The Man Who Turned Into a Stick

by Kobo Abe

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In "The Man Who Turned Into a Stick," what's the connection between the transformation and the transformed character?

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The transformation of the young boy's father into a stick within Kobo Abe's one-act play The Man Who Turned Into a Stick serves as the catalyst for the other characters' transformation (or, at least, their consideration of transformation) and highlights the stick's own lack of true transformation.

The play begins with a Hippie Boy and Hippie Girl standing on the stage and sniffing glue--surely a sign of both immaturity and rebelliousness--when a stick (really, a man who has turned into a stick!) plummets onto the stage and nearly hits the Hippie Boy. This event prompts almost immediate philosophizing, as the Hippie Girl questions, "Which do you suppose is the accident--when something hits you or when it misses?" The Hippie Boy retorts simply, "How should I know?" This ambivalence, youth, and sense of alienation is further highlighted by the arrival of the Man from Hell and the Woman from Hell--two characters who speak in poetic lines as they journey to the center of the stage.

The Man and Woman from Hell want the Hippie Boy to sell the stick to them, but the Boy refuses, claiming, "Me and this stick, we understand each other." The more the Hippie Boy thinks about this, the more disturbed he becomes by the idea, and he eventually decides to sell it to the Man and Woman from Hell for five dollars as a challenge to himself. The significance of this decision becomes apparent when the Man from Hell suggests that, "It wasn't just a stick you sold, but yourself," an action which the Hippie Girl quickly explains away: "It's the generation gap." The Hippie Boy clearly undergoes some sort of internal transformation when he recognizes himself in the stick and yet quickly rejects it, choosing to get rid of this source of discomfort in his life. 

The Woman from Hell undergoes transformation as she attempts to carry out her assignment--to logically document the phenomenon of people turning into sticks--and instead finds herself emotionally involved in the situation. She empathizes with the man who has been turned into a stick and with his son, who she wishes to reunite him with. Despite the scrutiny and criticism of her supervisor--who claims that, "sympathy has no place in our profession"--the Woman from Hell concludes the play with an act of great kindness, assuring the stick that he is not alone. 

Meanwhile, the stick himself (or rather, then man who became a stick) is left to contemplate the strange events that have happened to him and the disconnect that now exists between himself and his still human son. He ultimately serves as a representation of those who are stuck in their own patterns and, thus, are as good as dead. The man's lack of personal or spiritually transformative powers within his own life is, thus, deeply ironic given the physical transformation he undergoes within the play. While he sheds his outer form, his inner self remains the same: a man trapped in his way of "being."

As a final historical note: much of the play's narrative might also allude to the events Abe witnessed while growing up in Manchuria, particularly the transformation of the area through the establishment of a puppet government via Japanese imperialist influence and the industrialization of the region. It is interesting to note that Abe recalls seeing the heads of dead individuals impaled upon stakes in a dumping ground--the victims of this violent political transformation. Perhaps this is where the concept of dying people turning into sticks evolved from; these individuals, when faced with the invasion of new ways of being, were unable to adapt and, thus, suffered terrible consequences.

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