Abe, Kobo 1924–1993

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Abe, Kobo 1924–1993

PERSONAL: Born March 7, 1924, in Tokyo, Japan; died of heart failure, January 22, 1993, in Tokyo, Japan; son of Asakichi (a doctor) and Yorimi Abe; married Machi Yamada (an artist), March, 1947; children: Neri (daughter). Education: Tokyo University, M.D., 1948.

CAREER: Novelist and playwright. Director and producer of the Kobo Theatre Workshop in Tokyo, Japan, beginning in 1973.

MEMBER: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

AWARDS, HONORS: Post-war literature prize, 1950; Akutagawa prize, 1951, for Kabe-S karumashi no hanzai; Kishida prize for drama, 1958; Yomiuri literature prize, 1962; special jury prize from Cannes Film Festival, 1964, for film Woman in the Dunes; Tanizaki prize for drama, 1967; L.H.D., Columbia University, 1975.



Daiyon Kampyoki, Kodan-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1959, translated by E. Dale Saunders as Inter Ice Age Four, Knopf (New York, NY), 1970.

Suna no onna, Shincho-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1962, translated by E. Dale Saunders as The Woman in the Dunes, Knopf (New York, NY), 1964, adapted screenplay with Hiroshi Teshigahara published under same title, Phaedra (New York, NY), 1966, 2nd edition, 1971.

Tanin no kao, Kodan-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1964, translated by E. Dale Saunders as The Face of Another, Knopf (New York, NY), 1966, Vintage (New York, NY), 2003.

Moetsukita chizu, Shincho-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1967, translated by E. Dale Saunders as The Ruined Map, Knopf (New York, NY), 1969, Vintage (New York, NY), 2001.

Hakootoko, Shincho-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1973, translation published as The Box Man, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.

Mikkai, 1977, translated by Juliet W. Carpenter as Secret Rendezvous, Knopf (New York, NY), 1979.

The Ark Sakura, translated by Juliet W. Carpenter, Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.

The Kangaroo Notebook, translated by Maryellen Toman Mori, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.


Owarishi michino shirubeni (title means "The Road Sign at the End of the Road"), Shinzenbi-sha, 1948.

Kabe-S karumashi no hanzai (title means "The Crimes of S. Karma"), Getsuyo-syobo, 1951.

Kiga domei (title means "Hunger Union"), Kodan-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1954.

Kemonotachi wa kokyo o mezasu (title means "Animals Are Forwarding to Their Natives"), Kodan-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1957.

Ishi no me (title means "Eyes of Stone"), Shincho-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1960.

Omaenimo tsumi ga aru (title means "You Are Guilty Too"), Gakusyukenkyusha, 1965.

Enomoto Buyo, Tyuokaron-sha, 1965.


Tomodachi, Enemoto Takeaki, Kawade-syobo, 1967, translated by Donald Keene as Friends, Grove (New York, NY), 1969.

Bo ni natta otoko, Shincho-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1969, translated by Donald Keene as The Man Who Turned into a Stick (produced in New York City at Playhouse 46, May, 1986), University of Tokyo Press (Tokyo, Japan), 1975.

Three Plays, translated with an introduction by Donald Keene, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1993.


Seifuku (title means "The Uniform"), Aokisyoten, 1955.

Yurei wa kokoniiru (title means "Here Is a Ghost"), Shincho-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1959.

Abe Kobe gikyoku zenshu (title means "The Collected Plays of Kobo Abe"), Shincho-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1970.

Mihitsu no koi (title means "Willful Negligence"), Shincho-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1971.

Ai no megane wa irogarasu (title means "Love's Spectacles Are Colored Glass"), Shincho-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1973.

Midoriiro no stocking (title means "Green Stocking"), Shincho-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1974.

Ue (title means "The Cry of the Fierce Animals"), Shincho-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1975.


Suichu toshi (short stories; title means "The City in Water"), Togen-sha, 1964.

Yume no tobo (short stories; title means "Runaway in the Dream"), Tokuma-syoten, 1968.

Uchinaro henkyo (essays; title means "Inner Border"), Tyuokoron-sha, 1971.

Abe Kobo zensakuhin (title means "The Collected Works of Kobo Abe"), fifteen volumes, Shincho-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1972–73.

Han gekiteki ningen (collected lectures; title means "Anti-Dramatic Man"), Tyuokoron-sha, 1973.

Hasso no shuhen (lectures; title means "Circumference of Inspiration"), Shincho-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1974.

Warau Tsuki (short stories; title means "The Laughing Moon"), Shincho-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1975.

