Kōbō Abe Abe, Kobo (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Kobo Abe 1924–-1993

(Also transliterated as Kôbô Abe and Kōbō Abē) Japanese short story writer, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and playwright.

The following entry provides information on Abe's short fiction career from 1983 through 2000.

Abe is viewed as one of the most significant writers to emerge from post-World War II Japan. His work as a short story writer, novelist, screenwriter, and playwright has been praised for its exploration of such existentialist themes as identity and alienation, and Abe is often referred to as the “Japanese Kafka.” His fiction has been perceived as a break with traditional Japanese literature and has been commended for its incorporation of universal concerns. Because Abe's work garnered attention internationally and was often translated into different languages, critics note that he helped to attract world attention to issues in postwar Japanese life.

Biographical Information

Abe was born on March 7, 1924, in Tokyo, Japan. He grew up in the ancient Manchurian city of Mukden, which was taken over by the Japanese in 1931. His disgust at the behavior of the occupying Japanese forces inspired a strong anti-nationalist feeling as well as an alienation from his own country, two themes that recur in his fiction. He attended Tokyo University and was granted an M.D. degree in 1948. That same year, his novella Owarishi michi no shirube ni, loosely translated as The Road Sign at the End of the Street, was published. Over the next several years he became a well-known avant-garde novelist and playwright in Japan. His acclaimed novel Suna no onna (1962; The Woman in the Dunes) was adapted into a celebrated film in 1965. In 1973 he became director and producer of the Kobo Theatre Workshop in Tokyo. He won several awards for his dramas, novels, and films, including the Kishida prize for drama in 1958 and the Yomiuri literature prize in 1962. He died of heart failure on January 22, 1993, in Tokyo.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Abe's short fiction is characterized by its urban settings and the incorporation of such thematic concerns as alienation, self-identity, and the role of the individual in society. In one of his earliest stories, “The Red Cocoon,” a man wanders through an urban area, unable to remember where he lives—if anywhere at all. After being chased from a park bench by a policeman, the man reflects on his deep sense of isolation and disaffection. The story is told as an inner monologue, a technique often used in Franz Kafka's fiction. “Dendrocacalia” chronicles the metamorphosis of a man named Common into a plant. Although Common valiantly fights this transformation, he ultimately fails. In “Irrelevant Death,” a man discovers a dead body on the floor of his apartment. Instead of informing the police, he attempts to dispose of the body on his own and pin the blame for the stranger's murder on someone else. In “The Crime of S. Karma,” an excerpt from the novella of the same name, a man wakes one morning with a hollow chest and no memory of his name. He comes to find that his name has abandoned him and stolen his job as well as his identity. The story follows his attempts to regain his name and identity.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Abe's works has been mixed. In Japan, many commentators have derided Abe's attempt to distance himself from Japanese literary conventions and view him as more of an international writer than a Japanese one. This assertion was seconded by Abe himself, who contended that he did not possess strong ties to his homeland. Western reviewers have often underlined the universal appeal of Abe's short fiction. They commend his use of urban settings and characters to explore themes of rootlessness, alienation, the loss of identity, and the search for meaning in life. Critics have pointed to Abe's work as an important transition in Japanese literature, from more traditional forms that existed before World War II to a more modern form that emerged after the war. His influence on contemporary Japanese authors, such as Murakami Haruki, has also been investigated. Abe's work is often compared to such Western writers as Kafka, Alain Robbe-Grille, Samuel Beckett, and Paul Auster. In particular, Kafka's impact on Abe's work has been a consistent topic of critical discussion.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Owarishi michi no shirube ni 1948

