Kenzaburō Ōe Ōe, Kenzaburō (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kenzaburō Ōe 1935-

(Also transliterated as Ōe Kenzaburō and Kenzaburo Oe) Japanese novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, editor, lecturer, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Ōe's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 10, 36, and 86.

One of the foremost figures in contemporary Japanese literature, Ōe is highly regarded for his intensely imagined and formally innovative fiction which examines the sense of alienation and anxiety felt by members of the post-World War II generation in Japan. Utilizing ideas from Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy of existentialism, Ōe portrays the unique agonies and dilemmas of his characters 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. Ōe received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994 for his overall career, only the second Japanese author to ever win the award, with the Nobel committee lauding Man'en gannen no futtobōru (1967; The Silent Cry) as “Ōe's major mature work.”

Biographical Information

Ōe was born on January 31, 1935, in Ehime, a small village on the western Japanese island of Shikoku. He 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 of Japan was a living god. When Emperor Hirohito personally announced in a radio broadcast Japan's surrender to the Allied military forces at the end of World War II, Ōe and his schoolmates experienced a profound sense of devastation and disorientation which forever changed their perception of the world. 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 occupational forces. While a student at Tokyo University, Ōe read widely in both traditional Japanese and modern Western literature, graduating with a B.A. in French literature in 1959. He was particularly influenced by such existentialist philosophers as 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, Hikari, was born with severe mental and physical handicaps. While his works remained focused on the survival of heroic consciousness in an age of nuclear terror, Ōe subsequently incorporated the figure of his handicapped son into his fiction. A vocal anti-establishment, 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.” Ōe has been awarded several awards and accolades for his writing, including the Akutagawa Prize in 1958, the Tanizaki Jun'ichirō Prize in 1967, the Noma Literary Prize in 1973, the Europelia Arts Festival Literary Prize in 1989, and the Italian Mondelosso Prize in 1993.

Major Works

Ōe's early thematic interest in the convergence of the political and the absurd is reflected in his first novel, Memushiri kouchi (1958; Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids). The work is set on the island of Shikoku during World War II, where a group of juvenile delinquents are evacuated from a reformatory to a remote village. The boys are mistreated by the hostile peasants until the villagers, fearing plague, abandon them. The adolescent narrator describes how the boys band together, caring for each other and an abandoned girl and a young Korean boy. When the villagers return, they attempt to silence the boys about their abandonment at the hands of those meant to protect them. Ōe's short story “Shiiku”—translated both as “The Catch” and “Prize Stock”—relates the tale of a Japanese boy and an African American prisoner of war, whose friendship is destroyed by the senseless militarism and hatred of a foreigner. In the collection Warera no jidai (1959), Ōe presents a series of stories that examine the taboo subject of sex in Japanese culture. The short pieces emphasize the relationship between dominance and submission in occupied Japan, told through the perspective of a college student who comes under the influence of a local prostitute. Detailing the life of a teenager who becomes a terrorist, Ōe's novella Sebunchin (1961; Seventeen) explores the conflict between adolescents and the society of their elders, particularly as manifested through violence as well as escapism in the form of masturbation and sexual promiscuity. Based on the 1960 assassination of the chairman of Japan's Socialist Party by a right-wing youth, Seventeen portrays both political conservatives and liberals in an unflattering light.

