Rolf J. Goebel (essay date June 1983)

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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...

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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 disfiguration of empirical reality in Kafka's (and Edgar Allan Poe's) works as the narrative model for his own fiction:

Kafka's way is different from the ordinary way of approaching ideas. Both he and Poe disclosed to me how to share something with other beings, outside the conventional pattern. It seems to me that Kafka's search has to do with how two absolutely lonely, solitary beings can make conversation with each other. In that sense Poe and Kafka create a sense of being in accord, each sounding the same note. It is a question that I concern myself with—this theme of loneliness.14

The literary topography of Kafka's scenarios of alienation is predominantly the anonymous labyrinth of the big city, modelled after his autobiographical experience of his life-long urban prison, Prague. Abe conceives of this relation between loneliness and metropolitan life as a phenomenon which is universal, yet, at the same time, a new experience for the modern Japanese society:

I think first of all that loneliness is universal. … And it is one of my central concerns. But you know, as a matter of fact, it is a new theme for the Japanese. The reason is that the concept of loneliness appeared in the urban mode of life. … Unless the cities were established, the theme would never have emerged.15

The following analysis of three exemplary works attempts to show how Abe employs Kafka's narrative model of human alienation in a disfigured reality, crucially modifying it, however, in accordance with his indigenously Japanese affirmation of the all-prevailing instability and impermanence of reality.

Abe accomplishes this innovative task, not coincidentally, by means of a literary key motif which is, again, a typically Kafkian one: the transformation of a human being from one physical or psychological state into another.16 In Kafka's story “The Metamorphosis,” the transformation of Gregor Samsa into a beetle functions as a symbol of his alienation from a society which is clearly shaped by the concrete class situation of the European Petite-Bourgeoisie around the turn of the century, trapped by their values of social respectability, subordination to hierarchical authority, and strife for material success. In several early short stories, Abe explores further possibilities of the metamorphosis theme, but eliminates any such concrete historical and social factors. Instead, these texts are abstract parables of man's isolated existence in an anonymous city transcending any particular sociological milieu.

Typical of these early stories is “Red Cocoon.”17 The text is an inner monologue of a man, like so many of Kafka's protagonists without a name, who wanders through an urban labyrinth, having “no place to go” (“Red Cocoon,” p. 47). He is unable to convince the proprietress of a house selected at random that there is supposedly no reason why her residence should not, in fact, be his own. He then is chased away from a park bench by a policeman reminiscent of Kafka's anonymous, inscrutable authority figures. Thus, the man wonders: “Do they mean me when they talk about the wandering Jew?” (“Red Cocoon,” p. 48). For Abe, as he explains in a lengthy essay, the Jews, deprived of any “ties to the soil” by racist ideologies and forced to live in the big cities, exemplify the alienation, homelessness and uprootedness of modern urbanized man in general:

Are things Jewish urban, or are things urban Jewish? So deep is the relationship between the Jew and the city that the qualities of the two appear virtually reversible.18

This representative function of the Jewish fate, in Abe's view, lends universality to the work of the Jewish author Kafka and its preoccupation with urban alienation. By the same token, it has particular significance for the Japanese:

Somehow the void in which the special characteristics of a Kafka take on universal meaning, would seem to be right around the corner, only, in Japan, where there are no Jews, the matter tends to focus itself on the conflict between the urban and the anti-urban.19

Seen in this context, the reference which the anonymous protagonist of “Red Cocoon” makes to the archetypal figure of the Wandering Jew establishes the problem of urban estrangement and isolation as the central theme of the story. At the same time, the text pays implicit tribute to Franz Kafka as a literary precursor figure. This poetological affinity becomes obvious through the introduction of the metamorphosis motif in Abe's text. Unable to achieve integration into society, the man suddenly discovers that “a bit of sticky silk thread” winds out of a crack in his shoe. When he pulls at it, his legs begin to shrink and gradually his whole body unravels. As in Kafka's texts, the conceptions of the protagonist are radically undermined by this intrusion of a paradoxical counter-reality: “I wonder if the earth's axis has tilted, changing the direction of gravity?” Eventually, the thread “enveloped my whole body in a silken bag yet continued even then to unwind, unravelling me as it filled the bag in from the inside” (“Red Cocoon,” p. 49). The transformation of the man into an empty integument functions as an objective correlative of his total estrangement from society, reification, and loss of self-identity. The end of the story reflects Abe's distrust of man's attachment to any stability and existential ties. The man attempts to interpret his cocoon as his new home:

Now I can rest at last. … Beyond a doubt this is my own house and no one can disturb me. Yes, I have a house now, but there is no me to come home to it.

(“Red Cocoon,” p. 49 f.)

Like Kafka's protagonists, the man remains trapped in his subjective consciousness, as he continues to pursue his futile search for a homestead, only reluctantly admitting the sheer absurdity of his “new home.” The ironical aporia underlying the man's formulation unmasks his ideal of existential security as a deceptive illusion. Reality puts a final stamp on his fate when an anonymous passerby, probably the policeman, picks him up and transfers him “to his little boy's toy box” (“Red Cocoon,” p. 50). The story's provocative effect upon the reader derives in particular from its paradoxical point-of-view technique. For, although the narrative consciousness of the text is that of a man undergoing a gradual transformation from his human existence into an inanimate object—a highly anti-realistic motif—the narrative form of the text is that of an interior monologue, rendering the perceptions and reflections of the protagonist in the (mock-) naturalistic fashion of conventional psychological I-narration. Thus, the text, similar to Kafka's works, subverts and ridicules traditional genres of realistic fiction, asserting its non-mimetic autonomy over against the conventional expectations and interpretative customs of the reader.

Many of Abe's later novels, most notably The Woman in the Dunes (1962),20 can be read as elaborations on, and variations of, his innovative adaptation of the Kafkian metamorphosis theme. Here, however, Abe abandons the motif of physical transformation, shifting the problem to more complex inner, subjective changes of the protagonist's consciousness. Thus, he partially returns to more psychological fiction, maintaining, however, the Kafkian narrative structure of the conflict between the conventional world of the protagonist and the ever-shifting, paradoxically uncertain counter-reality.

In The Woman in the Dunes, this fictional model is actualized in the situation of the main character, Niki Jumpei, who is unexpectedly alienated from his routine existence as an obscure school teacher when he becomes trapped in a deep sand pit while collecting insects in the dunes. Kept prisoner by the inhabitants of a nearby village, he is forced to live in the company of an enigmatic woman who spends her days protecting her house from the ever-drifting sands. Under these circumstances, Niki has to adapt himself to a challenging new reality devoid of any false stability and reliability. Even before his entrapment in the pit, the text reveals this meaning of the sand world:

The sands never rested. … This image of the flowing sand made an indescribably exciting impact on the man. … Certainly sand was not suitable for life. Yet, was a stationary condition absolutely indispensable for existence? Didn't unpleasant competition arise precisely because one tried to cling to a fixed position? If one were to give up a fixed position and abandon oneself to the movements of the sands, competition would soon stop. … While he mused on the effect of the flowing sands, he was seized from time to time by hallucinations in which he himself began to move with the flow.

(Woman, p. 14 f.)

The sand dune, then, constitutes a world of impermanence and insecurity transcending all constraints of ordinary society. Abe's concept of reality here owes as much to Kafka's paradoxical counter-worlds as it seeks recourse to the traditional Japanese concept of the never-ceasing transiency of all things. While Abe uses sand as a metaphor for this experience, Kamo no Chōmei, the author of the early thirteenth century Buddhist classic Hōjōki (An Account of my Hut) employs water to convey the idea of a reality forever in flux:

The flow of the river is ceaseless, and its water is never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration: so in the world are man and his dwellings.21

Kamo no Chōmei's philosophy, it is true, is deeply pessimistic and skeptical, leading to his firm renunciation of the world. In Abe's novel, in contrast, the ever-shifting nature of the sand dune provides threatening, yet at the same time promising, space for an internal metamorphosis opening up new life perspectives, opportunities, possibilities, discoveries.

At first, however, Niki Jumpei, like Kafka's protagonists, attempts to cope with, and fight against, the challenges of this ever-elusive sand reality through shallow rationalization and stubborn self-righteousness:

This entire nightmare could not be happening. It was too outlandish. Was it permissible to snare, exactly like a mouse or an insect, a man who had his certificate of medical insurance, someone who had paid his taxes, who was employed, and whose family records were in order? He could not believe it. Perhaps there was some mistake; it was bound to be a mistake. There was nothing to do but assume that it was a mistake.

(Woman, p. 51)

Niki's reasoning finds a striking anticipation in Josef K.'s false confidence in, and fallaciously optimistic reliance upon, legalistic codes and bureaucratic order when he is arrested by the representatives of the court:

Who could these men be? What were they talking about? What authority could they represent? K. lived in a country with a legal constitution, there was universal peace, all laws were in force; who dared seize him in his own dwelling?22

Both K. and Niki, then, mobilize ineffective notions of societal stability, security, and authority in their attempt to ward off the menacing subversion of existential conventionality by an indiscernible, incalculable, and unpredictable future. In Kafka's texts, such erroneous approach to life results in the protagonists' inevitable failure to come to terms with the challenges posed by the enigmatic institutions of domination and authority. They remain inescapably trapped in the endless mazes of these power systems. This predicament deprives them of their last residues of existential autonomy and eventually results in their humiliating death.

Abe significantly revises this negative pattern in accordance with his affirmation of open impermanence, instability, and change. In his works, the subversion of the protagonists' false dependence upon social order and constraints forces them to strive for a new, more authentic mode of living. When Niki Jumpei fails to escape from the sand pit, he sets up a trap for catching crows. To his surprise, this device, which he, significantly enough, calls “hope,” is able to collect water owing to the capillary action of the sand which pumps water into a bucket. Niki's achievement renders him independent from water supplied by the villagers. This experience crucially changes his entire life, giving him genuine self-confidence, inner freedom, and self-identity: “The change in the sand corresponded to a change in himself. Perhaps, along with the water in the sand, he had found a new self” (Woman, p. 236). He decides to stay in the sand pit in order to share his life with the woman.

In Abe's novel The Box Man (1973),23 Kafka's narrative structure and the theme of existential metamorphosis take on yet another innovative dimension. The text is Abe's most radical avantgarde work to date. Playfully, it destroys all the literary conventions of the traditional novel as it relinquishes any consistent plot, psychologically developed characters, discernible space and time structure, and homogeneous narrative point-of-view. Thus, Abe's technique deliberately misleads the reader as it undermines his expectations of customary narrative logic, coherence, and comprehensibility. Abe, himself, readily admits that “The Box Man is an unconventional novel. The structure is quite unique. There are many tricks, but I don't think they can be understood, even by the careful reader.”24 The novel's poetological self-mystification, its retreat into inexplicable paradoxes, contradictions, and ambiguities, is a formal device obviously in the tradition of Kafka's enigmatic parables. It corresponds precisely with the “content”—if we can still use this traditional term—of the novel, the retreat of a man into a cardbox put over his head and serving as his portable “home.” Wandering through the “anonymous city that exists for its nameless inhabitants” (Box Man, p. 14), the box man deliberately renounces any existential security and routine in order to attain absolute autonomy in a challenging reality of utter instability, impermanence, and unexpected changes. Here, Abe revises Kafka's narrative model in such a way that the metamorphosis does not signify psychological regression, dependence on authoritarian family order, humiliation, and eventual death, as is the case in Gregor Samsa's story. On the contrary, the protagonist's self-transformation into a box man promises total release from social constraints, obligations, and forms of domination. Metamorphosis in Abe's novel provides for potential emancipation in a reality of boundless openness:

I personally feel that a box, far from being a dead end, is an entrance to another world. I don't know to where, but an entrance to somewhere, some other world.

(Box Man, p. 18 f.)

From the perspective of the box, the man develops a more profound and penetrating view of reality in all its complexity:

… a box man's eyes cannot be deceived. Looking out from the box, he sees through the lies and secret intentions concealed behind the scenery.

(Box Man, p. 25)

Here, Kafka's technique, rendering external reality almost exclusively from the subjective perspective of the alienated protagonist, is carried to its utmost, paradoxical extreme. Undergoing infinite transformations—the Kafkian metamorphosis theme in its most radically epistemological manifestation—reality loses all its objective factuality. As the purely artistic invention of an unidentifiable, supra-individualistic narrative voice, reality dissolves increasingly into mere chimerical fantasy and playfully contrived fiction. Reality, as narrated within Abe's novel proves to be synonymous with the novel itself. Thus, the novel's sole “purpose” is the self-reflexive investigation, and ironical questioning, of the act of writing per se. To a large degree anticipated by central texts of Kafka, most notably the exegesis of the legend “Before the Law” in The Trial, his “Prometheus,” or his “On Parables,” this self-referential mode of narration testifies most significantly to the poetological affinity between Kafka and Kōbō Abe.


