Abe, Kobo (Short Story Criticism)
Kobo Abe 1924–-1993
(Also transliterated as Kôbô Abe and Kōbō Abē) Japanese short story writer, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and playwright.
The following entry provides information on Abe's short fiction career from 1983 through 2000.
Abe is viewed as one of the most significant writers to emerge from post-World War II Japan. His work as a short story writer, novelist, screenwriter, and playwright has been praised for its exploration of such existentialist themes as identity and alienation, and Abe is often referred to as the “Japanese Kafka.” His fiction has been perceived as a break with traditional Japanese literature and has been commended for its incorporation of universal concerns. Because Abe's work garnered attention internationally and was often translated into different languages, critics note that he helped to attract world attention to issues in postwar Japanese life.
Abe was born on March 7, 1924, in Tokyo, Japan. He grew up in the ancient Manchurian city of Mukden, which was taken over by the Japanese in 1931. His disgust at the behavior of the occupying Japanese forces inspired a strong anti-nationalist feeling as well as an alienation from his own country, two themes that recur in his fiction. He attended Tokyo University and was granted an M.D. degree in 1948. That same year, his novella Owarishi michi no shirube ni, loosely translated as The Road Sign at the End of the Street, was published. Over the next several years he became a well-known avant-garde novelist and playwright in Japan. His acclaimed novel Suna no onna (1962; The Woman in the Dunes) was adapted into a celebrated film in 1965. In 1973 he became director and producer of the Kobo Theatre Workshop in Tokyo. He won several awards for his dramas, novels, and films, including the Kishida prize for drama in 1958 and the Yomiuri literature prize in 1962. He died of heart failure on January 22, 1993, in Tokyo.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Abe's short fiction is characterized by its urban settings and the incorporation of such thematic concerns as alienation, self-identity, and the role of the individual in society. In one of his earliest stories, “The Red Cocoon,” a man wanders through an urban area, unable to remember where he lives—if anywhere at all. After being chased from a park bench by a policeman, the man reflects on his deep sense of isolation and disaffection. The story is told as an inner monologue, a technique often used in Franz Kafka's fiction. “Dendrocacalia” chronicles the metamorphosis of a man named Common into a plant. Although Common valiantly fights this transformation, he ultimately fails. In “Irrelevant Death,” a man discovers a dead body on the floor of his apartment. Instead of informing the police, he attempts to dispose of the body on his own and pin the blame for the stranger's murder on someone else. In “The Crime of S. Karma,” an excerpt from the novella of the same name, a man wakes one morning with a hollow chest and no memory of his name. He comes to find that his name has abandoned him and stolen his job as well as his identity. The story follows his attempts to regain his name and identity.
Critical reaction to Abe's works has been mixed. In Japan, many commentators have derided Abe's attempt to distance himself from Japanese literary conventions and view him as more of an international writer than a Japanese one. This assertion was seconded by Abe himself, who contended that he did not possess strong ties to his homeland. Western reviewers have often underlined the universal appeal of Abe's short fiction. They commend his use of urban settings and characters to explore themes of rootlessness, alienation, the loss of identity, and the search for meaning in life. Critics have pointed to Abe's work as an important transition in Japanese literature, from more traditional forms that existed before World War II to a more modern form that emerged after the war. His influence on contemporary Japanese authors, such as Murakami Haruki, has also been investigated. Abe's work is often compared to such Western writers as Kafka, Alain Robbe-Grille, Samuel Beckett, and Paul Auster. In particular, Kafka's impact on Abe's work has been a consistent topic of critical discussion.
Owarishi michi no shirube ni 1948
Kabe-S. Karuma shi no hansai 1951
Suichu toshi 1964
Yume no tobo 1968
Abe Kobo zensakuhin 1972-73
Warau Tsuki 1975
Beyond the Curve 1991
Kiga domei (novel) 1954
Seifuku (play) 1955
Kemonotachi wa kokyo o mezasu (novel) 1957
Daiyon kampyoki [Inter Ice Age Four] (novel) 1959
Yurei wa koko ni iru [Here Is a Ghost] (play) 1959
Ishi no me (novel) 1960
Suna no onna [The Woman in the Dunes] (novel) 1962
Tanin no kao [The Face of Another] (novel) 1964
Enomoto Buyo (novel) 1965
Omaenimo tsumi ga aru [You Too are Guilty] (novel) 1965
Moetsukita chizu [The Ruined Map] (novel) 1967
Tomodachi, enemoto takeaki [Friends] (play) 1967
Abe Kobe gikyoku zenshu (plays) 1970
Mihitsu no koi [Involuntary Homocide] (play) 1971
Uchinaro henkyo (essays) 1971
Ai no megane wa irogarasu [The Eyeglass of Love Is Colored Glass] (play) 1973...