After the birth of his son, Hikari, in 1964, Ōe began incorporating the theme of mental retardation throughout his writing. Ōe's first novel to gain international recognition, Kojinteki na taiken (1964; A Personal Matter) follows a twenty-seven-year-old man—nicknamed “Bird”—whose wife gives birth to a deformed child. Bird is so horrified that he chooses to let the baby die rather than face life tied to a disabled son. While his wife and child remain in the hospital, Bird retreats to the apartment of a young widow friend, where he escapes into a world of fantasy, sex, and alcohol. However, Bird eventually decides to accept his son and learns that surgery may improve the baby's condition. In the novella Warera no kyōki o ikinobiru michi o oshieyo (1969; Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness), the protagonist is a father who becomes so close to his mentally-handicapped son that he becomes convinced that he directly experiences any physical pain his son feels. Several of Ōe's subsequent works portray relationships between a father figure and his mentally-challenged son, who is alternately referred to as The Idiot Son, Eeyore, Mori, Jin, or Hikari. In 1983 Ōe published Atarashii hito yo mezameyo (Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age), a novel comprised of a short story sequence in which Ōe's disabled son character—called Eeyore in this work—is approaching his twentieth birthday.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Ōe further developed a thematic emphasis on the damaging effects of nationalism, the horrific aftermath of World War II, and the impact of modernization on Japan's emperor system. Hiroshima nōto (1965; Hiroshima Notes) records his opinions of the anti-nuclear movement from 1963 to 1965, focusing on the political bickering of the several factions and lashing out at their failure to recognize the real suffering of the victims of the atomic bombings. In The Silent Cry Ōe overlaps the images of two brothers in the modern age, Mitsusaburo and Takashi, with their great-grandfather, who had suppressed an agrarian uprising a century before, and the great-grandfather's brother, who had been the prime instigator behind the rebellion. As various truths about the legends surrounding these ancestors are revealed, the relationship between the modern-day siblings changes, concluding with the tragic death of the young brother, who tries to carry out his own uprising by reviving an old village festival. 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. The novella Mizukara waga namida o nuguitamau hi (1972; The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears), inspired by Ōe's reaction to Emperor Hirohito's surrender, follows a loyal subject who attempts to spur the ineffective and incompetent emperor into action by bombing his palace. Pinchiranna chosho (1976; The Pinch Runner Memorandum) combines Ōe's dual concerns of the modernization of Japan and the effects of mental retardation, in the story of a technician who is injured in an accident at a nuclear generator plant and the son who is born to him after the accident. The father and son become involved in anti-nuclear protests and ultimately come into conflict with a businessman who attempts control Japan through his personal possession of nuclear weapons.

The transformation of suffering is the dominant theme of Ōe's 1989 novel Jinsei no shinseki (An Echo of Heaven), which recounts the life of a Japanese woman, Marie Kuraki, who teaches foreign languages and literature in a Tokyo university. Marie marries and has two sons, one who is born severely brain-damaged. As teenagers, the boys decide to commit suicide together, and Marie's estranged husband devolves into a violent alcoholic. The novel focuses on Marie's efforts to rise above these tragedies, as she finally finds peace on a peasant commune in Mexico. Ōe's Shizuka-na seikatsu (1990; A Quiet Life) follows three nearly adult children, including his recurring character Eeyore, as they are left to cope alone when their parents move to the United States for eight months. The other two siblings experience waves of anxiety over the feelings and needs of Eeyore, whose communication is rare and often ineffective. Beginning in 1993, Ōe released a series of novels—Moeagaru midori no ki: Sukuinushi ga nagurareru made (1993), Moeagaru midori no ki: Yureugoku (Vashirēshon) (1994), and Moeagaru midori no ki: Ōi naru hi ni (1995)—that are known under the collective English title, the Burning Green Tree trilogy. These works, set in a village in the Shikoku mountains that acts as a microcosm for all of Japan, utilize mythic imagery and metaphors in the continuing story of Brother Gii, a handicapped healer who unwittingly becomes a savior figure to his people. After receiving the Nobel Prize in 1994, Ōe released Aimai na Nihon no watashi (1995; Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself), a collection of his Nobel speech and three other lectures on contemporary Japanese literature and culture. Also in 1995, Ōe published Kaifuku suru kazoku (A Healing Family), his first nonfiction account of his relationship with his son, Hikari. Though Ōe fictionalized his interactions with Hikari in past works, A Healing Family recounts a selection of true-life incidents, describing how Hikari enriches the lives of his family members. Inspired partially by the 1995 terrorist attack in Tokyo, when a Japanese cult released nerve gas into the city's subway system, Ōe's 1999 novel Chūgaeri (Somersault) centers around Patron and Guide, the founders of a Japanese religious group. The two men are forced into exile after they publicly renounce and ridicule the beliefs of their organization in an attempt to stop a radical faction from engaging in terrorist activities.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Ōe's works has been mostly favorable, with several scholars arguing 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. However, due to the recognition from the 1994 Nobel Prize, Ōe has enjoyed a resurgence in attention from both academic and commercial Western audiences. Critics have commended the stylistic virtuosity of Ōe's fiction, lauding his exploration of the complexities inherent in living under the threat of nuclear annihilation and raising a mentally-handicapped child. His use of the “I-novel,” a form of autobiographical fiction, has been perceived as an attempt to further explore the impact of his son's condition on his family and as a means of blending Japanese and Western literary traditions. His explicit portrayal of sexual desires and relationships—in such works as Warera no jidai—has been identified by reviewers as one of Ōe's dominant recurring themes. Some commentators have asserted that Ōe's stylistic experimentation and ideological exploration has resulted in cold, distant, and overly dense prose. Such critics have also faulted Ōe's continuing fictionalization of his son's handicap as exploitative and disquieting. Many scholars have noted a wide range of diverse influences in Ōe's fiction, such as Norman Mailer, Malcolm Lowry, Flannery O'Connor, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Sanroku Yoshida has argued that, “Ōe stands alone among Japanese literati, not only as a novelist and a Nobel laureate but also as a thinker who has read widely in world literature and in cultural and critical theory. He is probably more concerned than any of his Japanese contemporaries with the human condition and the fate of humankind after the ominous mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Memushiri kouchi [Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids] (novel) 1958

