Kōbō Abe Drama Analysis

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Kb Abe’s background may have been a prime influence in his coming to occupy a central position among Japanese avant-garde writers. Though he was born in Japan, being brought up in Manchuria isolated him from mainstream Japanese life. The sense of alienation and utter isolation he experienced provided one of the most powerful themes that would emerge in almost all of his work. Many of Abe’s sources were not Japanese; therefore, his work appealed to an international audience, and a substantial number of his plays were translated into English and other languages.

Although Abe’s earlier works were relatively structured and linear, they were characterized by social satire, allegory, and black humor. The later experimental plays moved away from allegorical social criticism toward allegories involving dream imagery, and some of the later plays were freely created in rehearsals.


Two themes that would be evident in much of Abe’s later work, the censure of others’ suffering and the rejection of what Abe felt to be Japan’s self-victimization, are particularly clear in this 1955 play, Seifuku (uniform). In this allegorical play, a broken old soldier who wears the ragged uniform of a colonial police officer and is stranded at a port in North Korea in 1945 represents Japan’s colonial experience, which left the nation impoverished and unable to shed its disgrace. In the old soldier, the play depicts the Japanese colonial spirit, which has been broken and is stranded on a foreign shore, unable to return home. All the characters fulfill an allegorical role: the innocent youth of Korea, the conscience of Japan, and the spirit of Japanese womanhood, symbol of hearth and home.


In Friends, his most successful play, Abe critiques Japanese communal values, which he views as stifling of individual creativity. One evening, a family of strangers bursts into the apartment of a man who enjoys his solitude in order, they say, to save him from his loneliness. Although he resists their forced companionship, he is unable to remove them from his home. Finally, he dies, a victim of their aggressive communality. The play portrays the consequences of social pressures and the kind of mandatory communal spirit a communist totalitarianism would inflict on the citizenry. Abe had broken with the Communist Party just a few years before the play appeared.

The Man Who Turned into a Stick

Abe dealt with the theme of the exploitation of one group of people by another in a number of his plays, but perhaps the consequences of this behavior are most clearly investigated in The Man Who Turned into a Stick. Abe explained the play as depicting the alienation occurring in modern society, in which a sticklike man who has no reason for existence except being used by others is punished from within himself precisely for being a stick. The man turns into an actual stick, falling from the roof of a department store as his son watches. Two characters have to find the stick and take it with them to Hell, where they are employed specifically to gather up all the sticks into which many people have turned. The message is clear: In a world in which people are merely tools—the source of another’s livelihood—there is no room for mercy or sentimentality.

The Green Stockings

By depicting characters who could not possibly exist, Abe intended to administer a shock to the theatrical form. The Green Stockings moves away from Abe’s socially critical works toward interior-oriented plays with dreamlike allegorical qualities with no obvious reference to the exterior, real world. Pajama-clad Man stands center stage against the backdrop of a dreamscape...

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of an immense wild field. Man, initially a narrator, turns into a nameless main character, a go-between for the performers and the audience.

Man is obsessed with lingerie and, in an effort to transcend everyday existence, raids clotheslines for items, including green stockings, on Mondays and Fridays. Not satisfied, Man attempts suicide, and although a doctor offers him a new life as a grass-eating man, his emptiness prevails. The play poses the difficult question of whether reality, fiction, and dream are distinguishable even in one’s mind.

Ue: Shin doreigari

Built around a hoax in which two characters pretend to be an exotic species of animal, Ue: Shin doreigari (the new slave hunters) may be the quintessential Abe Studio production. A professor receives a box containing a pair of ue along with instructions and a note reading “Limited only by your imagination! You may put these remarkable creatures to any use you wish.” Actually, the ue are the sister of the professor’s daughter-in-law and her husband, participating in a game to extort money from the professor by his son. At first dubious, the professor succumbs to a yearning to believe that animals that look just like human beings could exist. The fake ue become human, and the rest of the household also assume animal identities that correspond to their latent qualities.

The Little Elephant Is Dead

The full Japanese title for this play when it was performed in the United States is Koz wa shinda: Nikutai + ongaku + kotoba + imeiji no shi (The Little Elephant Is Dead: Bodies + music + words = image poem). This title demonstrates what happens when words are supplanted by integrated but diffuse information. As Abe’s last play, it provides a good means of measuring the departures from his earliest works as well as the continuities. The play is especially difficult to comprehend, for the underlying “logic” is not logic, but the illogic of a world of dreams. The Little Elephant Is Dead comes as close to a purely gestural theater as is possible.


Kōbō Abe Long Fiction Analysis