Analysis of Kōbō Abe’s Novels

Human loss, disappearance, allocation of responsibility, anguish, and futility stand out as the main issues that figure in Kōbō Abe’s (March 7, 1924 – January 22, 1993) writings. At first, Abe treated such matters mostly in a serious way. Gradually, from the underlying absurdity and irrationality of the imaginary situations about which he wrote, a kind of gallows humor emerged, giving a sense of situation comedy, albeit black comedy. Abe recognized, on one hand, that without cohesive units of interdependent people, human life could scarcely exist; on the other hand, he also observed that people everywhere suffer under the pressure to model their behavior on conventionally accepted manners and mores. Abe’s characters’ resistance to such pressures (or perhaps their unconscious wish to suffer) results in their desire to assert their individuality. Ironically, such assertion leads to alienation, creating a Catch-22 situation and a sense of absurdity.


In Abe’s novels, human relationships are shown to be in disorder, partly reflecting the particular quality of his artistic imagination and partly reflecting his own youthful experiences. Except for the case of The Woman in the Dunes, which is set in a remote seaside hamlet, the main action in his narratives typically takes place against the urban landscape and amid the impersonalized locations and institutions with which modern city dwellers are most familiar—hospitals, offices, laboratories, department stores, movie theaters, waiting rooms, and apartments. Conversation and human intercourse are fragmented and interrupted, contributing to a sense of incompleteness. Success, fruition, and fulfillment constantly evade his protagonists, who are usually depicted as well-educated people, deserving to reap the rewards of their prudence and perseverance. The underlying irony of Abe’s narratives suggests that human beings have learned to govern many of the forces of their external environment, but they know so little about themselves that they struggle helplessly at the mercy of satanic workings that lurk in the irrational depths of the mind. Sexuality in many of Abe’s novels perversely turns out to exert a divisive impact on men and women, reducing them to a bestial level.

Sometimes, it would seem, gratuitous detail clogs Abe’s narratives, slowing down the forward thrust of the action and creating what amounts to a form of static. The sequence of time is often juggled, creating a confusion of past and present. Lists of objects, minute descriptions of surface appearances, and clinical analyses of emotional responses try the reader’s patience, giving an impression of awkwardness. Actually, however, what appear as technical deficiencies contribute to the overall effectiveness of the author’s style. Aside from imparting a sense of verisimilitude to the situations described—however absurd and irrational they would seem to be—the interruptions, false starts, and narrative shifts convey the state of suffering from which the characters in the end find it impossible to be freed; periodic breaks in the flow of a story are essential to the ultimate completion of the event.

Another intrusive characteristic in Abe’s novels that deserves mention relates to the didactic impulse. As critics have recognized, the novels are imbued with an implicit desire for men and women, parents and children, and family or community to work for social good. A strong social conscience drives all the novels like a compelling organic force. It is easy to understand why at the beginning of his career Abe immersed himself in philosophical writings. He not only felt empathy for Marxism but also studied Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Karl Jaspers. As a founding member of two postwar Japanese groups of left-wing authors as well as someone involved in a cross section of European literary movements, Abe, like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, stands out as an intellectual writer of cosmopolitan bent who deals not in themes of localized scope but with universal problems. As such, he deserves to be counted as the leading Japanese exponent of the novel of ideas.

In pinpointing the sources of Abe’s moral sensibility, however, one must go beyond twentieth century ideologies and consider the same Chinese and South Asian Buddhist and Confucian sources that led earlier Japanese authors, such as Kyokutei Bakin (1767-1848), to treat themes touching on good and evil behavior and on the individual’s place in the larger framework of human society. For example, in terms of theme, Abe’s idea that the search for the other—typically a missing or estranged person—becomes a search for the self relates to fundamental insights of Zen. Similarly, the concept of a realm of nothingness owes as much to Buddhist philosophy as to modern nihilism. Social criticism based on the techniques of irony and satire recalls popular Japanese literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, with its pronounced Confucian orientation and its express purpose of encouraging good and castigating evil.

