Robert Garis (review date winter 1989)

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SOURCE: Garis, Robert. Review of The Ark Sakura, by Kōbō Abé. Hudson Review 41, no. 4 (winter 1989): 757-59.

[In the following unfavorable review, Garis derides The Ark Sakura as lacking in coherence and meaning.]

International high style at its most stupefyingly relentless is the achievement of Kobo Abe's The Ark Sakura, which lays out the ingredients for some sort of fable about the nuclear age or human survival or paranoia, and then shuts down without putting anything together. The first-person narrator named Mole (also Pig, a nickname he dislikes) is looking for people to joint him in his survival “ship,” a many-chambered abandoned underground quarry in which his father had once imprisoned him as a punishment, but which he has now fitted out with all sorts of provisions, booby traps against intruders and the like, as an “ark” for survival. The quarry's main feature is a huge toilet, with no seat and with immense water pressure in the flushing mechanism which makes it very inconvenient to use—it was this toilet to which his father had tied him. The candidates for survival Mole gathers (with no particular criteria) are an insect seller at a bazaar and a man and a woman who work as shills for him and whose animated conversation about one of the insects attracts Mole's interest. This insect, an eupcaccia, feeds entirely on its own feces, moving in a perfect circle just slowly enough to keep its nutritional system functioning smoothly, except during its mating season, when it rises precariously from its circle on flimsy wings, and then “time stands still.” Once Mole and his three recruits enter the Ark, there is a steady, boring action of exploration of the place itself, temporary disappearances of the male shill and the insect seller, much searching for them, suspicions that other people are hiding in the quarry, much searching for them too. Both the shill and the woman tell Mole that the other has cancer but doesn't know it. Two thirds of the way through, emissaries arrive from a group of old people called the Broom Brigade, who hope to survive in the “Kingdom of Quintessential Castoffs.” In the meantime, they serve as garbage-collectors. But they have contracted out their most dangerous product, poisonous industrial wastes, to Mole and his huge toilet, and now they want him to destroy a human body for them. In the last hundred pages the action speeds up; Mole gets his leg stuck in the toilet, from which he finally releases himself by setting off an explosion which changes the pressure in the water system. He tells the other characters that the explosion is a nuclear explosion, that nuclear warfare has begun; when he afterwards tells them the truth, they prefer to believe the nuclear explanation, and when Mole leaves them behind in the Ark, he finds that the world, including his own body, has become transparent.

These are the ingredients, but no fable emerges. “Sakura” is the Japanese word for “shill”: is Mole's survival ship a fake that manipulates people who are obsessed with nuclear disaster? You don't feel this as you read, and all the characters in the novel bring a kind of bland steadiness of attention to everything they do, without feeling obsessed or victimized, and you don't feel any irony about that. Apart from Mole's pleasure in little flesh contacts he makes with the flesh of the woman shill, particularly with her thighs or buttocks, and his pain when his leg is stuck in the toilet, the entire action is rendered without affect. None of the meanings promised...

(This entire section contains 942 words.)

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in the action are made by the kind of connective process we are used to encountering when meaning happens. The strange insect, much discussed at the beginning of the novel, completely disappears, and we aren't given the wherewithal to connect any person or act with the insect's over-meaningful habits. Loud elements such as Mole's father's having chained him to the toilet for punishment, and the steady emphasis on the toilet and on excrement, seem continually on the verge of working up some meaning but remain inert; when we learn about Mole's job of disposing of industrial pollution, and eventually of disposing of a human body, our sense of being right on top of meaning without seeing it or feeling it generates an almost eerie emptiness which the book doesn't in any way register. The transparent outside world makes a very striking appearance formally, in a single-page final chapter, but the prose doesn't reveal either by tone or imagery what transparency means. And so on.

It is hard to guess what the novel would seem like to somebody without a reviewer's obligation to continue reading. Readers who have admired Kobo Abe in the past might find a positive value in what I experienced as negative: since the novel's consistent moderato narrative drive doesn't produce any meaning to distract us, it does bring that element of fiction—movement in time—to sharp focus. And I suppose it's possible to admire the odd skill with which Abe does in fact avoid meaningfulness—his foot never slips. When I had seen the film made from Abe's first novel, Woman of the Dunes, a highly regarded, portentously meaningful fable about some mysteries of sexuality, I read the novel itself to check whether the film had coarsened Abe's meaning and found that it hadn't. Abe's progress, which has led him to ever sterner renunciations of the conventional, has established him in a high place in the international literary scene. Other reviewers of this latest novel hint at the marvelous but ineffable experience they have had. For this reader there was nothing.


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Kōbō Abé 1924-1993

(Born Kimifusa Abé; also transliterated as Kobo Abe and Abe Kobo) Japanese novelist, short story writer, playwright, theater director, essayist, screenwriter, and photographer.

The following entry provides criticism on Abé's works from 1989 through 1997. For criticism prior to 1989, see CLC, Volumes 8, 22, and 53; for an obituary entry on Abe, see CLC, Volume 81.

Abé was the foremost Modernist writer in Japan and an international literary figure who was frequently considered a candidate for the Nobel Prize. Sometimes referred to as the “Japanese Kafka,” Abé wrote many tales depicting ordinary people in absurd, nightmarish situations. His work helped to attract attention to postwar Japanese life and literature.

Biographical Information

Abé was born on March 7, 1924, in Tokyo. His father was a physician who moved his family to Manchuria when Abé was an infant. In 1942 Abé returned to Tokyo at the age of eighteen to enter Tokyo University and study medicine. During these years, he became influenced by the nihilistic movement that gained popularity among Japanese students and intellectuals near the end of World War II. After the end of the war, he began to experiment with poetry and fiction. In 1948 he graduated from Tokyo University with his M.D. degree, but he soon abandoned his medical career to pursue his interest in writing fiction, drama, and poetry. Abé joined several important literary groups and by 1950 had become an enthusiastic participant in the avant-garde movement. He gained recognition as a fiction writer, director, screenwriter, and playwright. In 1973 Abé founded his own theater group, the Abé Kōbō Studio, which produced many of his best-known plays. During the 1970s and 1980s he also wrote several television and radio dramas in Japan. He died of heart failure on January 22, 1993.

Major Works

Abé is best known in the West for Suna no onna (1962; The Woman in the Dunes), an allegorical, metaphysical novel about an entomologist who becomes trapped in a sandpit by a sensuous widow. Initially, the man tries to escape, but eventually he becomes attracted to the widow and accepts his situation. The novel is often categorized as a Kafkaesque morality tale. The award-winning film based on this novel, The Woman in the Dunes, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara and scripted by Abé, brought him international acclaim. His novel Tanin no kao (1964; The Face of Another) was also adapted into a popular film in 1967. Using motifs from detective novels, Abé chronicles the story of a disfigured man who wears a mask to hide his true identity. With his new face, the protagonist changes and behaves in uncharacteristic ways, including a successful attempt to seduce his own wife. Abé's novel Hakobune sakura maru (1984; The Ark Sakura) is a farcical version of the biblical story of Noah and the Flood. Mole, the protagonist, is an eccentric recluse who converts a huge cave into an “ark” equipped with water, food, and elaborate weapons to protect himself from an impending nuclear holocaust. Abé's works in other genres include the plays Tomodachi, enemoto takeaki (1967; Friends), which examines the cruel and predatory nature of members of a family who intrude upon the life of a bachelor, and Bo ni natta otoko (1969; The Man Who Turned into a Stick). Abé utilizes irony and ambiguity in order to explore issues of identity and alienation, which are recurring thematic concerns in his work.

