Ōe, Kenzaburō 1935–
Ōe, one of Japan's most popular novelists, is a leading member of his country's "new left." His wide knowledge of Western literature is evidenced in his fiction, which shows Occidental influences in both its philosophy and style. Ōe is also an editor, short story writer, and critic.
Ōe has been accused, with some justice, of writing Japanese that reads like a translation from a Western language. His long and complex sentences have neither elegant simplicity nor effortless flow, but are knotty challenges for the mind to unravel. Crammed with adjectives and similes, they consciously—occasionally almost self-consciously—prod the reader along, constantly forcing him to make unexpected associations, or emphasizing the author's analytical self-awareness.
In a sense, perhaps, the Japanese language is being made to do something for which it was never intended; one can well imagine some Japanese readers finding the style overladen or self-assertive. But though it is obviously to the literatures of the Western languages—their syntax, vocabulary, analytical approach—rather than to the Sino-Japanese heritage that Ōe looks to enrich the expressiveness of modern Japanese, what is still more important is that the ideas and, even more, the imagery are consistently and unmistakably his own. The density is an essential part of Ōe's artistic fiber, the sense of strain intrinsic to his themes.
A similar density is to be found in the structure of his works. In A Game of Football, each chapter is organized solidly and intricately; the narrative moves to and fro in time and space, tied by a close web of inter-relationships to what has preceded and what is to come. Great use is made of leitmotifs—repeated references to incidents, constantly recurring imagery, repetitions of actual phrases—that gradually lead the reader, almost against his will, into the world of the author's sensibility.
On their first appearance, the references are sometimes unexplained, their part in the whole structure only becoming apparent as one reads on. Not only does this serve to heighten the interest—the ingenuity of the work's structure is in some ways reminiscent of the detective story—but it also maintains a special interplay between the incidental and the essential, between bizarre fantasy and the actual world.
The constantly recurring images are at once concrete and highly symbolic, a combination that creates an almost hallucinatory quality. In the world that the author painstakingly constructs, human society, natural landscapes, the minor characters are presented in concrete, recognizable terms yet remain somehow—and especially in relation to the human immediacy of the central characters—curiously remote, seen through the subtly distorting mirror of the intellect-emotions. Even the natural landscapes are landscapes of the mind, vivid in their details yet always in a sense "subjective"; as such, they inevitably afflict the reader at times with a sense of claustrophobia.
The duality of concrete and symbolic in particular images is paralleled in the novel as a whole by the fine balance maintained between allegory and story-telling. Thus the misfortunes that afflict the hero might seem almost comically over-emphasized if they were not so obviously symbolic of the general condition; on the other hand, the novel might seem over-intellectualized and over-organized were one's interest not involved at an early stage by the humanity of the main characters, and one's imagination captured by its extraordinary, if repellent, atmosphere.
The relationship between these two aspects is subtle. Although one could point to various general themes underlying the novel—the quest for identity and the sense of alienation, the tyranny of the physical world, the problem of commitment, the failure of tradition—I suspect that the work as a whole would resist any over-literal interpretation: that it...
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succeeds, in short, as a work of the creative imagination, fusing a consideration of universal problems with poetry in the broadest sense and an act of emotional purgation for the author. That this last aspect is a continuing process in Ōe's work may be inferred from, for example, the prevailing "sick" quality of the imagery, which is too consistent to be inspired merely by intellectual (such a distinction, of course, is ultimately false) anxiety or disgust, and must surely stem from very particular and personal experiences.
Torn by distaste for the world, Ōe continues to write. Surrounded by violence both physical and intellectual, his hero continues to survive. It may be that the very fact of survival offers (as John Nathan suggests in a note to an earlier translation) a key to the problems plaguing him. Either way, the account of his tribulations is a work of formidable richness and intellectual power…. (pp. 428-29)
John Bester, in his translator's note to "A Game of Football" by Kenzaburō Ōe, in Japan Quarterly (© 1973, by the Asahi Shimbun), October-December, 1973, pp. 428-29.
