Childhood & Early Life
Kōbō Abe was born as Kimifusa Abe on March 7, 1924 to Abe Asakichi and Yorimi in Kita, Tokyo, Japan, where his physician father was conducting medical research. He was raised in the ancient Manchurian city of Mukden, now known as Shenyang, where his father practiced after Japan took control of the region in 1931.
He excelled in mathematics, and often spent his spare time collecting insects or reading works of writers like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edgar Allan Poe, and Lewis Carroll. He loved to tell the stories he read to his friends during the winter when it was too cold to go outside.
In April 1940, he was enrolled at Seijo High School in Setagaya, Tokyo, but his stay in Japan was brief as a lung condition forced him to return to Mukden. He later came back to Japan in 1943 to study medicine at Tokyo Imperial University, partly due to respect for his father, but mostly because medical students were exempt from active military service.
He left the Medical School in October 1944, without completing his degree, and returned to his father's clinic in Mukden. However, after his father died of eruptive typhus months later, he took his ashes to Tokyo, accompanied by his mother, two sisters and a brother, and resumed his medical studies.
Abe, who had married art student Machi Yamada in 1945, lived in shacks and paid bills by selling pickles and charcoal on the street, while his family went to his mother's ancestral home in Hokkaido. Paying little attention to studies, he began writing novellas and short stories during his final year, and later jokingly said that he was allowed to graduate in 1948 after promising that he would not practice.
Continue Reading Below
Kōbō Abe, who had written the essay 'Poetry and Poets [Consciousness and the Unconscious]' in 1944, self-published his collection of poems, 'Poems of an unknown poet', in 1947. The next year, he published the novel 'The Road Sign at the End of the Street', which earned him reputation as a writer.
Starting in 1949, he wrote short stories like 'Dendrocacalia', about a man who turns into an unusual plant, and 'The Red Cocoon', about a homeless man whose body unravels into a cocoon. He continued to move from one place to another with his wife, and expressed the feeling of being rootless in a passage from the latter story.
He gained a sense of purpose after he and his wife, like many young intellectuals of the time, joined the Japan Communist Party around 1950, and began organizing laborers in poor parts of Tokyo. However, his disillusionment with the party started soon after he received the 'Akutagawa Prize' for the short story 'The Wall ― The Crime of S. Karma' in 1951.
Even though he questioned the meaningfulness of artistic works under the 'socialist realism' genre, he remained an active member of the party until 1956, when he supported Polish workers protesting against their Communist government. He not only angered the party leadership with his stance, but was pressured to apologize, which he refused, further alienating himself.
Also in 1957, he travelled to Europe for the first time to attend the 20th Convention of the Soviet Communist Party where, despite being uninterested ideologically, he found solace in the arts displayed. During the trip, he visited Franz Kafka's house in Prague, was influenced by the works of Rainer Maria Rilke and Karel Čapek, and was impressed after watching a play by Vladimir Mayakovsky in Brno.
From Eastern Europe, he wrote to party headquarters in Tokyo that Hungarian revolution was inevitable, and was disgusted after the Soviets invaded Hungary later that year. While the Communist Party did not accept his resignation immediately, he was expelled in 1962, and since then, only got involved in politics once to protest the treatment of intellectuals in Communist China in 1967.
Largely distanced from politics, he established himself as an avant-garde writer in 1962 with the publication of the novel 'Woman in the Dunes', which won the 'Yomiuri Prize' for literature. Two years later, the novel was translated to English and a film adaptation, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, was released, which won the 'Special Jury Prize' at the 1964 'Cannes Film Festival'.
His collaboration with Teshigahara originally started with 'The Pitfall', the director's first feature film, which was based on a television play called 'Purgatory'. The two also collaborated on the film adaptations of his two other novels, 'The Face of Another', and 'The Man Without a Map', which cemented the themes of loneliness and the loss of "secure home".
Kōbō Abe, who had written a number of plays during the 1950s, including 'The Man Who Turned Into A Stick' (1957), directed a stage production of it in 1969, for which his wife designed the sets. Dissatisfied with the ability of conventional theater to materialize the abstract, he founded the Abe Studio in Tokyo in 1971, which attracted art students and audiences who had lost interest in Japan's orthodox 'modern drama'.
He was motivated by his friend and British playwright Harold Pinter's work to focus more on plays and rapidly wrote, directed, and produced 14 plays at his studio by 1979. He also released two novels during this period, 'Box Man' and 'Secret Rendezvous', through which he made "a deliberate and laborious progress downward into hell on earth".
His 1973 production of 'The Glasses of Love Are Rose Colored' opened at the Seibu Theater, an avant-garde theater that was allegedly established specifically for him. The Seibu Museum later hosted the exhibition of his photographic works titled 'An Exhibition of Images: I'.