Critical Reception

Critics note that much of Abé's fiction explores the loneliness of modern existence and the tenuous nature of identity, posing questions and describing events designed to undermine the reader's complacency and stimulate reflective thought. Reviewers have asserted that unlike his contemporary Yukio Mishima, whose uniquely modern fiction incorporated numerous elements from traditional Japanese culture, Abé avoided culturally specific details in an effort to address a worldwide audience and underline the universality of his themes. Several commentators have speculated that this widespread appeal led to international interest his work but to negative critical reaction in his homeland. His work is often compared to that of Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Paul Auster.

Wimal Dissanayake (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Dissanayake, Wimal. “Self, Place, and Body in The Woman in the Dunes: A Comparative Study of the Novel and the Film.” In Literary Relations, East and West: Selected Essays, edited by Jean Toyama and Nobuko Ochner, pp. 41-54. Manoa, Hawaii: University of Hawaii, 1990.

[In the following essay, Dissanayake lists the reasons for the success of the cinematic adaptation of Abé's novel The Woman in the Dunes.]

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.1

The Woman in the Dunes

The novel and the film are two of the most powerful media of symbolic communication in the modern world, and the relationship between them is as complex as it is fascinating. There appears to be an almost inverse relationship between the literary worth of a novel and the artistic worth of film based on it. Some of the outstanding novels of internationally acclaimed novelists such as Tolstoy, Joyce, and Lawrence have been made into films without much success while great works of cinema have been created based on undistinguished novels—Antonioni's BLOW-UP is a case in point. However, occasionally we come across a great work of cinema that is based upon an equally great novel. Hiroshi Teshigahara's film version of Kobo Abe's Suna no onna or The Woman in the Dunes is a good illustration of this. Kobo Abe, who is one of the leading playwrights and novelists of Japan, is the author of such well-known novels as The Face of Another,The Ruined Map,The Box Man, and, of course, The Woman in the Dunes. Many consider The Woman in the Dunes, which won the Yomiuri Prize for Literature in 1960, to be Kobo Abe's finest novel, a judgment with which I certainly agree. Hiroshi Teshigahara's 1963 film version of the novel, which was awarded the Jury Prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 1963, provides us with an excellent and rare example of a distinguished novel yielding up an equally distinguished work of cinematic art. The object of this [essay] is to examine, what I believe to be, the primary reason for this success.

One of Kobo Abe's abiding themes has been the alienation of man and his perennial quest for identity. He has chosen to explore this theme with the power, the clarity, and the elemental attraction of myth. This is clearly the case with The Woman in the Dunes. This novel tells the story of a man held captive with a young woman at the bottom of a dangerous sand pit in a remote seaside village, and his attempt to make sense of the bizarre world into which he has been transported much against his will.

The protagonist of the novel, Niki Jumpei—who throughout the novel is referred to not by name but by the pronoun “he”—is a school teacher and avid insect collector who disappears one August afternoon. The opening of the novel, with its casual and matter-of-fact tone, sets the stage for the strange experiences that are to follow:

One day in August a man disappeared. He had simply set out for the seashore on a holiday, scarcely half a day away by train, and nothing more was ever heard of him. Investigation by the police and inquiries in the newspapers had both proved fruitless.


In his search for insects, Niki Jumpei arrives at a desolate seaside village near the sand dunes. As “sand and insects were all that concerned him,” he is hardly aware of the grim and forbidden terrain into which he has wandered. When he eventually does survey his surrounding reality, he finds it anything but pleasant:

The slope suddenly steepened. It must have been at least sixty-five feet down to the tops of the houses. What in heaven's name could it be like to live down there? he thought in amazement, peering down into one of the holes. As he circled around the edge he was suddenly struck by a biting wind that choked his breath in his throat. The view abruptly opened up, and the turbid, foaming sea licked at the shore below. He was standing on the crest of the dunes that had been his objective.


As fate would have it, Niki Jumpei misses the last bus. The villagers, however, invite him to spend the night in the village. He readily accepts their invitation, and, in what will trigger a series of bizarre incidents, asks to spend the night in a shack at the bottom of a sandpit. It is a strange place:

Indeed, if it had not been for the warm reception, the house itself would have been difficult to put up with at all. He would have thought they were making a fool of him and would doubtless have gone back at once. The walls were peeling, matting had been hung up in place of sliding doors, the upright supports were warped, boards had replaced all the windows, the straw mats were on the point of rotting, and when one walked on them they made a noise like a wet sponge. Moreover, an offensive smell of burned, moldering sand floated over the whole place.


Here, in this nightmarish world, he is held captive with a young woman. The only reality is the ever present sand:

The more he tried to sleep, the more wide awake he became. His eyes began to smart; his tears and his blinking seemed to be ineffective against the ceaselessly falling sand. He spread out his towel and wrapped it over his head. It was difficult to breathe, but it was better this way. He tried thinking of something else. When he closed his eyes, a number of long lines, flowing like sighs, came floating toward him. There were ripples of sand moving over the dunes. The dunes were probably burned into his retina because he had been gazing steadily at them for some twelve hours. The same sand currents had swallowed up and destroyed flourishing cities and great empires.


The woman, whose husband and daughter had died the previous year by being buried by sand, is destined to live with him in the shack at the bottom of the sand pit. He is a prisoner, and experiences a whole range of emotions toward her ranging from anger and annoyance to erotic love and compassion. He tries to escape from this nightmarish world five times but never succeeds; his efforts to outwit his captors repeatedly fail.

Toward the end of the novel, Niki Jumpei realizes, quite by accident, that he can obtain water through the capillary action of sand, a discovery that serves to bring about a fundamental change in his attitude and outlook. It is almost as if he had discovered a new self. The interaction between self and place has opened a new chapter in his existence, and escaping from the shack is no longer uppermost in his mind. The novel closes with the following memorable passage:

There was no particular need to hurry about escaping. On the two-way ticket he held in his hand now, the destination and time of departure were blanks for him to fill in as he wished. In addition, he realized that he was bursting with a desire to talk to someone about the water trap. And if he wanted to talk about it, there wouldn't be better listeners than the villagers. He would end by telling someone—if not today, then tomorrow. He might as well put off his escape until sometime after that.