Ningen sokkuri, Shincho hunko (Tokyo, Japan), 1976.

Shi ni isogu kujiratachi, Shincho-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1986.

Beyond the Curve (short stories), translated by Juliet W. Carpenter, Kodansha America (New York, NY), 1991.

Tobu otoko (title means "The Flying Man"), Shincho-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1994.

Abe Kobo zenshu, twenty-nine volumes, Shincho-sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1997.

Also author of Chinnyusha, 1952, Sabakareru kiroku (title means "Judgment Book of Films"), 1978, and Toshi e no kairo, 1980.

SIDELIGHTS: Kobo Abe, Japanese novelist and writer of film scenarios, "occupied a central position among avant-garde artists in Japan," according to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor J. Thomas Rimer. From the early 1950s to his death in 1993, Abe attracted international recognition for his fictional work that explored the postwar Japanese experience in bleak and sometimes surreal terms. His fiction bears little resemblance to the traditional literature of Abe's native country. With its existential themes and what Saturday Review contributor Thomas Fitzsimmons described as its "bizarre situations loaded with metaphysical overtones," Abe's work has more in common with that of Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka, to whom he is often compared.

Abe's preoccupation with modern man's sense of displacement originated during his childhood. Abe grew up in the ancient Manchurian city of Mukden, which was seized from China by the Japanese in 1931. According to Washington Post reviewer David Remnick, Abe "was fascinated by the Chinese quality of the town and was appalled by the behavior of the Japanese army during occupation. As a testament to his ambivalence about Japan, he changed his name from Kimfusa to the more Chinese rendering, Kobo. Abe was in high school during the war, and though he once said, 'I longed to be a little fascist,' he never accepted the extreme nationalism of his country in the 1940s. When he heard of Japan's imminent defeat in late 1944, he was 'overjoyed.'" The author's strong feelings against nationalism remained with him, and he once told Remnick, "Place has no role for me. I am rootless." Many critics believe that Abe's alienation from his own country is also the key to his international popularity. As Hisaaki Yamanouchi noted in his book The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature, "It enabled him to create a literary universe which transcends the author's nationality. He is probably the first Japanese writer whose works, having no distinctly Japanese qualities, are of interest to the Western audience because of their universal relevance."

Abe's first novel to be translated into English was Suna no onna (The Woman in the Dunes). In this story, a schoolteacher and amateur entomologist goes to the country for a weekend of insect hunting. He stumbles upon a primitive tribe living in sandpits and becomes their prisoner. Escape is his obsession for a time, but when it is finally possible, he has lost the desire to return to his former identity. Critics praise Abe for both his metaphysical insights and his engrossing description of life in the sandpits. "The story can be taken at many levels," reported a Times Literary Supplement reviewer.

"It is an allegory, it shares elements with Pincher Martin and Kafka; … and it also has the suspense, the realism, and the obsessive regard for detail of a superb thriller…. It is a brilliantly original work, which cannot easily be fitted into any category or given any clear literary ancestors. The claustrophobic horror, the sense of physical degradation and bestiality, are conveyed in a prose as distinct and sharp as the sand grains which dominate the book."

The central theme of The Woman in the Dunes—loss of identity—reoccurs in most of Abe's subsequent novels. Moetsukita chizu, translated as The Ruined Map, uses the conventions of detective novels as a framework. Flight and pursuit merge as a private investigator gradually takes on the persona of the very man he has been hired to track down. Earl Mine found The Ruined Map's "combination of the macabre and the realistic" similar to that of The Woman in the Dunes. "Although less hallucinatory in its effect, The Ruined Map is in the end more terrifying." observed Mine. "Abe has a remarkable talent for creating fables of contemporary experience that manage to be at once rooted in minute detail and expressive of man's plight; but in none of his previous work have the detail and the larger meaning combined so perfectly. The sheer force of accumulating realities is what drives man to madness, what leads him to abscond from himself since he cannot otherwise abscond from the modern world. It is astonishing how successfully Abe renders this effacing of human consciousness in the very mind that is lost." Shane Stevens also reserved high praise for The Ruined Map, calling it in the New York Times Book Review "a brilliant display of pyrotechnics, a compelling tour de force that seems to have been built lovingly, word by word, sentence by sentence, by a master jeweler of polished prose."