  1. Cf. Hisaaki Yamanouchi, The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature (Cambridge, London, New York, New Rochelle, Melbourne, Sydney: Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. 1-5.

  2. Cf. Junichi Kuroiwa, “Die Aufnahme in den einzelnen Ländern: Japan,” in Kafka-Handbuch in zwei Bänden, Vol. 2: Das Werk und seine Wirkung (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1979), pp. 732-743.

  3. William Joseph Currie, “Metaphors of Alienation: The Fiction of Abe, Beckett and Kafka,” Diss. The University of Michigan, 1973, p. 4.

  4. “Japan's Kafka Goes on the Road,” The New York Times Magazine, April 29, 1979, p. 33. The title of my paper and the following biographical information on Abe are taken from this article.

  5. Ibid., p. 76.

  6. Quoted from: “Translator's Note” to Abe Kōbō, “The Frontier Within” (I), trans. Andrew Horvat, Japan Quarterly 22, No. 2 (April-June 1975), 143. For a detailed discussion of Abe's concept of “home” see Currie, p. 30 ff.

  7. Cf., e.g., Nancy S. Hardin, “An Interview with Abé Kobo,” Contemporary Literature 15, No. 4 (Autumn 1974), 441: “One looks in vain for the influences of the more traditional Japanese literary forms such as the Noh,” or: William F. Van Wert, “Levels of Sexuality in the Novels of Kobo Abe,” The International Fiction Review 6, No. 2 (Summer 1979), p. 129: “While his [Abe's] figurative language remains essentially Japanese …, his themes are decidedly Western.” Even J. Thomas Rimer, Modern Japanese Fiction and its Traditions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978) notes: “Abe's style is closer to that of Kafka, or Beckett, than to any Japanese model” (p. 265). Rimer does, however, discuss a substantial legacy of the Japanese tradition in Abe's novel The Box Man, reflected in its thematic affinity to the Genji Monogatari, the Heike Monogatari, and Kamo no Chōmei's Hōjōki (p. 263), as well as in its device of enumerating suggestive commonplace objects serving as correlatives of the protagonist's mentality. Such listings frequently occur in traditional Japanese works like The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon or Ihara Saikaku's novels (pp. 268 ff.).

  8. The Tale of Heike. Heike Monogatari, trans. Hiroshi Kitagawa and Bruce T. Tsuchida, with a foreword by Edward Seidensticker (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1975), p. 5.

  9. Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenko, trans. Donald Keene (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967), p. 7. Cf. Keene's “Introduction,” p. xviii.

  10. Ibid., p. 8. For a detailed discussion of mono no aware see Makoto Ueda, Literary and Art Theories in Japan (Cleveland, Ohio: The Press of Western Reserve University, 1967), pp. 196-213 (on Motoori Norinaga).

  11. Quoted from Hardin, 441.

  12. Cf., Herbert Kraft, Kafka. Wirklichkeit und Perspektive (Bebenhausen: Rotsch, 1972), p. 39 ff. The term “counter-reality” I use with reference to Martin Walser's “Gegenwelt.” Cf. his Beschreibung einer Form (München: Hanser, 1961). On Abe's comparable employment of this structure cf. Currie, p. 34.

  13. Cf., Jürgen Kobs, Kafka. Untersuchungen zu Bewusstsein und Sprache seiner Gestalten (Bad Homburg: Athenäum, 1970), and Peter U. Beicken, “Perspektive und Sehweise bei Kafka,” Diss. Stanford University, 1971.

  14. Hardin, 452.

  15. Ibid., 452 f.

  16. Cf. Fumiko Yamamoto, “Metamorphosis in Abe Kōbō's Works,” Journal of The Association of Teachers of Japanese, 15, No. 2, pp. 170-94. A thorough analysis of the metamorphosis theme in Abe's earlier works, this article only briefly mentions Kafka (p. 171; p. 193, n. 23).

  17. Trans. John Nathan. In: New Writing in Japan, eds. Yukio Mishima and Geoffrey Bownas (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 47-50. Subsequent page references in the text are to this edition. Cf. Currie, p. 14 f., and Yamamoto, p. 178 f.

  18. “The Frontier Within” (I), 138.

  19. “The Frontier Within” (II), Japan Quarterly 22, No. 3 (July-September 1975), 257.

  20. Kobo Abé, The Woman in the Dunes, trans. E. Dale Saunders (New York: Vintage Books, 1972). Subsequent page references in the text are to this edition. My interpretation derives important insights from Currie's dissertation, pp. 30-66, and the same author's “Abe Kobo's nightmare world of sand: The Woman in the Dunes” in: Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel, eds. Kinya Tsuruta and Thomas E. Swann (Tokyo: Sophia University Press, 1976). pp. 1-18. Cf. also Yamamoto's brief mention of this novel with respect to the metamorphosis theme (190 f.).

  21. Trans. Donald Keene. In: Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century, ed. Donald Keene (New York: Grove Press, 1955), p. 197.

  22. Franz Kafka, The Trial, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, rev. E. M. Butler (New York: The Modern Library, 1937), p. 7.

  23. Kobo Abe, The Box Man, trans. E. Dale Saunders (New York: Perigee, 1980). Subsequent page references in the text are to this edition.

  24. Hardin, 447.


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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 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.

Mark Woodhouse (review date 1 April 1991)

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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.

Principal Works

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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

Margaret Mitsutani (review date July-September 1991)

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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 haunting monochrome film based on it received international acclaim. With a total of eight full-length novels, two plays, and a smattering of short fiction tucked away in anthologies and magazines currently available in English translation, Abe has achieved a firm position in the Western canon of modern Japanese literature as a writer who has made a radical departure from both the aesthetic worlds of Mishima Yukio (1925-1970), Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972), and Tanizaki Jun'ichirō (1886-1965) and the watakushi-shōsetsu (I-novel) tradition represented by Shiga Naoya (1883-1971).

Beyond the Curve is a valuable addition to the Abe canon in English not only because it is the first collection of his short fiction to appear in translation but also because it includes some of his earliest work, thus for the first time providing English readers with a clear view of Abe's point of departure as a writer. “Dendrocacalia,” the earliest of these stories, first appeared in 1949, when Abe was in his mid-20s; also included are “The Crime of S. Karma,” an excerpt from The Crime of S. Karma—the Wall [The Wall: The Crime of S. Kamura], which won him the Akutagawa Prize in 1951, and “Intruders” and “An Irrelevant Death,” the two stories on which the plays Friends (1967; tr. 1971) and You Too Are Guilty (1965; tr. 1979) were based. The collection, therefore, gives the opportunity for a reassessment of Abe's early career—to see how well his early short fiction holds up under the gap of several decades and to reexamine some of the preconceptions that have formed around Abe, such as the tendency both in Japan and abroad to regard him as a “Japanese Kafka.” (In a 1985 interview, Abe said that although Franz Kafka (1883-1924) had become extremely important to him, he did not actually begin to read Kafka until he had already been writing for some time.)

It is probably in the best interests of both Kafka and Abe to avoid connecting these two writers in terms of literary influence, which in any case is extremely difficult to detect and measure accurately. However, as Kafka weaves elements of popular Czech culture, such as the carnival, into his sinister fables of modern life, so are many of Abe's universal tales deeply rooted in the reality of everyday Japanese life. Residents of Japan will recognize familiar elements of the Japanese landscape in, for instance, the coffee shops that play important roles in “Dendrocacalia” and “Beyond the Curve” and in the meishi (business card) that usurps the protagonist's identity in “The Crime of S. Karma.”

It is likewise hard to imagine a story like “Intruders” happening anywhere but Tokyo—the sheer number of bodies in this metropolis, for the most part inadequately housed, seems to have given Abe his inspiration here. Probably few readers would dispute the literary superiority of Friends, in which Abe exposes the horror that lies hidden in that dearest of Japanese myths: that true happiness can only be found in the midst of a loving (or not so loving) family and that to be alone is a fate worse than death. (The recent establishment in Tokyo of an organization to assert the rights of people who live alone would indicate that this myth is still very much alive.) While not as polished as Friends, however, “Intruders” is also chillingly effective. In the earlier story, the protagonist's privacy is invaded not in the name of spurious love but on purely ideological terms. The family of nine intruders operates on the lofty principles of democracy, humanism, freedom, and justice; all decisions are reached on the basis of majority rule with K, the hapless protagonist, invariably the only one in opposition. Except for the 17-year-old daughter, the intruders make no pretense of loving K; they continually brand him a fascist for stubbornly refusing to support their culturally superior way of life. As the Czech translator Vlasta Winkelhöferová observed in 1968, a parallel for ideologically justified invasions from Hitler to Vietnam—and to this we might add the recent Gulf War—can be found in the black humor of this tale.

Yet in addition to stories like “Intruders” that achieve universality in an unmistakenly Japanese context, there is also a strain of the picaresque in Abe's early writing, represented here by “Record of a Transformation.” In this story, the souls of two newly dead soldiers guide the reader through a journey across war-torn Manchuria, where Abe himself grew up. Free from all burdens except a lingering regret at having abandoned their bodies, they carry the unencumbered picaresque hero into a new dimension and show us the brutality and absurdity of war from an entirely new angle. When passing through an apparently deserted village, only they can see the throng of angry souls of the massacred dead. The story ends when they discover that the “general” in whose truck they had been riding is actually a wandering soul who has perfected the art of invading dying bodies. After he is shot by one of his own men, he calmly displaces the soul of a dying waif, and the three souls “… set out with the fake general in the waif's body, on a most strange journey” (P. 100).

Other stories reveal the early Abe's penchant for fantasy. The protagonist of “The Crime of S. Karma,” for example, awakens with an ominous hollow feeling in his chest, only to find that his chest is in fact hollow. S. Karma's discovery that his meishi has taken his place at work makes for an amusing short story in itself; nevertheless, this excerpt might leave some readers in confusion about the “crime” of the title, which is actually Karma's capacity for unwittingly absorbing anything—from a picture in a magazine to a camel at the zoo—into the cavity of his hollow chest simply by gazing at it. Karma's trial for this crime, as recounted in subsequent sections of The Wall [The Wall: The Crime of S. Kamura], has more in common with Alice in Wonderland than anything Kafka wrote. If translator Juliet Winters Carpenter could prevail upon her publishers, a complete translation of The Wall would reveal a playful side of Abe that as yet remains unavailable to English readers.

In “Dendrocacalia,” the reader is struck not so much by the protagonist's loss of identity as by his essential lack of it to begin with. While the transformation of Common into “a poor-looking tree with chrysanthemum-like leaves” (P. 63) would seem to link Abe thematically to Kafka, we all know that metamorphosis in literature did not begin when Gregor Samsa (protagonist of Kafka's Metamorphosis) changed into a gigantic insect. When Common begins periodically turning into a plant, he goes to the library and finds references to similar phenomena in Dante and Greek mythology. In a last, valiant attempt to raise his fate to the level of the Olympian gods, Common rails against “the tribe of Zeus,” but when he finally allows the director of the botanical gardens to lead him to the pot that has been prepared for him and “quietly [holds] out his arms in the direction of the unrisen sun” (P. 63), we suspect that Common has always been as common as his name and that this is probably the only way he would have had a chance to flower—if poorly, at that.

Rather than leading us to any single conclusion about the fiction of Abe Kōbō, the 12 stories in Beyond the Curve show his breadth as a writer. It is interesting to note that over half the stories collected here have already appeared in one or more Eastern European languages; perhaps an intrinsic link between Abe and Kafka is revealed in the strong appeal his work apparently has for Czechoslovakian readers. In any case, Abe fans should rejoice that his early short fiction is belatedly finding its way into English, thus giving readers the opportunity for a fresh perspective on one of the most familiar of modern Japanese writers.

The Economist (review date 3 August 1991)

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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 of contemporary man.

“Dendrocacalia” was written in 1949, when Mr Abe was 25. In these early stories and in many of the novels that were to follow, human relations are a minefield of treachery, humiliation, and love avoided. Man is better off alone, or turned into something else: even a company car, as happens in another tale. An admirer of Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mr Abe believes himself to have similar universal appeal; and he too makes use of the devices of science fiction, detective novels and dream sequences, as well as inventing rules of his own as he goes along.

In “Dendrocacalia” Common tries hard to resist his transformation. Cleverer than many of Mr Abe's characters, he realises what is happening to him. He tries to fight the earthward pull, and turns for consolation to Dante's “Divine Comedy” and to Greek myths, in which the gods turned men into trees or flowers. He also tries to find a girl who seems to have sent him a love note; but the note has come from the director of the Botanical Gardens, who offers him a large pot in a hothouse.

Although he was born in Tokyo, Mr Abe grew up in Manchuria, where his father was a doctor in what was then a Japanese colony. “I was forced to live as a coloniser,” he says. “Living on the side of the rulers had an abstract evil. The sensitive individual still feels guilt, remorse, shame.”

