The Man Who Turned Into a Stick

by Kobo Abe

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Historical Context

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During the almost twenty years that Abe lived in Manchuria (from approximately 1925 to 1944), Japan’s imperialist expansion in Asia achieved one of its most infamous moments. Having defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), the Japanese established themselves in China and began transforming Manchuria by first setting up a puppet Chinese government, then building an industrial and military complex there. By the end of World War II, Manchuria had become the most industrialized region in China.

This transformation was not a humanitarian effort. There were horrific atrocities that occured in a hostile take-over of one cultural group by another, with severe physical punishment and torture used to control dissent. Abe recounts one childhood memory of riding in a train, looking out of the window, and seeing a large dump ground that was surrounded by stakes on which heads of dead people had been placed as a reminder to others of what would happen if they were deemed criminals. Abe, in Shields’s book, referred to these heads as ‘‘‘anonymous figures,’ whose stories would never be told.’’ These images of death would stay with Abe, informing his plays as well as his life, by constantly reminding him of his own mortality. ‘‘I feel that both novels and the stage offer an opportunity to give voice to the shouts that I heard from the dump ground,’’ Abe adds.

Japanese Theatre
One of Abe’s contemporaries, Koreya Senda, once complained about the influence of traditional theatre on drama in Japan, stating, in Shields’s book, that ‘‘all we had to work with was a group of actors who could only deliver lines in chanting, Kabuki fashion.’’ This reference was made in the name of the traditional Japanese form of theatre, which was so different from Western drama to which Abe was most attracted. Japanese theatre is a very old tradition, going back to the fourteenth century, and the form is very rigid, especially when compared to modern European and American drama.

For example, the first Japanese theatre form, Noh, is a stylized and prescribed performance that combines music, dance, poetry, and drama. The characters in Noh plays, as well as their movements and gestures, are specifically dictated by an ancient form and structure. The actors are highly trained to represent an artistic expression of quiet elegance and grace, as they play out the roles of gods, warriors, beautiful women, and supernatural beings. Accompanying the actors is a chorus of eight people who sit to one side of the stage narrating the story, expressing the thoughts and emotions of the characters, and singing the characters’ lines. Although not as popular as it once was, Noh theatre continues to flourish in Japan and around the world.

In the seventeenth century, a more relaxed form of drama evolved from the Noh tradition. Sometimes likened to vaudeville or burlesque, Kabuki theatre presents stories of larger-than-life heroes as well as ordinary people in more comic (and often more sensual) settings. As a matter of fact, sensual ity became such a dominant theme that, in 1629, women were eventually banned from appearing on stage, as government officials noted that some of the actresses were using the stage to promote prostitution. Thereafter, young boys took on the female roles until 1652, when they too were banned for the same reason. After that point, only mature men were allowed to play all the roles, a practice that, although no longer enforced by law, continues into modern times. Kabuki remains very popular in Japan, with Kabuki actors enjoying the same popularity as Hollywood movie stars.

Although Kabuki plays have evolved to address more...

(This entire section contains 886 words.)

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contemporary themes, with dramatists such as Mishima Yukio (1925–1970) adding modern innovations, the structure is still highly stylized and the elements of music and dance, exaggerated movements, and extravagant makeup confine the type of drama it produces. William Currie, in his article ‘‘Abe Kobo’s Nightmare World of Sand,’’ confirms the conflicts Abe felt in trying to adapt his style of writing to the traditional theatrical form: ‘‘in range, depth and style, the works of Abe Kobo represent a considerable departure from the writing of almost all the Japanese novelists and dramatists who preceded him.’’

Effects of World War II
Hiroshima lost over 200,000 people when the atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945. Another 70,000 people died three days later, when an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. These incidents marked more than the end of the war. They marked the people of Japan as helpless victims, both physically (in the form of radiation burns from the bombs) and psychologically (with the awareness of their own mortality).

