Kobo Abe

BORN: 1924, Tokyo
DIED: 1993, Tokyo
GENRE: Fiction, drama, nonfiction
The Woman in the Dunes (1962)
The Face of Another (1964)
The Ruined Map (1973)
The Ark Sakura (1984)
An important figure in contemporary Japanese literature,
Kobo Abe attracted an international audience for novels
exploring the alienation and loss of identity experienced
by many in Japanese society after World War II. Abe’s
novels, plays, and screenplays drew from developments in
Western avant-garde literature rather than from Japanese
sources. His work was successful abroad and often translated into English and other languages. His fiction is rich
in allegory and metaphysical implications, employing an
intriguing combination of detailed realism and bizarre,
nightmarish fantasy. He was also a noted theater director
and photographer.
Works in Biographical and Historical
A Childhood in Manchuria
Kimifusa Abe was born in Tokyo, Japan, on March 7,
1924. When he was an infant, his father took the family
to Manchuria, in northern China, where he served as a
doctor in the city of Mukden. Japan captured Manchuria
in 1931, going on to attack mainland China in 1937.
Growing up in a foreign country occupied by Japanese
forces gave Abe a certain ambivalence about his Japanese
identity. Displaced from his home country, disgusted by
militant nationalism and by the conduct of the occupying
army, he changed his name from Kimifusa to Kobo, a
more Chinese-sounding rendering. He had already discovered the sense of alienation that would pervade his
creative work.
Postwar Japan As a young man, Abe attended a private high school in Tokyo. He was a voracious reader,
preferring works by philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Jaspers and literature by Fyodor Dostoyevsky,
Edgar Allan Poe, and Franz Kafka. In 1943, at the height of
World War II and following his parents’ insistence, Abe
entered the medical school at Tokyo University. Yet he
took no pleasure in preparing for a medical career; the stress
was so intense that at one point he checked himself into a
mental hospital. Abe began to experiment in writing poetry
and fiction as the war was ending. His first novel,
The Road
Sign at the End of the Road
, was published in 1948, the
same year he earned his MD degree. Encouraged by his
literary success, he never practiced medicine. Some critics
believe Abe’s scientific studies may have developed his
abilities to describe situations, and even emotions, with
detached precision.
In the troubled years following Japan’s military defeat
in World War II, Abe joined a group of avant-garde
writers and intellectuals attempting to reassert humanistic
values through art. Under the influence of Hanada Kiyoteru, Abe became interested in European surrealism and
Marxism and how to combine them. He soon became
known for his fiction. He won prizes for his short
story ‘‘Red Cocoon’’ (1950) and his novel
The Crime of
Mr. S. Karuma
(1951). The latter work typifies Abe’s
thematic obsessions; its narrator loses the ability to communicate with other people. His popularity grew quickly.
Abe was the first major Japanese writer to present
avant-garde narratives of urban alienation, in keeping
with Japan’s rapid postwar urbanization. Some traditional
Japanese artists remained committed to a more pastoral
vision of the nation, which had largely disappeared by the
early 1950s, when the American occupation ended. The

devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic weapons also hovered over postwar Japanese culture. Apocalyptic fears drive the absurdist plot of Inter Ice Age Four
(1959), a science fiction novel set in a futuristic Japan
threatened by melting polar ice caps.
Lost Identities Abe garnered international acclaim for
The Woman in the Dunes (1962). Both as a novel and as a
1965 film by the celebrated director Hiroshi Teshigahara,
a hit at the Cannes Film Festival, this work remains one of
the most widely appreciated pieces from postwar Japan.
The Kafkaesque novel relates the nightmarish experiences
of a teacher and amateur entomologist, Niki Jumpei, who
is enslaved by a group of people living beneath a huge
sand dune, including one fascinating widow who is determined to keep him with her. At first, Jumpei seeks to
regain his freedom, but he gradually finds meaning in his
new circumstances and rejects an opportunity to escape.
The shifting sands that constantly endanger this community constitute a metaphor expressing Abe’s sense of
the puzzle of human existence.
The Woman in the Dunes fully explores a central
theme of Abe’s fiction: the obliteration of identity. The
theme recurs in his next three novels.
The Face of Another
(1964) uses motifs from detective fiction to tell the story
of a man who wears a mask to cover disfiguring scars. In
his new guise, the protagonist, who seems to lose his
identity, manages to seduce his own wife.
The Ruined
(1967) carries the detective genre to an outrageous
conclusion: the hunter and the hunted merge as a detective who gradually assumes the identity of the man he has
been hired to locate. Teshigahara directed films of both
stories from screen adaptations by Abe.
Woman in the Dunes, The Box Man (1973)
advances a narrative through a striking metaphor. The
narrator of this work casts off his ordinary, middle-class
existence to live in a cardboard box, which he equips with
enough items to sustain his daily life. Free from the
constraints of society, the narrator invents his own idyllic
Visual Theater Kobo Abe was also a notable playwright. His early stage works showed the influence of
Marxism and existentialism. His most successful work
for the theater,
Friends (1967), critiques Japanese communal values, which Abe sees as stifling individual creativity. The ‘‘family’’ that invades the apartment of the
hapless protagonist manages to take over and eradicate
him over the course of the play. In 1973 Abe began his
own theater group, the Kobo Abe Studio, which produced many of his best-known dramas. His wife, artist
Machi Abe, prepared many of the stage designs for these
plays. Many of these productions emphasized movement
rather than dialogue, as Abe attempted to create a theatrical style to express surrealistic images visually.
Abe’s novel
Secret Rendezvous (1977) emphasizes
setting—a cavernous hospital—rather than character.
Searching for his wife at the facility, a shoe salesman
discovers that the hospital is run by an assortment of
psychopaths, sexual deviants, and grotesque beasts. The
novel presents the reader with a puzzle, but no solution.
Abe took seven years to write
The Ark Sakura (1984), a
farcical version of the story of Noah’s ark. Mole, the
protagonist, has decided to load a few people into an
ark, for protection from an impending nuclear holocaust.
His vision of a postapocalyptic society inside the ark is
thwarted by three confidence men he has enlisted as crew
members and by the invasion of street gangs and cantankerous elderly people. Abe’s dark humor conveys troubling ideas about nuclear war, old age, and those on the
margins of society. Abe died of heart failure on January
22, 1993, in a Tokyo hospital.
Works in Literary Context
Because of his alienation from Japanese culture, Kobo
Abe remained aloof from classical Japanese literature.
His work is far removed from the aesthetic vision and
strategies of older Japanese writers such as Kawabata
Yasunari, or of traditional cultural forms such as Noh
theater. Instead, his literary influences are primarily Western. Among them are Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Poe, and
Lewis Carroll. Abe recalls reciting the stories of Poe, one
of his earliest inspirations, to his high school classmates in
Kobo Abe Abe, Kobo, photograph.ª Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by

