Abé, Kōbō (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
Kōbō Abé 1924-1993
(Born Kimifusa Abé; also transliterated as Kobo Abe and Abe Kobo) Japanese novelist, short story writer, playwright, theater director, essayist, screenwriter, and photographer.
The following entry provides criticism on Abé's works from 1989 through 1997. For criticism prior to 1989, see CLC, Volumes 8, 22, and 53; for an obituary entry on Abe, see CLC, Volume 81.
Abé was the foremost Modernist writer in Japan and an international literary figure who was frequently considered a candidate for the Nobel Prize. Sometimes referred to as the “Japanese Kafka,” Abé wrote many tales depicting ordinary people in absurd, nightmarish situations. His work helped to attract attention to postwar Japanese life and literature.
Abé was born on March 7, 1924, in Tokyo. His father was a physician who moved his family to Manchuria when Abé was an infant. In 1942 Abé returned to Tokyo at the age of eighteen to enter Tokyo University and study medicine. During these years, he became influenced by the nihilistic movement that gained popularity among Japanese students and intellectuals near the end of World War II. After the end of the war, he began to experiment with poetry and fiction. In 1948 he graduated from Tokyo University with his M.D. degree, but he soon abandoned his medical career to pursue his interest in writing fiction, drama, and poetry. Abé joined several important literary groups and by 1950 had become an enthusiastic participant in the avant-garde movement. He gained recognition as a fiction writer, director, screenwriter, and playwright. In 1973 Abé founded his own theater group, the Abé Kōbō Studio, which produced many of his best-known plays. During the 1970s and 1980s he also wrote several television and radio dramas in Japan. He died of heart failure on January 22, 1993.
Abé is best known in the West for Suna no onna (1962; The Woman in the Dunes), an allegorical, metaphysical novel about an entomologist who becomes trapped in a sandpit by a sensuous widow. Initially, the man tries to escape, but eventually he becomes attracted to the widow and accepts his situation. The novel is often categorized as a Kafkaesque morality tale. The award-winning film based on this novel, The Woman in the Dunes, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara and scripted by Abé, brought him international acclaim. His novel Tanin no kao (1964; The Face of Another) was also adapted into a popular film in 1967. Using motifs from detective novels, Abé chronicles the story of a disfigured man who wears a mask to hide his true identity. With his new face, the protagonist changes and behaves in uncharacteristic ways, including a successful attempt to seduce his own wife. Abé's novel Hakobune sakura maru (1984; The Ark Sakura) is a farcical version of the biblical story of Noah and the Flood. Mole, the protagonist, is an eccentric recluse who converts a huge cave into an “ark” equipped with water, food, and elaborate weapons to protect himself from an impending nuclear holocaust. Abé's works in other genres include the plays Tomodachi, enemoto takeaki (1967; Friends), which examines the cruel and predatory nature of members of a family who intrude upon the life of a bachelor, and Bo ni natta otoko (1969; The Man Who Turned into a Stick). Abé utilizes irony and ambiguity in order to explore issues of identity and alienation, which are recurring thematic concerns in his work.
Critics note that much of Abé's fiction explores the loneliness of modern existence and the tenuous nature of identity, posing questions and describing events designed to undermine the reader's complacency and stimulate reflective thought. Reviewers have asserted that unlike his contemporary Yukio Mishima, whose uniquely modern fiction incorporated numerous elements from traditional Japanese culture, Abé avoided culturally specific details in an effort to address a worldwide audience and underline the universality of his themes. Several commentators have speculated that this widespread appeal led to international interest his work but to negative critical reaction in his homeland. His work is often compared to that of Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Paul Auster.
