Kobo Abe was one of the foremost Japanese novelists of the 20th century, purveying a strange blend of suspense, surrealism, and a keen eye for human confusion and pain. His works are reminiscent of Italo Calvino and Eugene Ionesco in their surreal situations and heightened emotional tone.


Abe was born in Tokyo in 1924, but grew up in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. His father was a physician, and in 1941 Abe entered the University of Tokyo to follow in those footsteps. He was exempted from military service in World War II because of a respiratory infection, and returned to Manchuria for the duration of the war. After the war, he finished his medical degree, but was allowed to graduate only on the condition that he never practice -- he was not a particularly apt or enthusiastic student of medicine.

After rejecting (or being rejected by) medicine, Abe experimented with social and artistic radicalism. He joined the Communist party, and became part of a surrealist/Marxist literary group led by philosopher Kiyoteru Hamada. His first published work, a collection of poems, came out in 1947, but it was not until the mid-1960s that he began publishing his most famous novels. By the 1970s, following the death of Yukio Mishima, Abe became arguably Japan's premier novelist and dramatist. He died in 1993.

Works: Themes and Significance

Abe's works are unusual for a Japanese novelist, probably because his semi-expatriate upbringing shielded him from ideas such as "devotion to hometown" and "devotion to Emperor" which were characteristic for Japanese literature at the time. His background in medicine and philosophy rather than literature probably helped allow him to buck literary trends and strike out in new strange directions.

Abe's novels draw heavily on feelings of solitude and isolation. In The Face of Another, for instance, the protagonist is a badly burned man who feels cut off from society because of his disfigurement. He secretly creates a hyper-realistic mask, but finds in hiding behind it that his masked self has an identity all its own. The Woman in the Dunes takes place in a seaside village whose houses are sunk in holes in the dunes up to 65 feet deep. The novel follows a bug collector who has been trapped in a house at the bottom of one of the holes, and is forced to stave off the constant flow of corroding sand. The protagonist of The Box Man decides to give up his identity and withdraw from an insane world by observing everything through the box he puts over his head. In all of his works, Abe focuses on his characters' sense of isolation, and on their growing confusion and madness as they attempt to reconcile that isolation or connect with others. The surrealistic tone of his novels adds to this sense of seclusion; even when his characters are not physically isolated, they are adrift in a world that cannot be understood.


From The Woman in the Dunes:

He sprang up and, hurrying to the door, looked out again. The wind had risen. The sun was almost directly over the hole. Heat waves, glistening as if alive, rose from the burning sand. The sand cliff towered higher and higher above him; its omniscient face seemed to tell his muscles and bones the meaninglessness of resistance. The hot air penetrated his skin. The temperature began to rise higher.

As if he had gone mad, he began to yell -- he did not know what, his words were without meaning. He simply shouted with all the strength of his voice, as though he could make the bad dream come to its senses, excuse itself for its blundering, and whisk him from the bottom of the hole. But his voice, unaccustomed to shouting, was fragile and wan. Moreover, his words were absorbed by the sand and blown by the wind, and there was no way of knowing how far they reached.

Suddenly a horrible sound interrupted him. As the woman had predicted the night before, the brow of sand on the north side had lost its moisture and collapsed. The whole house seemed to let out a soulful shriek, as if mortally wounded, and a gray blood began to drop down with a rustling sound from the new gap between the eaves and the wall. The man began to tremble, his mouth full of saliva. It was as if his own body had been crushed.



Abe was as prolific as a playwright as he was as a novelist, but the majority of his plays are not available in English translation.

There are also film adaptations of The Woman in the Dunes (1963, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, starring Eija Okada and Kyoko Kishida) and The Face of Another (1966, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Machiko Kyo, Mikijiro Hira, Kyoko Kishida, Eiji Okada, and Miki Irie).

Abe, Kobo. The Woman in the Dunes. New York: Vintage Books, 1964. pp. 50-51.

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