The Woman in the Dunes deals with the themes of alienation and identity, themes which are explored with the power of a fabulist imagination. Sand is the ruling trope of the novel; it is everywhere, pervading the thoughts, revelations, imaginings, ruminations and actions of the protagonist. As Currie aptly points out,2 sand is the novel's central metaphor, standing for the shifting reality in which the protagonist needs to come to terms with himself and his circumambient reality, in which he needs to sink roots to anchor his existence. Many literary critics and scholars have interpreted the significance of the symbolism of the sand in diverse ways. It is my conviction that Abe's symbolism is deeply rooted in Buddhism, according to which sand signifies samsara or worldly existence, and water signifies wisdom and insight.

Hiroshi Teshigahara has made a visually stunning and critically acclaimed film from Kobo Abe's novel. How does one account for this rare success—a great film born out of a great novel. One can argue that Teshigahara is a hugely talented director in the way that Kobo Abe is an outstanding novelist. One can also argue that the novel is visually conceived so that it made the task of the screenplay writer and the director that much lighter. It is also true that the director of the film worked very closely with the novelist. All these factors, in their different ways, no doubt, contributed to the successful animated transcreation of the novel. There is, I believe, yet another, and in some ways, deeper reason for this success, namely, the dialectic between self and place that is so crucial to the thematic and stylistic intent of the novel and its bearing on the art of cinematography.

Teshigahara has sought to stick as closely as possible to the novel; even the dialogue is, by and large, taken directly from the novel. He has added a few incidents like the rape scene and the scene dealing with his old girlfriend that occurs at the beginning of the film, and shortened the escape scenes which are much longer in the novel. But beyond these changes, the film adheres very faithfully to the novel.

A distinguishing feature of The Woman in the Dunes is the vital dialectic between self and place. Niki Jumpei is realized, defined and assessed in relation to place. First we are shown how he attempts to escape from the urban environment that he inhabits; next we see him against the background of the desolate and remote seaside village; the third stage, which constitutes the bulk of the novel is his encounter with the pervasive sand in the shack at the bottom of the sand pit; finally his struggle with the environment and his triumph over it with the discovery of water, resulting in the emergence of a newer self. The interplay between self and place, then, is pivotal to the meaning of the novel.

Interestingly, something that cinema does far more effectively and cogently than the other media of symbolic expression is capture the mutual interaction between self and place. It is almost a power invested with the art of cinema. Therefore, the fact that Kobo Abe's novel deals precisely with this aspect certainly helped to make it a literary work full of cinematic possibilities, and the director, Hiroshi Teshigahara, was quick to exploit them to the maximum advantage.

The central trope in the film, as in the novel, is sand. It is at once beautiful and frightening, attractive and repulsive. Director Teshigahara has captured with remarkable skill and power the various shapes, forms and patterns of the sand. At one point, he magnifies a single grain of sand so as to fill the entire screen; at another point, he shows how the sand flows on and on in a cascade-like manner. Throughout the film we are shown how Niki Jumpei's and the woman's bodies are covered with sand, investing their very being with its presence. Indeed, I can hardly think of any other film in which sand plays such a dominant role.

Hiroshi Teshigahara has an acute sensitivity to the sense of place. Niki walking all by himself across the dunes as the sun sinks beyond the horizon; the pitiful condition of the shack in which he is condemned to live with the woman; the woman holding up an umbrella to keep the sand from falling on the food as Niki eats his dinner; the torrential fall of sand on the shack; the shack as seen by the villagers from above; the faces of the villagers transformed into diabolic masks; how these sequences are presented through Teshigahara's wonderful use of the camera and editing bears testimony to this fact. Niki Jumpei's new awareness of himself is a direct consequence of his confrontation with his environment, and the film brings this out graphically.

As I mentioned earlier, The Woman in the Dunes communicates powerfully the emergence of the protagonist's newer self. This is accompanied by a significant shift in his cognitive style. It demonstrates the proneness of human beings to adhere to specific cognitive styles and to structure and reify reality in accordance with that style. What the novel points out is the imperative need to get out of such a rigid cognitive style as a way of realizing one's self fully. Needless to say, these cognitive styles are products of, and embedded in, specific discourses.

Niki is a product of the modern, urban environment and the discourse which brought it into being. He may not be totally happy with all facets of this discourse, but he certainly operates within its parameters. He structures his reality in relation to the signification systems that he has inherited from his environment. In addition, he is a resolute insect collector; the entomological and scientific discourse has deeply penetrated his being. He has a rational and analytical frame of mind; he likes to reduce things to their basic constituent elements. He privileges reductionism over holism. As early on in the novel, we are told

His head bent down, he began to walk following the crescent-shaped line of dunes that surround the village like a rampart and towered above it. He paid almost no attention to the distant landscape. An entomologist must concentrate his whole attention within a radius of about three yards around his feet.


Niki is used to classification and atomization rather than to seeing things holistically, as a consequence of his experiences in the shack with the woman, and as he becomes increasingly acquainted with her ways of thinking and perceiving, his cognitive style begins to change. As he says toward the end of the novel:

He was still in the hole, but it seemed as if he were already outside. Turning around, he could see the whole scene. You can't really judge a mosaic if you don't look at it from a distance. If you really get close to it you get lost in detail. You get away from one detail only to get caught in another. Perhaps what he had been seeing up until now was not the sand but grains of sand.


As a consequence of Niki's experiences in the shack—as a consequence of the interaction between self and place—he acquires a new cognitive style which is more contextualized, holistic and experiential. This shift in the cognitive style is closely associated with his newly emergent self.

The dialectic between self and place is at the heart of The Woman in the Dunes. Kobo Abe has explored this with a great measure of sensitivity and concreteness. His powerful visual imagination has caught this interplay with subtlety and cogency. As I stated earlier, the dialectic between self and place is one that the art of cinema handles with undiminishing enthusiasm. This fact, more than anything else, in my judgment, has contributed to the stunningly successful cinematic transcreation of Kobo Abe's novel.

What Kobo Abe has sought to do is to remove his protagonist from his cultural environment and to probe deeper and deeper into his own psyche as a way of attaining his authentic selfhood. However, culture plays such a formidable role in the combination of self that by merely removing Niki from his familiar cultural surroundings, Kobo Abe is not able to achieve this. As a matter of fact the dialectic between self and place that is clearly a pervasive presence in the novel and the film gain much by way of force and definition from Niki's cultural reflexes.

When discussing the dialectic of self and place in The Woman in the Dunes, it is very important that we pay attention to the concept of body that is so central to the textual strategies of the novel and the film. Once Niki is imprisoned in the sand pit, the only reality is the ever present sand and his own body. Much of the communication, experience of diverse emotions, imaginings' ruminations are anchored in the body. Many of the most memorable passages in the novel are associated with the human body.

She was stark naked.

She seemed to float like a blurred shadow before his tear-filled eyes. She lay face up on the matting, her whole body, except her head, exposed to view; she had placed her left hand slightly over her lower abdomen, which was smooth and full. The parts that one usually covered were completely bare, while the face, which anybody would show, was concealed under a towel. No doubt the towel was to protect her nose, mouth, and eyes from the sand, but the contrast seemed to make the naked body stand out even more.

