Born: Abe Kimifusa in Tokyo, Japan, 7 March 1924. Education: Chiyoda Elementary School, Mukden, Manchuria (now Shen-yang, Liaoning Province, China), 1930-36; interrupted by a spell at a local elementary school in his father’s home town of Takasu, Hokkaido, Japan, 1931-32; Second Middle School, Mukden, 1936-40; Seij5 High School, Tokyo, 1940-43; interrupted for several months at the end of 1940 when he returned to Mukden after contracting pneumonia during a school military drill; began to study medicine at Tokyo Imperial University (now Tokyo University) in 1940, interrupting his course in 1944 to join his parents in Mukden having been given time off after faking a diagnosis; graduated March 1948 after repatriation at the end of 1946 but never practiced as a doctor. Family: Married Yamada Machiko (pseudonym Abe Machi, graphic artist), 1947; one daughter. Career: Co-founder of Seiki (The Century), an interest group for authors and journalists, c. 1947; Executive Committee of the New Japan Literature Association, 1955-61?; maintained his own theater troupe, the Abe K5b5 Studio, 1973-79. Awards: Postwar Literature prize for ”Akai mayu” (”The Red Cocoon”), 1951; Akutagawa prize for literature for ”S. Karuma-shi no hanzai,” 1951; Kishida Drama prize for Yurei wa koko ni iru, 1958; Yomiuri Literature prize (fiction) for Suna no onna, 1962; Yomiuri Literature prize (drama) for Midoriiro no sutokkingu, 1974; Honorary doctorate from Columbia University, New York, 1975. Member: Japan Communist Party, 1951?-1962, later expelled. Died: Tokyo, 22 January 1993, of heart failure.
Abe Kobo gikyoku zenshu (collected plays). 1970.
Abe Kobo zensakuhin (collected works). 15 vols., 1972-73.
Abe Kobo zenshu (complete works). 29 vols., 1997-2000.
Three Plays by Kobo Abe, translated by Donald Keene. 1993.
Owarishi michi no shirube ni [To Mark the End of the Road]. 1948; revised 1967.
”Dendorokakariya.” 1949; as ”Dendrocacalia,” translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, in Beyond the Curve. 1991.
Kabe: S. Karuma-shi no hanzai [Walls: The Crime of S. Karma] (short stories). 1951; ”Akai mayu,” translated as ”Red Cocoon” by John Nathan, 1966; ”Mah5 no ch5ku” translated as ”The Magic Chalk” by Alison Kibrick, 1982; ”S. Karuma-shi no hanzai” translated as ”The Crime of S. Karma” by Juliet Winters Carpenter, in Beyond the Curve, 1991; ”K5zui” translated as ”The Flood” by Lane Dunlop, 1989.
”Shijin no sh5gai.” 1951; as ”The Life of a Poet,” translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, in Beyond the Curve, 1991.
R 62 no hatsumei [The Invention of R 62] (short stories). 1954; ”Shinda musume ga utatta” translated as ”Song of a Dead Girl” by Stuart A. Harrington, 1986.
”Yume no heishi.” 1955; as ”The Dream Soldier,” translated by Andrew Horvat, in Four Stories, 1973.
Daiyon kanpyoki. 1959; as Inter Ice Age 4, translated by E. Dale Saunders, 1970.
Suna no onna. 1962; as The Woman in the Dunes, translated by E. Dale Saunders, 1964.
Tanin no kao. 1964; as The Face of Another, translated by E. Dale Saunders, 1966.
Moetsukita chizu. 1967; as The Ruined Map, translated by E. Dale Saunders, 1969.
Hako otoko (with photographs by the author). 1973; as The Box Man, translated by E. Dale Saunders, 1974.
Four Stories by Abe Kobo. 1973; translated by Andrew Horvat.
Mikkai. 1977; as Secret Rendezvous, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, 1980.
Hakobune Sakuramaru (with photographs by the author). 1984; as The Ark Sakura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, 1988.
Beyond the Curve and Other Stories, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. 1991.
Kangaru noto. 1991; as Kangaroo Notebook, translated by Maryellen Toman Mori, 1996.
Tobu otoko [The Flying Man]. 1994.
Seifuku (produced 1955). 1954; as Uniform, translated by Noah S. Brannen, 1979.
Doreigari [Slave Hunt] (produced 1955). 1955.
Yurei wa koko ni iru (produced 1958). 1958; revised 1970; directed by the author, 1975; as The Ghost is Here, translated by Donald Keene, in Three Plays, 1993.
Kawaii onna [Pretty Woman] (musical; music by Mayuzumi Toshir5; produced 1959). 1959.
Omae ni mo tsumi ga aru (produced 1965). 1965; as ”You, Too, Are Guilty,” translated by Ted. T. Takaya, 1979.
Tomodachi (produced 1967). 1967; revised and produced 1974, directed by the author; as Friends, translated by Donald Keene, 1969; adapted for cinema as Friends, Japan/Sweden, 1988, directed by Kjell-Ake Andersson.
