Oe, Kenzaburo 1935-
OE, Kenzaburo 1935-
PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced "Oh-ey"; born January 31, 1935, in Ehime, Shikoku, Japan; married; wife's name Yukari; children: Hikari Pooh, one other child. Education: Tokyo University, earned degree (French literature), 1959.
ADDRESSES: Home—585 Seijo-machi, Setagaya-Ku, Tokyo, Japan.
CAREER: Novelist and short story writer, 1952—.
AWARDS, HONORS: Akutagawa prize, Japanese Society for the Promotion of Literature, 1958, for novella Shiiku; Shinchosha literary prize, 1964; Tanizaki prize, 1967; Europelia Arts Festival Literary Prize, 1989; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1994; Order of Culture, Japanese government (declined), 1994.
Shiiku (novella; title means "The Catch"), [Japan], 1958, translation by John Bester published in The Shadow of Sunrise, edited by Saeki Shoichi, [Palo Alto, CA], 1966.
Memushiri kouchi (fiction), [Japan], 1958, translation by Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama published as Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, Marion Boyars (New York, NY), 1995.
Kojinteki na taiken (fiction), [Japan], 1964, translation by John Nathan published as A Personal Matter, Grove (New York, NY), 1968.
Man'en gannen no futtoboru (fiction), [Japan], 1967, translation by John Bester published as The Silent Cry, Kodansha (New York, NY), 1974.
Pinchi ranna chosho (fiction), [Japan], 1976, translation by Michiko N. Wilson and Michael K. Wilson published as The Pinch Runner Memorandum, M. E. Sharpe (Armonk, NY), 1995.
Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (contains "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away," "Prize Stock," and "Aghwee the Sky Monster"), translation and introduction by John Nathan, Grove (New York, NY), 1977.
Hiroshima Notes (essays), translation by David L. Swain and Toshi Yonezawa, Marion Boyars (New York, NY), 1981, revised edition, 1995.
The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath, translation by Ivan Morris and others, Grove (New York, NY), 1984.
Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself: The Nobel Prize Speech and Other Lectures, translation by Hisaaki Yamanouchi and Kunioki Yanagishita, Kodansha (New York, NY), 1995.
A Healing Family (essays), translation by Stephen Snyder, Kodansha International (New York, NY), 1996.
Shizuka na seikatsu, [Japan], translation by Kunioki Yanagishita and William Wetherall published as A Quiet Life, Grove (New York, NY), 1996.
Two Novels: Seventeen, J., translation by Luk Van Haute, introduction by Masao Miyoshi, Blue Moon Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Jinsei no shinseki, [Japan], 1989, translation by Margaret Mitusani published as An Echo of Heaven, Kodansha International (New York, NY), 1996.
Atarashii hito yo mezameyo, [Japan], 1986, translation by John Nathan published as Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!, Grove (New York, NY), 2002.
Kaifuku-suru kazoku, Kodansha (Tokyo, Japan), 1995, translation by Stephen Snyder published as A Healing Family, illustrated by Yukari Oe, Kodansha International (New York, NY), 1996.
Chugaeri, [Japan] 1999, translation by Philip Gabriel published as Somersault: A Novel, Grove (New York, NY), 2003.
FICTION; IN JAPANESE
Warera no jidai (title means "Our Age"), [Japan], 1959.
Okurete kita seinen (title means "Born Too Late"), [Japan], 1961.
Sakebigoe (title means "Screams"), [Japan], 1962.
Nichijo seikatsu no boken, [Japan], 1971.
Kozui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi, [Japan], 1973.
Seinen no omei, [Japan], 1974.
M/T to mori no fushgi no monogatari (title means "M/T and the Wonders of the Forest"), Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1990.
Sukuinushi ga nagurareru made (first novel of trilogy "The Flaming Green Tree"; title means "Until the 'Savior' Gets Socked,"), Shinchosha (Tokyo, Japan), 1993.
Yureugoku: "vashireshon" (second novel of trilogy "The Flaming Green Tree"; title means "Vacillating"), Shinchosha (Tokyo, Japan), 1994.
Aimaina Nohon no watakushi, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1995.
Oinaru hi ni (third novel of trilogy "The Flaming Green Tree"; title means "On the Great Day"), Shinchosha (Tokyo, Japan), 1995.
SHORT STORIES; IN JAPANESE
Oe Kenzaburo shu, [Japan], 1960.
Kodoku na seinen no kyuka, [Japan], 1960.
Seiteki ningen, [Japan], 1968.