The whole surface of her body was covered with a coat of fine sand, which hid the details and brought out the feminine lines; she seemed a statue gilded with sand. Suddenly a viscid saliva rose from under his tongue. But he could not possibly swallow it. Were he to swallow, the sand that had lodged between his lips and teeth would spread through his mouth. He turned toward the earthen floor and spat. No matter how much he ejected he could not get rid of the gritty taste. No matter how he emptied his mouth the sand was still there. More sand seemed to issue constantly from between his teeth.


Here Niki is experiencing the strange and bizarre situation into which he has found himself in terms of the body; indeed, the body becomes the instrument by which the strangeness and the abnormality that surrounds him is measured and assessed. Similarly, the attractions and antagonisms that Niki and the woman experience for each other are signified in terms of the body. The human body assumes the stature of a master signifier in the novel.

Without paying any attention, he poised his arms to strike, but the woman, screaming, rushed violently at him. He put out his elbow and twisted his body in an effort to ward her off. But he had miscalculated, and instead of the woman he himself was swung around. Instantly, he tried to counter, but she held on as if chained to the shovel. He did not understand. At least he could not be defeated by force. They rolled over two or three times, thrashing about on the earthen floor, and for a brief moment he thought he had pinned her down, but with the handle of the shovel as a shield she deftly flipped him over. Something was wrong with him; maybe it was the sake he had drunk. Anyway, he no longer cared that his opponent was a woman. He jabbed his bended knee into her stomach.


As he was being soaped he pretended to be aroused and pulled at her kimono. He would wash her in return. Caught between confusion and expectancy, she made a gesture of resistance, but it was not clear just what she was resisting. He quickly poured a bucket of warm water over her naked body and without a washcloth began to pass his soapy hands directly over her skin. He started with the earlobes and shifted down to the jaw, and as he passed over her shoulders he reached around and with one hand grasped her breast. She cried out and, sliding down his chest, crouched level with his stomach. Undoubtedly it was a posture of expectation. But the man was in no hurry. With measured cadence, his hands went on with their painstaking massaging from one part of her body to another.


Throughout the novel we find tropes, passages of description which suggest to us that the human body in the novel has become the measure of achievement of all things human. For instance, the author says that, “They say the level of civilization is proportionate to the cleanliness of the skin” (122). When discussing the dialectic of self and place in The Woman in the Dunes, then, it is very important that we not lose sight of this very significant dimension of signification.

The last decade or so has witnessed a remarkable increase in the scholarly interest in the human body with a clear focus on the understanding of different modes in which the human body is constructed. The nature and significance of the human body as a reality that is being continually produced and reproduced in society is increasingly attracting scholarly attention. The mapping out of the modalities of construction of the human body, understandably enough, leads into discussions of politics, ethics and questions of power and knowledge. The pioneering work of Foucault, Elias, and Kantorawicz and the writings of Nietzsche from which they took their cue, have significantly inflected this newly generated interest.

The human body, it should be noted, is at the center of a plurality of discourses that produce and reproduce culture. It has, consequently, become a useful analytical tool with which to decode some of the cultural meanings embedded in fictional and filmic texts. For example, modern film theorists of a feminist persuasion are engaged in the task of symbolically reclaiming the body as a means of displacing patriarchal narratives that dominate filmic enunciation. Focusing on a hermeneutic of dominance and submission, they seek to call attention to the diverse ways in which women are situated as objects of male gaze and desire and how the female body is specularized as a rhetorical strategy of male domination over it.

In The Woman in the Dunes, the human body is portrayed as a central fact of self; this somatic facticity that runs through the novel inflecting all human emotions, perceptions and ratiocinations has a metaphysical dimension rooted in Japanese thought. It is interesting at this point, to compare the attitudes to body and mind in the Western and Eastern traditions of thought. The Western tradition, by and large, subscribing to a Cartesian duality, posit a definite separation of mind and body whereas the Eastern traditions posit a unity. This unity is perceived as an accomplishment, and wisdom, the highest achievement of human existence, is seen as a physical and intellectual attainment. Truth is not perceived merely as a way of examining the world, but is seen as a modality of being in the world, and a significant aspect of this has to do with our somatic existence. Their line of thinking has a direct bearing on Niki Jumpei's experience. As Yuasa Yasuo remarks, true knowledge cannot be obtained simply through theoretical thinking; it can be obtained only through “bodily recognition as realization” (tainin or taitoku), that is, through the utilization of one's entire body and mind.

The body and the somatic experiences associated with it play a central role in the novel bearing much of its existential meaning. And one thing that cinema in the hands of gifted filmmakers can do extremely well, is to capture the nuanced experiences and complex responses of the human body. Kobo Abe in writing his novel, has given much attention to questions of corporeality, embodiment, and somaticity. Hiroshi Teshigahara, in translating the literary experience into a cinematic experience has fully utilized the power and beauty of the human body. The centrality accorded to the human body in the novel is another reason that facilitated the transcreation of it in cinema by Teshigahara.

In discussing the relative success of the novel and the film, and the ways in which the novel had enabled its cinematic conversion, the question of male gaze, which is closely related to the representation of the human body, merits closer attention. The Woman of the Dunes is essentially a male-centered novel obeying all the laws of representation associated with patriarchy. The novel in essence charts the physical experiences and the ensuing cognitive metamorphosis of Niki, and the woman in the dunes is the catalyst that brings about the changes in Niki. Indeed, the focus of interest in Niki, and the woman is seen and evaluated through his eyes. This is, of course, a limitation of the novel. Once again this feature in the novel is one that ties in very nicely with the dictates and imperatives of the medium of cinema as we know it today.

In Western cinema—and Teshigahara is clearly following the conventions of Western cinema—the female is generally dichotomously and fetishistically constructed as a symbolic outcome of female desire. The female becomes an object of male gaze and her subjectivity is denied, entrapped as she is in the complex dictates of patriarchy. In cinematic representation, the woman being a product of the male gaze, continues to be an object devalued as the site of male voyeurism. She is relegated to a position of marginality and that marginality being vital to the ahistorical, essentialist, and negative image of women created by cinema. Feminist film critics like Laura Mulvery have argued persuasively that women as represented in cinema are entrapped within the economy of male libidinal pleasure obtained in the dark world of fantasy of theater. The woman in the film The Woman in the Dunes suffers a dual entrapment; she is physically entrapped in the sand pits, and communicationally entrapped in the male gaze. And her plight serves to underline the mechanisms of scopophilia (the pleasure of looking) outlined by psychoanalytically-oriented film scholars. So what we find in the representation of the woman in the dunes in the film is the faithful adherence to the androcentric conventions of Western filmmaking. And once again, the built-in patriarchal biases in the novel helped the filmmaker immensely.

The relationship between the self and culture is another dimension that merits close analysis. Clearly, the distinction between society and culture is not an easy one to establish. Anthropologists such as Marcel Mauss who have pointed out the shaping role of society on the evolution of the human self have also talked about the importance of culture. Other anthropologists, like A. Irving Hallowell, who have placed emphasis on the role of culture in the creation of the self, have not ignored the crucial role played by society. The dividing line between society and culture is a finely drawn one, and it is really with shifts of emphasis that we are concerned here.