Besides the devastation and destruction caused by the bombs, Japan also came under the cultural and economic influence of the United States. Western culture infiltrated Japan, causing the younger generation, which included Abe and his peers, to stray from the rites of traditional Japan and embrace the new—and more individualistic—concepts of the West. Along with the influence of Western culture came the anguish of alienation, the search for self-identity, and the sense of living the inauthentic life—concepts that were very foreign to traditional Japanese culture. After World War II, the experience of cultural dislocation and problems of identity were addressed by a new generation of leftist writers such as Abe, who used narrative and dramatic techniques developed from Western modernism.

Literary Style

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Abe’s youth outside of Japan in the stark and war-ravaged deserts of Manchuria, his background in medicine, and his residence in a bombed-out section of Tokyo have all influenced the way he looks at the world, and thus the way he writes and constructs his plays. Unlike many of Japan’s previously noted authors, as well as some of his contemporaries, Abe presents images that are urban, desolate, and somewhat distrustful of traditional Japanese society.

Much like a surgeon who must distance himself from his patients, Abe removes himself from the emotions of his characters to the point of seldom giving them personal names. Although Abe lived most of his adult life in Japan, his plays are written without specifically identifiable settings—they are non-descriptive and could occur anywhere in the world. In this respect, J. Thomas Rimer, writing in Dictionary of Literary Biography, compares Abe’s approach to the style of Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov, who, coincidentally, was also trained as a doctor.

There are many different descriptions of Abe’s style of writing. It has been called avant-garde, which in his day referred to the alienated characters he created who were forever seeking meaning in a seemingly apathetic world. His writing has also been labeled science fiction, in terms of his creating futuristic settings that address questions that concerned him in the present. Early in his career, Abe became fascinated with the promises of Marxist philosophy, and his work was subsequently imbued with a propagandist tone. Abe’s novels and his plays also possess absurd or surreal elements, creating hallucinatory, or dreamlike, images. He has also been called an existentialist, his works displaying, as Rimer states, ‘‘an ironic questioning of all established values.’’

A consistent pattern in Abe’s work is the use of metaphor. Almost all of his narratives are built around a single metaphor and, as William Currie describes, ‘‘are developed with a kind of dream literalism.’’ Abe presents the metaphor in somewhat realistic terms, but, as the play unfolds, the only thing that holds everything together is a sense of the irrational. ‘‘I [Abe] tend instinctively, in a sense, to make the ordinary the starting point of all my thoughts. But at the same time, I dislike that as well, so I create monsters, to surprise.’’

Later, in an interview with Shields, Abe mentions that he enjoys Anton Chekhov but believed that Chekhov’s plays were also ‘‘satisfying as literature.’’ They could be enjoyed without seeing them in performance. For Abe’s play, this was not true. ‘‘I write novels, so I have the means of expressing what can be expressed in novels. I want to express on the stage something which is at once original and can only be expressed on the stage.’’ Toward this end, Abe added elements to his plays that could only be presented in live performance. These components were added not only to enhance the flavor of a live performance but also to shock his audience. Often included were the sounds of someone going to the bathroom or the noises of a gurgling stomach. ‘‘Smells, too, are significant in Abe’s oeuvre,’’ writes Shields, ‘‘and tend to be disgusting.’’

Abe’s style is not easy. His plays are puzzles that are difficult to understand; better yet, they are more like dreams that no one fully understands. Abe’s philosophy of drama was not to present everyday images that would entertain his audiences. His style was to make his audiences think. ‘‘Unless the theater regains the power to realize on stage those more abstract things which are impossible to see in everyday reality,’’ Abe tells Shields, ‘‘audiences will find theatrical productions more and more boring.’’ Abe elaborates on this challenge in an afterword to the published script of his play: ‘‘In performance it is essential that the style, rather than the words, be emphasized.’’

Compare and Contrast

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Early 1900s: Korean, Russian, and Japanese forces fight over Manchuria in a series of wars. In the decade prior to World War II, Japan exerts military control over the land and establishes Manchuria as the most industrialized section of mainland China.

Middle 1900s: Japan loses its rights to Manchuria after World War II. Chinese Communist forces take control of the area when Russia threatens to invade.

Today: China’s interest in Manchuria wanes and large-scale unemployment ensues as state-controlled businesses stagnate.