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SOURCE: Goebel, Rolf J. “Kōbō Abe: Japan's Kafka.” Newsletter of the Kafka Society of America, no. 1 (June 1983): 30-40.
[In the following essay, Goebel determines the influence of Franz Kafka on Abe's fiction.]
Kafka's influence upon Western authors has enjoyed thorough, if by no means exhaustive, critical investigation. His reception in East Asian countries, however, has so far been unduly neglected. Yet, if we wish to understand the complexities of Kafka's world-wide impact on modern literature, we have to examine also those Oriental writers who, in one way or another, perceive of Kafka as a literary precursor. Among these authors is Kōbō Abe, one of the leading figures of contemporary Japanese literature.
The significance of Kafka for the literary scene in Japan has its roots in the development of Japanese culture after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Overthrowing the feudalistic order of the Tokugawa Shogunate, this event returned the political power to the Imperial throne. Under the enlightened, progressive leadership of the Emperor Meiji, Japan entered the process of its rapid Westernization and modernization. Ever since, Japanese authors have turned to Western literature, most notably the psychological novel, in their search for innovative poetological models. Here they have tried to find literary techniques suitable for expressing the conflicts between their subjective...
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SOURCE: Woodhouse, Mark. Review of Beyond the Curve, by Kobo Abe. Library Journal 116 (1 April 1991): 148.
[In the following essay, Woodhouse offers a favorable assessment of Beyond the Curve.]
This collection of stories [Beyond the Curve] is a significant offering from the well-established author best known for The Woman in the Dunes (1964). The usual comparisons to Kafka are unavoidable. In one story, a man finds himself turning into a plant, and the themes of alienation and disorientation in the face of urban life and oppressive political and social systems are pervasive and relentless. More subtle systems of thought are sometimes hinted at rather than explicated, however, and the disorientation so skillfully induced in the reader is sometimes left unresolved. This might not be to everyone's taste, but for those interested in Abe's work or in the future of serious Japanese fiction, this is an entertaining and fascinating volume. Some stories have the feel of sketches that might be further developed in Abe's longer fiction, and the influence on a new generation of writers, such as Haruki Murakami, can be readily seen. Recommended.
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SOURCE: Mitsutani, Margaret. “Abe Kōbō's Early Short Fiction.” Japan Quarterly 38, no. 3 (July-September 1991): 347-49.
[In the following essay, Mitsutani applauds the broad range of Abe's stories in Beyond the Curve, maintaining that it gives readers “the opportunity for a fresh perspective on one of the most familiar of modern Japanese writers.”]
The name of Abe Kōbō has been familiar to English readers for over 25 years now, ever since E. Dale Saunders's translation of Woman in the Dunes (1962; tr. 1964)—probably still Abe's best-known novel in the English-speaking world—appeared in 1964, the same year in which Teshigahara Hiroshi's haunting monochrome film based on it received international acclaim. With a total of eight full-length novels, two plays, and a smattering of short fiction tucked away in anthologies and magazines currently available in English translation, Abe has achieved a firm position in the Western canon of modern Japanese literature as a writer who has made a radical departure from both the aesthetic worlds of Mishima Yukio (1925-1970), Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972), and Tanizaki Jun'ichirō (1886-1965) and the watakushi-shōsetsu (I-novel) tradition represented by Shiga Naoya (1883-1971).
Beyond the Curve is a valuable addition to the Abe canon in English not only because it is the first collection of his short fiction...
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SOURCE: “Sand and Tendrils.” The Economist 320, no. 7718 (3 August 1991): 82.
[In the following essay, the reviewer provides a positive assessment of Beyond the Curve.]
“This is the story of how Common became a dendrocacalia.” So runs the opening line of a short story in which Kobo Abe, perhaps Japan's most renowned novelist, turns a man who is tired of city life into a plant. It can now be read in English in a collection of Mr Abe's short stories, Beyond the Curve, published by Kodansha International. The collection shows Mr Abe at his best, full of wry humour and images of self-defeat, and obsessed with the idea that alienation is the natural condition of contemporary man.
“Dendrocacalia” was written in 1949, when Mr Abe was 25. In these early stories and in many of the novels that were to follow, human relations are a minefield of treachery, humiliation, and love avoided. Man is better off alone, or turned into something else: even a company car, as happens in another tale. An admirer of Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mr Abe believes himself to have similar universal appeal; and he too makes use of the devices of science fiction, detective novels and dream sequences, as well as inventing rules of his own as he goes along.