Warera no hyoki o ikinobiru michi o oshieyo, [Japan], 1969, enlarged edition, 1975.
Oe Kenzaburo ("Gendai no bungaku" series), [Japan], 1971.
Mizukara waga namida o nugui-tamau hi, [Japan], 1972.
Sora no kaibutsu Agui, [Japan], 1972.
ESSAYS; IN JAPANESE
Jizokusuru kokorozashi, [Japan], 1968.
Kakujidai no sozoryoku, [Japan], 1970.
Kowaremono to shite no ningen, [Japan], 1970.
Okinawa noto, [Japan], 1970.
Kujira no shimetsusuru hi, [Japan], 1972.
Dojidai to shite no sengo, [Japan], 1973.
Jokyo e, [Japan], 1974.
Bungaku noto, [Japan], 1974.
Genshuku na tsunawatari, [Japan], 1974.
Kotoba no yotte, [Japan], 1976.
Sekai no wakamonotachi, [Japan], 1962.
Oe Kenzaburo zensakuhin, [Japan], 1966-67.
Oe Kenzaburo shu ("Shincho Nihon bungaku" series), [Japan], 1969.
(Editor) Mansaku Itami, Itami Mansaku essei shu, [Japan], 1971.
(With Günter Grass) Gestern, vor 50 jahren: Ein deutch-japanischer briefwechsel (title means "Yesterday, 50 Years Ago: A German-Japanese Correspondence"), translation from the Japanese by Otto Putz, Steidl, 1995.
Also author of The Perverts (fiction), 1963, and Adventures in Daily Life (fiction), 1964.
SIDELIGHTS: Kenzaburo Oe became one of Japan's first authors ever to receive national recognition for his writing while still a university student. When he was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa prize in 1958 for his novella Shiiku ("The Catch"), the twenty-three-year-old became one of Japan's most popular writers. Now acclaimed as one of the greatest Japanese writers of the twentieth century, Oe won the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Oe was born in 1935 in the forested mountain region of Shikoku Island in southern Japan. His father died in 1944. He studied comparative literature at Tokyo University, taking a degree in French literature in 1959. A master of languages, he reads French, Russian, Chinese, English, and Russian, and has been particularly influenced by French and American authors—from Rabelais to Sartre and from Herman Melville and Mark Twain to Norman Mailer. It was from Rabelais, according to translator David Swain in the commentary included his translation of Oe's Hiroshima Notes, that Oe learned the image system of grotesque realism, "a mode of literary expression that has enabled Oe to eschew the traditional Japanese literary habits of indirection and suggestive innuendo and to develop instead a more universal style of dealing directly with reality as experienced yet without sacrificing subtlety."
Oe has been politically engaged since his student days when he led demonstrations against the reestablishment of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. He has consistently protested war, nuclear weapons, racism, even the nearly sacrosanct "Emperor system." Masao Miyoshi wrote in the San Francisco Review of Books that Oe's "passion for the underclass of the earth cannot be challenged." In Portrait of a Postwar Generation, Oe wrote movingly of hearing Emperor Hirohito, revered as an unseen and unheard god, announce over the radio on August 15, 1945, that Japan had surrendered: "How could we believe that an August presence of such awful power had become an ordinary human being on a designated summer day?" The cognitive dissonance of hearing that "ordinary" human voice has informed Oe's work: one is never quite sure when the bizarre, the grotesque, or the merely incredible will afflict the comfortable.
Western literature has greatly influenced Oe's writings. At Tokyo University he studied the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as the works of Blaise Pascal and Albert Camus. His favorite American authors are those whose heroes search for "personal freedom beyond the borders of safety and acceptance"—authors such as Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Norman Mailer. Oe was most inspired by Mark Twain's character Huckleberry Finn, whom he used as a model for his own fictional hero.
Oe's interest in the political and the absurd are reflected in two of his earlier novels which have been more recently translated into English. Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids is set on the island of Shikoku, Oe's "peripheral" birthplace. It takes place during World War II, as a group of juvenile delinquents are evacuated from a reformatory to a remote village. The boys are mistreated by hostile peasants until the villagers, fearing plague, abandon them. The adolescent narrator tells how the boys band together, caring for each other as well as an abandoned girl and a Korean boy. When the villagers return, they attempt to hush the boys about their abandonment at the hands of those meant to protect them. All but the narrator give in, and he is hounded and chased out of the village "insanely angry, tearful, shivering with cold and hunger." Julian Duplain of the Times Literary Supplement wrote: "As a story of misled innocents, Oe's novel draws clear parallels with imperialistic Japanese military policy in the Second World War, as well as providing a rallying cry for antiauthoritarian resistance. To Western readers, the directness of emotion—for example, the boys' honest esteem for one another—sometimes sounds simplistic." A Kirkus Reviews writer found Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids to be "more shaded, more graphic, and angrier than Lord of the Flies, but the fierce anger is transmuted by Oe's art into literary gold—an anguished plea for tolerance more wrenching than any rant could ever be."
