Friday, January 25, 2013

A Man of Many Masks – Kobo Abe

Kōbō Abe (安部 公房 Abe Kōbō), pseudonym of Kimifusa Abe, was born on March the 7th 1924  in Kita, Tokyo,  he grew up in Mukden (now Shen-yang) in Manchuria during the second world war. In 1948 he received a medical degree from the Tokyo Imperial University, yet never practised medicine. As well as a writer, he was also a poet (Mumei shishu "Poems of an unknown poet" - 1947) playwright, photographer and inventor. Although his first novel  Owarishi michi no shirube ni ("The Road Sign at the End of the Street") was published in  1948 which helped to establish his reputation, it wasn’t until the publication of The Woman in the Dunes in 1962 that he won widespread international acclaim. Kobo Abe

Often described as an Avant- garde playwright & novelist, sharing the same literary map as the likes of Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka and Eugene Ionesco through a shared sense of the absurd & the central theme of an alienated and isolated individual at loss in a world. Kobo Abe manages to do this within the realms of genres that would be recognised by most, fancy a detective novel The Ruined Map, Science Fiction, Inter Ice Age 4, Fantasy Kangaroo Notebook, there’s even a love story aspect to The Face of Another.


In the 1960’s he worked with the Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara on the film adaptations of The Face of Another, plus The Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes and The Ruined Map. In the early 1970’s he set up an acting studio in Tokyo, where he trained performers and directed plays. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1977.
Among the honours bestowed on him were the
Akutagawa Prize in 1951 for The Crime of S. Karuma, the Yomiuri Prize in 1962 for Woman in the Dunes, and the Tanizaki Prize in 1967 for the play Friends. Kenzaburō Ōe stated that Abe deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he himself had won (Abe was nominated multiple times).

Kobo Abe through his work as an Avant-garde novelist & playwright, has had names of the calibre of Albert Camus, Alberto Moravia, & Franz Kafka, (as well as those mentioned above) thrown at him and, like Kafka, there is an apparent clinical detachment in the writing, as though Abe’s medical background has had a direct influence upon his writing style, and yet with this there is also an elegance that makes his novels an immensely enjoyable and also an incredibly satisfying read – on all levels.

A brief glimpse at his English Language Works.

IA4Inter Ice Age 4 (1959) Plot elements include submersion of the world caused by melting polar ice, genetic creation of gilled children for the coming underwater age, and a fortune-telling computer predicting the future and advising humans how to deal with it.  A number of critics have identified Inter Ice Age 4 as Japan’s first full-length science fiction novel, and a work that helped jump start Japanese interest in the genre.witd


The Woman in the Dunes(1962) An amateur entomologist searches the scorching desert for beetles. As night falls he is forced to seek shelter in an eerie village, half-buried by huge sand dunes. He awakes to the terrifying realisation that the villagers have imprisoned him with a young woman at the bottom of a vast sand pit. Tricked into slavery and threatened with starvation if he does not work, his only chance is to shovel the ever-encroaching sand.


face of

The Face of Another(1964) A plastics scientist loses his face in an accident and proceeds to obtain a new face for himself. With a new 'mask', the protagonist sees the world in a new way and even goes so far as to have a clandestine affair with his estranged wife. There is also a subplot following a hibakusha woman who has suffered burns to the right side of her face. In the novel, the protagonist sees this character in a film (click link for my post).



The Ruined Map(1967)The story of an unnamed detective, hired by a beautiful, alcoholic woman, to find clues related to the disappearance of her husband. In the process, the detective is given a map (a ruined one), to help him, this turns out  to be more like a metaphor of the guidelines one should have in life. The impossibility to find any relevant clues to solve the mystery leads the main character to an existential crisis, building slowly from inside, this finally puts him in the position of identifying himself with the man he was supposed to find.



The Box Man(1973) A nameless protagonist gives up his identity and the trappings of a normal life to live in a large cardboard box he wears over his head. Wandering the streets of Tokyo and scribbling madly on the interior walls of his box, he describes the world outside as he sees, or perhaps imagines it, a tenuous reality that seems to include a mysterious rifleman determined to shoot him, a seductive young nurse, and a doctor who wants to become a box man himself.