Kabe-S. Karuma shi no hansai 1951

Suichu toshi 1964

Yume no tobo 1968

Abe Kobo zensakuhin 1972-73

Warau Tsuki 1975

Beyond the Curve 1991

Kiga domei (novel) 1954

Seifuku (play) 1955

Kemonotachi wa kokyo o mezasu (novel) 1957

Daiyon kampyoki [Inter Ice Age Four] (novel) 1959

Yurei wa koko ni iru [Here Is a Ghost] (play) 1959

Ishi no me (novel) 1960

Suna no onna [The Woman in the Dunes] (novel) 1962

Tanin no kao [The Face of Another] (novel) 1964

Enomoto Buyo (novel) 1965

Omaenimo tsumi ga aru [You Too are Guilty] (novel) 1965

Moetsukita chizu [The Ruined Map] (novel) 1967

Tomodachi, enemoto takeaki [Friends] (play) 1967

Abe Kobe gikyoku zenshu (plays) 1970

Mihitsu no koi [Involuntary Homocide] (play) 1971

Uchinaro henkyo (essays) 1971

Ai no megane wa irogarasu [The Eyeglass of Love Is Colored Glass] (play) 1973

Hako otoko [The Box Man] (novel) 1973

Han gekiteki ningen (lectures) 1973

Hasso no shuhen (lectures) 1974

Midoriiro no stocking (play) 1974

Bo ni natta otoko [The Man Who Turned into a Stick] (play) 1975

Ue (play) 1975

Mikkai [Secret Rendezvous] (novel) 1977

Hakobune sakura maru [The Ark Sakura] (novel) 1988

Kangaru noto [Kangaroo Notebook] (novel) 1991

Rolf J. Goebel (essay date June 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Goebel, Rolf J. “Kōbō Abe: Japan's Kafka.” Newsletter of the Kafka Society of America, no. 1 (June 1983): 30-40.

[In the following essay, Goebel determines the influence of Franz Kafka on Abe's fiction.]

Kafka's influence upon Western authors has enjoyed thorough, if by no means exhaustive, critical investigation. His reception in East Asian countries, however, has so far been unduly neglected. Yet, if we wish to understand the complexities of Kafka's world-wide impact on modern literature, we have to examine also those Oriental writers who, in one way or another, perceive of Kafka as a literary precursor. Among these authors is Kōbō Abe, one of the leading figures of contemporary Japanese literature.

The significance of Kafka for the literary scene in Japan has its roots in the development of Japanese culture after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Overthrowing the feudalistic order of the Tokugawa Shogunate, this event returned the political power to the Imperial throne. Under the enlightened, progressive leadership of the Emperor Meiji, Japan entered the process of its rapid Westernization and modernization. Ever since, Japanese authors have turned to Western literature, most notably the psychological novel, in their search for innovative poetological models. Here they have tried to find literary techniques suitable for expressing the conflicts between their subjective worldview, moral vision, and strife toward individualistic self-realization on the one hand, and the demands and constraints of society on the other. The authors' sense of alienation, resulting from these contradictions, is reflected in the striking mood of despair, existential disorientation, loneliness and self-destruction prevailing in modern and contemporary Japanese fiction.1

Such concern with moral and social estrangement undoubtedly constitutes an essential factor in the process of the artistic and critical reception of Kafka in Japan. According to Junichi Kuroiwa, the close cultural relations between Germany and Japan fostered a wide array of translations of German authors after World War II. A Japanese translation of The Trial in 1940 initiated the reading public of Kafka. In 1950, The Castle, “The Metamorphosis,” “The Penal Colony,” “The Stoker,” “The Judgement,” and other major texts appeared, followed in 1952 by three different translations of “The Metamorphosis.” The Collected Works of Kafka were then published between 1953 and 1959. The impact of French Existentialism upon the intellectual scene of Postwar Japan also promoted the interest in Kafka. Other factors helped strengthen Kafka's reception in Japan: his ironical mythifications of Chinese Imperial history, the influence of a woodcut by the 19th century Japanese artist Hiroshige upon some passage in “Description of a Struggle,” and Kafka's consistent use of paradoxes which often defy interpretation through conventional (Western) logic while having an affinity with Oriental, particularly Taoist and Buddhist, thought. Nowadays, Kafka is widely read in Japanese colleges and universities. An impressive bibliography of scholarly books and articles testifies to the remaining interest of Japanese critics in this author. Last, but not least, contemporary Japanese writers continue to perceive in Kafka's writings a model for their own innovative fiction.2

