is that he cultivates the techniques of Cervantes and Rabelais and follows in their footsteps. From 1964 on, by employing farce, travesty, satire, and "grotesque realism," which has debasement and laughter at its core, Ōe has challenged and turned upside down the notion of what Japanese literature should be. [In a footnote, Wilson notes that the term "grotesque realism" was coined by the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin in his Rabelais and His...
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James Sterngold (essay date 14 October 1994)
SOURCE: "Kenzaburo Oe of Japan Wins Nobel in Literature," in The New York Times, October 14, 1994, pp. B1, B10.
[In the following article, Sterngold reports on the Swedish Academy's decision to award Ōe the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature.]
The Swedish Academy announced today [October 14, 1994] in Stockholm that Kenzaburo Oe, a Japanese writer known for his powerful accounts of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and his struggle to come to terms with a mentally handicapped son, had won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Mr. Oe, 59, is just the second Japanese writer to capture the award. Yasunari Kawabata won it in 1968. But while Mr. Kawabata generally explored traditional Japanese themes with a delicate writing style, Mr. Oe has written politically charged tales filled with anger and a sense of betrayal, like the postwar generation he has come to represent.
Mr. Oe (pronounced OH-ay) came of age during the American occupation, after Japan's shattering defeat in World War II. He was recognized as a leading writer in the late 1950's when he was still a university student. While some authors found nothing but despair in those bleak years, Mr. Oe's left-wing political essays, short stories and lyrically written novels revolve around what critics generally describe as a core of hope and courage mixed with...
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Kenzaburō Ōe with Sanroku Yoshida (interview date 7 June 1986)
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 his literary and cultural influences and the style and techniques of his fiction.]
[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?
[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...
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Reviews Of Recent Works
Emiko Sakurai (review date Spring 1978)
SOURCE: A review of Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, in World Literature Today, Vol. 52, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 345-46.
[In the following review of the English publication of Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, Sakurai hails Ōe as a major international talent.]
Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness [translated by John Nathan] is the third publication in English of the extraordinary works of Kenzaburo Ōé, the most talented writer to emerge in Japan after World War II. Like his previous publications (A Personal Matter, 1968, also translated by John Nathan, and The Silent Cry, 1975), this book 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, Ōé writes fiction that is more brutal and savage than exquisite or quaint. He was a twenty-two-year-old French major at Tokyo University when he won his first literary prize. Since then he has won virtually every literary award offered in Japan, including the coveted Akutagawa Prize in 1958 for Prize Stock, the earliest composition among the four short novels contained in the present book.
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"Reading Japan Through Its Writers: Abe Kobo and Oe Kenzaburo: The Problem of Selfhood in Contemporary Japan." Book Forum VII, No. 1 (1984): 30-1.
Comments on how contemporary Japanese culture is reflected in the works of Ōe and Abe Kōbō.
Enright, D. J. "Days of Marvelous Lays." New York Review of Books XI, No. 6 (10 October 1968): 35-7.
Negative review of A Personal Matter which considers the novel's ending to be contrived.
Gamerman, Amy. "Kenzaburo Oe Wins Nobel in Literature." The Wall Street Journal (14 October 1994): A9.
Reports on Ōe's selection as the Nobel Prize winner and offers a concise overview of his life and career.
Napier, Susan J. "Death and the Emperor: Mishima, Oe, and the Politics of Betrayal." Journal of Asian Studies 48, No. 1 (February 1989): 71-89.
Analyzes the "role of the Emperor" in the works of Ōe and Yukio Mishima. While Ōe is severely critical of the Emperor system, Mishima, who came of age during the 1930s, supported the Emperor for patriotic reasons.
――――――――. Escape from the Wasteland: Romanticism and Realism in the Fiction of Mishima Yukio...
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