The pivotal event in Oe's life and work was the birth of his brain-damaged son Hikari ("Light") in 1963. As a strong bond developed between Oe and his son, the writer penned several partially autobiographical novels in which the protagonist is the father of a brain-damaged child. The first of these, A Personal Matter, is the story of a twenty-seven-year-old man nicknamed Bird, whose wife gives birth to a deformed baby. The boy, looking like a two-headed monster, appears to have a brain hernia, and the doctors tell Bird that the baby will probably die or be a vegetable for life. Bird is so horrified that he chooses to let the baby die rather than face life tied to a retarded son. While his wife and child are in the hospital, Bird runs off to the apartment of a young widow friend, where he escapes into a world of fantasy, sex, and alcohol. He loses his teaching job after being so hung over that he vomits during a lecture. Meanwhile, the baby, being fed only sugar water, refuses to die, so Bird takes him to an abortionist to have him killed. Suddenly, however, he changes his mind and returns the baby to the hospital. Doctors discover that the hernia is only a benign tumor and after successfully operating, they announce that the baby will be normal, though with a low IQ. Bird finds a new job and is reunited once more with his wife and child.
The novel is not as pretty as its ending might suggest. Washington Post reviewer Geoffrey Wolff remarked that A Personal Matter "reeks of vomit and spilled whisky. Its surreal characters are all vegetables, cut off from history and hope. They define themselves by their despair. They use sex to wound and humiliate one another. They trick themselves with hopeless dreams of a new life, far away." Alan Levensohn surmised that this representation of humanity is Oe's way of suggesting that "the stunted existence Bird's baby will probably have, if Bird allows him to live, comes to seem terribly close to the existence which Bird and the others are making for themselves." John Hearsum similarly commented, "The prose is hard and brittle, the images like tiny nightmares. . . . It communicates the full terror of such a predicament, and confronts the arbitrary horror of the universe without any recourse to fancy techniques."
In his own life, Oe, feeling much like Bird, went off on assignment to report on the international peace meeting in Hiroshima. His Hiroshima Notes records his views of the antinuclear movement from 1963 to 1965, focusing on the political bickering of the several factions and lashing out at their failure to recognize the real suffering of the victims of the atomic bombings. Oe drew strength from his encounters with the survivors, and particularly with Dr. Fumio Shigeto, whom Oe saw, according to Yoshio Iwamoto, as "the archetype of the authentic man of Hiroshima, a man who reclaims humanity out of the ashes of dehumanization." Oe's transforming experience in Hiroshima led him to approve the operation that saved Hikari's life, albeit with severe mental limitations. Virtually speechless, Hikari nevertheless later demonstrated a remarkable talent for music composition. Despite continuing health problems and his mental impairment, he released two CDs in Japan that have sold well.
The Pinch Runner Memorandum tells the story of a group of student radicals who construct their own atomic bomb. A brain-damaged boy and his father, a former nuclear physicist, work with Oe and his own son to avert disaster. "The invention of this 'pinch runner' double," Masao Miyoshi wrote in the Nation, "suggests the increasing complexity of a writer in positioning himself in his story—and the world." A critic for the New Yorker found that "Oe's writing is bold, savage, and often very funny. . . . This complicated book is above all a heartening display of the explosively constructive power of imagination."
Oe's A Quiet Life, published in Japan in 1990, is a semifictional account of three nearly adult children, one mentally disabled, who are left to cope alone when their parents move to the United States for eight months. A major theme of the novel is the anxiety of the caregivers over the feelings and needs of the mentally impaired family member, Eeyore, whose communication is rare and often ineffective. They consistently leap to the worst conclusions. When Eeyore writes a musical piece he calls "The Abandoned Child," his brother and sister immediately assume the reference is to Eeyore and his father, which Eeyore is only belatedly able to explain is not the case. "Yet," noted Lindsley Cameron in the Yale Review, "the question of the father's guilt is never really resolved. In fact, the novel is in a way a long exploration of that question, and some of its most strongly felt passages condemn the claims of exceptional individuals to exceptional privileges." The book has little plot, but is, said John David Morely, simply an account of the young people's daily life amid "an idiosyncratic set of family and friends, portraits drawn with affection, insight, and that wry humor . . . [that] is one of the defining qualities of [Oe's] talent."