Of the many scholars who have pointed out the vital role played by culture, it is perhaps Hallowell who invites the closest attention. He pointed out the importance of what he termed the “behavioral environment” on the formation of the self, and this behavioral environment, as he sees it, is essentially culturally constituted. While agreeing with the notion that self-awareness is a generic human trait, Hallowell goes on to make the following observation:

The nature of the self, considered in its conceptual context, is a culturally identifiable variable. Just as different people entertain various beliefs about the nature of the universe, they likewise differ in their ideas about the nature of the self. And, just as we have discovered that notions about the nature of the beings and powers existent in the universe involve assumptions that are directly relevant to the understanding of the behavior of the individual in a given society, we must likewise assume that the individual's self-image and his interpretation of his own experience cannot be divorced from the concept of the self that is characteristic of his society. For such concepts are the major means by which different cultures promote self-orientation in the kind of meaningful terms that make self-awareness of functional importance in the maintenance of a human social order. In so far as the needs and goals of the individual are at the level of self-awareness, they are structured with reference to the kind of self-image that is consonant with other basic orientations that prepare the self for action in a culturally constituted world.3

This passage brings out clearly Hallowell's orientation toward the self as a product of culture. As Andrew Lock points out, culture constitutes man's behavioral environment and provides him with basic orientations that make him capable of acting intelligently in a world so constituted. All these are orientations for the self and facilitate giving it its particular structure. As he goes on to point out, culture provides a self-concept through the linguistic marking of self from non-self. He further remarks,

while one of the constant functions of all cultures … is to provide a concept of self along with other means that promote self-orientation, the individuals of a given society are self-oriented in terms of a provincial content of the self-image.4

What this means, of course, is that while each culture provides the idiom for self-orientation, the idiom of one culture cannot be directly translated to another culture. This makes the role of culture in the formation of the self even more important.

Clifford Geertz, who did not totally endorse Hallowell's views of the self, nevertheless makes the point that becoming human is becoming individual, and we become individual under the guidance of cultural patterns, historically created systems of meaning in terms of which human beings impart form, order, point, and direction to their lives. Hence the role of culture and inherited history is crucial to Geertz. He then proceeds to note that as culture has shaped us as a single species, so too it shapes us as separate individuals. What we have in common, then, is neither an unchanging subcultural self nor an established cross-cultural consciousness. In his analysis of the Balinese person, he shows very clearly how cultural codings and presuppositions are vital to a proper understanding of the notion of self in that particular culture. In his exegesis of Balinese self, the concerns that come to the fore are not those of motivation, will, and individuation, which would figure very prominently in a similar discussion in the context of Western culture, but an entirely different set intimately linked to Balinese culture. In his essay, “Person, Time and Conduct in Bali,” which seeks to delineate some of the cultural apparatus in terms of which the people of Bali define and perceive persons, Geertz starts out by categorically asserting:

Human thought is consummately social: social in its origin, social in its function, social in its focus, social in its applications. At base, thinking is a public activity—its natural habitat is the houseyard and the market place and the town square.5

The implication of this fact for the understanding of self are vast and complex. In recent times, several studies have appeared that seek to uncover the cultural formulations of the self (Heelas and Lock;6 Shweder, and Levine;7 White and Kirkpatrick8). With a justifiably greater interest being evinced in ethnopsychologies, more and more attention will be paid to the cultural codings of self.

The way in which different cultures across the face of the earth have sought to conceptualize, and thereby contribute to, the formation of self is indeed fascinating. For example, Alfred Smith, in an interesting essay on the self and experience of Moon culture, notes, employing a motoring metaphor, that if the self in the Western view can be seen as the driver of the car, then in the Moon view it must be seen as the passenger in its body.9

Some of the concerns of Hallowell and Geertz have been fruitfully extended by modern ethnopsychologists who are interested in the cultural understanding and cultural formulation of the self and the processes and dynamics of interplay by means of which these formulations find expression in quotidian life. These ethnopsychologists are trying to rectify some of the deficiencies associated with earlier culture and personality studies, in which the emphasis was clearly on the motivational constructs of individuals and their centrality in shaping behavior. In these studies, very little attention was paid to the modalities of interpretation of the people regarding questions of self and how they have a direct bearing on the wider cultural discourse of a given society. Hence, the work of some of the new ethnopsychologists serves to open up a new and useful dimension of inquiry into the concept of self.

These discussions on the cultural construction of self have a direct bearing on The Woman in the Dunes. Kobo Abe has selected a middle-class character who grew up in the city and transfers him to a situation that is bizarre and cultureless. However, the way Niki behaves in that situation only foregrounds his cultural upbringing. The way his newer self emerges from his unanticipated encounters and the way his attitudes are inflected can best be understood against the background of his culture.

Another important area that merits close analysis is the relationship between the self and the psyche. In the case of the self and society, and of the self and culture, the emphasis was on exteriority; now it shifts to interiority. Here the writings of Freud and Jung and their respective followers are of paramount importance. Let us first consider the view of self expounded by Freud. In a sense, it is difficult to summarize Freud's view because over a period of more than four decades of conceptualizing and writing, it changed constantly. When analyzing Freud's views of the self, one can talk of three stages—the somatic, the psychological, and the metapsychological—depending on which area one chooses to emphasize. In the early period of his conceptualizations of self, during which he was primarily interested in the somatic nature of self, Freud saw the self as a function of the organism's physical drives, the sex-instinct and the ego-instinct. During the next stage, when his emphasis was on the psychological, the dualism between the sex-instinct and ego-instinct was transformed into twin manifestations of a unitary psychic energy, object-libido and ego-libido. In the metapsychological stage, these two concepts were transformed into Eros, the life-instinct, and Thanatos, the death-instinct.

As we examine the evolution of Freud's concept of self, one thing becomes clear: he conceived of the self in dualistic terms. He saw it as a relation between psychic reality and material reality. The concept of psychic reality was of supreme importance to him:

The unconscious is the true psychic reality: in its inner nature it is just as much unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and just as imperfectly communicated to us by the data of consciousness as the external world by the reports of our sense-organs.10

Freud was interested in getting behind the phenomenal self to its inner reality. For this purpose, he sought to analyze dream processes.

As Freud envisioned it, the self begins as an organism, and instinctual impulses dominate its behavior. However, for the purpose of social survival, it needs to find a mechanism whereby this libidinal expenditure is inhibited and directed toward realistic paths of gratification. This is achieved by investing the libido in the reality-ego. However, in certain specific cultures, certain forms of gratification are not allowed. The requisite libidinal inhibition and sublimation are achieved by means of a projected ego ideal which functions in the capacity of a censor. The energy that was originally invested in the reality-ego is now invested in the ideal-ego. Therefore, Freud saw the self to be a relation between the libidinal desires of the pleasure-ego and the transcendental norms of the ideal-ego. The stability of this relationship is always in danger. The repressed portion of the self, the unconscious, constantly threatens to upset this relationship. Therefore, according to Freud, if the self is to remain a self, it must endeavor to maintain this relationship.