Early 1900s: Japan’s economy is largely based on textile goods. Later, as imperialist ambitions increase, the Japanese economy becomes even stronger with the manufacture of heavy war machinery.

Middle 1900s: After a total collapse of its economy coming as a result of its defeat in World War II, Japan emerges as a major industrial power, manufacturing machinery, automobiles, and steel.

Today: Japan is the most industrialized country in Asia and is the second-greatest economic power in the world, second only to the United States. Japan’s economy is now based on technological goods such as electric and electronic appliances.

Early 1900s: Expressionist playwrights like Karel Capek (Czechoslovakia) and Eugene O’Neill (U.S.A.) influence dramatists around the world with their use of minimal scenery, talking machines, and characters as types, rather than as real people, to convey the dehumanizing aspects of a technological society.

Middle 1900s: The Theatre of the Absurd re- flects a widespread sense of the utter meaningless in life through the work of such dramatists as Samuel Beckett (Ireland), Eugene Ionesco (France), and Edward Albee (U.S.A.), who influence many young, international playwrights.

Today: There is a trend in modern plays to reflect realistic themes such as gay lifestyles, multicultural interests, reflections of Holocaust and Hiroshima survivors and their children, the political struggles of Apartheid, the devastation caused by AIDS, and cultural conflicts of post- Colonialism.

Media Adaptations

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Although Abe’s The Man Who Turned into a Stick was never made into a movie, several of his other works were. Abe wrote the screenplays for each of these movies, all of which were directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara: The Woman in the Dunes (1964), which received a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. His Face of Another was produced in 1966, and The Ruined Map was produced in 1968 as The Man without a Map. The Woman in the Dunes is available on videocassette.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Abe, Kobo, The Man Who Turned into a Stick: Three Related Plays, translated by Donald Keene, University of Tokyo Press, 1975.

Currie, William, ‘‘Abe Kobo’s Nightmare World of Sand,’’ in Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel, edited by Kinya Tsuruta and Thomas E. Swann, Sophia University, 1976, pp. 1–3.

Iwamoto, Yoskio, Review of Kangaroo Notebook, in World Literature Today, Winter 1997.

Keene, Donald, Introduction, in The Man Who Turned into a Stick: Three Related Plays, translated by Donald Keene, University of Tokyo, 1975, pp. vi–x.

Rimer, J. Thomas, ‘‘Abe Kobo,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 182: Japanese Fiction Writers Since World War II, Gale Research, 1997, pp. 3–10.

Rimer, J. Thomas, ‘‘Tradition and Contemporary Consciousness,’’ in Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Traditions: An Introduction, Princeton University Press, 1978, pp. 261–65. Shields, Nancy K., Fake Fish, Weatherhill, Inc., 1996.

Further Reading
Goodman, David. G., trans. and ed., After Apocalypse: Four Japanese Plays of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Cornell University Press, 1994 (reprint). A collection of modern Japanese plays that looks into the spiritual, political, and moral questions that faced most Japanese during the postwar era.

Iles, Timothy, Abe Kobo: An Exploration of His Prose, Drama and Theatre, European Press Academic Publishing, 2000. This is one of a very few books written in English that is totally focused on Abe’s work. Iles offers a comprehensive study, interpretation, and criticism of both Abe’s fiction and his plays.

Keene, Donald, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, Columbia University Press, 1984. This book, written by the noted scholar and translator of Abe’s works, offers an extensive study of Japanese literature, including drama. Keene has translated the works of many major contemporary Japanese writers.

Mishima, Yukio, Five Modern Noh Plays, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1981. Using the traditional form of the Noh play, Mishima, a famous novelist, explores modern existential questions. Modern audiences often state that Mishima’s work haunts them long after they have experienced his plays.

Takaya, Ted T., ed., Modern Japanese Drama: An Anthology, Columbia University Press, 1979. This collection offers an overview of modern Japanese plays that were written and produced in Abe’s time. Included are plays by Abe, Yukio Mishima, and other contemporary Japanese dramatists.


Critical Essays


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