In 1948 he received a medical degree from the University of Tokyo, “only because I promised never to practise.” His first novel came out that year, but it was not until The Woman in the Dunes (1960), which sold 1.5m copies in Japan and was turned into a film that won the Cannes jury prize, that Mr Abe's reputation was made. For that novel, he says, “I read millions of books on sand and dunes.” He explains that the central images of his tales—in this case, of a woman trapped in a dune—come to him first; he then constructs the story round them, “like weaving a cocoon.”

An active communist from 1950-56, Mr Abe was formally expelled from the party in 1962. He says he has always liked “those people at the very bottom,” and hated the elite; but he also has a strong dislike of what he calls “the communal conscience.” His writing is done in seclusion in the Hakone mountains south-west of Tokyo. “Where I live in the mountains,” he says, “there are no neighbours, no human contact. I draw the curtains even in the daytime.”

Further Reading

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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 Series, Vols. 24, 60; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 8, 22, 53, 81; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 182; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; Drama for Students, Vol. 14; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern Japanese Writers; Reference Guide to World Literature, Ed. 3; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 131.

Julian Loose (review date 27 September 1991)

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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 intense disquiet at finding himself “a citizen of a nation of self-satisfied people.” “Something or other was definitely odd”: any of Abe's allegories could begin in this way, signalling his extensive indebtedness to Kafka. As the new collection, Beyond the Curve, shows, Abe's originality lies in the peculiarly Japanese metaphors he finds to embody worries over the oppressive demands of work, the binds of family responsibility, a sense of only provisional identity. A salaryman is impersonated by his own calling card; “K-” finds himself metamorphizing into a potted plant; the amnesiac in the title story not only forgets what lies beyond the curve of the road, but somehow mislays himself altogether. Abe's heroes often make the mistake of playing along with the improbable in the vain hope that common sense will reassert itself, only to discover that there is no escape. “A-” returns home to find an unknown corpse lying in his apartment; although innocent, he implicates himself further and further in his efforts to get rid of the body. Another “K-” is woken one night to find a strange family moving into his cramped apartment, announcing that it is time he adapts “to our modern, civilized lifestyle.”

Abe's distaste for “the spirit of modern pragmatism” might lead us to suppose a nostalgia for some lost golden age, but unlike Mishima he does not reserve his radical misdoubt for the post-war era “of languid peace.” Several stories recall, in Abe's characteristic mode, the brutality of the past. In “The Dream Soldier,” set at the turn of the century during “a time of no truth,” an elderly village police officer has to convince his son, a deserter from the local garrison, to commit suicide and so save the family name; “Record of a Transformation” details the gruesome adventures of ghosts, former soldiers of the occupying Imperial army, in a country which resembles the Manchuria where Abe grew up. Yet despite the unsettling power of many of these tales, Beyond the Curve induces a certain fatigue. Although he 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.

Scott M. Lewis (review date 1 October 1991)

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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 man returns to his apartment after work to find a murdered stranger lying on the floor. He decides that he cannot report the murder to the police because they will not believe that he is unconnected to the crime. So the nameless man slides into a Kafkaesque world of guilt and indecision as he creates more and more elaborate schemes to dispose of the body and transfer the responsibility for it to someone else.

In the title story, a nameless narrator on a mountain road forgets his identity and what lies beyond the next curve of the road. Afraid that going on will leave him in a wholly foreign world, he decides to go back the way he came. As the man gathers fragments of his life, he ends up in a situation at once intriguing because we lack so many of the pieces, and totally banal, since it resembles so many other lives. In “The Crime of S. Karma,” Abe writes of a man who wakes one morning with a hollow feeling in his chest and no memory of his name. As the story unfolds, he learns that his name has abandoned him, taking his identity with it, and has now stolen his job. The man can only wait in his apartment, hoping his name will return there so he can confront it.

Raymond Lamont-Brown (essay date July 1993)

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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 declaring, ‘I am a man without a hometown.’ It was to be an emotion that coloured his writing from the start.

A voracious reader, Abe was to be influenced by such as Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and Poe, and it was with extracts from the latter that he used to regale his school friends during lunch breaks. When he had exhausted Poe, Abe entertained with stories of his own device.

His early teenage years were lived within a traditional Japanese household, but against a background of hostile Chinese administration under the figurehead of the puppet emperor Henry Pu Yi. As a diversion from the alien culture around him Abe began painting abstract pictures and studied entomology.

By 1940 Abe had returned to Tokyo and entered the Seijo High School. A convalescent period from tuberculosis gave him time to study more Dostoevsky, and he embarked on a research into modern Japanese literature He admitted that his search was to find something to substantiate his own feelings of antagonism towards the militaristic cabinets of such as General Hideki Tojo. It was a time when he absorbed the writings of Heidegger, Jaspers and Kafka.

Abe's searches did not produce what he needed and his own writings developed into a book of poems, published by himself in 1948, as Poems by an Unknown.

In 1943, following parental insistence, he entered the medical school at Tokyo Imperial University, but the stress was too much and for a while he voluntarily entered a mental hospital. By way of forged papers concerned with his health, he made his way back to Manchuria and lived out the rest of the war in what he described as ‘peaceful idleness.’ He eventually qualified in medicine in 1948, but never practiced. Abe had married Machi, an artist, while still a student.

On his father's death Abe considered himself ‘released’ from any gimu (duty) he had towards his family and began to see literature as his life's work. In 1948 his first book was published, The Road Sign at the End of the Street.

In 1951 Abe was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa literary prize for his novel The Crime of Mr. S. Karuma. The storyline was to be characteristic of Abe: the book's narrator loses the power of normal communication with other humans. He communicates, though, through zoo animals and shop-window dummies. And throughout his writing career Abe's main theme was to be the alienation of modern people within an urban setting.

By this time, Abe was allying himself with such as Kiyateru Hamada, dedicating his work to merging surrealism with Marxism. For a while Abe was a member of the ineffective Kyosanto (Japanese Communist Party), but was expelled from membership in 1956 for writing a book scathing of Eastern European socialist regimes.

Abe now became an important ‘translatable’ writer. His Suna no Onna (1962: The Woman of the Dunes, 1964) was filmed by Hiroshi Teshigahara in 1963. The film won the Jury Prize at Cannes and the Yomiuri Prize for Abe. This was to become Abe's best known work in the West and concerns a school teacher on an outing who is imprisoned by the local folk in a large sand pit with a recently widowed woman. The teacher's attempts at escape are unsuccessful and in true Abe fashion he ‘discovers’ himself, his purpose, his life and when he is able to, he refuses escape.

The first of Abe's novels to be translated into English was the 1964 Tanin No Kao (The Face of Another, 1966) published in the UK in 1969. It was filmed by Teshigahara, and concerns a scientist, hideously scarred by a laboratory accident; another search for identity.

Moetsukita Chizu (1967: The Ruined Map) appeared in English in 1969 to be followed by Dai Yon Kampyoki (Inter Ice Age) which had been first published in 1959. The storyline concerns a technologist, Professor Katsumi, whose computer can foretell the future. Eventually the computer takes over control of Katsumi and draws him into a nightmarish situation. Set in the next century, a group of scientists try to avert world disaster using stolen human foetuses which they try by biological mutation to make into mammalian life that can survive underwater. Katsumi has to make choices when the scientists' conspiracy threatens his own wife and unborn child. In the novel Abe formulated a new type of Japanese fictional theme by welding together the science-fiction novel with the philosophical thriller.

The English language edition of Hako Otoko (1973: The Box Man) followed in 1974 along with Mikkai (Secret Rendezvous) in 1979 to keep Abe's international reputation fresh.

Abe began to direct his own theatre company in Tokyo, for which he wrote several new plays each year. In 1979 he toured America with his play You Too Are Guilty in which he explored the theme of possible links between the living and the dead.

In Japan today Kobo Abe is given the definition of being the country's nominee to represent ‘Kafkaesque surrealism.’ Scholars point out the short story ‘Bo ni natta otoko’—‘The Man Who Turned Into a Stick’ (translated by John Nathan in Japan Quarterly, 1966 as ‘Stick’) as an early example of Abe's vision of life drawing co-extension with Kafka's Die Verwandlung (1916). Even so, although Abe was influenced by the ideas of Kafka, he gave the whole a Japanese philosophical overview. ‘Stick,’ and other works, show that Abe cut himself off from traditional Japanese classical literature and tried to weave a place for himself in the literary fabric of Japan which was as hostile and alienating as had been the Manchukuo of his early youth. Abe, of course, spoke no language fluently but his own, and came to the writings of European authors in Japanese translation.

As well as his ‘twin themes’ of ‘alienation’ and ‘loss of identity,’ Abe was obsessed with the impersonality, mind stifling claustrophobia and ugliness of modern urban agglomeration. The trend in Japan towards the futuristic mega-city filled him with horror.

Underlining this the word yawatanoyabu (labyrinth) appears a lot in Abe's literary thoughts and it signifies for him the horrors of city life in which he found himself lost as in a maze. He felt overwhelmed by city life, emasculated by it even, and the isolation and loneliness of urbanisation meant danger and destruction. It was a theme which he was to work for in his play Tomodachi (1967: Friends, 1971) which tells the story of a young man who lives alone and who is joined (shinyu suru-invaded) by a large family intent on ‘rescuing’ him from loneliness. In the end he has but a greater depth of loneliness.

So Kobo Abe's popularity in translation was founded on the fact that he dealt with problems of modern life; his universal appeal being founded on the universality of his work. On a number of occasions he was a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature, but in his everyday being he avoided publicity and clubability.

Kobo Abe died in a Tokyo hospital on January 22, 1993.

Timothy Iles (excerpt date 2000)

SOURCE: Iles, Timothy. “The Fiction of Abe Kôbô.” In Abe Kôbô: An Exploration of His Prose, Drama and Theatre, pp. 33-105. Fucecchio, Italy: European Press Academic Publishing, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Iles offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Abe's short fiction.]

However fantastic the stories that Abe writes may become in the course of their development, they all begin in seemingly benign ways. Abe takes simple, daily occurrences, as innocuous as waking up, as the entranceway to his dystopic, absurdist vision. He first presents a smooth, mundane surface, and proceeds to dismantle it. Underneath the tangible surface of the mundane world of “Baberu no tô no tanuki” (“The Badger from the Tower of Babel,” 1951), for example, lurks a completely different world populated by transparent people whose shadows non-existent creatures have stolen and eaten, a world wherein mannequins and business cards come to life to usurp the identities of their owners and place them on trial, as in “S. Karuma shi no hanzai” (“The Crime of S. Karuma,” 1951), where wives are swept away from faceless husbands—who wear synthetic masks over top their disfigured selves—in the dead of night by unsummoned ambulances, only to turn up again as contestants in bizarre sexual contests subterranean hospitals organise for the amusement of their numberless patients, as in Mikkai (1977, tr. Secret Rendezvous, 1979). This world, in which logic pursues itself towards illogical extremes, in which the word ‘community’ takes on connotations of oppression and the death of the individual, is the world of Abe Kôbô's fiction.

This word ‘community’ belies a chilling lack of human interconnectedness in Abe's fictional world. His protagonists exist in isolation from their fellows, unable to communicate with them, unable to trust them. This world, resoundingly urban, is fragmented in the modernist sense of the word: individuals live atomised lives, cut off from their pasts, trapped within static presents. Given the experiences Abe lived through in his youth, his vision of a hostile society closed to him, the individual, is not surprising. What is surprising, though, is the single-mindedness with which Abe presents this theme in his work, and the obvious yearning for a new social order into which his characters would be able to integrate themselves of their own free will.

In the first few minutes of Teshigahara's Suna no onna (The Woman in the Dunes, 1964), the cinematic adaptation of Abe's 1962 novel of the same name, comes a memorable scene which offers a metaphoric encapsulation of one of Abe's key themes, the need for adaptability and a new form of existence. The scene consists of a boat buried up to its gunwales in the drifting sands of an enormous dune. In this boat the protagonist of the story, Niki Jumpei, pauses for a rest from his hot work of insect-collecting. The boat, prisoner of the accumulated sand, offers the image of a completely useless object, unable to adapt itself to its changed environment, and so left behind by the times, the retreating sea, and its owner. In writing this scene for the film, Abe discovered a compelling form in which to present his message, that in the face of fundamental change, rigid adherence to bygone patterns will only result in obsolescence. He dealt with this message in different metaphorical shapes in most of his novels, but notably here in Suna no onna, wherein he presents Niki Jumpei dreaming of barrel houses able to float on the sands, carrying their occupants to new and ever-changing communities. This is Abe's fundamental, immutable goal: the discovery of new forms of community in a world become different through the changed circumstances of urban, mechanised existence. In this section, I will examine how this theme operates as the basso continuo for the fugal compositions Abe created in his prose, his other themes forming a contrapuntal fantasy above this constant ground.