Kobo Abe
Manchuria. When he ran out of Poe stories, he began
making up his own.
Objective Style The objectivity of Abe’s style resembles that of other writers who were also trained in medicine, such as Russian playwright Anton Chekhov or the
Japanese Meiji writer Mori Ogai. Although their works
read quite differently and are composed with vastly different aims, these writers resemble each other in the cool
dissection of their perspectives. William Currie, in
to the Modern Japanese Novel
, finds Abe’s stress on concrete and specific details to be a culturally Japanese trait.
Urban Loneliness Despite the obvious differences of
tone and design among Abe’s novels—from science fiction to detective stories to biblical allegory—they all display his consistent thematic concerns of alienation and
loss of identity. In addition, they all betray the author’s
concern with the impersonal, isolating features of the
urban landscape. In a 1973 interview, Abe claimed that
loneliness, although a universal phenomenon, ‘‘is a new
theme for the Japanese. The reason is that the concept of
loneliness appeared in the urban mode of life.’’ Abe
perceived, and loathed, the growth of futuristic megacities; his Japan is an urban, not a rural, nation, and his
cities are futuristic, claustrophobic, and labyrinthine.
Ambassador to the Absurd During his lifetime, Abe
was the foremost Japanese exponent of avant-garde,
absurdist literature. With the development of another
generation of Japanese writers such as Haruki Murakami,
whose vision of contemporary life bears similarities to
Abe’s view of the human condition, Abe’s work may
foretell a broad new Japanese sensibility.
Works in Critical Context
Kobo Abe achieved critical and popular success fairly early
in his career;
Woman in the Dunes, the novel and film,
brought him to worldwide attention. Several of his novels
were translated into English in the 1960s. Although some
of his books earned better reviews than others, Abe
remained perhaps the most ‘‘translatable’’ Japanese writer
of his generation.
Japanese and Overseas Reception Abe’s critical
reception, both in Japan and abroad, has sometimes been
ambiguous. For some Japanese readers, Abe sheds too
much of the Japanese literary tradition and no longer
seems to mirror their perceptions of their culture. Abe
himself, who proclaimed his lack of strong ties to his
home country, seemed to support this notion. His work
shares this unattached vision with that of many other
postwar writers around the world, such as Samuel Beckett
and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Abe expresses a strong conviction that the parochial is irrelevant as modern culture
develops. The universality of his concerns, and the
absence of notably Japanese cultural markers in his writing, may be the key to his international reputation, in the
opinion of critics such as Hisaaki Yamanouchi, author of
The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature. On the other hand, some Western critics, seeking
some special Japanese quality in works they read in translation, come away disappointed with reading Abe’s work.
The Woman in the Dunes When The Woman in the
was first published in English, it was recognized as
unique if not entirely successful. Stanley Kauffmann, writing for the
New York Review of Books, stated that because
of the book’s structure, ‘‘Unless the author is able to keep
us concentrated on the present moment with interest of
character and richness of texture, we become impatient.
This is too often true of Abe’s book.’’ Writing for
Saturday Review, Earl Miner agreed that the book requires a
delicate balance to work, but noted that ‘‘the tone and
meaning are well sustained.’’ Armando Martins Janiera,
in his
Japanese and Western Literature, called it ‘‘a novel
of exceptional force.’’