Kōbō Abe Abe, Kobo (Short Story Criticism)

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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...

(The entire section is 24,358 words.)