Owarishi michi no shirube ni (novel) 1948
S. Karuma-shi no hanzai (novel) 1951
Daiyon kampyoki [Inter Ice Age Four] (novel) 1959
Yurei wa koko ni iru [The Ghost Is Here] (play) 1959
Suna no onna [The Woman in the Dunes] (novel) 1962
Tanin no kao [The Face of Another] (novel) 1964
Moetsukita chizu [The Ruined Map] (novel) 1967
Tomodachi, enemoto takeaki [Friends] (play) 1967
Bo ni natta otoko [The Man Who Turned into a Stick] (play) 1969
Abé Kōbō gikyoku zenshu (collected plays) 1970
Mihitsu no koi [Involuntary Homicide] (play) 1971
Uchinaro henkyo (essays) 1971
Abé Kōbō zensakuhin 15 vols. (plays, essays, novels, poetry, and short stories) 1972-1973
Hako otoko [The Box Man] (novel) 1973
Han gekiteki ningen (lectures) 1973
Midori-iro no sutokkingu [The Green Stockings] (play) 1974
Mikkai [Secret Rendezvous] (novel) 1977
Hakobune sakura maru [The Ark Sakura] (novel) 1984
Beyond the Curve (short stories) 1991...
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SOURCE: Garis, Robert. Review of The Ark Sakura, by Kōbō Abé. Hudson Review 41, no. 4 (winter 1989): 757-59.
[In the following unfavorable review, Garis derides The Ark Sakura as lacking in coherence and meaning.]
International high style at its most stupefyingly relentless is the achievement of Kobo Abe's The Ark Sakura, which lays out the ingredients for some sort of fable about the nuclear age or human survival or paranoia, and then shuts down without putting anything together. The first-person narrator named Mole (also Pig, a nickname he dislikes) is looking for people to joint him in his survival “ship,” a many-chambered abandoned underground quarry in which his father had once imprisoned him as a punishment, but which he has now fitted out with all sorts of provisions, booby traps against intruders and the like, as an “ark” for survival. The quarry's main feature is a huge toilet, with no seat and with immense water pressure in the flushing mechanism which makes it very inconvenient to use—it was this toilet to which his father had tied him. The candidates for survival Mole gathers (with no particular criteria) are an insect seller at a bazaar and a man and a woman who work as shills for him and whose animated conversation about one of the insects attracts Mole's interest. This insect, an eupcaccia, feeds entirely on its own feces, moving in a perfect circle just...
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SOURCE: Dissanayake, Wimal. “Self, Place, and Body in The Woman in the Dunes: A Comparative Study of the Novel and the Film.” In Literary Relations, East and West: Selected Essays, edited by Jean Toyama and Nobuko Ochner, pp. 41-54. Manoa, Hawaii: University of Hawaii, 1990.
[In the following essay, Dissanayake lists the reasons for the success of the cinematic adaptation of Abé's novel The Woman in the Dunes.]
The change in the sand corresponded to a change in himself. Perhaps, along with the water in the sand, he had found a new self.1
—The Woman in the Dunes
The novel and the film are two of the most powerful media of symbolic communication in the modern world, and the relationship between them is as complex as it is fascinating. There appears to be an almost inverse relationship between the literary worth of a novel and the artistic worth of film based on it. Some of the outstanding novels of internationally acclaimed novelists such as Tolstoy, Joyce, and Lawrence have been made into films without much success while great works of cinema have been created based on undistinguished novels—Antonioni's BLOW-UP is a case in point. However, occasionally we come across a great work of cinema that is based upon an equally great novel. Hiroshi Teshigahara's film version of Kobo Abe's Suna no...
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SOURCE: Lamont-Brown, Raymond. “Kōbō Abé: Japan's Novelist of Alienation.” Contemporary Review 263, no. 1530 (July 1993): 31-4.
[In the following essay, Lamont-Brown reflects on Abé's life and work.]
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 returned...
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SOURCE: Keene, Donald. “The Plays of Kōbō Abé: An Introduction.” In Three Plays by Kōbō Abé, pp. ix-xiii. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
[In the following introduction, Keene traces the development of Abé's career as a dramatist and underscores the problems with translating the author's work.]
Kōbō Abe (1924-93) was a contemporary Japanese writer of world stature. Although he was best known as a novelist, especially for his Woman in the Dunes (1962), his achievements as a dramatist were almost equally important, and he published several outstanding volumes of criticism. He was frequently mentioned as a likely recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature, but his death in his sixty-ninth year, when he was still at the height of his powers, prevented him from obtaining this honor.
