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.”
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.
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 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.”