Bo ni natta otoko (produced 1969). 1969; as The Man Who Turned into a Stick, translated by Donald Keene, 1977; ”Toki no gake” translated as ”The Cliff of Time” by Andrew Horvat, in Four Stories, 1973; also adapted as a 16 mm film directed by the author, 1971.
Mihitsu no koi (produced 1971). 1971; as Involuntary Homicide, translated by Donald Keene, in Three Plays, 1993.
Gaido bukku [Guide Book] (produced 1971). 1971; directed by the author.
Annainin, [Guide Book II or The Tour Guide]. 1976; directed by the author.
Suichu toshi [Guide Book III or The City in the Water]. 1977; directed by the author.
S. Karuma-shi no hanzai [Guide Book IV]. 1978; directed by the author.
Ai no megane wa irogarasu [Love is like Tinted Spectacles] (produced 1973). 1973; directed by the author. Midoriiro no sutokkingu (produced 1974). 1974; directed by the author; as Green Stockings, translated by Donald Keene, in Three Plays, 1993.
Imeji no Tenrankai [An Exhibition of Pictures] (produced 1977). 1977; directed by the author, synthesizer music composed by the author.
Hitosarai [An Exhibition of Pictures II or The Abduction] (produced 1978). 1978; directed by the author. Kozo wa shinda [An Exhibition of Pictures III or The Baby Elephant is Dead] (produced 1979). 1979; directed by the author, synthesizer music composed by the author.
Screenplays: Kabe atsuki heya [Rooms with Thick Walls], 1954; Otoshiana [Pitfalls], 1962; Suna no onna, 1964; Tanin no kao, 1966; Moetsukita chizu, 1968.
Radio Plays: Mimi [The Ear], 1956; Kuchi [The Mouth], 1957; Kitchu kutchu ketchu (children’s radio series), 1957; Chanpion [The Champion] (radio play/sound collage; together with the composer Takemitsu Toru). 1962.
Television Plays: Ningen sokkuri [Almost Human], 1959; Shijin no shogai [The Life of a Poet], 1959; Mokugekisha [The Eye Witness], 1965.
Mumei shishu [Poems without Names]. 1947; published and printed by the author.
Moju no kokoro ni keisanki no te o [With the Heart of a Beast and a Hand like a Calculating Machine]. 1956.
Too o yuku [Through Eastern Europe]. 1956. Sabaku no shiso [The Philosophy of the Desert]. 1964. ”Uchi naru henky5.” 1971; as ”The Frontier Within,” translated by Andrew Horvat, 1975. Warau tsuki [The Laughing Moon]. 1975.
Toshi e no kairo [Closing the Circuit with the City] (essays, interviews, and photographs). 1980. Shini-isogu kujiratachi [Whales in a Hurry to Die] (essays, interviews, and photographs). 1986.
Editor, Gendai geijutsu [Contemporary Art] (magazine). 1960-1961.
Abe Kobo by T. Takano, 1951, revised 1979; Metaphors of Alienation: The Fiction of Abe, Beckett and Kafka (dissertation) by W. J. Currie, 1973, published 1975; ”Abe Kobo and Symbols of Absurdity” by P. Williams, in Studies on Japanese Culture, Japan P.E.N. Club, edited by S. Ota and R. Fukuda, 1973; Meiro no shosetsuron [Study of a Labyrinthine Novel] by T. Hiraoka, 1974; Hanada Kiyoteru to Abe Kobo [Hanada Kiyoteru and Abe K5b5] by N. Okaniwa, 1980; ”Metamorphosis in Abe Kobo’s Works” by F. Yamamoto, in Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, vol. 15, November, 1980; ”Skinless” by A. Dworkin, in Intercourse, 1987; ”Abe K5b5 und der Nouveau Roman” by I. Hijiya-Kirschnereit, in Was heifit: Japanische Literatur verstehen?, 1990; ”Self, Place and Body in ‘The Woman in the Dunes’: A Comparative Study of the Novel and the Film” by W. Dissanayake, in Literary Relations East and West: Selected Essays, edited by J. Toyama and N. Ochner, 1990; Le sanatorium des malades du temps. Temps, attente et fiction, autour de Julien Gracq, Dino Buzzati, Thomas Mann, Kobo Abe by E. Faye, 1996; ”The Woman in the Dunes” by J. Whittier Treat, in Masterworks of Asian Literature in Comparative Perspective: A Guide for Teaching, edited by B. Stoler Miller, 1994; Abe Kobo: An Exploration of His Prose, Drama, and Theatre by T. Iles, 2000.
Abe K5b5 is a leading representative of a postwar modernism comparable to the Theater of the Absurd, the French nouveau roman, or Latin American magical realism. His work not only found an echo in the capitalist West; he was also published in socialist countries, helped by his communist background and the thaw under Khrushchev. Central to his reputation both in Japan and abroad is the novel Suna no onna (The Woman in the Dunes). The fact that this work undoubtedly marks a watershed in Abe’s career, however, should not obscure how multi-faceted a writer he was.