These other themes are all related to the problems of the individual within a social system. They range from the human position within a hostile natural world, to the problems of personal versus public language in communicative exchange, to the relationships between men and women presented as metaphors for the fundamental unit of social cohesion, the bond between lovers. Throughout the course of Abe's career his treatment of this material exhibits shifting emphases which reflect the refinement of his own views. After his expulsion from the Japanese Communist Party in 1962 for supporting Hungarian independence from the Soviet Union, the socialistic denunciations of human exploitation and depictions of alienation which seem subtly to blame the individual for his predicament, which Abe wrote in the 1950s, give way to more properly anti-social tracts clearly rejecting both dictatorial attempts at communalisation and existentialist claims of the individual's potential to exist in isolation. In fact this expulsion was perhaps the most crucial event in concretising Abe's opposition to any social order not formed spontaneously among free individuals: Suna no onna itself is one of the best examples of this view in his, or anyone's, opus. The themes of Abe's novels weave together into intricate tapestries of simple, repeating patterns—this is Abe's genius, to have been able to construct so many fascinating works from such persistently recognisable materials.

Abe would seem to have taken the inscription on the grave of Karl Marx to heart, that “Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the aim, however, is to change it.” To this end Abe depicts a world his readers will easily recognise as in need of change. The structural challenges Abe presents to the reader, I would like to argue, parody the traditional fictional experience the better to allegorise the position of the alienated modern self, and transform the reading experience into a hallucinatory quest for self-integration into a world wherein meaning is restored to its position as a free, individual, yet mutually ‘shareable’ construct.

The problem Abe addresses in his work is fundamental to the modern, urban era, facing the breakdown of traditional, village-based communal organisations and a confrontation with “new kinds of social structure which … resist analysis in the liberal and socialist terms” it has come to accept as essential.1 He describes the genre in which he writes as the “literature of rootless grasses;”2 this phrase helps him understand the resistance some readers feel to his work, for they are reacting against the implied unimportance of the state in that term.

It's not rare to feel a great resistance to this term, ‘rootless.’ It's a fundamental, shared physiological condition of any collective [kyôdôtai] to feel resistance to anything rootless. If we look at this historically, however, it is not an essential human trait. It is something which was created within certain historical conditions, but it is quite strong in the present situation.

I came across the following idea in the reading I've been doing lately. The writer claimed that the notion of the state [kokka] was not something that the Japanese originally held, but was quickly created in the years after the Meiji Period. Because this notion was extremely unilateral on the part of the government, an internalised conception of the state was not formed. The writer came to the conclusion that it would have been a fearful thing indeed had this new notion of the state not been formulated.

This may seem logical at a glance, but there's a great logical leap involved here. Why would it be a fearful thing not to have any conception of the state? This belief, that it would have been something fearful for things to have continued on without a new conception of the nation, hides within itself somewhere the a priori premise that the idea of the state is necessary.

I use the term ‘rootless grass’ to express my doubts about this way of thinking.3

Through his novels, Abe hopes to examine the types of existence best suited to the rootless grasses of the modern age—people who have become cut off from the traditions which can no longer anchor them in an urban world, and who are threatened by dictatorial conformity to the ‘physiology’ of the collective which sees this rootlessness as an evil to be battled by a precise application of those outdated traditions. Abe is certainly not the only thinker to perceive the problems inherent in this readjustment of the patterns of human existence—authors from Breton to Sartre to Gabriel Garcia Marquez have dealt with phrasing the problems in terms of their own solutions to it: Breton in the vocabulary of a revolutionary merger of dream with reality, Sartre in the vocabulary of existential choice, Marquez in the vocabulary of a transcendent magic-realism. Abe flirts with all of these vocabularies. The American sociologist C. Wright Mills, whom I admire for his lucidity of phrasing, approaches the issue of a fragmenting Modernism thus:

The rôle of reason in human affairs and the idea of the free individual as the seat of reason are the most important themes inherited by twentieth-century social scientists from the philosophers of the Enlightenment. If they are to remain the key values in terms of which troubles are specified and issues focused, then the ideals of reason and of freedom must now be restated as problems in more precise and solvable ways than have been available to earlier thinkers and investigators. For in our time these two values, reason and freedom, are in obvious yet subtle peril.

The underlying trends are well known. Great and rational organisations—in brief, bureaucracies—have indeed increased, but the substantive reason of the individual at large has not. Caught in the limited milieux of their everyday lives, ordinary men often cannot reason about the great structures—rational and irrational—of which their milieux are subordinate parts. Accordingly, they often carry out series of apparently rational actions without any ideas of the ends they serve…

Science, it turns out, is not a technological Second Coming. That its techniques and its rationality are given a central place in a society does not mean that men live reasonably and without myth, fraud, and superstition. … Rationally organised social arrangements are not necessarily a means for increased freedom—for the individual or for society. In fact they often are a means of tyranny and manipulation, a means of expropriating the very chance to reason, the very capacity to act as a free man. …

The increasing rationalisation of society, the contradiction between such rationality and reason, the collapse of the assumed coincidence of reason and freedom—these developments lie back of the rise into view of the man who is ‘with’ rationality but without reason, who is increasingly self-rationalised and also increasingly uneasy. It is in terms of this type of man that the contemporary problem of freedom is best stated.4

Abe has turned his attention to precisely this modern man, rationalised to the point of irrational isolation from his very identity. This is the individual ready to confront his way of life as an existential problem—the Existentialist character who must choose a method for transforming the social structure which rejects him while steadfastly maintaining its own structural rigidity and recalcitrance. The individual loses his identity, unable to reason an appropriate response to the social resistance of the world around him, and unable thus to effect a change in that world. He becomes victim to a technologically advanced world of mass-produced things, of imitations and simulacra which absorb him, ultimately to displace and replace him. Thus Abe rejects the capitalist vision of a world filled to capacity with an ever-increasingly complex array of commodities. He rejects, too, technology as the panacea for the crisis in human relations his novels depict; in fact his 1959 novel Daiyon kampyôki (Inter Ice-Age Four, 1970) is a chilling exploration of the consequences of the loss of human identity to the computer, a prophetic examination of the catastrophic blind faith in technology's ability to predict, regulate, and ameliorate the human condition.

Abe's concentration on the existential character and its cognate Absurdist situation permits him the unique place he holds in Japanese literature. More than many of his Japanese contemporaries, Abe was concerned with an exploration of the Absurd in daily life, with examining its sources and attempting to reconcile its challenge. This concern made him very much in harmony with the broader intellectual currents of Existentialism and Absurdism which held sway in Europe during the early years of his literary career.

The Absurd is the “dialectical experience of an individual trying to relate to an irrational world; and it is this way of existing, through a passionate choice, a revolt against any moral or metaphysical absolutes, and a total commitment to freedom, that becomes the focal point of existential thought.”5 This experience of the Absurd arises in a number of situations directly applicable to a consideration of Abe's work; for example, the “acute feeling of isolation between ourselves and others; we are bewildered when we perceive other human beings as non-human … [creating] the confrontation of our desire for unity and clarity and the world's disunity and irrationality.”6 Abe, however, in seeking unity between the individual and society, places his emphasis neither on the sort of unquestioning integration of this individual into the social order that Natsume Sôseki sought, for this would amount to a compromise of the value of the self, nor on the creation of the self as an absolute which post-war Japanese writers pursue, for this would compromise the value of the Other. As Takano Toshimi phrases this condition,

many post-war writers concretise [koteika] the inner aspects of the self, in relation to their circumstances. They then examine the conditions of the anti-humanistic features [hanningenteki naru mono] within the microcosm of this modern self. Thus in this optimistic way they make this post-war ‘Self’ absolute. This sterile consciousness, which continues to carry with it the self as an unmovable idea, is a powerful causal factor in the creation of the so-called blind alley of the post-war spirit.7

Through the parodies of this position which many of his characters represent, Abe rejects the view of the modern self as anything at all unified. Rather than attempting to explore any illusory idée fixe of the immutability of the self, his “aim is reflected in his way of writing which attempts to construct a point of view able to break through the boundaries facing the post-war man, based on the creation of Kafkaesque worlds.”8

I hope to show here that, fundamentally, Abe's work is not ‘difficult,’ despite the confusion with which students and scholars alike often meet it. This is an issue which puzzled Abe himself and caused him to muse in 1969 that “the supposed incomprehensibility of my work does not come about from any true incomprehensibility, but rather, I think, from its having here and there sections which do not lend themselves to the readers' sensitivity.”9 Abe's message, that there is a need for new communal forms which can accommodate modern, urban, individual freedom, is readily perceivable, although frequently one must read it through the filtres of satire or parody. Abe considers his aim to be similar to an inoculation against the strengthening of an irrational collectivity:

Collectivities have the function of creating bonds between us, but, at the same time, they serve to create enemies, to exclude something or other, and through the act of strengthening this exclusion, they consolidate their internal organisations. So, when by some means a weak collectivity tries to consolidate itself rapidly, it ends up strengthening not its consolidation, but its system of exclusion. Take, for example, the Nazis—by excluding the Jews, by excluding the non-Aryans, they compressed the country into the shape it took.

After about two generations of this sort of thing, conceptions are fixed into a certain image. And so, even though the notion of the state which the Japanese have inculcated into themselves is nothing more than a few generations old, it is a surprisingly fixed part of their make-up. There's a great unease if it is ever denied, and because they have been trained in consolidating this internal system through the exclusion of the Other [tasha], whenever their concept of the state is the least bit irritated, there is an immediate reaction of refusal.

To some extent in fact I aim for this reaction of refusal, but within that reaction there's something similar to a preventative inoculation: I think that if, like a vaccine, it isn't repeated, it won't serve its purpose. It will just lead to a feeling of resistance, which becomes an expression of incomprehension.10

Thus Abe attempts to prod his audience into an awareness of the normalising forces around them, in order to break free from those forces. Through this act of destruction which is an act of creation, Abe aims for a recreation of the self and its society as flexible, adaptable, and truly related to its situation.

This necessary relation to the situation in which the modern self exists locates Abe's search for a solution very much in the real world—but, paradoxically, a ‘real’ world in which complete unreality is not only possible but the order of the day. In Abe's fiction there is no yearning, for example, for the spiritual or mystical transcendence to the ‘other side’ which characterises the works of Kawabata Yasunari, and no transcendent, divine nationalism which is Mishima's stock-in-trade. In that he yearns for a human solution to the problems of human interconnectedness, Abe is thoroughly materialistic in his approach to the modern world, and in his depiction of its conundrum, as well—it is the ever-increasing complexity of products and their modes of production, the ever-increasing intricacy and yet impenetrability of urban structures and the corresponding compartmentalization of their inhabitants which forms for him the essence of the issue at hand. Thus, it is surprising that the otherwise astute critic of Abe's work, Takano Toshimi, would engage in a line of reasoning which attempts to fix the object of Abe's desires as God:

Our daily lives are always given some sort of meaning. For example, one performs the act of eating breakfast for the sake of that day's work. However, let's try to imagine an existence which is freedom itself, a freedom which rejects that form of significance, which receives no limits whatsoever based on any meanings at all. This would probably be God. It follows that humans are certainly not gods. That being so, an existence ‘just as it is,’ without meaning, completely free, is a form of falsehood. It is nothing more than a mirage [kyozô] which appears only within hope. Thus, it is only through experiencing hopelessness that we can glimpse freedom.

Abe, in his personal flight of escape towards Nothingness [mu], dreams of freedom. This is primal, colossal, cheerless hope itself. This is his mirage of being pursued by infinity as he makes his way through an infinite process. Abe himself, while wagering on this mirage, earnestly tears through the deceptions of existence-in-actuality. When he does so, of course, it is clear that in his youth the roots of his life were destroyed. Thus, for him to overcome the dark, spreading pit of Nothingness [kyomu] within himself, he requires a free spirit which will not assign any significance to even that very Nothingness itself. That is to say, doesn't he require God? However, this self-emancipatory hope is possible only as an ideal. It cannot be accomplished. It becomes possible only through death. That is to say, calling out for God is really calling out for death. Isn't the freedom which Abe Kôbô is able to recognise only this grasping of the self as a contradictory actuality, an arrival at death while calling out for God?11

Takano here conflates the two poles of response to the Absurd that Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, postulates in order to reject: suicide and faith in the divine. Granted, both are possible courses of action, amounting in the end to an abdication of the self in favour of blind faith, “hoping for eternal and divine intervention from what many call God”12 and Takano calls Death, but Abe places his hopes squarely on the Absurd itself. Consider what Abe has his narrator relate in the very novel to which Takano refers: “But I hated God. … To put it another way, I am quite enough for me.”13 The existence which is pure freedom is the Absurd existence, which recognises its own responsibility for forming the world around it—“this is the point at which life begins,”14 and it is to somewhere beyond this point that Abe casts his gaze in search of the type of world he values.

