THE GREATEST avant-garde Japanese writer, Kobo Abe, was born in Tokyo but spent his childhood and youth in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, where his father was a professor of medicine in Mukden. This basic fact has an important bearing upon Abe's work, in which alienation, outcast situations and loneliness are predominant themes. Abe did not return to Japan until he was 17. He studied medicine at Tokyo University Medical School from 1943. Though he never practised as a doctor, his medical and scientific training also had a marked influence on the subject matter of his novels, short stories and plays.
Like so many Japanese writers and artists, he dropped out of the stifling conventionality of the Japanese academic system. Towards the end of the Second World War, he made a precarious living as a street vendor, trundling his cart round the ruined streets of Tokyo, selling vegetables and coal-dust briquettes. At the same time, he began to write poems and short stories and in 1947 published at his own expense his first collection Mumei Shishu ('Poems by Anon' - a significant title). In February 1948, he had more poems printed in a magazine, calling them Owarashi michi no shirube ni ('Road Sign at the End of a Road') - the symbol of a nonexistent road being yet another image typical of his later evocations of emptiness and irreality. He was awarded the Post War Literature Prize in 1950, the first of many such honours.
With the ending of the war in the Pacific, Kobo Abe had joined the Japanese Communist Party, from which he was expelled in 1962 for 'Trotskyite deviation' - then the convenient label attached to the more clear-sighted of the Communist intelligentsia. He had also been considered to be too interested in subversive Western literature. He had become a member of a Surrealist group of writers and artists and made the acquaintance of the avant-garde cinema director Teshigahara Hiroshi, who was to adapt, with varying success, several of Abe's works in the Sixties: The Woman in the Dunes, The Face of Another and The Ruined Map. Abe also became involved in progressive theatre movements that were springing up everywhere at the time, led by Kinoshita Junji, and made his theatrical debut in 1955, about the same time as Yukio Mishima and Ishikawa Jun, with a work that he had intended to be a novel but that gradually metamorphosed into stage dialogues, entitled Seifuku ('Uniform'), on the hallucinating theme of the actor and his double; this was followed in 1958 by Yurei wa koko ni iru ('The Ghosts Are Here'), a depiction of contemporary psychological, social and materialist traumas performed in a nightmare vacuum. This won the Kishida Prize for Drama in 1958. Later, in 1967, Abe was to form his own theatrical troupe, the Kobo Abe Studio, in which he experimented with various subsidiary dramatic forms like radio, video, musicals and farce.
Abe's first collection of short stories, containing Surrealist and fantasy tales like 'Akai Mayu' ('Red Cocoon') and 'Kabe S. Karumashi no Hanzai' ('The Crimes of S. Karma, Esq') was published to great critical acclaim in 1951 and won Japan's most prestigious literary award, the 25th Akutagawa Prize. Andre Breton himself, the 'Pope of Surrealism', appears in another of the stories, 'Baberu no to no tanuki' ('The Badger of the Tower of Babel') to hilarious effect. All Abe's trademark themes appear in this collection: loss of identity, absurd trials, black humour, labyrinthine city, sexual revulsion, natural cataclysms, animal fantasies. Abe displays the temperament of a visionary futuristic artist recalling inevitably Kafka, but also Borges, Buzzati and curiously enough the now almost forgotten English writer William Sansom, whose work began to appear around the same time as Abe's. Kobo Abe was able to mingle and juggle with genres in a vertiginous display of kaleidoscopic literary virtuosity that only the dull-witted found daunting.