In his book, The Ego and the Id, Freud delineated clearly the nature of this interaction, using far more precise terminology than before. Instead of the three terms, pleasure-ego, reality-ego and ideal-ego, he now began to employ the terms id, ego, and superego. It is the dynamics among these three entities that result in the formation of the self. What is of interest in this early analysis of Freud, from our point of view, is his attempt to delineate self in terms of psychic reality. The highly stimulating lines of inquiry opened up by Freud have been further developed in newer directions by such influential theorists as Heinz Kohut, Jacques Lacan, Erik Erikson, and Roy Schafer.

Although Jung differed considerably from Freud in his general analysis of the inward behavior of human beings, he too sought to define the self in terms of inner experience. Jung saw the self as the totality of the psyche and distinguished it from the ego, which he saw as constituting only a small portion of the entire psyche.

According to Jung, the self is an inner guiding factor that is clearly different from the conscious personality. It can be grasped only by means of an investigation of one's own dreams. An analysis of dreams, in his opinion, will demonstrate the fact that the self is indeed the regulating center which serves to bring about an extension and maturation of the personality. At first this larger aspect of the psyche emerges as only a possibility. It may appear very dimly or in a more developed form later in life. Its development is largely contingent upon the inclination of the ego to listen to the signals and messages sent out by the self. Jung, then, saw the self as the totality of the psyche, which is the organizing center of the personality. Freud and Jung and many psychologists who have chosen to follow in their footsteps define the self in terms of the psyche and inward experience. This, of course, is not to suggest that they have totally ignored the social and cultural dimensions. However, their emphasis in seeking to define self has unmistakably been on the psychic as opposed to external reality.

These discussions on self and psyche, just like the discussion on self and culture, shed interesting light on the experiences of The Woman in the Dunes. The behavior of Niki in its most inwardness can best be understood in relation to the interplay between self and psyche. As a novelist, Kobo Abe has always been fascinated by this interplay, and The Woman in the Dunes bears ample evidence of this fact. Teshigahara's visual imagination and Kobo Abe's literary imagination met very productively on the terrain of self and psyche. What I have sought to do in this paper is to examine one of those rare instances in which a highly successful novel has been made into a highly successful film, and to examine some of the reasons that may have contributed to this productive venture. In this regard, I chose to focus attention on what I think are three key entities: self, place, and body, and to discuss them in relation to current intellectual discourse.


  1. All quotations are from The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe, translated by E. Dale Saunders (New York: Vintage Books, 1972).

  2. William Currie, “The Woman in the Dunes,” in K. Tsuruta and T. E. Swan, Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel (Tokyo: Sophia University, 1976).

  3. A. Irving Hallowell, Culture and Experience (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1951).

  4. Andrew Lock, Universals in Human Conception in Indigenous Psychologies, Paul Heelas and Andrew Lock, eds. (London: Academic Press, 1981).

  5. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

  6. Leelas and Lock.

  7. R. A. Shweder and R. A. Levine, Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self, and Emotion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

  8. Geoffrey M. White and John Kirkpatrick, Person, Self, and Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

  9. T. P. Kaulis, Wimal Dissanayake and Roger T. Ames, The Philosophy of The Body (State University of New York Press), forthcoming.

  10. Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id (London: Hogarth Press, 1961).

Principal Works

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Owarishi michi no shirube ni (novel) 1948

S. Karuma-shi no hanzai (novel) 1951

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

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

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

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

Moetsukita chizu [The Ruined Map] (novel) 1967

Tomodachi, enemoto takeaki [Friends] (play) 1967

Bo ni natta otoko [The Man Who Turned into a Stick] (play) 1969

Abé Kōbō gikyoku zenshu (collected plays) 1970

Mihitsu no koi [Involuntary Homicide] (play) 1971

Uchinaro henkyo (essays) 1971

Abé Kōbō zensakuhin 15 vols. (plays, essays, novels, poetry, and short stories) 1972-1973

Hako otoko [The Box Man] (novel) 1973

Han gekiteki ningen (lectures) 1973

Midori-iro no sutokkingu [The Green Stockings] (play) 1974

Mikkai [Secret Rendezvous] (novel) 1977

Hakobune sakura maru [The Ark Sakura] (novel) 1984

Beyond the Curve (short stories) 1991

Kangaru nōto [Kangaroo Notebook] (novel) 1991

*Three Plays of Kōbō Abé (plays) 1993

*This collection contains The Ghost Is Here,Involuntary Homicide, and The Green Stockings.

Raymond Lamont-Brown (essay date July 1993)

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SOURCE: Lamont-Brown, Raymond. “Kōbō Abé: Japan's Novelist of Alienation.” Contemporary Review 263, no. 1530 (July 1993): 31-4.

[In the following essay, Lamont-Brown reflects on Abé's life and work.]

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 practised. 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 Road.

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 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 suruinvaded) 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.

Donald Keene (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Keene, Donald. “The Plays of Kōbō Abé: An Introduction.” In Three Plays by Kōbō Abé, pp. ix-xiii. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

[In the following introduction, Keene traces the development of Abé's career as a dramatist and underscores the problems with translating the author's work.]

Kōbō Abe (1924-93) was a contemporary Japanese writer of world stature. Although he was best known as a novelist, especially for his Woman in the Dunes (1962), his achievements as a dramatist were almost equally important, and he published several outstanding volumes of criticism. He was frequently mentioned as a likely recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature, but his death in his sixty-ninth year, when he was still at the height of his powers, prevented him from obtaining this honor.

Ironically, Abe's career as a dramatist began as a purely temporary expedient. Late in 1954 he was under pressure to meet a magazine's deadline for the story he was writing. He was such a meticulous craftsman that if ever he felt he must change a single phrase, he generally rewrote the whole page on which the phrase appeared. It seemed impossible that such a perfectionist would meet his deadline, but it suddenly occurred to Abe that recasting the story as a play would make it easier. The editor of the magazine was not pleased to receive the play instead of the promised story, but as there was no time to ask anyone else, he had no choice but to print Abe's play. To everyone's surprise, The Uniform attracted favorable attention, and it was successfully staged in March 1955. Abe's career as a playwright had been launched.

Three months after the production of The Uniform, Abe's next play, The Slave Hunt,1 a much more considerable work, was performed at the Actors' Theatre, the leading showcase for contemporary Japanese drama. It was directed by Koreya Senda, for many years a central figure in Japanese theater, especially of the left wing. During the next sixteen years—until 1971—Senda directed nine new plays by Abe, including The Ghost Is Here (1958) and Involuntary Homicide (1971).2

In 1971 Abe announced the formation of a “studio”—a company whose distinguishing feature would be the active participation of the performers in creating the plays that were staged. Guidebook (1971) was the first production of Abe's studio. Although his controlling hand was apparent, he insisted that he himself had functioned merely as a “guidebook” for the actors to consult, and the play has not been included in his collected works.