The Secret Rendezvous (1977) From the moment that an ambulance appears in the middle of the night to take his wife, who protests that she is perfectly healthy, her bewildered husband realizes that things are not as they should be. His covert explorations reveal that the enormous hospital she was taken to is home to a network of constant surveillance and outlandish sex experiments. Within a few days, though no closer to finding his wife, the unnamed narrator finds himself appointed the hospital’s chief of security, reporting to a man who thinks he’s a horse.



The Ark Sakura(1984)The Protagonist, Mole has converted a huge underground quarry into an “ark” capable of surviving the coming nuclear holocaust and is now in search of his crew. He falls victim, however, to the wiles of a con man-cum-insect dealer. In the surreal drama that ensues, the ark is invaded by a gang of youths and a sinister group of elderly people called the Broom Brigade.




The Kangaroo Notebook(1991). The narrator of Kangaroo Notebook wakes one morning to discover that his legs are growing radish sprouts, an ailment that repulses his doctor but provides the patient with the unusual ability to snack on himself. In short order, Kobo Abe's unravelling protagonist finds himself hurtling in a hospital bed to the very shores of hell.



the curveBeyond The Curve(1993) This Collection of tightly drawn, surrealistic tales proceed from the same premise: an ordinary individual is suddenly thrust into extraordinary, often nightmarish circumstances that lead him to question his identity, this is an entertaining and fascinating volume. Some stories have the feel of sketches that might be further developed in Abe's longer fiction, and the influence on a new generation of writers, such as Haruki Murakami, can be readily seen.


Kobo Abe, manages to astound and amaze & yet remain within the realms of what could be defined as the mundane reality of the world about us. His protagonists start in what to all intents & purpose could be our daily world, before turning round and realising they are as far removed from the “normal” as they are from the distant stars. What is truly fantastic though is that we follow him, not just with our belief suspended, but with a growing awareness that although grotesque, absurd and surreal, we still recognise it as our world.


There are several other short story collections not featured here, but as I couldn’t find existing copies of them, I’ve not included them. If anyone knows of any English language books that I have missed, please let me know and I will add them,  Thanks.


Suko said...

I remember reading about this prolific author's work on Mel's blog, The Reading Life (especially The Woman in the Dunes, if memory serves me correctly). Very nice presentation! Kobo Abe's work sounds arresting.

Séamus Duggan said...

Sounds like there are similarities with Burroughs and Ballard as well as the names you've mentioned. I will definitely be looking for some of these.

Rise said...

Outside of fiction, there appears to be several plays translated by Donald Keene: Three Plays, Friends, The Man Who Turned Into a Stick.

Mel u said...

Great post. I have read as Suko said, Woman in the Dunes and Ark Sukura. I have a copy of Box Man and hope to read it in 2013. Rise, thanks for letting us know about the plays.

James said...

Thanks for reminding us of the breadth of this author's works. I need to explore beyond The Ruined Map and try some more of Abe's works.

Brian Joseph said...

I really need to delve into some Japanese literature and Abe sounds like a good author to begin with.

Of the films that you referenced I believe that I have only seen "Woman in the Dunes" which was terrific. I wonder how much involvement Abe has with those films.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Suko, yes I recall Mel's post on The Woman in the Dunes. Thanks for your comment.

Hello Séamus, yes I didn't think of those two, but can see connections.

Hello Rise,I thought about adding plays, also essays & his stories in other anthologies, but to be honest it would have been a very long post & I have a tendency to waffle as it is ;-)

Hi Mel. Yes I recall, I also have Box Man & a couple of others waiting patiently on my shelf.

Hello James, He is well worth further exploration, Thanks for the comment.

Hi Brian, It's an area well worth exploring, for further inspiration check out Tony's January in Japan or Bellezza's Japanese literary challenge, plus there are several overview posts on this site. As to the films from what I've read they seem to be a collaboration between writer & director.

stujallen said...

someone I think I should maybe read more of Gary ,many thank for the overview of him ,all the best stu

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Stu, definitely worth a pop.