Aghwee the Sky Monster (Sora no Kaibutsu Aguii) by Oe Kenzaburo, 1972

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AGHWEE THE SKY MONSTER (Sora no kaibutsu Aguii)
by Ōe Kenzaburō, 1972

Ōe Kenzabur$#x014D;, arguably the most important contemporary Japanese writer, is known in his home country as a prolific and exceptionally imaginative creator of novels, essays, and short stories. His fiction runs the gamut from his autobiographical 1964 novel A Personal Matter (Kojinteki na taiken), the story of a young man's panicky reaction to the birth of his brain-damaged first son, to the angry 1979 fantasy Dojidai gemu, in which Ōe posits what is essentially an alternative history to modern Japan, a history seen from the perspective of the margins. His short story "Aghwee the Sky Monster" ("Sora no kaibutsu Aguii") combines both the central autobiographical motif of A Personal Matter with the surreal play on perspectives exemplified in Dojidai gemu to produce one of his best and most unique works—a narrative that is both grotesquely funny and unsentimentally poignant.

The plot of "Aghwee" is by Ōe's standards relatively simple. An unnamed young student (the narrator) is hired to look after D, an eccentric composer who believes that he is being haunted by a huge phantom baby, whom he calls Aghwee. The student soon learns that the composer himself has just lost his child, a baby born with a brain tumor who was allowed to die in the hospital, and he deduces that guilt toward his lost child is causing D's hallucinations. The student's job consists of following D around Tokyo, often witnessing the composer's one-sided exchanges with Aghwee when the baby apparently descends from the sky. But one day the composer, seemingly deep in discussion with the phantom child, steps in front of a truck and is killed. The narrator then decides that Aghwee was simply a pretense for the composer to prepare his own suicide. He confronts the dying man, shouting, "I was about to believe in Aghwee!"

Although Japanese critics tend to see "Aghwee" as a form of alternative autobiography, the story can actually be interpreted on many levels. As the narrator's last accusation suggests, "Aghwee" is a story revolving around problems of perception, belief, and guilt. Vision, both of the real and the unreal, is a fundamental key to understanding the tale.

Thus the young student theorizes that the composer is trying to show his dead child the world he missed by bringing Aghwee on his explorations around Tokyo. At the same time the composer shows the student something as well, a fantasy world where "lost" things, (people, animals, and experiences) still exist unperceived in the sky. Although the student has often been lost in his own fantasy world of obsessive movie viewing—he immediately conflates Aghwee with the giant rabbit in the Jimmy Stewart film Harvey, for example—it takes him until the end of the story to truly understand the composer's message. This is shown in the coda to "Aghwee," when the narrator loses his eye in an accident. As he says in the story's last lines, "When I was wounded … and sacrificed the sight in one eye … I had been endowed if only for an instant with the power to perceive a creature that had descended from the heights of my sky."

This tension between different modes of perception also contains an implicit social criticism. Those who do not "see" are usually characterized as members of the establishment such as D's businessman father, who only worries about guarding his family from any scandal caused by his "lunatic" son, or D's former wife, O a "tomato faced" newspaper magnate's daughter who sees her exhusband's actions as simply "escapist." Ranged against these establishment characters are the marginal figures of D, who as an eccentric and a composer is doubly an outsider, and the student narrator, who eventually comes almost to believe in Aghwee.

Aghwee himself is another "marginal" character in his status of both victim and phantom. Michiko Wilson points out that Aghwee is not content to remain a passive victim. In fact, he performs a trickster function, "haunting" his guilt-obsessed father and thereby shocking his straitlaced grandfather. This theme of revenge by the marginals is another important aspect of Ōe's work, coming to its most complete fruition in his long fantastic novel The Pinch-Runner Memorandum (Pinchiranna chōso), in which a father and his brain-damaged son head an army of grotesque marginals, including the living dead, in a march against the Tokyo establishment.

The fantasy in "Aghwee" is more contained but no less effective. Indeed, "Aghwee" is also impressive as an almost textbook exposition of Todorov's structuralist theory of the fantastic, in which the fantastic is characterized by a hesitation between a natural explanation and a supernatural one. Ōe brilliantly maintains this tension between the two alternatives, not letting either reader or narrator know for certain if Aghwee is really the composer's hallucination (the natural explanation) or if at some other level the phantom might actually exist (the supernatural explanation). Ultimately, however, the narrative goes beyond the formal pleasures of the fantastic to suggest a moral dimension as well. Those who are slightly outside the real world—due to mental or physical abnormalities—often see another, richer, world around them. At its best, as in "Aghwee," Ōe's work allows the reader to catch a glimpse of that world.