For this reason Existentialism offers a point of departure for a study of Abe's themes, but only a point of departure and no more. Existentialism, a philosophy of personal choice and responsibility, focuses itself on the individual and his reaction to the Other, but pays relatively little attention to the creation of a social order—although obviously it carries an implied corollary that from individuals able to choose their paths responsibly, a mature society will emerge. I hope to show here that Abe, through his depiction of the searching individual, deals more explicitly with the larger issue of social cohesion beyond Existentialism's overture to that problem.

The Absurd, however, offers Abe a more consistent means through which to create his fictional worlds. Abe makes use of a number of key theoretical features of this philosophical stance, notably the extremely diligent efforts on the part of his protagonists to apply rationalism to an irrationally complex situation, and a perception of nature as hostilely menacing to modern man. In contrast to the alienatingly complex social order in which the protagonist must live, the natural world exists as a random chaos into which he has been made to enter not of his own free will. Thus,

a supposedly cognitive relationship between two factors lies at the centre of the Absurd, with the cognitive consciousness on the one hand and the recognisable world on the other. What characterises this relationship more than anything else is the basic lack of correspondence between the two factors involved. Human consciousness, which is, by its very nature, rational, can do nothing but try to impose upon the essentially irrational world the categories of intelligence and reason which are alien to it. From the human point of view unintelligibility, or opacity, is the essential characteristic of the world, just as the feeling of uncertainty and the profound need for a unified and coherent explanation are the essential characteristics and principle traits of the human condition.

… The possibility of gaining knowledge of the world, the quality and reliability of experience and intelligence, the limits of human knowledge and all the other traditional problems of epistemology no longer appear as abstract philosophical questions or as pragmatic problems of scientific thought, but as existential issues which determine the fundamental feeling of man regarding the purpose of his life and his relationship to the universe.15

Nature becomes the ground on which the protagonist of Absurdist fiction will attempt to solve these existential issues—even within the city, the principle location of Abe's works, nature looms as an ever-present threat to the stability of the protagonist, as one more obstacle to his creation of an integrating social order. Abe carries within him the memories of the Manchurian landscape from his youth, the bleak, barren, windswept desert which recurs again and again in his novels as the frightening site of the alienation his characters experience. This is consistent with Absurdism, as well, in which

Nature refuses to reveal itself to human consciousness, which seeks order and unity … Nature, of its very character, opposes the anthropocentric, instrumental meaning projected upon it by man. In moments of revelation, when the Absurd consciousness is awakened, the world refuses to accommodate itself to the forms and blueprints which have, from the outset, been stamped upon it by man, rejects the decor which habit has hidden from our sight, and withstands with all its ‘density’ the efforts of the human mind to conquer it and the efforts of consciousness to unite with it.16

In the face of this resistance the existential character experiences himself as nothing and so must come to terms with a wide-ranging nihilism—he must overcome an ideological tendency the modern world creates through its very structural organisation. Heidegger approaches this problem as an undeniable aspect of the modern world:

On the one hand, the movement of nihilism has become more manifest in its planetary, all-corroding, many-faceted irresistibleness. No one with any insight will still deny today that nihilism is in the most varied and most hidden forms of ‘the normal state’ of man. … The best evidence of this are the exclusively reactive attempts against nihilism which, instead of entering into a discussion of its essence, strive for the restoration of what has been. They seek salvation in flight, namely in flight from a glimpse of the worthiness of questioning the metaphysical position of man. The same flight is also urgent where apparently all metaphysics is abandoned and is replaced by logistics, sociology, and psychology.17

Abe explores exactly this condition, this desperate clinging to a traditional mode, this ‘restoration,’ which the transformed, technological world has made impossibly outdated, this flight from a metaphysical re-evaluation of human social norms in favour of a scientific blind faith in the forces of reasonless rationalisation. Through his parodies of technological societies devoid of human contact, Abe explores the extremities of this futile flight for salvation.

The one rhetorical device of which Abe most consistently makes use in his prose and his dramatic works, as well, is allegory. This is the trope which permits him, in no uncertain terms, to formulate his texts as messages he intends his audience to decipher—he occasionally even goes so far as to name his characters with immediate visual clues as to their significance. For example in the short story “Dendorokakariya” (1949; tr. “Dendrocacalia,” 1991), the protagonist is named, in transliteration of the English word, “Mister Common.” Also, in Suna no onna the protagonist's name appears at the close of the novel on the blotter of a police investigation into his disappearance, declaring Niki Jumpei—‘Mr. Plain and Average Niki’—to be deceased. Allegory functions for Abe as a means of removing his work from the particularities of the Japanese conditions upon which he commented. Despite the potential allegory has for limiting the comprehensibility of a work, assuming as it does a narrowly particular interpretive community sufficiently versed in social codes to read through the surface of the work to its deeper levels of signification, Abe's valuation of the individual's rôle in determining his life, and his subsequent grounding in the application of what C. Wright Mills discusses as ‘rationality’ to that process of choice, opens his works up to the much larger urban, industrial communities of the world—he aims for more than a parochially fabulous receptacle in hopes of addressing a condition he sees as transnational in its dimensions. The real-world poles of Abe's allegorical creations are the individual with his right to associate (or dissociate) freely with parties of his own choosing, on the one hand, and the social order which dictates both propriety and the situation of the individual based on its needs for efficiency and cohesion, on the other. In this sense Abe's use of the trope is perfectly in accord with what Angus Fletcher has proposed to be its underlying subversive qualities:

Considered also as a nonmetaphysical semantic device, whether leading to apocalypse or not, allegory … appears to express conflict between rival authorities. … One ideal will be pitted against another, its opposite: thus the familiar propagandist function of the mode, thus the conservative satirical function, thus the didactic function. The mode is hierarchical in essence … Hierarchy is never simply a system giving people their “proper place;” it goes further and tells them what their legitimate powers are. Any hierarchy is bound to elicit sharp emotive responses toward these powers. We are therefore able to describe the mode from a dynamic point of view. Allegories are far less the dull systems that they are reputed to be than they are symbolic power struggles. If they are often rigid, muscle-bound structures, that follows from their involvement with authoritarian conflict. If they are abstract, harsh, mechanistic, and remote from everyday life, that may sometimes answer a genuine need. When a people is being lulled into inaction by the routine of daily life, so as to forget all higher aspirations, an author perhaps does well to present behaviour in a grotesque, abstract caricature. In such a way he may arouse a general self-criticism, and the method will be justified [emphasis added].

Both this satirical criticism and the apocalyptic escape into an infinite space and time tend toward high human goals. In both cases allegory is serving major social and spiritual needs. When we add to these the functions of education (the didactic strain) and entertainment (the riddling or romantic strains), we have a modality of symbolism which we must respect.18

Abe, as I will show, is very much enamoured with both satirical criticism (his basic method) and this ‘apocalyptic escape into an infinite space and time’ evidenced through perhaps his favourite device, the asymptotic conclusions to his more complex plot structures in which the protagonist's voice trails off into a nothingness from which there can logically be no possible return.

Although from an author's point of view, allegory “will last as long as the artist is capable of categorising and yet at the same time remains capable of doubt and anxiety and hope,”19 I would like to argue one further point from the perspective of the reader or critic, that the very act of interpreting a work in itself accepts the allegorical potential of that work as manifest. Otherwise all criticism would of necessity stop at a retelling of the story in truncated and so unsatisfactory form, or else limit itself to historicising the work and re-encapsulating it into the sealed container of its time, virtually admitting to the incomprehensibility of texts removed from the contexts of their eras. This is clearly an untenable position—the very reading of a text outside of its original situation accepts that the reader has something in common with the text. Interpretation of the work will proceed from this point along lines which assume the presence of meaning—in short, will assume the presence of allegorical elements within the text that permit it to transcend its original situation. In this sense (as well as in a more conventional sense which would say that his texts contain messages buried beneath the surface) Abe's works are allegorical: they are not limited to the Japanese context. Further, in that “allegories are the natural mirrors of ideology,”20 they offer an obvious mode to the writer whose aim is a reformation of ideological tenets.

And yet despite Abe's allegorical initiatives, his work is not without an equally subversive trend which attempts to divert the very interpretive process it simultaneously invites. Abe frustrates the rational processes of reading and interpretation through plot complexity and a structural rigour that incorporates elements devilishly provocative yet elusive of liminal comprehension—in short, he attempts to create modern myths and riddles the exegeses of which ridicule the very principles of rationality their readers will employ in their decipherment, seduced by the verbal clues and markers Abe has strewn like so many temptations throughout his work. In this sense he plays upon the over-rationalisation of the modern age; to defeat logic, he utilises logic carried, logically, to its perverted extreme. The tendency to interpret rationally which Abe so parodies is one he knows his readers have little chance of avoiding, for

Modern literary criticism bases its interpretive practice on postulates advanced by the romantic aesthetic, first and foremost on that of organic form (to such an extent that it might well be labelled ‘organic criticism’). Everything in a work corresponds to everything else, everything tends toward a single ‘figure in the carpet,’ and the best interpretation is the one that allows for the integration of the greatest number of textual elements. Thus we are ill equipped to read discontinuity, incoherence, the unintelligible.

… One can imagine a case in which no specific indices are present, nor any global principle requiring interpretation—and yet the subject does not cease to interpret … [sic] The case exists, but it falls outside the accepted exegetical strategies: it is what psychopathologists call the ‘interpretive delirium,’ and it is a form of paranoia. Which suggests, conversely, that our society does indeed require motivation for every decision to interpret.21

To induce this ‘form of paranoia’ and to play upon its obsessions is, I feel, an important objective for Abe in structuring his more intricately-woven plots, and it is to an examination of the devices of some of these that I will now turn.

The best place to start any taxonomical investigation into Abe's artistic lexicon is with his earliest prose fictions. Here, the ingredients of his later novels are present in relatively obvious guises: plausible entranceways into absurd situations; physical transformation into plants or bizarre creatures; isolated protagonists who are pursued by vastly-organised conspiracies; nature looming as a hostile force just beyond the rational grasp of this protagonist; plot structures made incredibly complex by the protagonist's illogically logical rationalisations of his actions; conflict between the individual and a society which does not care about him. This is not to say that these earliest stories are without skillful construction; quite the opposite is true. However, Abe's first works are so vocal in their thematic rigour that they seem to read as self-introductory advertisements. I can identify three main periods in Abe's career: the first begins in the early 1950s and ends with his expulsion from the Japanese Communist Party. It is a period in which, as in the texts making up the collection entitled Kabe [Kabe-S. Karuma shi no hansai] (Walls, 1951) [The Wall: The Crime of S. Kamura], stories of physical transformation and exploitation predominate, and where Abe first explores the creative potential of phrasing his compositions within the form of the first-person, reportage style which would come to dominate his later writings. Here, also, the formal device of the journey, quest, or flight of escape takes shape, most obviously in his very first publication Owarishi michi no shirube ni (The Road Sign at the End of the Street, 1948), but also in numerous other short stories.

One further feature serves to justify my placing of a dividing line at the time of Abe's expulsion from the JCP, and this is a shift in his attitude toward the individual he presents in his work. Before the expulsion, several of Abe's stories seem to imply that the individual's anti-social qualities are a flaw: they come about because of some psychological defect or even because of a physiological contamination. Approaching the time of his break with the Party, however, the fault for the confrontation between the individual and society becomes definitely the fault of social imposition, a dictatorial effort to break the spirit of the individual—and yet this shift does not completely ‘rehabilitate’ the individual, who still remains distant from the type of person capable of inhabiting Abe's ideal world.

The second period in Abe's career stretches roughly from 1962 to 1973. During this time, Abe hardens his opposition to the social domination of the individual, as I have implied above. The novel Suna no onna explores this theme almost to the point of predictability, while the dramatic text Tomodachi (1967, tr. Friends, 1969), presents it in a painfully plausible story of benevolent abduction. Abe further develops his depictions of the loss of individual identity and the report-style of his narrative delivery in Tanin no kao (1964, tr. The Face of Another, 1966) and Moetsukita chizu (1967, tr. The Ruined Map, 1969), respectively, till they reach their apotheosis in the virulently anti-narrativistic Hako otoko (1973, tr. The Box Man, 1974).

The third period stretches roughly from the late-1970s till Abe's death in 1993. Here, his works become mythological descents into the deepest structures of human consciousness, questing for the very roots of communal integration. The novels Mikkai (1977, tr. Secret Rendezvous, 1979), Hakobune sakura maru (1984, tr. The Ark Sakura, 1988), Kangarû nôto (1991, tr. The Kangaroo Notebook, 1996), and the posthumously published fragment, Tobu otoko (The Flying Man, 1993), explore archetypal conceptions of community, apocalypse, and rebirth which, although related to Abe's earliest texts through the continuity of this thematic material, are more accomplished works of art. In the pages to follow, I will trace the developmental progression I have sketched out here, referring in greater detail to several of the works I've listed.