Although Abe's attitudes and concerns were far from those of a typical Japanese writer, some reviewers point out that the author's work was not completely outside his cultural tradition. The Face of Another and Secret Rendezvous are both presented in the form of journals and letters, a style that dates back to the tenth century in Japan. Furthermore, pointed out William Currie in Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel, "Abe shows a meticulous care for concrete detail worthy of the most confirmed naturalist or realist. His precision and con-creteness give the impression of reality to the dream or nightmare. In this regard, Abe, who is sometimes considered thoroughly Western in his approach to literature, is solidly in the Japanese tradition with his emphasis on the concrete and the particular."

A New Republic contributor referred to another aspect in which Abe's writing differs from most Western litera-ture. "The Japanese seem to embrace the unspeakable openly, as a form of release, accepting the facets of the imagination Americans often skirt—even in the most lurid popular fiction," stated the writer in his review of Abe's novel Mikkai, translated as Secret Rendezvous. Secret Rendezvous relates the story of a man's search for his wife, who has been taken to the hospital although she was not sick. The man discovers that the hospital is run by an "incestuous circle of rapists, voyeurs, thirteen-year-old nymphomaniacs, test-tube babies and centaurs." Abe's graphic descriptions of their activities drew negative reactions from many Western critics. Sidney DeVere Brown declared in World Literature Today, "The novel would be pornography but for the sterile laboratory in which the explicit scenes are placed." D.J. Enright protested in the New York Review of Books: "The paths whether of pursuit or of flight lead through turds, urine, phlegm, vomit, the stench of dead animals. A master of the seedy, Abe seems ambitious to erect it into a universal law." Concluded the New Republic reviewer: "Kobo Abe delights in the excessive and the perverse. With its surrealistic setting, its claustrophobic atmosphere, and its increasingly distressing scenes of sexual decadence and violence, Secret Rendezvous disturbs rather than titillates."

Doug Lang defended Secret Rendezvous, however. His Washington Post Book World review calls the plot incoherent, but continues, "fortunately, the novel does not depend on plot for its momentum. It depends much more on the ever-expanding circles of [the protagonist's] nightmarish experience, as Abe propels his main character to the outer perimeters of his existence, where he is confronted with the terrifying absurdity of his life…. The hospital is a metaphor for modern Japanese life…. Secret Rendezvous is very convincing. There is passion in it and a great deal of very bleak humor. Abe's view of things is not a pretty one, but it is well worth our attention." Howard Hibbitt concluded in Saturday Review that Abe is the master of the "philosophical thriller" and summarized the strengths of his novels: "Brilliant narrative, rich description and invention, [and] vital moral and intellectual concerns."

Abe's novel The Ark Sakura also is considered a dark book. It is about a hermit's preparations for nuclear disaster. Pig, who prefers to be called Mole, constructs an underground "ark" using the profits he made disposing of wastes through the toilet. He invites some outcasts he meets to become his crew, but a group of militant senior citizens has other ideas about whom he should select. "Abe's depiction of the deadly game of survival is hilarious but at the same time leaves us with a chilling sense of apprehension about the brave new world that awaits us in the future," noted Kevin Keane in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. In The New York Times Book Review, Edmund White said, "The Sakura Ark may be a grim novel, but it is also a large, ambitious work about the lives of outcasts in modern Japan and such troubling themes as ecological destruction, old age, violence and nuclear war."

Other reviewers found the book disappointing. "The idea behind the story, to start with, is interesting enough, the development is not," claimed Louis Allen in the Times Literary Supplement. "The Ark Sakura is a small disaster," wrote Ivan Gold in the Washington Post. "A clumsy translation, marked by solecisms, gibberish and pseudoprose, does not sufficiently distract from the flimsiness beneath."

Beyond the Curve is the first collection of Abe's short fiction published in English. The stories imaginatively merge real and surreal events to explore such themes as human isolation and the fragility of identity. Herbert Mitgang observed in The New York Times that "the endings [of the stories] are often left dangling, forcing the reader to stretch his imagination, which isn't a bad endorsement for any book." A critic for the Economist felt that the collection "shows Mr. Abe at his best, full of wry humour and images of self-defeat, and obsessed with the idea that alienation is the natural condition of contemporary man." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly found that with this gathering of tales, "Abe confirms his reputation as one of Japan's most significant modern writers."

Abe is less-well known in the West for his plays, though these brought him critical acclaim in Japan. Such theater works often mine the same absurdist ground as his novels and stories. Three Plays, a 1993 translation including Involuntary Homicide, Green Stockings, and The Ghost Is Here, demonstrate the "universality to Abe's works," according to Yoshio Iwamoto in World Literature Today. The translations of Abe's theatrical works could "only enhance his already considerable reputation in the West," Iwamoto further commented. Tony Dallas, writing in the Antioch Review, found "this witty, lyrical, eminently theatrical collection a welcome change from the confessional realism that pervades most contemporary American drama."