Miru mae ni tobe (short stories) 1958

*Shiiku [The Catch] (novella) 1958

Warera no jidai (short stories) 1959

Okurete kita seinen (novel) 1961

Sebunchin [Seventeen] (novella) 1961

Sakebigoe (novel) 1962

Seiteki ningen [J] (novella) 1963

Kojinteki na taiken [A Personal Matter] (novel) 1964

Nichijōseikatsu no bōken (novel) 1964

Genshuku na tsunawatari (essays and...

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Michiko N. Wilson (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilson, Michiko N. “Occupied Japan: Tales of a Gigolo.” In The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo: A Study in Themes and Techniques, pp. 22-32. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1986.

[In the following essay, Wilson discusses Ōe's preoccupation with sexual “submission and liberation” in Our Times, noting that most Japanese critics responded negatively to the work's avant-garde subject matter.]

In 1934 Henry Miller wrote Tropic of Cancer, which became available to the American public for the first time in 1960. He wrote Sexus in 1949, but it was not published in the United States until 1965. Norman Mailer's The Deer Park appeared...

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Michiko N. Wilson (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilson, Michiko N. “A Narrative of Simultaneity: The Football Game of the First Year of Manen.” In The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo: A Study in Themes and Techniques, pp. 48-60. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1986.

[In the following essay, Wilson argues that the narrative in The Football Game of the First Year of Manen is constructed as “an attempt to look simultaneously at the linear movement of historical events.”]

The 1967 award-winning novel, The Football Game of the First Year of Manen (Manengannen no futtobōru, hereafter Manen), tells of the adventures of two brothers who return to their native village in...

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Susan J. Napier (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Napier, Susan J. “The Lost Garden: Beginnings of a Mythic Alternative.” In Escape from the Wasteland: Romanticism and Realism in the Fiction of Mishima Yukio and Oe Kenzaburo, pp. 17-42. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Napier examines how the early works of Ōe and Mishima Yukio—particularly Ōe's “Prize Stock” and Pluck the Buds, Shoot the Kids and Yukio's Sound of Waves—represent a rejection of traditional Japanese narratives by focusing heavily on pastoral and dream-like themes.]

Memushiri was a dream world, emphatically separated from the wretched smell of reality...

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Michiko Niikuni Wilson (essay date spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilson, Michiko Niikuni. “Kenzaburo Ōe: An Imaginative Anarchist with a Heart.” Georgia Review 49, no. 1 (spring 1993): 344-50.

[In the following essay, Wilson considers the major themes in Ōe's short stories and novels, primarily focusing on Ōe's works which revolve around father-son relationships.]

If there is one poem that captivated Ōe's imagination early in his career, it is “The Little Boy Lost” by William Blake. The poem projects the powerful image of a boy in quest of dialogue with his father, who has abandoned his son. The long, arduous soul-searching journey of Ōe, the Blakean “little boy lost,” began in a village in a virgin forest...

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Kenzaburō Ōe (essay date 8 December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ōe, Kenzaburō. “Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself: Nobel Lecture 1994.” World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 5-9.

[In the following transcript of Ōe's Nobel Lecture, originally delivered on December 8, 1994, the author outlines the dilemmas confronting post-war Japan and discusses the influence of his mentally-challenged son, Hikari, on his life and work.]

During the last catastrophic world war, I was a little boy and lived in a remote wooded valley on Shikoku Island in the Japanese Archipelago, thousands of miles away from here. At that time there were two books by which I was really fascinated: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and...