Abe's first major publication is the novella Owarishi michi no shirube ni (The Road Sign at the End of the Street, 1948). This work, structured as a first-person narrative in three ‘notebooks’ with a short coda of thirteen pages, tells the story of a young man identified only late in the narrative as ‘T’ who, as a result of a chance encounter with an old friend, meets a beautiful woman with whom he falls in love. She, however, loves the friend, and even though the narrator—through the agency of that very friend—becomes the woman's guardian, and throws the friend out of the house he had been sharing with her and her aged mother, she continues to see him. In jealousy the guardian decides to abandon everything, his home, his country, the woman who scorns his love, and depart for the Asian mainland at the height of Japan's colonial escapades in that region. There, he works for a cider brewer. He witnesses the actions of the Japanese Imperial Army. He contracts tuberculosis, and arrives at his deathbed. His acquaintances bring him opium to ease his sufferings, and under its influence, he begins to write the three notebooks which make up the novel. In the first notebook, entitled “The Roadsign at the End of the Road” [“The Road Sign at the End of the Street”] and set in the narrator's present time, he tells of trekking across the barren Manchurian plains and of being confined to his sickbed by his illness. In the second, entitled “The Unwriteable Words,” he tells of the events leading to his departure from Japan ten years earlier. This notebook is structured as a letter to ‘You,’ the woman with whom he had fallen in love, and it is only in this abstract, distant form that he is able to confess his feelings for her. At the notebook's close, under the influence of the opium the narrator has been convinced to smoke, he reads its contents to one of his acquaintances who had believed the narrator to be harbouring a secret of potentially great worth: the reading of this notebook makes it clear to the acquaintance, however, that no such secret exists. He and another acquaintance then mock the narrator for being Japanese: the tide of the war on the Asian mainland is turning, and Japan's Imperial Army is about to experience defeat at the hands of the Eighth Route Army. The acquaintances predict that the narrator will not live another week, what with his illness and the lack of the opium to which he has become addicted, and which the misfortunes of war will now make virtually impossible to obtain. The notebook closes with one acquaintance asking the narrator cynically if he believes in God as they abandon him to his fate. In the third notebook, entitled “The Unknowable God,” the narrator remains in his present time, discovering that only one of his former acquaintances has pity for him. In this book the narrator rejects the faith this man tries to impart to him, and reaffirms his individuality—as well as his isolation and rejection of his ‘home town.’ The thirteen-page epilogue contains the narrator's stated determination to grasp his existence actively:

If I were searching for a magic formula to change myself into a plant, would I have bothered to come as far as this edge of the world? … If I'd only wanted to possess myself as a plant, I would only have had to become insane. It is precisely because I wanted to possess myself as an animal that I had to chase myself away from my home town.22

Ironically, however, at the close of these pages, the narrator is abandoned by his acquaintance and left immobile on his sickbed, hearing only “death ringing in my ears, the clamourings of ghosts. … I am now my own sovereign. I have found my way to the opposite extreme of every home town, to the lands of every god.”23

Throughout all three notebooks the narrator muses on the consternating qualities of existence, always wondering why people must live ‘this way’ (kaku aru). In fact from the very outset the novel creates an atmosphere of desperate philosophical enquiry, with the narrator complaining of loneliness and abandonment. The work proper opens with a brief epigraph, “To a Dead Friend: I shall build a monument, in order to kill my home town friends, again and again forever …”24 The first notebook begins with the gloomy observation that “for the journey which begins where it ends, there is no finish. I must speak of the birth which comes within the grave. Why must people live in this way?”25

Abe, within this dark philosophical novel cloaked in the concepts of Existentialism, persistently questions the very roots of existence, to determine where in fact those roots are. Or perhaps rather, the problem for him is the independence born from Nothingness of a character who has fallen into his own isolated hell, a character who has been banished for all eternity from a world in which the very questioning itself of existence's roots has become impossible. We may say that this work probes the drama of a character who, while rejecting his homeland [kokyô], strives to achieve his independence. At the time, Abe's youthful make-up, which took shape even as it was trying to extinguish the traditional spiritual landscape of Japan within itself, was transformed at a stroke into nihilism by the sense of devastation it encountered during the war and after the defeat.26

The protagonist Abe creates in this novel represents his philosophical point of departure, but it is not, in fact, for independence that he strives—this ‘independence’ after all is something he had rather inflicted upon himself out of an immature jealousy. The secret his acquaintances believe him to be concealing create jealousy within them, as well, which is responsible for the narrator's continued alienation from their group. The importance of the novel for a discussion of Abe's work comes not from any structural feature apart from its arrangement as a series of confessional ‘notebooks’—for within these books it reads very smoothly as a realist narrative—nor from any philosophical innovation, but rather from the placement of the self-alienating individual, first, within the barren ground of a bleak and hostile desert, and later within the closed hut which serves as his sick-ward. In both settings the protagonist must exist for himself within his own enclosed mental world as an outsider, quite literally a foreigner, to the landscape and social order around him. In short, the work is important for presenting a character who must deal with a situation of his own making; it approaches the issue of the essence of existence as fundamentally a matter of choice, and leaves this protagonist in a situation from which, by virtue of the qualitatively bad choices the plot reveals him to have made, he cannot extricate himself save through the death his illness makes urgent. A tone of almost querulous complaint hangs so persistently over the protagonist's considerations of the way in which he must live that sympathy becomes a sensation which eludes the reader's grasp. Abe presents this narrator as so stubbornly individualistic that he borders on a caricature of the existential character, welcoming every calamity the easier to curse the past which has denied him the prize of the woman's love. Before he left his city for the Asian continent, the protagonist tells her of his plans. Afterwards,

That night, with nothing holding me back, I sobbed to my heart's content.

After crying I burned my letters, notes, and her photographs. As the red flames disappeared into soot, I felt happiness. From my conviction that in compensation for having thrown away my hometown, at least happiness had been bestowed upon me, I made up my mind to believe in that happiness.

And so I started out, off to the wilderness where the winds would tear down any hometown faster than I could build it …27

His determination to believe in his happiness is an attempt to force himself to live in accord with bad faith, to convince himself of his own ability to overcome the simple human need for companionship which has initiated his flight from its demands—for in order to receive companionship one must be first a companion. The protagonist had lived alone, the narrative reveals, without parents or friends. Through the chance encounter with an old acquaintance he becomes once more a part of a ‘society’ which he rejects when it does not afford to him the fulfillment of his desires. Out of this selfish dissatisfaction the protagonist rejects not only the small circle which had caused his disappointment, but the whole nation around it. This act of self-centred destruction, then, defines the individual in this novel as one who would destroy rather than adapt—thus Abe's almost orthodoxly socialistic condemnation of the individual as antithetical to the creation of a greater social good which in turn would benefit him as well.

The theme of physical transformation which so captured Abe's imagination in variously refined forms throughout his career appears in this earliest period in, for example, “Dendorokakariya,” the story of a man who discovers himself to be turning slowly into a plant. Transformation is a device which writers from Ovid to Kafka have employed to comment on aspects of their characters or the world around them. Although from the theoretical analysis of western uses of this device, there appears to be a qualitative difference between classical and modern writers, I feel this distinction may be rather naïve. Abe, I would argue, is able to reconcile this apparent difference in a synthesis of the two diametric positions which Olsen describes as follows:

[The classical instance] needs more language around it, needs more words to place it, to circumscribe it, to plug it into a grid. In other words, it needs a context … [The modern text], on the other hand, refuses such language. [Its] discourse is briefer and it talks around the event, explaining what happened after the transformation. No amount of context will help interpret it … With the first example, the context helps explain, locate, interpret. With the second there is no context; the reader is adrift; if she wishes the text to mean, she must create her own “meaning”; meanwhile, the text remains mute …

In the premodern transformation, the human body loses form. Or, more precisely, the soul separates from the human body without losing its individuality, and it enters something else … The process of transformation has filtered out the essence of a being and displayed it for all to see. … The premodern metamorphosis is by or for God or the gods, where the alien body serves as a means of edification for the victim or hero, as well as for the victim's or hero's fellows who may see in it an image of themselves. In short, it is a metamorphosis charged with certainty, reason, importance.

Just the opposite is the case with postmodern metamorphosis, where there no longer lingers a redemptive flavour … There is … no explanation that aids the reader in solving the puzzle, because … there is no puzzle. Rather, some people happen to change … while others happen not to. … It is unreasonable, unaccountable, uninterpretable. It carries with it no suggestion of what the reader is supposed to make of it, or worse, carries with it so many conflicting suggestions that each cancels out the next.28

Abe uses transformation allegorically to criticise the ineffectual introspection Takano discusses as ‘the blind alley’ of the post-war Japanese self—Mister Common, the protagonist of this brief work, discovers that, on every occasion he becomes a plant, his face separates from his body and twists around backwards, so that he sees his own eyes staring in at him. Only with great effort is he able to wrench his face back into its proper orientation and so regain his human form, until finally he can no longer muster the strength to do so and becomes just another plant on display in a botanist's hot-house full of other individuals who, themselves, have become plants. Thus, although this protagonist is ‘contextless’ within the confines of the narrative, having only the barest of names, devoid of particular features, placeless in terms of address, city, or nation, nonetheless within the allegorical frame of this story, the context is quite clear—the essence of the protagonist, ‘Common,’ becomes obvious through this transformation: his introspection has reduced him to a passive form of existence, has robbed him of his human ability to act, to function as a self-controlled man. This transformation then is “irresistible, underscoring a lack of individual will and selfhood,”29 leaving its object simply one more example of the stifling atmosphere of the modern. In other words, the apparent ‘contextlessness’ becomes the very point, the very context itself, and the introspective protagonist's transformation into a hot-house plant becomes the metaphor for his and in general the passive society's inappropriateness for any action capable of improving this situation. Through this parody of the postwar self Abe dismisses any consideration of it as a viable mode. “The problem of ‘transformation’ is therefore the lifeline which released Abe from the sterility of the post-war ‘Self’ into the wilderness of the imagination,” wherein change for the better remains a possibility.30

Kabe, the collection of works for which Abe won the Akutagawa Prize in 1951, came not long after Owarishi michi no shirube ni. This volume reads as a self-introduction, containing in miniature all of the themes Abe would return to in his later works. I propose that even the very title, “Kabe,” is a cryptic form of Abe's self-identification—“K. Abe.” With this work Abe's career truly begins. The volume is in three parts. Part One contains the novella “S. Karuma-shi no hanzai” (“The Crime of S. Karuma”). Part Two consists of the short story “Baberu no tô no tanuki” (“The Badger from the Tower of Babel”). Part Three, entitled “Akai mayu” (“The Red Cocoon”), consists of a series of very short works, some of which read as fantastic parables, others being clearly and satirically political, in the manner of Swift's “A Modest Proposal.” Abe presents the series of images and premises which make up these texts with great clarity; they introduce and maintain a thematic importance which persists throughout the duration of Abe's career.

The first installment in this collection concerns a protagonist who wakes up one morning to discover not only a hollow feeling in his chest, but also that he has completely forgotten his own name. His identity papers are all blank, and he can barely recognise his features. At his place of work he discovers both that his name seems to be ‘S. Karma,’ and that his name-card has come to life to usurp his identity. At a doctor's office, he sucks into himself—quite unwillingly—the photograph of a desert he had been gazing at idly in a travel magazine. At a local zoo, he sucks into himself—again, unwillingly—a camel. For these crimes he is put on trial in a subterranean cavern beneath the zoo, but he cannot be sentenced, since as the Prosecutor informs him, “‘Because the defendant has lost his name and so is without one in actuality, we have no grounds for applying the law to a nameless person. Therefore, as a result, we cannot try the defendant.’”31 The trial however continues wherever the protagonist happens to be, until he is able to escape to the Ends of the Earth—which turn out to be within his own room. The work ends with the protagonist kidnapped by the doctor to whom he had first turned for a diagnosis of his hollowness, and transformed into an enormous wall, stretching out in the desert.

The complexity and yet almost archetypal appeals to elements of the fantastic in this story (which in its totality amounts to a frightening merger of Alice in Wonderland, Abe's favourite book, and The Trial—in fact Abe has said of this work that it “was written under the influence of Lewis Carroll—not Kafka, as so many thought”32), propel it into the domain of myth. It presents issues fundamental to the process of development all individuals must go through, and yet subtly perverts the emphases of these issues. From the initial phrasing of the problem of identity as an encounter with loss, through the hallucinatory, farcical, and (most significantly) subterranean trial—staged beneath the representation of social domination over the unruly forces of nature, the zoo—designed to make the ‘identity-less’ protagonist accountable for his consumption of images of desolation and perseverance, to the protagonist's discovery of his father's mysterious hostility and inability to rescue him from his fate, and culminating in the transformation of the protagonist into a symbol of both alienated isolation and social regulation—for walls fulfill both functions—this particular work in very compact form encapsulates many of Abe's key themes. The modern individual, existing only through his work, is truly ‘hollow’ and without anything of his own: this character has neither features nor particular habits to distinguish him from anyone else, yet he in turn is not particularly close to them. All he has is the sudden loss of his name, a loss which at first doesn't even concern him especially. When he does begin to miss this small marker of his individuality, society places him on trial, a permanent process which can only end at the ends of time and the earth.

