The Story and Works of Kobo Abe

There have been great men that have graced the world with their creations. The greatest of the mathematicians and scientists gave the world theories and numbers that helped mankind understand the planet and universe you live in. The greatest of the chefs gave the world recipes that brought different people together in appreciation for its deliciousness. The same goes for the greatest artists who were able to open up within their audience a new sense of perspective through their wonderful art. A perfect example of such an artist is a man who went by the name Kobo Abe.

The Origin and Life of Kobo Abe

Artistic minds and souls tend to draw inspiration from what they experience in real life. This was true then and it is still very true now. With this being said, for a person to be able to understand the art of an artist in a more intimate level, it would help a lot to know about the life of the said artist. Knowing these details of his life can surely help you, as the reader and researcher, put yourself in his shoes to go through the emotions and feelings that lay within his art.

By 朝日新聞社 (『アサヒグラフ』 1954年9月29日号) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With that in mind, you should know that Kobo Abe was born on March 7th in the year of 1924. He was born in Kita which is an area in Tokyo, Japan and he didn’t always go by the name Kobo Abe. His real name was Kimifusa Abe and he used the pseudonym Kobo Abe as for his writing. Despite the fact that he was born in Kita, Tokyo, he grew up in Mukden of Manchuria which can be located in China.

He grew up away from family because his father was doing years of medical research in Tokyo. Growing up in such an environment may lead to a lack of development in certain skills and in the case of Abe, he was well aware that he had a phobia of some sort when it came to things that were valued for their stability. He even opened discussed this phobia in an interview he had with Nancy Shields in the year of 1978. Before getting into those years of his life, you’ll probably want to know that he had always been into reading and some of his favorite authors were the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Friedrich Nietzsche, and many more.

Not many details can be found about his transition from childhood to manhood but it was recorded that Abe went back to Japan in the year of 1940, particularly in the month of April. He did so to study at the Seijo High School but soon after he started his attendance, he found out that he had a lung condition and this ultimately forced him to move back to Mukden. This period of his life was apparently the time when he got into authors like Karl Jaspers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Martin Heidegger, and Edmund Husserl.

He would recover from his illness and the year of 1943 would be the year wherein he starts to attend the prestigious Tokyo Imperial University. He decided to take medicine which shocked a lot of people because he had a natural talent in writing. He would then reveal his reasons for doing so and it was because of 2 things. The first was to pay respects to his father who was one heck of a disciple of medicine. The other was to be exempted from becoming a soldier. You see, there was only a handful of courses you could take that would exempt you from being required to partake in the war. He had lost so many friends who decided to take up humanities and got sent to their deaths in the war so he didn’t want to be one of them and chose the safer path. This may be a selfish reason but do not let it blind you from realizing that Abe was a very smart guy to pass the course of medicine without the passion and brains for it.

It wasn’t smooth sailing though because he had to leave the university in the year of 1944, which was around the time that World War II ended, to go back to his father who was sick in Mukden. It was a good thing that he did that because his father would not make it through the winter time of that year and fall due to the sickness called eruptive typhus. He returned to Tokyo with his father’s ashes with his and this became the time that he started to level up his writing game and get into novellas and short stories. He also got married to Machi Yamada in the year of 1945. As mentioned earlier, he did pass his course in medicine and it happened in the year of 1948.

The years that would follow his graduation were filled with his involvement with the Japanese Communist Party. He continued to work and became successful as a writer but he also stayed very active in his communist party. Unfortunately, his ideals who soon grow apart from what the communist party stands for so he tried to file a resignation that was denied at the time because the part was not accommodating such requests. In the year of 1962, Abe would get the leave that he wished for through his forced exit from the party.

He stayed politically active after his departure from the communist party but only until the year of 1967 where an article published by himself in cooperation with his wife as well as their other colleagues was released. In this statement, he and his friends protested the treatment received by artists, writers, as well as intellectuals from Communist China. He then spent his time working on what really drove him and it was his writing and creating. He eventually got into playwriting as well and he was unsurprisingly good at it too. He was very gifted and the works of art that he was able to produce backed up that claim.

The Flight of His Career

By Marcus Hansson from Göteborg, Sweden (The best days are not planned) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

This man created over 100 novels, essays, plays, and many more. It was as if writing these details and well-thought works of literature were of second nature to him. Just like all the artists like him who were able to create an abundance of art, there had to be a start to all of it and for Abe, it would undeniably be his first published poem called Mumei-Shishu.

Mumei-Shishu, which when translated into English means “Poems of an unknown poet”, was a testament to his skill as well as his belief in his own skill. It was a testament to his skill because, despite the fact that it was his first published work, critics gave it great feedback. It was a testament to his belief in himself because he paid for its publication from his own pockets. He invested in himself and it paid off because people started to recognize him as a skilled poet after that.

He didn’t stop there and his career would continue to curve upwards as a year after that, particularly in the year of 1948, he published a novel called “Owarishi Michi no shirube ni” which means “The Road Sign at the End of the Street”. This established him as a novelist as well and in the year of 1951, he received the Akutagawa Prize which is an esteemed prize given to the most recognized publisher at that time. With this prize under his belt, it became clear to all that this guy was the real deal.

He didn’t just conform to what people liked during his time and it was this mentality that gave him a reputation for being an avant-garde or a radical writer. Since he was heavily involved with politics and government, he had surely seen and experienced certain things that showed him a darker reality that exists in those industries and his writing gave people or made people aware of those realities as well. His art opened their eyes to these truths and that is something not all writers can do for their audience.

His Transition to Other Art Forms

By 朝日新聞社 (『アサヒグラフ』 1955年7月6日号) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

He started as a poet and that evolved into a novelist. He wanted more and moved into playwriting which led him to create his internationally acclaimed play called “The Woman in the Dunes” which he released in 1962. Later on, in that same decade, he would collaborate with Hiroshi Teshigahara as he would move into the filmmaking industry as well. Together they made films like “The Pitfall”, “The Face of Another”, and “The Man without a Map”. They also made his “The Woman in the Dunes” play into a film and it also received critical acclaim from critics around the globe.

Considering his name and the experience he had collected throughout his years, it was just a matter of time because he started his own studio and this is exactly what he did in the year of 1971. He founded Abe Studio and this is where he directed plays and trained artists. It was perfect because Abe’s wife, Machi Yamada, was also an artist and a great stage director. Together and along with their staff, they were able to produce many notable plays. He ended up making 14 plays in total by the year of 1979 and during that time, he was also able to write another novel called “Box Man”. If all that wasn’t enough to impress you, he also reached out to the photography industry as he also held and produced many photographic exhibits throughout his time.

His work broke frontiers for him and the people around him. His studio alone should be a testament to that because it provided so much help and development to the contemporary scene of Japanese theater. It molded the industry because he gave young performers a safe haven to explore dramatic expressions over physical expressions, which was the usual approach to productions during those times.  All his work outside the writing industry was given recognition when in 1977, he was elected and given the title of Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His peers, his mentors, and his audience knew that they were in the presence of something special enough to win the Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, his early demise prevented him from obtaining that incredible and one of a kind prize.

 Luckily, he didn’t need to for people to recognize his true greatness. As stated earlier, his work speaks for itself and if you doubt that he was as skilled as his reviews say, feel free to look up some of his best works and see it for yourself. You can novels, essays, poems, films, and even plays to choose from so you shouldn’t have a hard time finding something that falls within your taste. He was a man that could be considered limited edition because there are only a handful of people that could compare to what Kobo Abe was able to do and create for everybody through his words and art.