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Sanroku Yoshida (essay date winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Yoshida, Sanroku. “The Burning Tree: The Spatialized World of Kenzaburō Ōe.” World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 10-16.

[In the following essay, Yoshida traces Ōe's literary development and asserts that the author's major thematic concerns “are closely related to his own personal problems and emotions, but he successfully distills them into a more universal context to produce a significant literary representation that is firmly grounded in human existence.”]

Late on the night of 13 October 1994, in front of his residence in a usually quiet Tokyo suburb, Kenzaburō Ōe entertained questions from a horde of newspaper and television...

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Sanroku Yoshida (review date spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Yoshida, Sanroku. Review of The Pinch Runner Memorandum, by Kenzaburō Ōe. World Literature Today 69, no. 2 (spring 1995): 439-40.

[In the following review, Yoshida delineates the unique stylistic aspects of The Pinch Runner Memorandum, noting Ōe's wealth of “linguistic and typographical idiosyncrasies.”]

Kenzaburō Ōe, the winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature (see WLT 69:1, pp. 5-16), wrote two major novels, among others, in which he deals with the fear of the possible annihilation of all humankind in a nuclear holocaust. One is the two-volume 1973 work entitled Kōzui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi (A Flood Unto My...

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Harry James Cargas (essay date 12 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cargas, Harry James. “Fiction of Shame.” Christian Century 112, no. 12 (12 April 1995): 382-83.

[In the following essay, Cargas argues that guilt functions as a major component of the Japanese psyche and Ōe's fiction, particularly in A Personal Matter.]

The controversy over awarding a share of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize to Yassir Arafat was hardly surprising. What was surprising to some was the lack of controversy over the Nobel Prize for Literature. The selection of Kenzaburo Oe for the award suggests that the Swedish immortals decided that this was Japan's year and that somebody from that nation would be recognized. Or, as often happens,...

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Merle Rubin (essay date 10 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Strange Beauty amid Horror, Grief.” Christian Science Monitor 87, no. 115 (10 May 1995): 14.

[In the following essay, Rubin notes that, although Ōe's writing explores uniquely Japanese issues and themes, the virtuosity of Ōe's prose has allowed his works to take “their place in the global pantheon.”]

One of the leading lights of Japanese postwar literature, Kenzaburo Oe was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1994, just as he was announcing his intention to write no more fiction. His novels and stories, as he explained, had been driven by his desire to speak on behalf of his handicapped son who, after years of struggle, had finally found his own...

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Michael Harris (review date 2 July 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Harris, Michael. “Born of Anger.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (2 July 1995): 3, 5.

[In the following review, Harris praises Ōe's unique narrative style and vivid use of detail in Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids.]

Only a pinch of suspicion is needed to theorize that Kenzaburo Oe was a substitute winner of the Nobel Prize in 1994, just as Yasunari Kawabata was in 1968.

The achievements of postwar Japanese literature surely merited one or more Nobels, but the leading contender was Yukio Mishima, and Mishima wasn't about to win one, for some of the same reasons the Swedish Academy has never given the nod to Norman Mailer.


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Janet Goff (review date July-September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Goff, Janet. Review of Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself: The Nobel Prize Speech and Other Lectures, by Kenzaburō Ōe. Japan Quarterly 42, no. 3 (July-September 1995): 355-56.

[In the following positive review of Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, Goff comments that all four lectures in the collection “reflect Ōe's abiding concern for the role of the writer in society and the place of Japan in the modern world.”]

This publication honoring Japan's new Nobel laureate [Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself] reproduces four lectures by Ōe, including his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. All four lectures reflect Ōe's abiding concern for the role...

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Kenzaburō Ōe and Sam Staggs (interview date 7 August 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ōe, Kenzaburō, and Sam Staggs. “Kenzaburo Oe: After the Nobel, a New Direction.” Publishers Weekly 242, no. 32 (7 August 1995): 438-39.

[In the following interview, Ōe discusses his background as an existentialist and recounts the controversy surrounding his acceptance of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature.]

Kenzaburo Oe is the last existentialist. Changing trends in literature and philosophy have reduced the outsized reputations of such existentialist giants as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, but it seems no one has told Oe that—or if so, he paid no attention. “It doesn't matter,” he says flatly when asked to comment on the...