Even in terms of technique, the idea of a postscript in the author’s voice, which suggests removal of the narrator’s mask, resembles Bakin’s practice. The ending of Inter Ice Age 4, for example, insists on the open-ended nature of literature and fiction, in which each person must form his or her own conclusion about the meaning of the tale, yet Abe in his own voice observes in the last words of the postscript, “The most frightening thing in the world is discovering the abnormal in that which is closest to us.” Few modern authors would dare to make such an observation about their own fiction, at least in the text itself, but Bakin frequently did so in his day. Nevertheless, unlike Bakin, Abe refrains from simplistic characterization of certain kinds of behavior as praiseworthy or reprehensible.

Paradox and irony in Abe’s writings give rise to positive and negative polarities.Onthe negative side are situations such as running away, disappearing, loss of identity, and desiring to escape, all of which lead to destruction, loss, and denial of self. On the positive side, a sense of rebirth, regeneration, and reshaped identity emerges from the narratives. The Woman in the Dunes, in particular, suggests a case in point. Toward the end of the story, the omniscient narrator states pointedly about the protagonist, “Perhaps, along with the water in the sand, he had found a new self.” Returning to a communal structure, as Niki Jumpei does, binds and imprisons but also shelters and supports.

The constituent elements of Abe’s long fiction may be summed up as follows. His main theme involves exposition of the condition of the outsider in modern society. His technique is based on allegory, irony, and satire. His narratives are often constructed by means of a series of reverses. Whenever some hopeful sign appears that communication between people is about to take place, some obtrusion appears that renders further development impossible, as if the lights were suddenly turned on in a lovers’ bedroom or someone knocked on the door. His style is often stiff and formal, like a student in a celluloid collar always preparing for examinations. Order is what one arbitrarily imposes on experience. Logic represents an abstraction incapable of fathoming reality, which constantly changes in shape and inexorably exerts the power to move people, however reluctant they may be.

In cumulative effect, Abe creates parable and myth. By inverting, destroying, or denying meaning to the rational foundations of society and its values, Abe invents a new reality that takes the shape of an ironic affirmation of a future without form. Brief discussion of a few of Abe’s works of long fiction that have appeared in English translation will serve to demonstrate the salient characteristics of Abe’s art and philosophy.

Inter Ice Age 4

Essentially about artificial intelligence, computers, and the moral issues that surround abortion, Inter Ice Age 4 involves a scientist and laboratory administrator, Dr. Katsumi (whose name literally means “win-see”), who supervises the reduction of a slain man’s intelligence to a computer program. Toward the end of the novel, Dr. Katsumi is ordered killed by the computer that he himself programmed. Mostly in the form of a first person narrative, the novel combines elements of murder mystery and science-fiction fantasy. In a subplot, aborted fetuses are kept alive, and, by means of sordid biological experimentation that involves “planned evolution,” a new form of human life is created—namely, “aquans.” Aquans become heirs to the earth, owing to climatic change that brings a dramatic warming of temperatures and a precipitous rise in the level of the sea.

Ironically, the investigators turn out to be the perpetrators of the crime. In addition to murder, racketeering in human fetuses, computer programming, and aquan research, the bizarre plot includes strange telephone calls and the intense rivalry that can lead scientists into reckless or irresponsible behavior. As a computer designed to predict the future comes to speak with its own intelligence, gothic horror merges with science fiction. Dr. Katsumi’s own wife unknowingly contributes her aborted fetus to aquan research. “Was I . . . trying to protect her or was I . . . trying to use her . . . ?” muses the husband. “Compared with this fate, infanticide was a refined and humane act.”

