While numerous themes are developed in Kb Abe’s works, few of them fail to incorporate aspects of alienation and loss of identity. Sometimes, his characters are alienated from other persons or from society. On other occasions, his characters are alienated from their own emotions, as in the story “Suich toshi” (1952; the city under water), in which a character asks himself how he feels, only to find that his answer turns into a “hard substance.” This concern with the effects of isolation is a central theme in Abe’s best-known novel The Woman in the Dunes. In the work, a schoolteacher who is an amateur insect collector leaves the city to look for beetles in an area of sand dunes. He becomes trapped at the bottom of a deep hole, where a woman lives. She and the members of a village in the dunes keep him prisoner. Survival of the group depends on their daily success in battling the encroaching dunes. While he resists captivity at first, he gradually comes to the realization that his perceived prison of sand offers a kind of freedom that the city never offered him.
Trying to escape from stifling urban life is also thematically important to Abe, who sees modern humanity as lost in the urban setting. Abe compares the city to a labyrinth, because people in it are always seeking, but never finding, a key to freedom. Hako otoko (1973; The Box Man, 1974) is an absurdist novel in which the protagonist cuts himself off from his fellows by taking up residence in a box that provides an anonymity and freedom denied him in everyday life. In Tanin no kao (1964; The Face of Another, 1966), the hero endeavors to fashion a new identity by concealing himself with a mask that hides his badly scarred face. In all three of these novels the heroes are alienated from contemporary life as a result of smothering urbanization. Abe’s message—that the business world fragments and compartmentalizes human life, depriving people of human contact and causing an overwhelming degree of frustration—is clear in these novels and in most of his work.
Themes related to the loss of identity are frequently developed through metamorphoses. It has been suggested that metamorphosis in Abe’s works are of two types, depending on the effects of the transformation on the character. In one type, the change is ultimately positive and allows a character to make a fresh start. In the other, the metamorphosis is negative because it is destructive. Several of Abe’s early stories are of the first type. Of the second type, “Red Cocoon,” whose title reveals the kind of change that takes place, is typical. The prizewinning Kabe (1951; the wall), in which a man changes into a section of a thick wall, is also an example of the second type. These transformations also serve as symbols of the inability to communicate. In a three-act play B ni natta otoko (pr., pb. 1969; The Man Who Turned into a Stick, 1975), people turn into sticks, and in so doing, they are deprived of language and sounds. This is a common theme in Abe’s work.
Another common theme is the feeling of homelessness or ambivalence about where home is, which reflects Abe’s life experience. In Kemonotachi wa koky o mezasu (1957; the beasts go homeward), the wilderness of Manchuria provides the setting. The search for the roots of existence that will serve to ground one’s identity and the conflict between two kinds of homeland shed light on Abe’s own conflict in being born in Japan but living in China during his formative years.
Along with metamorphosis and absurdity, another of Abe’s preferred literary devices is turnabout or inversion of roles. For example, in The Woman in the Dunes, the insect collector who catches beetles and pins them to a board is himself caught by the villagers, forced into a hole in the sand, and observed in much the same way that he has observed his insects. Similarly, in Moetsukita chizu (1967; The Ruined Map, 1969) a detective who undertakes to trace someone’s missing husband not only fails to find the man but also ends up missing himself.
Perhaps more than any other writer, Abe has been compared with Franz Kafka. Some of the Kafkaesque characteristics of Abe’s writing include the mixture of realistic detail with fantasy and the juxtaposition of accurate, concrete detail with fantastic and nightmarish settings or situations. Such combinations have led to Abe’s being termed an absurdist novelist. There is a tone of realism in otherwise fantastic works, and the style is objective and logical.
The Woman in the Dunes
First published: Suna no onna, 1962 (English translation, 1964)
Type of work: Novel
Searching for his identity in a world of shifting sands, Niki Jumpei comes to terms with himself.
The Woman in the Dunes is Abe’s most popular novel, no doubt in part because it was made into a film in 1963. The film was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1964. The story begins with the disappearance of Niki Jumpei, a young teacher. It traces Niki’s difficult journey into his own consciousness and his finding his identity. The sand dunes, with their sands constantly encroaching upon the residents of the village that abducts...
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