The contributions of individual performers to subsequent plays staged by the studio were of less significance than the cooperative efforts they displayed under Abe's extremely careful guidance. The members of Abe's studio were mainly young actors and actresses, most of them graduates of the theater program of Tōhō Gakuen, the leading music and drama school in Japan. Abe trained the actors in every aspect of performance, working with them day after day from early in the morning until night on basic techniques of speech and movement. The studio itself was open twenty-four hours a day, and the performers stopped by whenever they felt like it to perform calisthenics or to practice their lines. A sense of belonging to a special company developed, and word soon spread of Abe's “method.” Several well-known actors, including Eiji Okada and Tatsuya Nakadai, joined the company and cheerfully accepted Abe's direction, though by this time they were already seasoned performers.3

The plays Abe wrote after 1976 reveal his increasing preoccupation with nonliterary theater. The Little Elephant Is Dead (1979) pushed this concept to its logical development: it is virtually without dialogue and depends on the movements of the performers, the lighting, and the music to arouse responses in the audience that Abe believed to be the true function of theater. In 1979 his company performed this work not only in Japan but throughout the United States; in fact, it relied so little on dialogue that there was virtually no language barrier to separate it from American audiences, and the response was overwhelmingly favorable.

Abe wrote a brief statement concerning the objectives of his company after it had completed its successful American tour with The Little Elephant Is Dead and was again performing the play for Tokyo audiences. It opened, “This work represents the end results achieved during the seven years since I first began to participate in all aspects of theatrical activity. At the same time, it is a point of departure.” Abe expressed his conviction that literature had usurped the original purpose of theater, and that critics who insist that a play must have a “meaning” that they can analyze are an anachronism in a world where “meaning” is not required of literary works. He pointed out that an actor's performance, because it can never be exactly the same twice, is always in a present, progressive state, and is not subject to categorization and being disposed of with analytical judgments. (“The true actor is always a cause; he cannot be a conclusion.”) Abe ended his remarks with these words addressed to the audience: “I would like to share with you, here and now, a world that you could never have experienced or even imagined before you first encountered this work.”

Although Abe believed when he wrote these words that The Little Elephant Is Dead was not only a summation of what he had achieved theatrically but a beginning for further exploration in nonliterary theater, it was his last play. He returned to being a novelist—a man of words, rather than a director of actors on a stage. Perhaps he found that he had actually reached the limit of what could be achieved without dialogue or a plot. He had been successful but at a cost of sacrificing his most precious asset, his marvelous skill with words.

The plays contained in this volume, far from being nonliterary, are written in language of consummate skill. But even if a play was an unqualified success when performed according to the original text, Abe generally did not leave it unchanged when the play was revived. Sometimes the changes were dictated by the available performers: for this reason, the grandmother in Friends became a grandfather when the play was revived. Or his attitude toward his material sometimes changed: for another revival of Friends he added a character, the third son, in order to establish a link between the family and the outside world, a matter that had previously not seemed essential. On the other hand, one fairly important character in the original text of The Ghost Is Here was eliminated in later performances, after Abe had decided he was unnecessary, and his lines were assigned to another character. Apart from such major changes, passages of dialogue were altered repeatedly, always in an effort to further refine his message.

Abe did not consider any text of his plays to be definitive. Although he did not disavow earlier versions, each was considered a work-in-progress. For this reason, I have chosen to translate the most recent text available to me.

The plays all present problems of translation. The most difficult was Involuntary Homicide. I know what the title (mihitsu no koi in Japanese) means, but I could not find a lawyer who was able to supply the English equivalent, and I had no choice but to use the dictionary translation. Yet that was the least of my problems. The dialogue of Involuntary Homicide is written in two distinct varieties of Japanese. The first is a dialect fairly close to the one spoken on an island off the coast of Kyūshū, the setting Abe had in mind. The second is the formal, rather stilted standard Japanese spoken by the characters of the play when making a deposition before an imagined magistrate. Abe suggested that I model the English of my translation of these sections on the language a New York policeman might use in court in reporting a crime, but this, alas, was beyond my powers. I hope that at least some of the differences between the two spoken styles of Japanese will be felt even in my English version.

The other two plays posed lesser problems of translation. One I never surmounted in The Ghost Is Here was the song the model sings toward the close of the play. For the refrain of “I love yūrei” (yūrei meaning a “ghost”), I simply could not come up with a pun that worked in both languages. In The Green Stockings, I translated the term sōshoku ningen as “herbivorous human being,” though I realized this was rather too much of a mouthful. But “grass-eating human” seemed even worse. Such problems, faced by every translator, are particularly troublesome when translating dialogue that must flow naturally from the mouths of actors and actresses. I hope that if these plays are performed in English the actors will modify the words to accord most easily with their own speech.

The modern Japanese theater originated at the beginning of the twentieth century but its development was slow because of the competition both from native forms of drama, notably Kabuki, and, later, from film. It has only been since 1945 that it can be said to have achieved maturity. The plays of Kōbō Abe, together with those by Yukio Mishima, were the first to be performed widely outside Japan. It is hoped that the plays represented in this volume will find an audience not only among Abe's many admirers but among all interested in the state of world theater.


  1. A revised version of the play, originally called Dorei-gari, was produced in 1967, and in 1975 a much more thoroughly revised version, called Oo-way (the cry that gives the strange animals of the play their name), was produced by Abe himself.

  2. Other plays by Abe of this period included You, Too, Are Guilty (1965), directed by Senda and translated by Ted T. Takaya in Modern Japanese Drama. Friends (1967) was directed by Masahiko Naruse, and The Man Who Turned into a Stick (1969), by Abe himself. The latter two plays have been published in my English translations.

  3. Okada appeared in The Green Stockings as the doctor, and Nakadai in the revised version of Friends as the victim.

Further Reading

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Allen, Louis. “Piranesian Prospects.” Times Literary Supplement (12 August 1988): 892.

Negative review of The Ark Sakura, faulting the story development of the novel.

Leithauser, Brad. “Severed Futures: Kōbō Abé's The Ark Sakura.” In Penchants & Places: Essays and Criticism, pp. 230-37. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of The Ark Sakura, deeming the novel as one of Abe's more successful works.

Additional coverage of Abé'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; and St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4.

Yoshio Iwamoto (review date summer 1994)

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SOURCE: Iwamoto, Yoshio. Review of Three Plays, by Kōbō Abé. World Literature Today 68, no. 3 (summer 1994): 637.

[In the following review, Iwamoto views the dramas collected in Three Plays as influenced by the Theater of the Absurd.]

Known primarily as a novelist, especially in the West, Kobo Abe also wrote plays which have been produced in Japan to enormous critical acclaim. His death in early 1993 has inaugurated a reevaluation of his oeuvre, with the major literary journals devoting special issues to the subject. Donald Keene's fine translations into English of three of his plays [Three Plays] might be seen in this context.

Abe began his prolific career in the early 1950s when the twin ideologies of existentialism and absurdism were all the rage worldwide. Finding the tenets of these philosophies congenial to his own view of life in a Japan still reeling from the ravages of war, he constructed works that tended to put topics like freedom, choice, commitment, and identity at their center. His plays especially are often compared to the works of Beckett and Ionesco, what comprise the canon of the so-called Theater of the Absurd. A form that is renowned for its use, in the presentation of character and action, of dramatic techniques that defy rational analysis and explanation, the Theater of the Absurd thereby expresses, by implication rather than direct statement, the “absurdity” and inexplicability of the human condition.