When Bird [protagonist of A Personal Matter] makes his final choice [to reject an adventurous life in favor of tedious domesticity], he is fulfilling, not [an] imported nineteenth-century romanticism, but an attitude native to Japan for almost as many centuries as [Westerners] have taken the attitude that action is intrinsically good, that rebellion is under a number of circumstances virtuous, particularly if it allegedly gives greater individual freedom, that fighting to the death against insurmountable odds carries with it its own honor. Bird and Ōe reject these convictions. Japan has a long tradition of accepting the inevitable which, in the West, is called resignation, which like "derivative," is an earnestly prejudicial term. For the Japanese, to assume the responsibilities imposed upon one by one's superiors, by filial piety and the like, is an act of virtue. To maintain existent orders is preferable to change, and certainly the subjugation of the individual to a wide structure of relationships and responsibilities is considered right and honorable. Meeting demands and fulfilling obligations are required. Bird, therefore, is commendable in his actions from a Japanese perspective. By doing all the wrong things from a western point of view, he succeeds from a Japanese point of view by making the hard decision to stay within his social structure. The decision is for him the hard way and not, as with us, the easy.
The Japanese ability to settle for less than the ideal, not even to hope for some platonic ideal, seems to occidentals a seditious doctrine. Nurtured on striving for perfection (or at least progress) we are disarmed by a character who does not ask for much, who decides that the best solution is to learn to live with things as they are, to make do, hopefully, but not grandiosely. Our reflexes reject the man who decides to give in, not to struggle. Such cowardice is discomfitting, particularly when he seems pleased with his decision. In the West, we accept resignation as a solution only when it carries with it total despair. A more or less cheerful acceptance of circumstances is beyond our comprehension. We are in sympathy with Bird as he is frantic, anomic, behaving outrageously, but when he behaves reasonably, we condemn him and his creator. (pp. 50-1)
Bird cannot escape acceptance any more than we can escape admiring frantic struggle. (p. 51)
Superficial technological westernization does not mean loss of tradition. The implication that Ōe is necessarily echoing western thought is unjust: only our continental provincialism prevents a just appraisal of a novel that reflects the best and worst of probably the most international of cultures. (p. 52)
Wayne Falke, "Japanese Tradition in Kenzaburō Ōe's 'A Personal Matter'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique 1974), Vol. XV, No. 3, 1974, pp. 43-52.
On the surface it is paradoxical that Ōe Kenzaburō …, a spokesman for the Japanese New Left, admirer of Mao, and student of Sartrean Existentialism, should give thematic treatment to anything quite so traditional as the notion of "shame," a complex emotional response to a variety of situations in Japanese society. Although very much the modern writer and liberated from many of the complexes that burdened older literary figures such as Tanizaki Jun'ichirō and Mishima Yukio, Ōe, in the short story "Sheep," directly confronts the experience of shame with power, subtlety, and insight. Whereas other major Japanese writers generally deal with shame as incidental to their primary thematic concerns, only as part of the psychological makeup of their characters, Ōe pushes his creations headlong into shameful situations where reader and characters are afforded a deeper insight into the nature of shame, and at times a full-fledged revelation occurs in which the self is strengthened and achieves a new identity through the ordeal. The originality of Ōe's achievement in his young career lies in the fusion of shame in its traditional setting, calling for a traditional interpretation, with an understanding of shame informed and shaped by Sartrean Existentialism, with its implications for the self in the world. (p. 409)
The soldiers … use the young man and his fellow victims as a means to an end: that of venting their anger and as an object of amusement. This is a constituent in the structure of shame, to become an instrument of possibilities that are not our possibilities. But what is crucial in the case of the soldiers is that the incident begins and ends spontaneously. While the humiliated victims existed as objects for them,… the motivation for their behavior does not extend beyond the simple emotions of amusement and anger….