Abe's last novel was The Kangaroo Notebook. In this strange, surrealistic work, the narrator wakes up one morning to find radishes sprouting from his legs; his experiences get more horrific as he tries to find some-one who can help him. David R. Slavitt concluded in the New York Times Book Review that The Kangaroo Notebook "is essentially an account of a dream experience, and the trouble with nightmares as a mode of literature is that there is nothing much for a protagonist to do…. Weirdness just piles up on other weirdness, higher and higher, but there is never an end to it and we never arrive at a reasonable vista." Iwamoto, writing in World Literature Today, found the novel a good summing of Abe's oeuvre in that it "refigures with imaginative vigor those ingredients that have become trademarks in the novelist-playwright's works: metamorphosis, the theme of alienation and the problem of personal identity, and the journey motif through a labyrinthine modern dystopia." Iwamoto further thought that though The Kangaroo Notebook "lacks the mesmerizing power" of some of Abe's earlier work, "what is evident is the author's still vivid and playful imagination at work conveying his essentially nihilistic vision of life in an absurd and meaningless modern world." A contributor for Publishers Weekly found that Abe "deftly blends antic comedy with metaphysical dread while maintaining the internal logic" of its narrative. And Nancy Pearl, reviewing the same work in Booklist, praised Abe's "triumphant last novel" as a "supremely fitting end of an illustrious writing career."



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 8, 1978, Volume 22, 1982, Volume 53, 1989, Volume 81, 1994.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 182: Japanese Fiction Writers since World War II, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997, pp. 3-10.

Janiera, Armando Martins, Japanese and Western Literature, Tuttle (Boston, MA), 1970.

Shields, Nancy K., Fake Fish: The Theater of Kobo Abe, Weatherhill (New York, NY), 1996.

Tsurutu, Kinya, editor, Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel, Sophia University (Tokyo, Japan), 1976.

Yamanouchi, Hisaaki, The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1978.


Antioch Review, fall, 1994, Tony Dallas, review of Three Plays, p. 651.

Atlantic, October, 1979.

Booklist, April 15, 1996, Nancy Pearl, review of The Kangaroo Notebook, p. 1419.

Chicago Tribune Book World, October 7, 1979.

Commonweal, December 21, 1979.

Economist (U.S.), August 3, 1991, "Sand and Tendrils," p. 82.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), May 7, 1988.

International Fiction Review, summer, 1979.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 17, 1988, Kevin Keane, review of The Ark Sakura.

New Republic, September 22, 1979, review of Secret Rendezvous.

New York Review of Books, January 14, 1964; September 27, 1979, D.J. Enright, review of Secret Rendezvous.

New York Times, September 27, 1966; June 3, 1969; December 31, 1974; May 25, 1986; March 23, 1991, Herbert Mitgang, review of Beyond the Curve.

New York Times Book Review, September 18, 1966; August 3, 1969, Shane Stevens, review of The Ruined Map; December 8, 1974; September 9, 1979; April 10, 1988; Edmund White, review of The Ark Sakura; March 17, 1991; April 28, 1996, David R. Slavitt, review of The Kangaroo Notebook, p. 31.

New York Times Magazine, November 17, 1974.

Publishers Weekly, February 22, 1991, review of Beyond the Curve, p. 212; March 11, 1996, review of The Kangaroo Notebook, p. 44.

Saturday Review, September 5, 1964; September 10, 1966; October 11, 1969; September 26, 1970.

Spectator, March 18, 1972.

Times (London, England), August 4, 1988.

Times Literary Supplement, March 18, 1965, review of The Woman in the Dunes; March 6, 1969; September 3, 1971; March 17, 1972; August 12, 1988, Louis Allen, review of The Ark Sakura.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), April 24, 1988.

Washington Post, January 20, 1986.

Washington Post Book World, February 21, 1971; October 28, 1979, Doug Lang, review of Secret Rendezvous; March 27, 1988; April 21, 1991.

World Literature Today, winter, 1981; summer, 1994, Yoshio Iwamoto, review of Three Plays, p. 637; winter, 1997, Yoshio Iwamoto, review of The Kangaroo Notebook, p. 228.


Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (March 28, 1997).



Chicago Tribune, January 24, 1993, sec. 2, p. 6.

Los Angeles Times, January 23, 1993, p. A22.

Times (London, England), January 25, 1993, p. 19.

Washington Post, January 23, 1993, p. C4.