Ironically, Abe's career as a dramatist began as a purely temporary expedient. Late in 1954 he was under pressure to meet a magazine's deadline for the story he was writing. He was such a meticulous craftsman that if ever he felt he must change a single phrase, he generally rewrote the whole page on which the phrase appeared. It seemed impossible that such a perfectionist would meet his deadline, but it suddenly occurred to Abe that recasting the story as a play would make it easier. The editor of the magazine was not pleased to receive the play instead of the promised story, but as...
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SOURCE: Iwamoto, Yoshio. Review of Three Plays, by Kōbō Abé. World Literature Today 68, no. 3 (summer 1994): 637.
[In the following review, Iwamoto views the dramas collected in Three Plays as influenced by the Theater of the Absurd.]
Known primarily as a novelist, especially in the West, Kobo Abe also wrote plays which have been produced in Japan to enormous critical acclaim. His death in early 1993 has inaugurated a reevaluation of his oeuvre, with the major literary journals devoting special issues to the subject. Donald Keene's fine translations into English of three of his plays [Three Plays] might be seen in this context.
Abe began his prolific career in the early 1950s when the twin ideologies of existentialism and absurdism were all the rage worldwide. Finding the tenets of these philosophies congenial to his own view of life in a Japan still reeling from the ravages of war, he constructed works that tended to put topics like freedom, choice, commitment, and identity at their center. His plays especially are often compared to the works of Beckett and Ionesco, what comprise the canon of the so-called Theater of the Absurd. A form that is renowned for its use, in the presentation of character and action, of dramatic techniques that defy rational analysis and explanation, the Theater of the Absurd thereby expresses, by implication rather than direct...
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SOURCE: Dallas, Tony. Review of Three Plays, by Kōbō Abé. Antioch Review 52, no. 4 (fall 1994): 651-52.
[In the following laudatory review of Three Plays, Dallas perceives “this witty, lyrical, eminently theatrical collection a welcome change from the confessional realism that pervades most contemporary American drama.”]
American readers familiar only with Abe's dark 1962 novel, Woman in the Dunes, might find this translation surprising for its humor and fantastical theatricality. As Keene informs the reader in his introduction, Abe for many years ran his own theater company in Tokyo and was respected in Japan not only as a writer but as a theater director as well. (Abe died last year at the age of 69.)
Involuntary Homicide (1971), the first and darkest play in the collection [Three Plays] is about the complicity of a group of islanders in the beating death of the owner of the island's pachinko parlor. The play is a sequence of short scenes that follow the islanders being coached by the Fire Chief on how to shift blame when they present their case before the court.
The Great Stockings, the funniest of these plays (1974), is about a man with a fetish for women's undergarments. When he's saved from suicide after his fetish is discovered, he agrees—for the advancement of science—to have his digestive system...
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SOURCE: Iwamoto, Yoshio. Review of Kangaroo Notebook, by Kōbō Abé. World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 228.
[In the following review, Iwamoto offers a mixed assessment of Kangaroo Notebook.]
Kobo Abe's last novel before his death in 1993, Kangaroo Notebook, originally published in Japanese in 1991, refigures with imaginative vigor those ingredients that have become trademarks in the novelist-playwright's works: metamorphosis, the theme of alienation and the problem of personal identity, and the journey motif through a labyrinthine modern dystopia. In this world fantastic elements coexist with all-too-real features in an exasperating and unnerving amalgam, and humor, albeit of the darkest sort, mitigates the often absurd, frightening, and incomprehensible incidents that occur.
As in many other Abe novels, the “hero” of Kangaroo Notebook, the first-person narrator of the story, remains nameless, suggesting perhaps Everyman and/or a lack of individuality; and the backdrop for the narrative, while containing certain peculiarly Japanese attributes like references to the Buddhist hell, could be almost any modernized country with high technology and its attendant neuroses. One morning, the narrator (a products developer for an office-supply company who on a whim had suggested a notebook with pouches—hence the novel's title) wakes up to find that his...
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Allen, Louis. “Piranesian Prospects.” Times Literary Supplement (12 August 1988): 892.
Negative review of The Ark Sakura, faulting the story development of the novel.
Leithauser, Brad. “Severed Futures: Kōbō Abé's The Ark Sakura.” In Penchants & Places: Essays and Criticism, pp. 230-37. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
Provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of The Ark Sakura, deeming the novel as one of Abe's more successful works.
Additional coverage of Abé'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; and St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4.
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