Kōbō Abe is a case in point. Critics generally agree that there is a remarkable literary affinity between Kafka and Abe. Yet, to my knowledge, William Currie's study on “Metaphors of Alienation: The Fiction of Abe, Beckett and Kafka” is the only detailed investigation of this relationship to date. Currie focuses on the use of “strong, universal metaphors” of alienation in the fiction of these authors, particularly comparing Abe's novels The Woman in the Dunes, The Face of Another, and The Ruined Map To Kafka's America, The Trial, and The Castle, as well as to selected works by Beckett. Currie concentrates on three themes prevailing in these novels: “the individual's search for the ‘roots of existence’ that will serve to ground his identity; the difficulty people have in communicating with one another; and the discrepancy between the mind and the external world, or between inner and outer reality.”3 While my paper owes important insights to Currie's study, it hopes to go beyond his findings, especially by elaborating upon the narrative structure shared by Kafka and Abe, and by proposing the thesis that Abe's fiction is a synthesis of this structure with the traditional Japanese sensitivity to the impermanence of reality.

Ever since Abe won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1951, he has established himself as probably the leading Avantgarde novelist and playwright of his country. All of his major novels and some plays have been translated into English. The New York Times Magazine reported in 1979, that Abe is considered “Japan's only serious contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature,”4 Yasunari Kawabata being the last Japanese to receive it in 1968. Born on March 7, 1924 in Tokyo, Abe grew up in the Manchurian city of Shenyang (Mukden), where his father served as a physician in a Japanese colony. In 1940, Abe returned to Japan. Reluctantly, he later began to study medicine, without ever practising in this field. After the war, he left again for Manchuria, but went back to his native country after his father's death. Abe's constant change of abodes strikingly corresponds with his shifts in ideological convictions. Shaken by the repressive war atmosphere, he “longed to be a little fascist and also eagerly read Nietzsche, but it didn't work.”5 Eventually, he became disillusioned with right-winged ideology. Around 1950, he joined the Japanese Communist Party, where he remained active until 1956. However, he broke with this organization during his first journey to Europe, which also included a visit to Kafka's hometown, Prague.

This impermanence of both Abe's domiciles and his political beliefs undoubtedly accounts for his sharp sense of existential uprootedness and homelessness:

Essentially, I am a man without a hometown. That much I can say. And the feeling of hometownphobia which flows at the base of my emotions, may be attributable to my background. I am put off by anything which is valued only because it is stationary.6

Abe's deep distrust of any interpretation of the world as a constant and secure entity, his affirmation of reality as inherently unstable and impermanent, constitutes the predominant theme of his fiction. Critics have frequently minimized the significant debt of Abe's works to the Japanese literary tradition. Instead, they emphasized the importance of Western authors for his oeuvre.7 Yet, the acute awareness of the essential transitoriness and evanescence of reality, unmasking any supposedly constant this-worldly values as deceptive illusions, is a central concept prevailing throughout Japanese literary and philosophical history. It is expressed most clearly in the famous beginning of the thirteenth century epic Heike Monogatari:

The bell of the Gion Temple tolls into every man's heart to warn him that all is vanity and evanescence. The faded flowers of the sālā trees by the Buddha's deathbed bear witness to the truth that all who flourish are destined to decay. Yes, pride must have its fall, for it is as unsubstantial as a dream on a spring night. The brave and violent man—he too must die away in the end, like a whirl of dust in the wind.8

This pessimistic acknowledgement of the transitoriness of the world and the futility of all human endeavors is essentially akin to the Western, predominantly Christian, idea of the vanitas of all worldly matters. Particularly in aesthetics, however, the Japanese tradition also knows the emphatical affirmation, even admiration, of the impermanence of reality. Thus, a key passage from the Tsurezuregusa, or Essays in Idleness, written between 1330 and 1332 by the Buddhist priest Kenkō declares:

