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.
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.
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.
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.