Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 840
Although Kb (Kimifusa) Abe’s parents lived in Manchuria, China, where his father worked as a doctor, he was born in Tokyo in 1924 because his father had brought the family back to Japan in order to conduct some research. His mother, like his father, was from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, and she had written novels as a young woman. The young Abe and his mother moved to Hokkaido temporarily in 1931 to avoid the Japanese invasion of the Chinese mainland.
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Both Manchuria and Hokkaido are important in that they represent the only frontier lands that many Japanese would ever have the opportunity to experience, and they were also the only places where the significance of “being Japanese” was not a given. Those living in these marginal places were not completely excluded nor were they wholly accepted by mainstream Japanese society. This fact is reflected in Abe’s writings, in which he portrays Manchuria as a bleak, flat, hostile place and Hokkaido as a land of promise, a Japanese “wild west.”
Though Abe grew up in a colonial setting, his school books were those issued by the Ministry of Education in Japan, so he had read textbook descriptions about the landscape of Japan with its mountains, rivers, and cherry blossoms, but in Manchuria, he knew only plains and no cherry trees. On occasions when he was scolded by teachers, he was told that “a child back home would never do such a thing,” reinforcing in Abe’s mind the fact that he was not a typical Japanese. Abe has commented on how he grew to doubt the significance of belonging to any nation or to any society.
In 1943, Abe entered medical school in Tokyo at the strong urging of his father, and although Abe took no pleasure in his studies, the training may have contributed to his ability to make precise descriptions and to look on situations and on people with emotional detachment. He remarked jokingly that he was allowed to graduate only on the condition that he never practice medicine. Abe began writing fiction upon his graduation from medical school. His first long work, Owarishi michi shirube ni (the road sign at the end of the road) was published in 1948.
When Abe was in his early twenties, he met and married Machiko Yamada, who would be his lifelong companion and artistic collaborator. A brilliant artist in her own right, she designed the covers for most of Abe’s books as well as sets for the Abe Studio productions. They had one child, a daughter, Neri, who became a physician and writer in Tokyo.
In Manchuria the concept of the “harmony of the five races” had instilled in Abe a sense of the equality of all peoples, but when he watched the behavior of the Japanese, which contrasted so greatly with what he had been taught, he felt frustration and anger. This experience may have contributed to his attraction to the Japanese Communist Party, which he joined. Even before his writing began to receive literary awards, Abe was involved with party operations. Trips to Eastern Europe in the late 1950’s provided direct exposure to a communistic society, and he became disillusioned. It was, however, in this part of the world that his work first received international attention. Abe’s play Friends, the story of a man whose home is invaded by unwanted visitors, slipped past the censors and provided its audiences with an allegorical comment on their own situation. His criticism of the Japanese Communist Party led to his expulsion from the party.
Following a period of poverty and hardship in which he and his young wife lived in Tokyo and sold charcoal and pickles on the street, the 1950’s proved to be very productive and increasingly prosperous for Abe. He published more than a dozen short stories, four major novels, a collection of political essays, and a collection of film criticism. He also staged seven plays, released a film that he had written, and broadcast a dozen radio plays or teleplays.
The 1960’s were also successful, and his work included the works for which he is best known: the stage play Friends and the novel The Woman in the Dunes. Other major works of the period include the novels Inter Ice Age 4, Tanin no kao (1964; The Face of Another, 1966), and Moetsukita chizu (1967; The Ruined Map, 1969); the stage play You, Too, Are Guilty; and the film versions of The Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another.
In 1971, Abe formed his own theater troupe, the Abe Studio. For the next seven years, the studio held one or two productions a year, most of them written by Abe. He worked not only on scripts but also on sets, lighting, direction, and musical scores. Abe continued his work in various genres throughout the 1980’s, but in the early 1990’s, his health began to fail. The last novel he would see in print, Kangar nto (The Kangaroo Notebook, 1996), was published in 1991. In 1992, he was hospitalized and died of heart failure on January 22, 1993.