If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.9

Not despite of, but, on the contrary, precisely because of their transitoriness and evanescence, their ever-changing nature, do things awake intense and profound emotions—joyous or grievous ones—in the sensitive observer (mono no aware). Observing the evanescent brevity of the life span of small insects, Kenkō arrives at the insight that a truly serene human existence cannot be but a relatively short one. A long life is sooner or later marred by ugliness and shame. Once a man passes the age of forty, he becomes dependent on his needs to join the company of others and to witness with satisfaction the prosperity of his grandchildren. For Kenkō, then, man's pursuit of longevity and, implicitly, of existential stability and certainty, inevitably results in his subjection to inauthentic modes of life determined by inessential desires. At the same time, man deprives himself of all aesthetic sensitivity:

His preoccupation with worldly desires grows ever deeper, and gradually he loses all sensitivity to the beauty of things, a lamentable state of affairs.10

Seen in the light of this highly influential classic, Abe's celebration of the instability of human existence and reality reveals its striking affinity to an indigenous concept of the Japanese tradition, radically intensifying, to be sure, its existential implications. Significantly, Abe himself concedes that he might have experienced “an unconscious influence from traditional works” of Japanese literature.11 It is my central thesis that, in his oeuvre, Abe achieves a modernist synthesis of the traditional Japanese affirmation of the ever-transient nature of reality with a narrative and thematic structure anticipated, and most possibly influenced, by Kafka's fiction. For the latter author's works, in their own way, also depict reality as unexpectedly unstable, uncertain, and unreliable. Most of Kafka's narratives reveal this disposition of reality by describing the uncanny subversion of the deceptively normal and secure world of the protagonist by a paradoxical and enigmatic counter-reality, which introduces radical changes into the life of this character and consequently undermines his (and the reader's) conventional conceptions.12 Gregor Samsa's infantile, petit-bourgeois value system is challenged by his metamorphosis into a beetle, Josef K.'s self-assured reliance upon legal order is destroyed by the impenetrable court, and the land surveyor K.'s claim to social recognition is rendered futile by the pseudo-mythic power hierarchy of the Castle bureaucracy. The inexplicable counter-realities constitute the objective correlatives of the protagonist's inescapable entanglement in the contradictions, biases, and fallacies of their subjective consciousness. This predicament leads to their distorting perception and evaluation of reality, which they consequently experience as incomprehensible and hostile. Hence, the protagonists' sense of isolation, estrangement from society, and loss of self-identity.13 Kafka's narrative disfiguration of empirical reality and his theme of alienation, then, constitute a structural correlation.

Abe recalls that his first reading of Kafka was accompanied by an acute shock of recognition:

I read Kafka after I had become a writer. I was really shocked when I read him for the first time. I felt a sense of relatedness, of someone very close to me.

And Abe justifies this relatedness by explicitly revealing the correspondence between alienation and the...

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Mark Woodhouse (review date 1 April 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Woodhouse, Mark. Review of Beyond the Curve, by Kobo Abe. Library Journal 116 (1 April 1991): 148.

[In the following essay, Woodhouse offers a favorable assessment of Beyond the Curve.]

This collection of stories [Beyond the Curve] is a significant offering from the well-established author best known for The Woman in the Dunes (1964). The usual comparisons to Kafka are unavoidable. In one story, a man finds himself turning into a plant, and the themes of alienation and disorientation in the face of urban life and oppressive political and social systems are pervasive and relentless. More subtle systems of thought are sometimes hinted at rather than explicated, however, and the disorientation so skillfully induced in the reader is sometimes left unresolved. This might not be to everyone's taste, but for those interested in Abe's work or in the future of serious Japanese fiction, this is an entertaining and fascinating volume. Some stories have the feel of sketches that might be further developed in Abe's longer fiction, and the influence on a new generation of writers, such as Haruki Murakami, can be readily seen. Recommended.