Abe writes in analytical language fond of technical vocabulary, often conveyed by overly rational narrators whose discourse veers off at an obsessive tangent to reality. His style avowedly owes much to both Franz Kafka and Edgar Allan Poe, while the way in which he combines and modulates his images is indebted to surrealism, in which he was keenly interested from the late 1940s. At the very beginning of his career, before coming into contact with avant-garde artists in post-war Tokyo, Abe was strongly influenced by existentialist philosophy and the work of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and in the 1950s by Marxist teachings on materialism and historical change. But as his essays reveal, his world view also drew consciously on the technical details of sciences from calculus to neurology.
In theoretical texts of the 1960s, Abe explains how he sees language as the motor of history: It has a liberating effect, but also an alienating one, since it places a screen between human perception and material things. This alienation results in the creation of ghosts as things that exist in language only, later of alchemy, and ultimately science. Only the irony of artistic fiction (”ghost stories without a belief in ghosts”) can reveal the screen of language for what it is— science cannot. All his heterogeneous influences are built into Abe’s model of the world as if it were a machine that its inventor spends his life modifying.
After his contact with surrealism, Abe began using image puns to illustrate the power of language over people. A good example is ”S. Karuma-shi no hanzai” (”The Crime of S. Karma”), in which the protagonist arrives at work to find his place taken by his business card. The power of language is depicted in a less allegorical mode in the play Yurei wa koko ni iru (The Ghost Is Here), whose effective main character is a dead man existing only as a space on the stage, but around whom a lucrative industry develops.
Progressing from surrealism in the course of the 1950s, Abe became interested in science fiction for its power to speculate realistically about changes in the world (the anti-realistic collages of his earlier stories can only work allegorically). In fact, he wrote the first science fiction novel in Japanese, Daiyon kanpyoki (Inter Ice Age 4), in which a computer sets about manipulating human evolution. Although Inter Ice Age 4 has aged better than most of the genre science fiction of its day, it, like Abe’s earlier allegorical stories, failed to appeal to a wide audience. The first of his novels to do this is The Woman in the Dunes, which pictures a society that can be seen as existing alongside the everyday familiar to the readers, but which still conveys a science fiction-like ”sense of wonder.”
It should not be forgotten, however, that Abe’s most formative artistic years in the 1950s were also his most politically radical. Among the reasons for this radicalization, which was not Abe’s alone, were the soon disappointed high hopes for social change and equality after the end of World War II. Moreover, most older writers and critics, including those on the left, favored realistic documentary literature. Abe was among the radical artists who responded by finding a sense of purpose in political radicalism. But when the factions of the dominant New Japan Literature Association were reconciled in 1955, Abe was voted into the Executive Committee and proved a diplomatic mediator between the ‘realist’ and the ‘formalist’ factions. Marxist theory and leftwing organizations formed his social and historical consciousness in the 1950s by giving it a practical and theoretical frame. The result was a sharpened sense of historical perspective and a feel for the cultural differences between the classes.
After his expulsion from the Communist Party in 1962 following a communist writers’ initiative protesting against undemocratic practices by the party leaders, Abe also withdrew from active participation in mass organizations. He now preferred to rely on the wider though more anonymous spread of literature through the growing mass media culture. This perceived retreat from class solidarity was taken amiss by some of his former companions.
Abe was, however, an avowed believer in community. The theater gave him a respite from the isolation of writing, and he maintained his contacts with the workers’ theater after 1962. What characterized his work in both areas was an insistence, running counter to the mainstream of serious literature, that the person appearing in the work of art (the character, or the narrative voice) must be distinguished from the person of the author. The novel Tanin no kao (The Face of Another) describes what can result when one tries to force the two together. In this piece, the first person narrator makes a new face for himself after the original is disfigured, only to become trapped in the superimposed personality of the mask. He ends as an outsider full of hatred for society.
Though Abe left it to his protagonists to cultivate such hatred, he himself became increasingly withdrawn and pessimistic, especially after his theater group broke up in 1979. While the theater was at the center of his work in the 1970s, he produced two more remarkable novels with striking spatial relationships in Hako otoko (The Box Man) and Mikkai (Secret Rendezvous). His one novel of the 1980s, Hakobune Sakuramaru (The Ark Sakura), is full of original ideas, but lacks the same poignancy.
More successful was his last novel, Kangaru noto (Kangaroo Notebook), in which the narrator travels on a hospital bed down a sewer to ”Hell Valley Hot Spring,” passing through a succession of dreams within dreams. It ends with a newspaper clipping about the discovery of an unidentified corpse in a disused railway station.The human subject is driven from each existence to the next deeper level, his alienation and isolation increasing each time, and dies before arrival.