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Celeste Loughman (review date winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Loughman, Celeste. Review of Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, by Kenzaburō Ōe. World Literature Today 70, no. 1 (winter 1996): 242-43.

[In the following review, Loughman offers a mixed assessment of Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids but commends the novel's “sharpness of focus, narrative simplicity, and spontaneity.”]

War, pestilence, flood, famine, death—this is the context of Ōe Kenzaburō's first novel, Memushiri kouchi (1958), now translated as Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids. Unfortunately, the colloquial English title gives a misleading lightness and triviality to what is a grim book intended to convey the Japanese mentality...

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Kenzaburō Ōe and John Nathan (interview date winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ōe, Kenzaburō, and John Nathan. “A Mythical Topos: A Dialogue.” Grand Street 14, no. 3 (winter 1996): 39-46.

[In the following interview, Ōe discusses his relationship with his readers, translations of his works, and his intention of creating a new form of literary expression.]

[Nathan]: As a very young man at Tokyo University in the late '50s, you published a series of stories which were astonishing in the originality of their language and the freshness of their vision. Many who read those stories, in their youth in Japan, still remember their impact. You managed to capture the complex confabulation of betrayal, anger, despair, and hope that...

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Yoshio Iwamoto (review date spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Iwamoto, Yoshio. Review of Hiroshima Notes, by Kenzaburō Ōe. World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 475.

[In the following review, Iwamoto commends Ōe's compassionate reflections on the Hiroshima tragedy and its impact on his own life in Hiroshima Notes but argues that the author's polemic tone becomes overbearing at times.]

The reissue by Marion Boyars Publishers of the English translation of Kenzaburō Ōe's Hiroshima Notes, originally published in Japanese in 1965 and first translated into English in 1981, will now enable a much wider Western audience to glean the thoughts of the 1994 recipient of the Nobel Prize in...

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Sanroku Yoshida (review date spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Yoshida, Sanroku. Review of Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself: The Nobel Prize Speech and Other Lectures, by Kenzaburō Ōe. World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 475-76.

[In the following review, Yoshida lauds Ōe's insights into the complexities of Japanese culture in Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, calling the collection “a valuable glimpse into the soul of Japan's greatest contemporary writer.”]

Kenzaburō Ōe stands alone among Japanese literati, not only as a novelist and a Nobel laureate but also as a thinker who has read widely in world literature and in cultural and critical theory. He is probably more concerned than any of...

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Michael Wood (review date 4 April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wood, Michael. “Like Apollinaire.” London Review of Books 18, no. 7 (4 April 1996): 24-5.

[In the following review, Wood underscores the importance that Ōe places on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, A Personal Matter, and Hiroshima Notes.]

Perhaps all books are messages from other times and places, even the ones written yesterday and just down the road. But these three works by Kenzaburo Oë, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, have an unusual flavour of missives cast into the sea long ago, only now arriving on our island beach. Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids was published in Japan in 1958, and is now...

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John L'Heureux (review date 12 May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: L'Heureux, John. “Flannery Will Get You Nowhere.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 May 1996): 4.

[In the following review, L'Heureux notes the influence of Flannery O'Connor on An Echo of Heaven.]

In 1994, Kenzaburo Oe was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature and in his Stockholm speech, describing his vocation as novelist, he quoted Flannery O'Connor: To write novels is for him “a habit of being.” It is not by chance that to define the concrete he resorts to abstraction, nor by chance that to talk about himself this quintessentially Japanese writer quotes an American Catholic whose every story worried the problem of nature and grace, mystery and...

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Merle Rubin (review date 19 June 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “A Portrait of a Woman Who Transcends Culture.” Christian Science Monitor 88, no. 143 (19 June 1996): 14.

[In the following review, Rubin praises Ōe's multi-layered portrayal of Marie Kuraki, the protagonist of An Echo of Heaven.]

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, Japan's Kenzaburo Oe has distinguished himself not only as an innovative artist but also as a voice for humanitarian values. He consistently tackles difficult and troubling subjects without flinching, but with an attitude of careful deliberation and open-mindedness, whether he is dealing with the dehumanizing effects of war (as in his novel Nip the Buds, Shoot the...

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James Dalglish (review date July-September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dalglish, James. “An Author in Search of a Story.” Japan Quarterly 43, no. 3 (July-September 1996): 90-2.

[In the following review, Dalglish asserts that An Echo of Heaven can be viewed as a wholly original novel within the context of modern Japanese literature, labelling it as “a work riven with postmodern uncertainty.”]