It is important to reiterate that the only place in which the protagonist has any sort of identity at all is at his place of work—here, he has a function which society can value, and through which he is able to differentiate himself from others around him. Abe makes it clear, however, that this differentiation and value are neither substantive nor in the interests of the protagonist himself, for this character has been completely replaced by the one thing which serves to ‘pin him down’ in the business world: his name-card. He has become nothing more than the superimposition of a two-dimensional representation over top of his actual three-dimensional being. In short, he has been replaced by a simulacrum, an artificiality which in fact is better suited to performing his social function than he himself is. This social function is to fill the position of ‘Data Manager’ for an insurance company, to sift through the myriad facts and figures of the ‘real’ world and arrange them into coherent shapes. That is, he is to make rational the stuff of daily life, but this rationality becomes completely irrational when the one essential fact of his identity becomes lost to him. Having become separated from that part of him which performs this function—his name-card, his corporate badge of membership—he becomes a hollow ‘criminal’ who ends as an enormous wall, a barrier to communication.

The doctor and his assistant, in studying the vacuous cavity in Karuma's chest, do so not truly to cure him, to restore him to wholeness, but only to arrive at a conclusion designed to cause the least social panic in the community at large. In fact the doctor, once he discovers the fantastic scenery in the protagonist's chest, says that “‘It certainly wouldn't do for us scientists to admit to anything unscientific. … An insult to the spirit of investigation like this would throw the whole social order into disarray!’”33 This raises an insidious point significant to Abe's aim here: the failure of technology and advances in medical science to benefit the individual. That is to say, in its opposition to the alienated individual, technology reinforces its own value to an alienating social order. The insidious quality arises from the implication of the need for self-regulation to assure conformity—for in trusting the diagnosis of his condition to the doctors and their instruments, the protagonist abdicates his own rights to live with individual difference. It becomes up to the individual to fit himself into the pre-existing social order around him—and when this becomes difficult, the rational forces of technology and scientific advance will provide the means necessary to make it possible. The failure of Abe's characters to perceive this fully, and Abe's thoroughly negative depiction of their resulting plights, reject both blind faith in technology and this act of self-regulation as an instance of essence preceding existence, in a reversal of the central tenet of Existentialism. Only from self-aware, free individuals can a society be formed; society cannot form free, self-aware individuals. In support of this, Abe demonstrates the suffering resulting from an attempt to mold a personality to social dictates.

Nature, the ground on which the Absurd takes shape, plays a significant rôle in this novel as well. Abe is quite consistent in assigning animal imagery to characters who appear in a negative light, as, for example, the Doctor's Assistant is referred to as ‘Goldfish Eye’ repeatedly. As I've remarked, the trial itself takes place underneath the zoo, the entrance to the cave which led to the courtroom being located at the rear of a polar bear's cage. The mannequin-Miss Y calls the protagonist a “human duck,” and the blurring of the lines between human and animal which this implies continues when the protagonist hears, for example, “a cat crying in the voice of a baby.”34 This amounts to a subtle hostility between the natural world, a source of mystery and enmity for the protagonist, and the isolated individual who is a part of neither it nor the social order also aligned against him.

I should not allow Abe's flirtation with the structural confusion which overshadows this text to go unremarked. Abe creates an expectation in the mind of the reader by introducing the tantalising image of a hollow protagonist—one of T. S. Eliot's “Hollow Men,” perhaps?—able to absorb into himself not only creatures of a barren, desert landscape, but that very desert as well. For the ‘crime’ of stealing a camel, the underground tribunal condemns him, yet ultimately this is a narrative red herring, as it were. The trial, a permanent process derivative in this sense of Kafka's work by that name, will only end when the protagonist reaches the Ends of the Earth, that is, the starting point for the work, his own room. Here he becomes an enormous, grey, spreading wall, as barren as the desert within himself but of a very different nature. This frustration of the reader's expectations of some continuation of the thread of the protagonist's hollowness, and moreover of the name-card, is intentional on Abe's part: it becomes in itself a thread running throughout the course of his development, serving to highlight the irrationality of a seemingly rational pursuit for meaning in a pre-existing structure not of the reader's own making. This in turn leaves the reader in a position to make for himself whatever meaning he is best able to fashion of the fertile materials Abe places before him, all within an intertextual playground that makes little effort to hide its literary sources.

The second story in this collection, “Baberu no tô no tanuki” (“The Badger from the Tower of Babel”) is somewhat less complicated though no less interesting than “S. Karumashi no hanzai.” It concerns a poet, identified late in the work as K. Anten, who, while idly dreaming up schemes and inventions in the park one day, taking his inspiration from the various women's legs he is really there to watch, encounters an odd-looking creature he's never come across before, an ‘uncatchable badger’ from a Japanese saying: “Trying to make plans for the skin of an uncatchable badger,” somewhat analogous to the English expression, “counting chicks before they've hatched.” The creature steals the poet's shadow, which leaves the poet invisible, save for his eyes which seem to float in midair. These eyes cause a panic in the poet's town—the police surround his apartment building, intent on capturing this aberration. Almost without hope, the poet peers through the small telescope he has in his room out towards space. He sees the odd-looking creature riding on what he determines to be a large coffin with his name on it. The creature convinces the poet to step out of his window onto the coffin—even though when the poet removes his eye from the lens he realises the creature is still thousands of kilometres away—and returns with him back to the creature's home, a distant planet on which stands the Tower of Babel. The poet can only enter this tower through surrealistic means; once inside, he meets numerous famous humans, including Dante and Andre Breton, himself. That is to say, he meets their creatures, for each person there is as invisible as the poet, and each one has an animal who has taken over his identity. Only those humans with sufficiently developed powers of imagination can arrive at this place. Once there, they give up their eyes and so, ostensibly, ascend through the tower to Heaven, a perfect place where their fantasies come true. The thought of giving up his eyes arouses the poet's suspicions. He rejects the odd-looking creature's plan and the tower. Using a device his imagination had previously conjured up—a device which the creatures have adapted for their own use—a ‘time-carving tool,’ the poet returns himself to the moment at which he first encountered the animal. Knowing now what it intends, he scares it away and finds himself suddenly whole and visible once more, his shadow safely intact. He also discovers himself to be frightfully hungry, which is quite natural, he concludes, since he is no longer a poet.

This wonderfully whimsical short story nonetheless contains a number of elements which make it unmistakably a work by Abe. Foremost of these is the poet who, through a particular flaw in himself (although here not one for which he is truly responsible) finds himself at odds with the society in which he lives. The townspeople who encounter the poet's floating, disembodied eyes panic and think only of hunting him down, of driving him out of their midst. The neighbours who share the man's building all roundly condemn him and find it perfectly natural that now the police should be coming for him—the protagonist can hear “the housewives gather together to gossip, devoting all their excited voices to discussing rumours about me.”35 This is in keeping with Abe's earliest views on the conflicts between the individual and society as something brought about by the individual's insistence on his difference, for he is proud of his life as a poet. But here Abe also includes in clear terms his views on the value of that very individual, for the poet dreams of creating through his inventions a perfect place, a perfect unity of all people.

Suddenly something occurred to me. Wasn't I the first person to have physically experienced a new cosmic law? Wasn't I the discoverer of a cosmic theory?!

At once I stood as a conqueror upon lofty heights. I looked down upon vast panoramas. My heart pounded, then froze, then became the entire globe.

However, I could not imagine such a superb figure for myself. I was disappointed. I'd remembered that I'd become a transparent person.

I thought that I had to do something. … [The protagonist wonders where the badger had gone off to, and if it had eaten his shadow or merely hidden it. He pursues his line of thought, assuming a hidden shadow.] Fine, if that's the case, it's not impossible to solve it. I'm sure if we study the creature biochemically or physiologically, we can discover its means of stealing shadows. And then if we just reverse the process, wouldn't it be possible to synthesize or extract those shadows? Indeed, this is a discovery. It may after all amount to the discovery of a cosmic law. When the construction, ingredients and characteristics of shadows become known, people will be able to take off and put back their shadows at will. Whenever they want, they'll be able to become transparent. So long as they could return to their old selves, there wouldn't be the least inconvenience to being transparent. On the contrary, it would be quite interesting.

However, there was still something worrisome in this idea. Wasn't it possible that there would be more than one way to reattach the separated shadows? Can broken glass or pottery ever be put back together?! I became extremely uneasy. … But I sighed in relief when I realised how simple the solution was. It was really nothing at all—think logically about why broken glass can't be reassembled, and you'll soon figure it out. It's a question of the molecular forces not being able to interact at the particular spot. Accordingly, with the application of heat to the area, the reassembly becomes possible again. It would be sufficient to heat up the shadows, too. If heat wouldn't work, some physical or chemical means would surely be found.

And moreover, think about the shadows obtained this way—they wouldn't have to be the same as the original. The transformed bodies from these mechanically altered shadows could be completely different from their originals. Understanding this relationship theoretically, couldn't we freely acquire whichever new bodies we wished? (This thought sent me dreaming.) It was great! If this were to happen, fashion would no longer be about clothes—bodies themselves would become the style. I would build a huge factory, and make whichever bodies suited my tastes there. First I would take off the customer's shadow, send it through my refashioning machinery, and change its shape. Then I would rearrange the person's body. Everyone in the world would become as beautiful as the angels. What a dream it would be! And it didn't stop just there—if people's bodies were to become changeable, their various relationships would become changeable, too. It would follow that such things as private property would disappear; the very idea of the individual would disappear, too. Wouldn't it be a surprising world? Complete freedom. Complete and eternal redistribution. People like angels in the Society of Equality!36

The mention of the Tower of Babel in the work's title of course implies this dream of a perfectly harmonious, equitable world well—and moreover, implies the folly of attempting to arrive at such a place for the ultimate alienation and confusion of tongues which must result.

Abe utilises a very interesting typographical effect in this work, which finds its echo in the writings of Heidegger and Derrida. When Abe describes certain schemes or inventions the poet imagines to himself, he lists them within individual parentheses which flow within the grammatical construction of the sentence as if they were not there: “I next thought of one or two ideas for the (Dual-Usage Auto-Calculating Machine) I'd added to my suite of cards … Then, I made a few memos concerning (Edible Rats), (3-Dimensional Microscopic Photography), (a Liquid Lens), (a Time-Carving Device) … and a (Human Calculating Chart).”37 He makes more consistent use of this effect when the protagonist speaks of existence: “Women's legs allowed me to enter into the woman's interior at a single bound; they allowed me actually (to exist) within a primordial feeling of unity. Beautiful legs did it beautifully; ugly legs did it with ugliness, but all were a part of my equation for (existence).”38 This perhaps is an anticipation of the ‘erasure’ of which Spivak writes in her preface to Derrida's Of Grammatology, which “is to write a word, cross it out, and then print both word and deletion. (Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since it is necessary, it remains legible.) In examining familiar things we come to such unfamiliar conclusions that our very language is twisted and bent even as it guides us. Writing ‘under erasure’ is the mark of this contortion.”39 Abe of course was unaware of Derrida, prefiguring his utilisation of this technique by some twenty years. In some of his philosophical leanings it may be true that “Abe Kôbô started out from Heidegger,”40 but he had the originality of thought to anticipate by several years as well Martin Heidegger's use of this ‘crossing out’ in The Question of Being, which both Derrida and Spivak acknowledge as sources for the typographical effect of ‘crossing out’ a word while retaining it within the page—in this fashion. Heidegger, writing in 1956, claims that

it is by no means easier to say “Being” than to speak of nothingness … Is it the fault of “Being” … that our words fail in referring to it and only that remains on which suspicion is cast all too hastily as ‘mysticism’? Or is our language at fault for not yet speaking because it is not yet able to adapt itself to a reference to the essence of “Being”? … Does nothingness vanish with the completion, or at least with the overcoming of nihilism? Presumably, overcoming is only attained when, instead of the appearance of negative nothingness, the essence of nothingness which was once related to “Being” can arrive and be accepted … It now becomes questionable what Being which has been reverted into and been absorbed by its essence is henceforth to be thought of. Accordingly, a thoughtful glance ahead into this realm of “Being” can only write it as Being. The drawing of these crossed lines at first only repels, especially the almost ineradicable habit of conceiving “Being” as something standing by itself and only coming at times face to face with man. According to this conception it looks as if man were excluded from “Being.” However, he is not only not excluded, that is, he is not only encompassed into “Being” but “Being,” using the essence of man, is … of a different nature than the conception of totality would like to have it …

The symbol of crossed lines can, to be sure, according to what has been said, not be a merely negative symbol of crossing out. Rather it points into the four areas of the quadrangle and of their gathering at the point of intersection … The being present as such turns towards the essence of man in which the turning-towards is first completed, insofar as the human being remembers it. Man in his essence is the memory of Being, but of Being. This means that the essence of man is a part of that which in the crossed intersected lines of Being puts thinking under the claim of an earlier demand …

The essence of man itself belongs to the essence of nihilism and thereby to the phase of its completion. Man, as the essence put into use in Being helps to constitute the zone of Being and that means at the same time of nothingness.41

Abe brackets ‘existence’ in a way analogous to this use of the term Being, both to highlight it within and eradicate it from his text at the same time—it becomes a word capable of slipping through the discourse either as an escape or a sneak attack, either to elude the grasp or pierce the armour of the reader and so set off within him a chain of associations and reactions to this term not yet sufficiently defined for the modern age. (Existence) in parentheses becomes something held in abeyance, a ‘black box’ holding the position of a device yet to be invented, much as the other terms Abe encapsulates within these curved walls are devices of which the poet has dreamed, although not yet realised. Inventions awaiting their blueprints, grand ideals awaiting their champions, new forms of (Existence) awaiting their proper social structures—these are the stuff of Abe's fiction, and Abe's project is to make them tangible for his reader as material elements for his own project.