Indeed, “absurd” situations which emphasize the sense of the artificial and theatrical dominate the three plays translated here, all first performed in the early 1970s They also share in common a fascination with crime in its many guises and a detective- or mystery-story aspect. Involuntary Homicide concerns the wild, incoherent behavior of the inhabitants of a small island who make an attempt at what appears to be a cover-up of the premeditated murder of Eguchi, a gangster who has come to monopolize through terror the island's entertainment business—a pachinko parlor, a movie house, a bar. The line that separates appearance and reality, however, is never made clear. Confusions and ambiguities proliferate, as time past and time present become indistinguishable, explanations of motives get entangled, and the roles of characters are reversed in midstream with, for instance, prosecutor turning accused, and so on. A host of ethical and moral issues ensue: to name but one example, the question of individual versus communal responsibility.

In Green Stockings a panty thief falls into the hands of a doctor who operates on the man's stomach in a grotesque experiment to convert him into the world's first human herbivore, which, the doctor believes, will bring relief to the impending shortage in the earth's food supply. Conflicting and sometimes misplaced motives or intentions embroil the characters in a succession of bizarre events. In The Ghost Is Here Oba, a swindler who had been run out of town eight years earlier, returns with a new scam to make money by exploiting the belief of his new acquaintance Fukugawa in the ghost of a wartime buddy for whose death he feels responsible. The scheme exposes the greed, corruption, and superstitions not just of Oba but of the whole town, including the pillars of the community, as past misdeeds are disclosed and people are engulfed in a spiraling comedy of unexpected turns.

There is a universality to Abe's works, and the translation of these plays into English can only enhance his already considerable reputation in the West.

Tony Dallas (review date fall 1994)

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SOURCE: Dallas, Tony. Review of Three Plays, by Kōbō Abé. Antioch Review 52, no. 4 (fall 1994): 651-52.

[In the following laudatory review of Three Plays, Dallas perceives “this witty, lyrical, eminently theatrical collection a welcome change from the confessional realism that pervades most contemporary American drama.”]

American readers familiar only with Abe's dark 1962 novel, Woman in the Dunes, might find this translation surprising for its humor and fantastical theatricality. As Keene informs the reader in his introduction, Abe for many years ran his own theater company in Tokyo and was respected in Japan not only as a writer but as a theater director as well. (Abe died last year at the age of 69.)

Involuntary Homicide (1971), the first and darkest play in the collection [Three Plays] is about the complicity of a group of islanders in the beating death of the owner of the island's pachinko parlor. The play is a sequence of short scenes that follow the islanders being coached by the Fire Chief on how to shift blame when they present their case before the court.

The Great Stockings, the funniest of these plays (1974), is about a man with a fetish for women's undergarments. When he's saved from suicide after his fetish is discovered, he agrees—for the advancement of science—to have his digestive system “herbivorously” rigged up like a cow's. The scientific theory: in answer to the population explosion, human beings of the future will link in low on the food chain. In The Ghost Is Here (1958), the final and longest play, Abe takes a broad swipe at entrepreneurs and capitalism. By the end of the play everyone is signing up to have their post-mortem existence insured. I found this witty, lyrical, eminently theatrical collection a welcome change from the confessional realism that pervades most contemporary American drama. Keene's translation is as fresh as always.

Yoshio Iwamoto (review date winter 1997)

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SOURCE: Iwamoto, Yoshio. Review of Kangaroo Notebook, by Kōbō Abé. World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 228.

[In the following review, Iwamoto offers a mixed assessment of Kangaroo Notebook.]

Kobo Abe's last novel before his death in 1993, Kangaroo Notebook, originally published in Japanese in 1991, refigures with imaginative vigor those ingredients that have become trademarks in the novelist-playwright's works: metamorphosis, the theme of alienation and the problem of personal identity, and the journey motif through a labyrinthine modern dystopia. In this world fantastic elements coexist with all-too-real features in an exasperating and unnerving amalgam, and humor, albeit of the darkest sort, mitigates the often absurd, frightening, and incomprehensible incidents that occur.

As in many other Abe novels, the “hero” of Kangaroo Notebook, the first-person narrator of the story, remains nameless, suggesting perhaps Everyman and/or a lack of individuality; and the backdrop for the narrative, while containing certain peculiarly Japanese attributes like references to the Buddhist hell, could be almost any modernized country with high technology and its attendant neuroses. One morning, the narrator (a products developer for an office-supply company who on a whim had suggested a notebook with pouches—hence the novel's title) wakes up to find that his shins have turned into patches of “cleft-leaf radish sprouts.” Horrified by this transformation, he rushes to a nearby dermatology clinic, where the doctor, baffled and equally horrified, loads him, skewered with an IV tube and a urine catheter, onto a self-propelling bed that sets him on a journey in which the destination, though seemingly a sulphur springs called Hell Valley for treatment, becomes increasingly unclear. Now stripped of the credit and insurance cards on which he had relied for identification, he travels through a bleak, surreal, and alienating landscape where the boundary between illusion and reality is indistinct: a dark underground tunnel with eerie lighting; a murky canal on which two unmanned boats propelled respectively by the sex organs of male and female squids chase each other; a department store featuring a variety shop called “Worldly Desires”; a riverbank where child-demons milk aged tourists for contributions with a chant, “Help me, help me, help me, please”; a cabbage field where he encounters the ghost of his disfigured mother, who accuses him of infidelity; the outskirts of a city where the signal lights are all askew; and a hospital inhabited by patients with wacky personalities.

The incidents that occur and the characters who appear in this landscape are equally bizarre and are related in a disjointed narrative with segments resembling dialogue in an absurdist play. While the episodes individually are often captivating and sometimes make cogent comments on such matters as bourgeois values, it is difficult to see how they link up with one another into a coherent whole. What is one to make, for instance, of the sloping-eyes nurse who, appearing in different incarnations over the course of the novel, has been voted “Miss Blood Collector” for three years straight and is now aiming for the “Dracula's Daughter Medal,” and for whom the narrator feels a curious sexual attraction? Or of the hairy American nicknamed Mr. Hammer Killer who is making a documentary film called “Fatal Accidents” and is organizing a Japanese Euthanasia Club? At the close of the novel, the narrator escapes the hospital where he has ended up, only to submit passively to the child-demons who stuff him into a box with a peephole through which he sees his own terrified likeness. A notice at the very end announces the discovery of a corpse whose identity has not been established.

Kangaroo Notebook lacks the mesmerizing power of, say, The Woman in the Dunes or The Ruined Map, but what is evident is the author's still vivid and playful imagination at work in conveying his essentially nihilistic vision of life in an absurd and meaningless modern world.


Abe, Kobo (Short Story Criticism)


Abé, Kōbō (Vol. 22)