An Echo of Heaven, the English translation of Nobel laureate Ōe Kenzaburō's 1989 Jinsei no shinseki, is an intriguing work that evades definition. It is sprinkled with diversely engaging themes—sexuality, religion, literature and (possibly) saintliness. There are handicapped children (no surprise), suicide...

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Richard Eder (review date 11 August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Dynamite Dangling on a Thread.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 August 1996): 2.

[In the following review, Eder discusses the recurring themes of anger and shame in Ōe's early novellas Seventeen and J.]

Splitting doesn't always weaken; it can transform and empower. Think of the atom, or the Japanese novelist and Nobelist Kenzaburo Oe. The vision that torments and lights him up emanates from a brutal divide.

Born in 1935, Oe was churned in the tide and riptide of a history that had him pledging, as a child, to slash open his belly whenever the emperor required it. As a youth in the 1950s, it carried him into the...

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Marleigh Grayer Ryan (review date winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ryan, Marleigh Grayer. Review of An Echo of Heaven, by Kenzaburō Ōe. World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 229.

[In the following positive review, Ryan finds parallels between Ōe's narrative voice in An Echo of Heaven and the Nō theater of Japan.]

In An Echo of Heaven, a lively, intelligent translation of Ōe Kenzaburō's 1989 novel Jinsei no shinseki (see WLT 67:3, p. 678), the author assumes a narrative voice resonating the chorus in the traditional Nō theater of Japan. As in the theater, Ōe moves deftly from direct accounts of events in which he is a participant to observations and analyses provided by...

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Celeste Loughman (review date winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Loughman, Celeste. Review of “Seventeen” and “J”: Two Novels, by Kenzaburō Ōe. World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 229-30.

[In the following review, Loughman offers an overview of the major thematic concerns in Seventeen and J.]

Ōe Kenzaburō (see WLT 69:1, pp. 5-9) has never made a secret of his affinity with those postwar writers who sought to decentralize the value of the emperor and “to liberate the Japanese from the curse of the emperor system which haunted their minds, even at the subconscious level.” At the same time he understands the collective need for unity expressed in the acceptance of the emperor as...

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Yoshio Iwamoto (review date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Iwamoto, Yoshio. Review of A Healing Family, by Kenzaburō Ōe. World Literature Today 71, no. 3 (summer 1997): 653-54.

[In the following review, Iwamoto commends Ōe's sensitive and poignant exploration of his relationship with his mentally and physically handicapped son, Hiraki, in A Healing Family.]

The relationship between Kenzaburo Ōe and his mentally and physically handicapped son Hikari has furnished the author with the materials and inspiration for countless works—short stories, novels, lectures, commentaries, and essays. From the novel A Personal Matter (1964; Eng. 1968) to the collection of nonfiction short pieces A Healing...

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David Swain (essay date 24 December 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Swain, David. “Something Akin to Grace: The Journey of Kenzaburo Oe.” Christian Century 114, no. 37 (24 December 1997): 1226-31.

[In the following essay, Swain investigates the major influences on Ōe's fiction and nonfiction, particularly the impact of the birth of his mentally and physically handicapped son.]

On the occasion of receiving the 1994 Nobel Prize in literature, novelist Kenzaburo Oe explained that “the fundamental method of my writing has always been to start from personal matters and then link them with society, the state, and the world in general.” Oe's personal starting point was a heavily wooded mountain area on Japan's Shikoku Island,...

(The entire section is 4422 words.)

Francis King (review date 7 February 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: King, Francis. “Variations on a Simple Theme.” Spectator 280, no. 8844 (7 February 1998): 33-4.

[In the following review, King criticizes Ōe's “disturbing” fictionalization of events from his personal life in A Quiet Life.]

A single event soars up, a sheer, jagged, snow-covered peak, from the otherwise temperate landscape of Kenzaburo Oe's life. This was the birth, in 1963, of a first child with a cerebral defect which, over the years, has had increasingly tragic consequences for the boy's physical and mental development. From this event, an avalanche of short stories, novels and essays has swept down. The latest in what Oe himself has, chillingly,...

(The entire section is 836 words.)

Luke M. Reinsma (essay date autumn 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Reinsma, Luke M. “The Flight of Kenzaburo Oe.” Christianity and Literature 48, no. 1 (autumn 1998): 61-77.