Abe includes a number of very short, parable-like works in the final section of this volume, which takes its name from the first of these. This is “Akai mayu” (“The Red Cocoon”), a three-page story about a nameless, homeless “I” who, while walking about one day at dusk knocking occasionally on people's doors asking if this isn't, in fact, his house, begins to feel himself unraveling. The conclusion to the story comes as he takes step after step:

The sun began to set. I continued to walk.

All those houses … They didn't disappear, they didn't change shape, they didn't move. And between all of them, like a faceless fissure, ever changing—the road. Rough-brushed on rainy days; only as wide as the car wheel-ruts on snowy days; flowing on like a belt on windy days—the road. I kept on walking. I couldn't understand why I had no home, and so I couldn't even hang my head over it.

But what was this—was something twisting around my feet? Perhaps it was a noose; no, don't be so upset, don't be so hurried, it wasn't that. It was a sticky, silken thread. I grabbed hold and pulled; it seemed to come from the hole in my shoe. No matter how much I pulled, it grew longer and longer. It was strange. Out of curiosity I continued to pull, and something even stranger happened. Gradually my body began to tilt; I could no longer hold myself up straight. Was the earth's axis tilting? The direction of the force of gravity changing?

My socks and shoes fell from my foot onto the surface of the road; I knew what was happening. The earth's axis wasn't warped—my leg had gotten shorter. As I pulled at the string my leg shrank. Just like the elbow of a torn jacket will unravel, my leg was coming undone. The thread was my own leg, coming to pieces like the fibres of a cotton plant.

I could not walk another step more. Bewildered, I could no longer stand; but equally bewildering, the leg which I held in my hands, now transformed into silken thread, began to move all by itself. Slowly, slowly it inched its way forward; without any help from me at all, like a snake unraveling itself, it began to wrap around my whole body. When my left leg was all used up the thread naturally moved to the right one. The thread finally wrapped my whole body into a sack but it didn't stop there. From my belly to my chest; from my chest to my shoulders, I gradually became undone. The parts of me coming off stiffened up the sack from the inside. Finally, I disappeared.

Only a large, empty cocoon was left.

Ahh, finally I could rest. The red evening sun coloured the cocoon. This was truly the home no one could drive me away from. But now that I had a home, there was no ‘me’ left to return to it.

Time ceased inside the cocoon. Outside it had gotten dark, but since inside it was always dusk, the colours of the setting sun shone redly from within. This remarkable peculiarity of course had to attract the stranger's attention. He spotted the me who had become a cocoon lying between the rails and the platform of the train station. At first he was perplexed, but then he changed his mind, thinking he'd made a rare find. He put me into his pocket. After leaving me lying about in there for a while, he transferred me to his son's toy-box.42

The transformation of a nameless, homeless wanderer into an empty shell is a fine metaphor for Abe's empty, alienated individual, a continuation of the imagery of hollowness and transparency Abe uses earlier in the collection—“the transformation of the man into an empty integument functions as an objective correlative of his total estrangement from society, reification, and loss of self-identity.”43 The lack of a defined place, the lack of a home which Abe had examined in Owarishi michi no shirube ni here brings about the complete dissolution of the protagonist and effects his transformation into an oddity, a curiosity to be gathered up by an equally anonymous collector—who promptly forgets all about him, passing this empty shell along to his son's toy box almost as the heirloom of a social class guaranteeing the non-interconnectedness of these individuals throughout the generations to come. Physical transformation here becomes a mark of impoverishment, a manifestation of an even greater social dysfunctionality than mere homelessness could imply—and indeed, imply this it does. Consider the specifically political overtones of this exchange between the protagonist and a home-owner:

But perhaps I'd made a big mistake—perhaps it wasn't that I had no home, perhaps I'd only forgotten where it was. It was possible … Gathering up my courage, I knocked on the door.

Fortunately, a woman's face appeared, kindly smiling from the half opened window. I smiled, too, and greeted her as a gentleman would [shinshi no yô ni eshakushita].

“I'm just a bit curious, but this wouldn't be my house, would it?”

The woman's face quickly stiffened. “But who are you?”

I was about to explain, but I was suddenly at a loss. I didn't know what I was to explain. How was I to make her accept the fact that who I was simply was not the issue just then? Beginning to despair, I said “But anyway, if you believe this is not my house, I would like you to prove that to me.”

“But …” The woman's face became frightened. That got me angry.

“If you haven't any proof, I might as well consider this my house.”

“But this is my house!”

“But what does that mean? It doesn't mean that if it's your house it can't be mine, does it?”

Instead of replying, the woman's face became a wall, and she shut the window.44

Abe and the protagonist both here confront the problem of private property as a mechanism through which alienation comes to exist between people who are each in the same situation—both need a home, which could very well be the structure standing before them save for the resistance one party feels to sharing something of herself with this stranger. Private property thus gives rise to homelessness, which in turn creates the hollow, identityless shell the protagonist becomes. Other human beings have taken away his very humanity, through the isolating mechanism of ownership.

Yet this very short work does not only present a metaphorical formulation of Abe's socialistic denunciation of alienation through private property. It also flirts with the deceptive qualities of narrative structure to create the illusion of a unified personality—for logically, the narrator of this story cannot narrate its conclusion.

Although the narrative consciousness of the text is that of a man undergoing a gradual transformation from his human existence into an inanimate object—a highly anti-realistic motif—the narrative form of this text is that of an interior monologue, rendering the perceptions and reflections of the protagonist in (mock) naturalistic fashion of conventional psychological I-narration. Thus, the text … subverts and ridicules traditional genres of realistic fiction, asserting its non-mimetic autonomy over against the conventional expectations and interpretative customs of the reader.45

This act of subversion is a function of the asymptotic spiraling off towards infinity of the text's close: the narrator is gone, but his voice remains. In the absence of his being he may be forever, identityless but eternal. Presentational rather than representational, this text is a statement of the inadequacy of human terminology to define the states of existence of humans themselves—for an impossible human has here narrated his impossible story to the reader. Abe uses this concluding device in many of his works to play with the ideas of teleology and progression: linearity gives way to circularity in Moetsukita chizu, for example, or to an infinite digression in Mikkai. But what is foremost at stake in these works and through the use of this insanely illogical approach to impossibility is the very definition of reality itself, and the need to base that definition on the actual conditions in which humans live at present. In this sense even this absurdist trope is completely materialist and centred around the real world itself.

I will mention one last short piece from this volume before moving on to other of Abe's fictions. This story, “Jigyô” (“Enterprise”), is a very apt updating of Jonathan Swift's “A Modest Proposal.” In this work, an unnamed businessman relates a brief history of his particular line of goods—rats bred specially for human consumption, an idea which turns up now and then in other of Abe's works from this period—including mention of losing his wife and daughter to a tragedy by which he was not overly upset: several thousand rats escaped one day from the breeding facility and went on a murderous rampage, biting all they could. The businessman has overcome this set-back, however, and now has a new venture: the sale for consumption of humans themselves.

This short work is an almost perfect phrasing of Abe's Marxist opposition to the forces of capitalist exploitation at work all around him in the hand-to-mouth days following Japan's defeat in the Second World War. It may well be that “allegories are the natural mirrors of ideology,”46 but satire too has definite reflective qualities.

Kabe then contains many of the features which will recur in later novels by Abe. It deals with the irrationality of modern existence through the mechanisms of the subterranean trial of the protagonist in “S. Karuma shi no hanzai,” and the impossibility of the poet's adventures in “Baberu no tô no tanuki.” It deals with human exploitation in the short work “Jigyô,” and with private property as a means to reinforce that exploitation in “Akai mayu.” It also approaches an exploration of the alienating effects of technology, a theme which Abe treated in greater detail in his long novel from 1959, Daiyon kampyôki (Inter Ice-age Four, tr. 1970). In this novel uncontrolled technological advance, the increasing social dependency on computerisation, and societal blind faith in science's ability to determine the best, logical good for human kind, become the sources for the very downfall of the entire human species and the rise of a new breed of water-breathing people known as ‘Aquans.’


  1. Mills, C. Wright, The Sociological Imagination, New York: Grove Press, 1959, p. 167

  2. Abe, “Nenashi kusa no bungaku,” Nami, V. 3, No. 11, September-October 1969, p. 12

  3. ibid., pp. 12-3

  4. Mills, C. Wright, pp. 168-9

  5. Baker, Richard E. The Dynamics of the Absurd in the Existential Novel, New York: Peter Lang, 1993. p. 1

  6. ibid., pp. 2-3

  7. Takano, Toshimi Abe Kôbô ron, Tokyo: Hanagamisha, 1979. p. 13

  8. ibid.

  9. Abe, Kôbô, “Ne nashi kusa no bungaku,” p. 12

  10. ibid., p. 13

  11. Takano, p. 23-4

  12. Baker, p. 2

  13. Abe, Kôbô Owarishi michi no shirube ni, Abe Kôbô zensakuhin, Tokyo: Shinchôsha, 1972. V. 1, p. 72

  14. Baker, p. 2

  15. Milman, Yoseph. Opacity in the Writings of Robbe-Grillet, Pinter, and Zach: A Study in the Poetics of Absurd Literature, London: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991. pp. 8-9

  16. ibid., p. 10

  17. Heidegger, Martin. The Question of Being, tr. Wilde, Jean T. and Kluback, W. New Haven: College and Universities Press, 1958. p. 47

  18. Fletcher, Angus. Allegory: the Theory of a Symbolic Mode, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1964. pp. 22-3

  19. ibid., p. 367

  20. ibid., p. 368

  21. Todorov, Tzvetan. Symbolism and Interpretation, tr. Catherine Porter; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983. p. 38

  22. Abe, Owarishi michi no shirube ni, p. 105

  23. ibid., p. 109-10

  24. ibid., p. 7

  25. ibid., p. 9

  26. Takano, p. 21

  27. Abe, Owarishi, p. 12

  28. Olsen, Lance. Ellipse of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Postmodern Fantasy, New York: Greenwood Press, 1987, pp. 52-3

  29. ibid., p. 54

  30. Takano, p. 18

  31. Abe, “S. Karuma-shi no hanzai,” in Abe Kôbô zensakuhin, Tokyo: Shinchôsha, 1972. V. 2, p. 35

  32. Abe, “An Interview with Abe Kôbô,” Contemporary Literature, Volume 15, Number 4, Autumn 1974, p. 451

  33. Abe, “S. Karuma-shi no hanzai,” p. 17

  34. ibid., p. 60

  35. Abe, “Baberu no tô no tanuki,” in Abe Kôbô zensakuhin, Tokyo: Shinchôsha, 1972, V. 2, p. 94

  36. ibid., pp. 91-3

  37. ibid., p. 86

  38. ibid., p. 88

  39. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Translator's Preface,” in Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974. p. xiv

  40. Hanitani, Yûkô, “Abe Kôbô Kabe,” in Sakka no sekai: Abe Kôbô, Sasaki Ki'ichi, ed. Tokyo: Banchô shobô, 1978, p. 85

  41. Heidegger, Martin. The Question of Being, pp. 79-83

  42. Abe, “Akai mayu,” Kabe, in Abe Kôbô zensakuhin, Tokyo: Shinchôsha, 1972. V. 2, pp. 128-9

  43. Goebel, Rolf J. “Kôbô Abe: Japan's Kafka,” Newsletter of the Kafka Society of America, V. 7, No. 1, June 1983, p. 35

  44. Abe, “Akai mayu,” pp. 127-8

  45. Goebel, p. 35

  46. Fletcher, p. 368


Kōbō Abe Long Fiction Analysis


Abé, Kōbō (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)