In the climactic episode, Dr. Katsumi’s subordinate colleagues place him on trial in a kangaroo court. Such a development suggests victimization, lynching, and scapegoating, which abound in Abe’s work and which Rene Girard has treated in his book “To Double Business Bound”: Essays on Literature, Mimesis, and Anthropology (1978). Characteristically, the narrative mode of Inter Ice Age 4 changes toward the end to a representational mode. Televised pictures of an aquan breeding farm are described with commentary by the scientist in charge, Professor Yamamoto, who serves partly as a foil and partly as a double for Dr. Katsumi. Inter Ice Age 4 originally appeared in serial form from July, 1958, through March, 1959, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the first human-made satellite, Sputnik 1, and in an atmosphere of heightened awareness of futuristic science and technology.

The Woman in the Dunes

The Woman in the Dunes is Abe’s most widely read novel. It has been translated not only into English but also into more than twenty other languages.Afilm adaptation directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara was released in 1964 to huge commercial success. As William Currie has noted, The Woman in the Dunes is a narrative of “almost mythic simplicity” in which Abe probes the “roots of existence” and the “difficulty people have in communicating with one another,” touching on the “discrepancy between the mind and the external world, or between inner and outer reality.”

Central to the novel is the metaphor of sand. It suggests the shifting reality with which the protagonist, Niki Jumpei, must come to terms. Often used in Buddhist scriptures, the image of sand represents both that which is universal and that which can grind or pulverize other material. Niki Jumpei’s name has a significance that goes beyond his identity as a schoolteacher who likes to travel to remote places to collect insects. Written with Chinese characters that may be translated as “humanity tree conform-to-average,” the name suggests allegorically a kind of victimized Everyman.

From the narrative, the idea emerges that people living under conditions of permanent crisis are, on one hand, forced by public circumstances to pull together, but on the other hand, private desires and primitive instincts compel them to withdraw into isolation. The specific conditions that led Abe to grapple with people’s contradictory impulses in literary and imaginative terms may well derive from his own experience of coming of age during wartime and witnessing the social disorder and transformation that came in the wake of defeat. This is not to imply, however, that Abe’s work is limited to any special time or place. The beauty of The Woman in the Dunes lies in the work’s transcendence of any locality or period. It reminds one that life everywhere, now as always, lurches from crisis to crisis. The future remains as uncertain as the shifting sands on the shore.Aperson’s well-being depends on a precarious balance between identity with others and alienation from a social group.

Alienation and identity, the paired concepts crucial to an appreciative reading of Abe’s novels, also figure prominently in The Face of Another. The idea of deceitfully masking one’s true identity and thereby alienating oneself from the possibility of love is developed in a first-person narrative that involves a brilliant scientist who has lost his face in a laboratory explosion. By creating a new face mask, he acquires a new self, which, as Philip Williams has observed, “ironically leads to his own psychological death as a person.”

The Ruined Map and The Box Man

The Ruined Map is a first-person narrative about a detective who has been hired by a woman to search for her missing husband. In a metamorphosis resembling that of Inter Ice Age 4, the detective is transformed into the ghostly man whom he is relentlessly pursuing. As his own personality progressively disintegrates, he is carried to the edge of madness. By the end of the novel, he has given up “looking for a way to the past.” As the woman—his wife or the person who hired him to find her husband—apparently gives up searching for him, he leaves his “crevice in the darkness.” He begins “walking in the opposite direction,” relying on a map he does not comprehend, “perhaps in order to reach her.” Such is the nature of the paradox and irony that distinguish Abe’s mode of narration.

Similarly, The Box Man describes a person’s futile effort to escape from himself. Here the protagonist tries to achieve this end by cutting a peephole in a large cardboard box and placing the box over his head. Thus he expects to walk away from his anxieties. The main danger for the character lies in the possibility of his meeting another “box man.” Part of the narrative involves intercourse between a true box man and a fake box man, suggesting the literary device of doubling and splitting. As Abe himself said in discussing the novel, “Being no one means at the same time that one can be anyone.” Aversion to ordinary existence and the question of what is genuine and what is counterfeit are expressed by means of the box as a shield from the world, a symbol that represents disposability and concealment.