[In the following essay, Reinsma traces Ōe's treatment of existential matters in A Personal Matter and maintains that the novel is central to the author's oeuvre “for reasons that are at once literary and personal.”]

There is a Shinto prayer about a woman who dies, and when she reaches the boundary hill of the nether world, she thinks back on a troublesome child she left behind; soul-freezing loneliness and terror assault her, forcing her to turn back to look at the world of the living. When I think about the ancient poet...

(The entire section is 7818 words.)

Celeste Loughman (essay date summer 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Loughman, Celeste. “The Seamless Universe of Oe Kenzaburo.” World Literature Today 73, no. 3 (summer 1999): 417-22.

[In the following essay, Loughman explores Ōe's use of “simultaneity—of past and present, fact and dream, history and myth” in The Silent Cry, arguing that Ōe constructs an ambiguous moral universe in the novel.]

No term or concept appears more frequently in Ōe Kenzaburō's writing than “ambiguity.” Ōe made it the focus of his 1994 Nobel Lecture, “Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself,” and has acknowledged directly its prominence in his thinking: “I wrote a book entitled The Methods of the Novel (1978) in which I...

(The entire section is 5144 words.)

Kenzaburō Ōe (essay date winter 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ōe, Kenzaburō. “An Attempt at Self-Discovery in the Mythic Universe of the Novel.” World Literature Today 76, no. 1 (winter 2002): 6-18.

[In the following essay, Ōe discusses his attitude toward and utilization of the “I-novel” form and reviews significant influences on his life and work.]

Looking back upon my literary career, I would say that, from the outset, the setting of my literature has been my native village in a small valley deep in the forests of Shikoku, one of Japan's four main islands. The village is roughly in the central part of the island, just north of the watershed of the Shikoku Mountain Range. The premonition of a young writer is...

(The entire section is 9167 words.)

Yoshio Iwamoto (essay date winter 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Iwamoto, Yoshio. “Ōe Kenzaburō's Warera no jidai (Our Generation).” World Literature Today 76, no. 1 (winter 2002): 43-51.

[In the following essay, Iwamoto offers a critical reading of the relationship between politics, power, and sex in Warera no jidai.]

“Power is sexy,” the pop psychiatrist Dr. Joyce Brothers recently declared1 in commenting on the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy liaison, the latest in a seemingly endless succession of messy sex scandals involving high-profile Washington politicians. In fact, the varied ways in which sex, politics, and power are linked have now been discussed extensively for a very long time by...

(The entire section is 6800 words.)

Reiko Tachibana (essay date spring 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tachibana, Reiko. “Structures of Power: Ōe Kenzaburō's ‘Shiiku’ (‘Prize Stock’).” World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 37-48.

[In the following essay, Tachibana analyzes thematic aspects of Ōe's “Prize Stock,” perceiving the story to be a study of power in a Japanese village community.]

The literary talents of Ōe Kenzaburō, winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature, were recognized in Japan in 1958, when his short story “Shiiku” (Eng. “The Catch” or “Prize Stock”)1 won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize.2 Ōe, age twenty-three, was then a student at Tokyo University. Drawing in part on childhood...

(The entire section is 10041 words.)

Marleigh Grayer Ryan (essay date spring 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ryan, Marleigh Grayer. “‘And a Little Child Shall Lead Them’: The Agency of the Innocent in an Early Story by Ōe Kenzaburō.” World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 49-57.

[In the following essay, Ryan identifies the deception and corruption of children by adults as the central theme of Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids.]

Ōe Kenzaburō was ten and a half years old when he heard tell of the emperor's fateful message ending World War II. He has written—and continues to write—of the impact that message had upon his life and the lives of his compatriots. The time immediately before and after that day has resonated in his fiction with an intensity...

(The entire section is 7555 words.)

Elizabeth Ward (review date 9 June 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ward, Elizabeth. “Innocence and Experience.” Washington Post Book World 32, no. 23 (9 June 2002): 7.

[In the following review, Ward asserts that, despite Ōe's dense narrative style, Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age is ultimately a rewarding novel.]

Considering that Kenzaburo Oe won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994, he still isn't very widely read in English. But then he still isn't very widely read in Japanese. Oe's work is difficult, obsessive and rambling—and that's as true of his fiction as it is of his nonfiction, which are hard to tell apart anyway. Even his admirers concede that you don't read Oe for anything as shallow as...