The transformation of suffering is also the theme of Oe's novel An Echo of Heaven, which recounts the life of a Japanese woman, Marie Kuraki, whom Oe and the novel's narrator first knew as a teacher of foreign languages and literature in a Tokyo university. Marie marries and has two sons, one severely brain-damaged. As teenagers, the boys commit suicide together, and Marie's estranged husband turns into a drunken wastrel. The novel focuses on Marie's efforts to rise above these tragedies, as she works first with a theater troupe, then with a semi-Christian cult in California, and finally on a peasant commune in Mexico. The commune's leader, in a ploy to hold his project together, plans to transform Marie, a persistent unbeliever now dying of cancer in her late forties, into a saint to be revered by the peasants. Zia Jeffery, writing in the Nation, saw the novel as Oe's ironic backward glance at his own career as an artist being transformed from a man "into a martyr, then an image of a martyr and finally into kitsch."
Oe put the capstone on his autobiographical work about his son, Hiraki, with Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age, in which he traces the boy's development from childhood to young manhood. Employing images from nineteenth-century English poet William Blake, Oe "performs a kind of literary onanism," according to Andrew Irvin in the Philadelphia Inquirer Online. As Irvin further noted, with this work Oe "has looked inward and found the seeds of artistic invention in his own books." Again, Oe tells the tale of a famous Japanese author, known only as "K," and his mentally disabled son, nicknamed Eeyore. With his father away on a business trip, Eeyore acts erratically, becomes depressed and even violent. When K returns, he tries to get closer to his son to understand his mood swing; he finds succor and guidance in a strange place: the poetry of Blake. Adam Mars-Jones, writing in the Guardian Online, noted that "for most of this book, Oe takes from Blake the marvelous discovery that the most extreme expressions are sometimes the least distorted." Mars-Jones also found Oe's novel "fascinating and even rewarding," though he also noted "it isn't easy to take in." In a Publishers Weekly review, a contributor remarked that Oe writes with "depth and passion" about his relationship with his son. The same reviewer felt that Oe's book is "deceptively modest . . . [and] powerful," and that Oe is a "master at the height of his literary powers." Similarly, Booklist's Ray Olson described the novel as "Oe at his best," in both an "intellectual treatise" and a "moving family memoir."
The winning of the Nobel Prize in 1994 marked the beginning of a new artistic era for Oe. His first novel after winning the prize, Somersault, "concerns an austere, embattled, and eventually self-destructive religious cult," according to a critic for Kirkus Reviews. Inspired by the 1995 events surrounding the Aum Shinrikyo cult, Oe moves away from the autobiographical stance of so many of his works featuring the relationship between him and his disabled son. In this book, artist and art professor Kizo, who is suffering from terminal cancer, falls in love with a boy, Ikuo, whom he met years earlier. Now the professor and his friend are enlisted in the effort to revive a religious cult discredited a decade earlier for terrorist plans. In the course of this work, they become involved with a strange girl, Dancer, who was earlier involved with Ikuo, as well as with a full panoply of characters inside the cult, all jockeying for power. Olson, writing in Booklist, called Somersault a "thick stew of sexual and more parareligious than religious incidents." Olson also felt that the novel resembles the work of "late Dostoevsky." Shirley N. Quan, reviewing the title for Library Journal, thought it "reads like a social/spiritual/religious commentary," and is a "highly literate piece." Commenting on the length of the work—576 pages—a reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that Oe "has attempted to create a sprawling masterpiece, but American readers might decide there's more sprawl than masterpiece here." Similarly, the Kirkus reviewer found the first half of the novel "tedious." However, according to the same critic, the second half, detailing the reemergence of the thriving cult creates a "series of increasingly complex relationships and tensions." Interestingly, even in this nonautobiographical novel, Oe's son Hikari makes an appearance in the guise of a musical genius who has suffered brain damage.
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, Oe described how his son had once been "awakened by the voices of birds to the music of Bach and Mozart": "Herein I find the grounds for believing in the exquisite healing power of art. . . . As one with a peripheral, marginal, and off-center existence in the world, I would like to seek how. . . I can be of some use in a cure and reconciliation of mankind."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Cameron, Lindsley, The Music of Light: The Extraordinary Story of Hikari and Kenzaburo Oe, Free Press (New York, NY), 1998.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 10, 1979, Volume 36, 1986, Volume 86, 1995.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 182: Japanese Writers since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1994, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Forest, Philippe, Oe Kenzaburo: Legendes d'un romancier japonais, Editions Plein Feux (Paris, France), 2001.