The school teacher perceives the victims as a means to a loftier end, a moral aim. The "innocent" spontaneity of the incident disappears [with his effort] to communicate the shame to the world at large…. The desire on the part of the victim to hide what has been revealed, to hide what one is at the moment, conforms to our own experience and [is] … peculiar to the nature of shame. Any threat to this desire to remain hidden is normally an occasion for unpleasantness. Thus the teacher has done violence to the nature of shame, as one insensitive to its implications, and has oddly turned out to be the "villain" of the piece, although some readers may have divided sympathies. The desire of the school teacher to expose the young man's shame in a broader context is likewise linked to what Sartre calls l'esprit de serieux in that values are considered as "transcendent givens independent of human subjectivity." The teacher ignores human subjectivity and seeks to manipulate the young man in order to assign a value to the incident that ultimately derives from an abstraction external to the concreteness of the situation: that of social justice. (p. 413)
Imagery [in the story] not only creates atmosphere, but also functions structurally, as a dynamic element clustering around and anticipating attitudes and actions within the narrative. The abstract framework of the story, however, is dualistic; and this is seen in its composition, where the story naturally falls into two parts: events involving the soldiers and then when the teacher begins his attempt to impose his will on the young man. The brief stasis when the soldiers have left forms a natural hiatus before the second half of the story begins. Also, as has been suggested, the Sartrean dualistic view of consciousness may be inferred as a basis of analogy for the dualistic structure. The interplay of opposites is also seen in the Japanese vs. the foreign soldiers, victims vs. observers, passivity vs. activity, and also quite importantly in the divided sympathies of the reader. The teacher appears in a negative light, and although to a certain degree we share his moral outrage, our emotional sympathies are with the young man and the second ordeal he is forced to undergo at the hands of the teacher. The last and most pregnant pairing of opposites involves Japan vs. the outside world. The story as an allegory pointing to Japan victimized and humiliated during the Allied Occupation cannot be overlooked. But what is represented is more the psychological climate of the times rather than a political call-to-arms. (pp. 414-15)
Frederick Richter, "Circles of Shame: 'Sheep' by Ōe Kenzaburō," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1974 by Newberry College), Fall, 1974, pp. 409-15.
Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is the best of [Ōe's] novels. Among those who will highly value it are parents, especially parents of retarded or autistic children. For doctors and other health-care personnel, it is prescribed as part of continuing education. The I-Thou experience, and beyond it the feeling for what Philip Berrigan calls Equal Jeopardy … are here exquisitely clear. As the courtroom scene in Wilder's Heaven's My Destination is a classic short comedy, the ophthalmological consultation in Teach Us is a drama of classic power.
The existential problem of stigma is met by Ōe as it is met by John Gardner, Bellow, Maxine Kingston: met, recognized, and then transcended. A man is fat to the point of disgust, blind, hypochondriacal. A child is moronic or autistic or blind or all three. The man is beautiful. The child is beautiful….
Ōe is a sophisticated and unerring writer, a great thinker and lover, not to be missed. (p. 198)
Cornelia Holbert, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1977 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), October, 1977.
Kenzaburō Ōe [is] the most talented writer to emerge in Japan after World War II. Like his previous publications (A Personal Matter, 1968,… and The Silent Cry, 1975), [Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness] is certain to surprise some Western readers who have come to expect delicate prose and exquisite imagery from a Japanese novelist. Having learned his craft from postwar American authors such as Norman Mailer and French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, rather than from The Tale of Genji, Ōe writes fiction that is more brutal and savage than exquisite or quaint….
"Prize Stock" [one of four novellas that compose the collection] is a tightly knit tale of a black American flier's captivity in a mountain village during the War. Ōe referred to it as a "pastoral." But what a pastoral! Ōe superimposes a mythic, primeval society on the village and reveals the nature of man and conditions of human existence through a densely woven pattern of animal images…. It is a powerful story that exploits all the elements of fiction. (p. 345)
The four novellas vary in technique and style as well as subject matter but are alike in the theme of alienation …, in their absurdist, ironic, black-comic view of life and the use of anti-heroes. Artistic excellence characterizes all four…. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is a book that should be read by everyone interested in contemporary fiction, for Ōe is as important a writer as Mailer or Updike. (pp. 345-46)
Emiko Sakurai, in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 2, Spring, 1978.