In “Dendrocacalia” Common tries hard to resist his transformation. Cleverer than many of Mr Abe's...
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SOURCE: Loose, Julian. “Fact and Fuikkushion.” Times Literary Supplement (27 September 1991): 13-14.
[In the following mixed review of Beyond the Curve, Loose contends that although Abe “was first recognized for his short stories, this collection suggests that Abe's genius, which is for the detailed and eerily logical elaboration of an absurd or unthinkable situation, requires the larger scope of a novel or play.”]
Although Kobo Abe belonged to the same generation as Mishima, his rejection of the prevailing naturalism and lack of interest in earlier Japanese culture are often seen as marking a distinct literary shift. Yet Abe shares with Mishima an intense disquiet at finding himself “a citizen of a nation of self-satisfied people.” “Something or other was definitely odd”: any of Abe's allegories could begin in this way, signalling his extensive indebtedness to Kafka. As the new collection, Beyond the Curve, shows, Abe's originality lies in the peculiarly Japanese metaphors he finds to embody worries over the oppressive demands of work, the binds of family responsibility, a sense of only provisional identity. A salaryman is impersonated by his own calling card; “K-” finds himself metamorphizing into a potted plant; the amnesiac in the title story not only forgets what lies beyond the curve of the road, but somehow mislays himself altogether. Abe's heroes often...
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SOURCE: Lewis, Scott M. “Beyond the Curve: Kobo Abe Short Stories.” Magill Book Reviews (1 October 1991): n. p.
[In the following review of Beyond the Curve, Lewis addresses the theme of identity in Abe's short stories.]
Beyond the Curve is the first collection of Abe's stories to appear in English. These twelve stories, written between 1949 and 1966, concern the fragile identity of protagonists who are confused strangers lost in the postwar landscape. Almost all of the stories are narrated in the first person, drawing the reader into the neurotic thoughts of protagonists trapped in claustrophobic situations. In “The Irrelevant Death,” a man returns to his apartment after work to find a murdered stranger lying on the floor. He decides that he cannot report the murder to the police because they will not believe that he is unconnected to the crime. So the nameless man slides into a Kafkaesque world of guilt and indecision as he creates more and more elaborate schemes to dispose of the body and transfer the responsibility for it to someone else.
In the title story, a nameless narrator on a mountain road forgets his identity and what lies beyond the next curve of the road. Afraid that going on will leave him in a wholly foreign world, he decides to go back the way he came. As the man gathers fragments of his life, he ends up in a situation at once intriguing...
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SOURCE: Lamont-Brown, Raymond. “Kobo Abe: Japan's Novelist of Alienation.” Contemporary Review 263, no. 1530 (July 1993): 31-3.
[In the following essay, Lamont-Brown traces Abe's literary development.]
Kobo Abe was born in Tokyo on March 7, 1924. He was taken by his family to Mukden when he was barely a year old and thus spent his early years in the Japanese puppet-state of Manchukuo. Abe's ancestral origins were in Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido, and his father, a doctor of medicine, taught at the medical school at Mukden. In Japan it is important to have identifiable roots in a furusato (hometown) setting. Abe never felt that he had this declaring, ‘I am a man without a hometown.’ It was to be an emotion that coloured his writing from the start.
A voracious reader, Abe was to be influenced by such as Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and Poe, and it was with extracts from the latter that he used to regale his school friends during lunch breaks. When he had exhausted Poe, Abe entertained with stories of his own device.
His early teenage years were lived within a traditional Japanese household, but against a background of hostile Chinese administration under the figurehead of the puppet emperor Henry Pu Yi. As a diversion from the alien culture around him Abe began painting abstract pictures and studied entomology.
By 1940 Abe had...
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Seaman, Donna. Review of Beyond the Curve, by Kobo Abe. Booklist 87 (15 March 1991): 1451.
Favorable review of Beyond the Curve.
Ury, Marian. “Invasion of the Apartment Snatchers.” New York Times Book Review (17 March 1991): 13-14.
Identifies human isolation, the fragility of identity, and the role of memory as major thematic concerns in the stories comprising Beyond the Curve.
Additional coverage of Abe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65–68, 140; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 24, 60; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 8, 22, 53, 81; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 182; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; Drama for Students, Vol. 14; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern Japanese Writers; Reference Guide to World Literature, Ed. 3; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 131.
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