(The entire section is 1127 words.)

Francis King (review date 27 July 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: King, Francis. “The Doubtful Wisdom of Eeyore.” Spectator 289, no. 9077 (27 July 2002): 39.

[In the following review, King faults Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age as a “narrow and self-referential” work.]

The inspiration of Kenzaburo Oe, Japanese winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature, has repeatedly derived from an obsession. In turn that obsession has derived from a tragedy. In 1963, the first of his three children, Hikari, was born with brain damage so severe that it was doubtful if he would survive. Now 38, Hikari still survives, doubly incontinent, subject to epilepsy, unable to read and scarcely able to express himself, but...

(The entire section is 624 words.)

Amy Havel (review date fall 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Havel, Amy. Review of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age, by Kenzaburō Ōe. Review of Contemporary Fiction 22, no. 3 (fall 2002): 145.

[In the following review, Havel offers a positive assessment of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age, praising the author's “gift for the portrayal of the inevitable emotional blunders of human beings.”]

Fans of Oe's work will recognize the author's alter ego K and his disabled son Eeyore in this latest novel [Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age] by the Nobel Prize winner. The chronicling of the father-son relationship continues, but the latest developments seem more serious, as they pertain to...

(The entire section is 364 words.)

Brooke Allen (review date January-February 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Allen, Brooke. “Foreign Voices.” New Leader 86, no. 1 (January-February 2003): 24-5.

[In the following review, Allen contends that although Somersault is replete with beautiful images and compelling ideas, the novel is both “alienating and boring.”]

Ever since World War II Japan has been our partner, whether willingly or unwillingly, in the creation of a consumer society and the development of a business-friendly world order. Yet despite the postwar proliferation of films and television, not to mention the current explosion in global communications and Internet technology, the Japanese remain strangely mysterious to Americans. We avidly buy...

(The entire section is 1388 words.)

Kai Maristed (review date 20 April 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Maristed, Kai. “Faith Tangled Up in Reality.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (20 April 2003): 7.

[In the following review, Maristed argues that Somersault is an “extraordinarily dense novel,” noting that Ōe's detached authorial voice distinguishes the work from his previous novels.]

A heraldic first line of jacket copy announces that Somersault is Kenzaburo Oe's “first new novel … since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature” and goes on to describe the novel's 570 extraordinarily dense pages as “a magnificent story of the charisma of leaders, the danger of zealotry, and the mystery of faith.” If this reviewer can't quite sign on...

(The entire section is 1345 words.)

Jason Picone (review date summer 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Picone, Jason. Review of Somersault, by Kenzaburō Ōe. Review of Contemporary Fiction 23, no. 2 (summer 2003): 131-32.

[In the following review, Picone lauds Ōe's “disquieting” world view in Somersault and argues that the novel broadens “the scope and form that the author's future fiction might take.”]

In his first new novel since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kenzaburo Oe offers an examination of the nature of faith when it is balanced against the potential for human self-annihilation in the twenty-first century. A complete departure from Oe's fiction concerning his retarded son, Somersault is a conventional narrative...

(The entire section is 382 words.)

Julia Lovell (review date 29 August 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lovell, Julia. “The Country's Cults.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5239 (29 August 2003): 21.

[In the following review, Lovell complains that the narrative in Somersault is too formulaic and flat, asserting that Haruki Murakami's Underground offers a much more compelling portrayal of Japanese cults.]

Only three contemporary Japanese novelists—Banana Yoshimoto, Haruki Murakami and Kenzaburo Oe—seem to get much attention in English translation; each has a few signature themes. Yoshimoto specializes in stories of female drifters, dysfunctional families and comfort food. No Murakami novel would be complete without alienated protagonists,...

(The entire section is 957 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Cameron, Lindsley. “Fiction in Review.” Yale Review 85, no. 2 (April 1997): 150-60.

Cameron elucidates the autobiographical elements of Ōe's fiction and essays.

———. The Music of Light: The Extraordinary Story of Hikari and Kenzaburo Oe. New York, N.Y.: Free Press, 1998, 207 p.

Cameron presents a critical examination of Ōe's relationship with his son, Hikari, and how their relationship influences Ōe's fiction and nonfiction works.

Duplain, Julian. “The Sense of a Nation.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4806 (12 May 1995): 21.


(The entire section is 414 words.)