The Man Who Turned Into a Stick

by Kobo Abe

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Alienation is a theme that runs through most of Abe’s work. In The Man Who Turned into a Stick, alienation is represented as Hippie Girl and Hippie Boy, the younger generation. Their alienation is specifically expressed by Hippie Girl when she declares that there is a generation gap between her and Hippie Boy and the man and woman from hell. Hippie Girl also delivers the line: ‘‘We’re alienated.’’

These are obvious examples of Abe’s theme. There are more subtle ones, however. There is the problem of communication between the father (the stick) and his son. The father has fallen away from the son and turned into something unrecognizable. The son calls out to his father, but the father cannot respond because he has turned into a stick.

As a stick, the man can hear the other characters speaking but they cannot hear him. When Man from Hell states that the man was turned into a stick because he was satisfied, Stick disagrees but cannot protest. Taking this further, Stick cannot elucidate a comprehensive evaluation of his life even to himself. He questions Man from Hell’s assumptions, but does not offer any answers. This represents alienation in the sense of being separated from one’s own thoughts.

This kind of alienation from self is also depicted when Hippie Girl tries to remember her sister and the nicknames her siblings called her. She becomes confused when she tries to bring up memories, suggesting that she is confused about her own identity. She says that everything is wrapped in puzzles, intimating that this also includes herself.

Another form of alienation is the conflict between inner and outer realities. This is conveyed in the dialogue between Man from Hell and Woman from Hell. Man from Hell is determined to record only the facts of reality. He trains Woman from Hell to take down the time of day, details of location, the identification number of the latest victim, and what he describes as truthful descriptions of the objects they examine. Woman from Hell, on the other hand, is torn between recording these rational descriptions in order to do her job well and expressing her emotions, which make her empathize with the people she meets in the course of her work. Man from Hell believes that her emotions are a distraction and that she should learn to control or eliminate them.

Man from Hell states that people turn into sticks because they are satisfied. This suggests that Abe believes satisfaction to be a negative thing, as sticks are stiff and lifeless. For Abe, satisfaction represents the status quo or, worse yet, stagnation. It is a state of mind that is frozen, accepting things as they are without searching for improvement.

Whereas Man from Hell states that the man was changed into a stick because he was satisfied, it is interesting to note that the Man from Hell also appears satisfied. He is very rule-oriented and teaches Woman from Hell not to deviate from the rules. He does not question what he and she are doing and goes about his business with no inclination to change anything. While Man from Hell points at the audience and judges it as a forest of sticks, he does not consider himself to be part of it. Man from Hell also scoffs at the idea that either the man (who turned into a stick) or his son were capable of reflection, and yet there is nothing in the play that suggests that Man from Hell has reflected on his own life. If, on the other hand, he has, there...

(This entire section contains 1097 words.)

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are no signs that he is anything but satisfied with what he has seen.

Hippie Boy and Hippie Girl launch into a discussion about aims in the play. They state that they have no aims. ‘‘Aims are out of date,’’ states the girl. Man from Hell tries to use their aimlessness to his advantage by persuading the hippie couple to give the stick to him.

Having an aim is one of Man from Hell’s more positive attributes. He has a job to do and his aim is to make sure that that job is completed according to regulations. Whether this is a positive attribute in Abe’s mind is unclear. By his name alone, Man from Hell does not fit a positive description. Yet, it is Man from Hell who tries to awaken the audience by pointing out their lack of idealistic aims, thus assuring that they will be turned into sticks.

In the conversation with Hippie Girl, Man from Hell appears to contradict his own goal-oriented personality. He tells Hippie Girl that she is making too much of nothing when she starts daydreaming about the potential advantages of having aims (thus contradicting her original statement against them). Man from Hell refers to aims as ‘‘nothing.’’ He then concludes, ‘‘it’s bad for your health to want something that doesn’t really exist.’’ Rather, Man from Hell suggests, it is better to feel uncertainty and anguish about not having aims, for ‘‘they’re a lot better proof that you are there, in that particular spot, than any aim I can think of.’’

Once again, it is unclear if Man from Hell is delivering this rhetoric for the girl’s benefit or for his own. If he succeeds in confusing the girl, he might also succeed in attaining his aim, which is to gain control of the stick.

Abe has subtitled this play Death. In the play, there is the imminent death of the man who has turned into the stick, but there is also an overtone of imminent mortality for everyone. It is through the awareness of death that Abe hopes to awaken his audience. Abe’s own life was marked with many scenes of death, from the war in Manchuria to his father’s death, and the aftermath of bombing raids on Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. His awareness of death prompted him to see life with fresh eyes. Shields writes, ‘‘Abe’s ability to see ordinary things in extraordinary ways enabled him to suggest to his audience that they could do likewise.’’ By having a man fall off the top of a building and turn into a stick, and then have the audience watch as the man (now a stick) slowly succumbs to death, forces the audience to consider their own mortality. In considering their own deaths, people are compelled to look at the nature and condition of their lives, to reflect on the quality of their life choices.