One unusual feature of The Box Man is the inclusion of nine leaves of photographs, all but one of which have enigmatic or aphoristic captions. For example, the text for the fifth of these, the photo in the middle position, reads as follows:

In seeing there is love, in being seen there is abhorrence. One grins, trying to bear the pain of being seen. But not just anyone can be someone who only looks. If the one who is looked at looks back, then the person who was looking becomes the one who is looked at.

The appropriateness of such a graphic and textual appendage to The Box Man stems from the former identity of the fictional narrator, who has become a box man. He was a photographer, albeit not of portraits or landscapes but rather of such prosaic subjects as women’s underwear and incidents in public parks. He took surreptitious snapshots—seeing without being seen.

Secret Rendezvous

Secret Rendezvous is a surrealistic detective story about an unidentified thirty-two-year-old man, a director of sales promotion for “jump shoes,” special athletic footwear with “air-bubble springs” built into the soles. Early one morning, his wife, who was perfectly healthy, suddenly disappears, a typical occurrence in Abe’s fictional world. An ambulance comes to pick her up and take her to a hospital, and when the husband attempts to check into the situation, he encounters a tangle of red tape and is unable to obtain any solid information.

Among the underlying social issues in this novel are the quality and the dependability of health care. Titillating and yet frightening incidents take place, such as “a deliberate prearranged rendezvous” with a physician. In a narrative that mixes both first- and third-person modes, one of the suspected doctors turns out to be involved in collecting his own sperm for sale to an agency that offers artificial insemination.

In addition to the matter of inexplicable loss and the struggle to come to terms with a reality that lies beyond the power of human comprehension (elements common to all of Abe’s principal works of long fiction), Secret Rendezvous involves the puzzling business of human sexuality and issues of institutional continuity. It also deals with the provision of effective health care in a world marred by petty jealousies, internecine rivalries, and haphazard medical diagnoses. “Secret rendezvous among patients” are handled as common occurrences, and hospital surveillance techniques necessitate “automatic recording of love scenes.”Abe’s topsy-turvy world, which inexorably requires scapegoats and hapless victims, unfolds in such a way that it becomes impossible for the protagonist to distinguish the aggressor from the victim.

Outwardly stiff and awkward, Abe’s novels reveal the author’s preoccupation with ideas rather than style. Using concepts and language drawn from science and philosophy, Abe trains a critical focus on human society and institutions. Allegory, irony, and satire lend artistic force and credibility to his concern for the dangers of alienation from society and the difficulty of achieving a constructive identity of the self within the confines of the social groups among which an individual must live.

Other major works
Short fiction: Kabe, 1951; Suichn toshi, 1964; Yume no tfbf, 1968; Four Stories by Kōbō Abe, 1973; Beyond the Curve, 1991.
Plays: Seifuku, pr., pb. 1955; Ynrei wa koko ni iru, pr. 1958 (The Ghost Is Here, 1993); Omae ni mo tsumi ga aru, pr., pb. 1965 (You, Too, Are Guilty, 1978); Tomodachi, pr., pb. 1967 (Friends, 1969); Bf ni natta otoko, pr., pb. 1969 (The Man Who Turned into a Stick, 1975); Gikyoku zenshn, pb. 1970; Gaido bukku, pr. 1971; Imeji no tenrankai, pr. 1971 (The Little Elephant Is Dead, pr. 1979); Mihitsu no koi, pr., pb. 1971 (Involuntary Homicide, 1993); Midoriiro no sutokkingu, pr., pb. 1974 (The Green Stockings, 1993); Ue: Shin doreigari, pr., pb. 1975; Three Plays, 1993. poetry: Mumei shishn, 1947.
Nonfiction: Uchinaro henkyf, 1971.
Miscellaneous: Abe Kōbō zenshn, 1972-1997 (30 volumes).

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chnellbächer, Thomas. Abe Kōbō, Literary Strategist: The Evolution of His Agenda and Rhetoric in the Context of Postwar Japanese Avant-Garde and Communist Artist’s Movements. Munich, Germany: Iudicium, 2004.


Categories: Literary Theory, Literature, Modernism, Novel Analysis

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