But it was with the novel Suna no onna (1962: 'The Woman in the Dunes') that the total genius of Abe was revealed to readers in Japan and the world - for it was translated into 20 languages. In this utterly bizarre and deeply disturbing work, the quest for a rare insect leads a professor of entomology, Niki Jumpei, to a mysterious remote hamlet buried deep in sand - a haunted, dream landscape such as really exists in Japan in the 'singing' dunes of Tottori. Seeking a place to spend the night, he is directed to the abode of a young widow who lives alone at the bottom of a deep funnel of sand overrun by cannibalistic warrior ants. He is let down into the funnel by a long rope ladder. Next morning he discovers that the ladder has been withdrawn and he is trapped. He becomes the woman's drudge, both as a labourer working ceaselessly to keep encroaching sands at bay, and as an unwilling sexual slave. He turns into a sort of human insect, captive of in increasing spiritual solitude that leads to ignominious death. The characters are almost abstractions, and it is in the fascinated descriptions of Jumpei's calamity that the author excels. In passages depicting Jumpei's struggles with the choking sand, the reader feels almost suffocated by the overwhelming power of the stark imagery.
Kobo Abe's subsequent works describe situations just as perplexing, allegorical, disturbingly oneiric, always stressing the individual's solitude, the absurdity and precariousness of his pathetic condition in universes that are closed, claustrophobic, hermetic, stifling, labyrinthine, where all the usual connections with identity, time and space are banished. Abe writes as a medical specialist interested not in medicine but in the sick patient who is doomed to certain death or dissolution, some disintegration of personality, like the weird hero of Bo ni natta otoko (1969: 'The Man who Turned into a Stick'). His style is always tightly controlled, extremely spare, with a pictorial precision that derives from his scientific training and a Nabokov-like observation of entomological minutiae. Pictorially, Abe resembles a superrealist painter like Richard Estes, or minimalist Magritte, or Escher with his maniacally imbricated designs. The style has been qualified as 'monotone' and so has often been compared with that of French nouveau roman authors like Michel Butor and Alain Robbe-Grillet, who were immensely popular in Japanese literary circles during the Fifties and Sixties. Abe uses all the techiques of parallel literatures like science fiction, horror tales in the masterly vein of Algernon Blackwood, detective stories, cheap thrillers, pornography and manga or sensational strip cartoons. There is very little that is specifically Japanese in his view of humanity, except perhaps for a basic pessimism and a sense of the nullity of everything, as well as the comic impossibility of communication with others that sometimes approaches the hopeless absurdity of Becket, Arrabal and Ionesco.
For example, in the 1962 Tanin no kao ('The Face of Another'), a man with a face horribly disfigured by burns decides to change his face and his identity. Wearing a mask of bandages, he seduces his own wife, becoming thus both a gigolo-lover and a deceived husband in a Kafkaesque vaudeville. His wife is not taken in by this impersonation. Does she still love him as he was, or as he now pretends to be? Here there is a satirical hint at the secret power of the Japanese housewife, who is never as helpless as she must appear to be to her domineering husband.
Then in Moetukita chiza (1969: 'The Ruined Map') the detective hero goes looking for a man who has disappeared, but instead it is he who gets lost, with a disintegrating identity in the labyrinths of a sci-fi megalopolis which itself seems to have no centre, no real heart - the perfect image of contemporary Tokyo. The hero of Hoko otoko (1973: 'The Box Man') attempts to save himself from this type of psychic dissolution by taking refuge in a cardboard box in which he leads the life of an itinerant hermit - possibly a memory of Abe's street vendor days.
Abe was always considered to be a specialist's specialist in literature, and an 'ivory tower' writer, but he has had a certain influence on younger writers, who are nevertheless still more interested in the 'dirty realist' writers of the US. Murakami Haruki (born 1949) is the best-known in the West, though his too-wilful eccentricities of style and plot are as out of control as the extravagances of certain Japanese dress designers and indicate an essential lack of the true creative imagination that informs every line of Abe's work. Abe avoids direct treatment of social or religious problems that are so assiduously and often boringly pursued by Oe Kenzaburo and Endo Shusaku. He remains a unique writer, a voice on his own, inimitable and alien, a fantastic realist of loneliness, deviancy and disintegration, no longer popular in a pragmatic Japan dedicated only to material advancement.