Margaret Mitsutani (review date July-September 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Mitsutani, Margaret. “Abe Kōbō's Early Short Fiction.” Japan Quarterly 38, no. 3 (July-September 1991): 347-49.

[In the following essay, Mitsutani applauds the broad range of Abe's stories in Beyond the Curve, maintaining that it gives readers “the opportunity for a fresh perspective on one of the most familiar of modern Japanese writers.”]

The name of Abe Kōbō has been familiar to English readers for over 25 years now, ever since E. Dale Saunders's translation of Woman in the Dunes (1962; tr. 1964)—probably still Abe's best-known novel in the English-speaking world—appeared in 1964, the same year in which Teshigahara Hiroshi's...

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The Economist (review date 3 August 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sand and Tendrils.” The Economist 320, no. 7718 (3 August 1991): 82.

[In the following essay, the reviewer provides a positive assessment of Beyond the Curve.]

“This is the story of how Common became a dendrocacalia.” So runs the opening line of a short story in which Kobo Abe, perhaps Japan's most renowned novelist, turns a man who is tired of city life into a plant. It can now be read in English in a collection of Mr Abe's short stories, Beyond the Curve, published by Kodansha International. The collection shows Mr Abe at his best, full of wry humour and images of self-defeat, and obsessed with the idea that alienation is the natural condition...

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Julian Loose (review date 27 September 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Loose, Julian. “Fact and Fuikkushion.” Times Literary Supplement (27 September 1991): 13-14.

[In the following mixed review of Beyond the Curve, Loose contends that although Abe “was first recognized for his short stories, this collection suggests that Abe's genius, which is for the detailed and eerily logical elaboration of an absurd or unthinkable situation, requires the larger scope of a novel or play.”]

Although Kobo Abe belonged to the same generation as Mishima, his rejection of the prevailing naturalism and lack of interest in earlier Japanese culture are often seen as marking a distinct literary shift. Yet Abe shares with Mishima an...

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Scott M. Lewis (review date 1 October 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Lewis, Scott M. “Beyond the Curve: Kobo Abe Short Stories.” Magill Book Reviews (1 October 1991): n. p.

[In the following review of Beyond the Curve, Lewis addresses the theme of identity in Abe's short stories.]

Beyond the Curve is the first collection of Abe's stories to appear in English. These twelve stories, written between 1949 and 1966, concern the fragile identity of protagonists who are confused strangers lost in the postwar landscape. Almost all of the stories are narrated in the first person, drawing the reader into the neurotic thoughts of protagonists trapped in claustrophobic situations. In “The Irrelevant Death,” a...

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Raymond Lamont-Brown (essay date July 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Lamont-Brown, Raymond. “Kobo Abe: Japan's Novelist of Alienation.” Contemporary Review 263, no. 1530 (July 1993): 31-3.

[In the following essay, Lamont-Brown traces Abe's literary development.]

Kobo Abe was born in Tokyo on March 7, 1924. He was taken by his family to Mukden when he was barely a year old and thus spent his early years in the Japanese puppet-state of Manchukuo. Abe's ancestral origins were in Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido, and his father, a doctor of medicine, taught at the medical school at Mukden. In Japan it is important to have identifiable roots in a furusato (hometown) setting. Abe never felt that he had this...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Seaman, Donna. Review of Beyond the Curve, by Kobo Abe. Booklist 87 (15 March 1991): 1451.

Favorable review of Beyond the Curve.

Ury, Marian. “Invasion of the Apartment Snatchers.” New York Times Book Review (17 March 1991): 13-14.

Identifies human isolation, the fragility of identity, and the role of memory as major thematic concerns in the stories comprising Beyond the Curve.

Additional coverage of Abe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65–68, 140; Contemporary Authors New Revision...

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