Literature Lover's Companion, Prentice Hall (Englewood, NJ), 2001.
Napier, Susan J., Escape from the Wasteland: Romanticism and Realism in the Fiction of Mishima Yukio and Oe Kenzaburo, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1991.
Oe, Kenzaburo, Hiroshima Notes (essays), translation by David L. Swain and Toshi Yonezawa, Marion Boyars (New York, NY), 1981, revised edition, 1995.
Oe, Kenzaburo, Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself: The Nobel Prize Speech and Other Lectures, translation by Hisaaki Yamanouchi and Kunioki Yanagishita, Kodansha (New York, NY), 1995.
Penguin International Dictionary of Contemporary Biography, Penguin Reference (New York, NY), 2001.
Reference Guide to Short Fiction, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Rubin, Jay, editor, Modern Japanese Writers, Scribner (New York, NY), 2000, pp. 277-293.
Short Story Criticism, Volume 20, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Wilson, Michiko N., The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo: A Study in Themes and Techniques, M. E. Sharpe (Armonk, NY), 1986.
Best Sellers, July 1, 1968; October, 1977.
Booklist, February 1, 2002, Ray Olson, review of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!, p. 908; March, 2003, Ray Olson, review of Somersault, p. 629.
Books Abroad, winter, 1969.
Boundary 2, fall, 1991; summer, 1993.
Christian Century, April 12, 1995, p. 382; December 24, 1997, p. 1226.
Christian Science Monitor, August 8, 1968; October 18, 1994, p. 13.
Critique, Volume 15, number 3, 1974.
Entertainment Weekly, March 22, 2002, review of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!, p. 104.
Hudson Review, autumn, 1968.
Japan Quarterly, July, 1996, p. 90; January, 1997, p. 102; October, 1997, p. 38.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1995, review of Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, p. 261; February 1, 2002, review of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!, p. 134; February 1, 2003, review of Somersault, p. 172.
Library Journal, December, 2002, Shirley N. Quan, review of Somersault, p. 180.
Life, August 16, 1968.
Los Angeles Times, October 14, 1994, p. A1; October 19, 1994, p. B7.
Nation, August 5, 1968; May 15, 1995, Masao Miyoshi, review of The Pinch Runner Memorandum p. 696; September 30, 1996, Zia Jeffery, review of An Echo of Heaven, p. 34.
New Republic, August 17, 1968.
New Yorker, June 8, 1968; November 14, 1994, p. 147; February 6, 1995, p. 38; October 9, 1995, p. 91.
New York Review of Books, October 10, 1968.
New York Times, November 6, 1994, p. 5.
New York Times Book Review, July 7, 1968; September 8, 1985; June 19, 1995, p. 43; July 9, 1995, p.8.
Publishers Weekly, October 17, 1994, p. 17; March 27, 1995, pp. 48, 73; August 7, 1995, p. 438; April 8, 1996, p. 56; January 28, 2002, review of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!, p. 267; January 6, 2003, review of Somersault, p. 36.
Rain Taxi, summer, 2001, Jason Picone, review of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!
Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 2002, Amy Havel, review of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!, p. 145.
San Francisco Review of Books, March-April, 1995, pp. 8-9.
Studies in Short Fiction, fall, 1974.
Time, October 24, 1994, p. 64.
Times (London, England), May 16, 1995, p. 35.
Times Literary Supplement, October 26, 1984, p. 1227; April 28, 1989; May 12, 1995, Julian Duplain, review of Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, p. 21; December 27, 1996, p. 32; October 31, 1997.
Voice Literary Supplement, October, 1982.
Washington Post, June 11, 1968, Geoffrey Wolff, review of A Personal Matter.
Washington Post Book World, August 25, 1968; September 11, 1977.
World Literature Today, spring, 1978; spring, 1985, p. 318; winter, 1995, pp. 5-16; spring, 1996, p. 475; autumn, 1996, p. 1033; summer, 1997, p. 653; winter, 1997, p. 229.
Yale Review, April, 1997, Lindsley Cameron, review of A Quiet Life, p. 150.
Guardian Online,http://www.guardian.co.uk/ (August, 4, 2002), Adam Mars-Jones, review of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!
Nobel e-Museum,http://www.nobel.se/ (1994), "Kenzaburo Oe—Biography."
Philadelphia Inquirer Online,http://www.philly.com/ (May 12, 2002), Andrew Ervin, review of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!*