Kōbō Abe Abé, Kōbō (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Robert Garis (review date winter 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Wimal Dissanayake (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Raymond Lamont-Brown (essay date July 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Donald Keene (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Yoshio Iwamoto (review date summer 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.


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Tony Dallas (review date fall 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Yoshio Iwamoto (review date winter 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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:...

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