To me it means trading belonging for life lessons only learned as a foreigner. I often feel lost, unmoored, and without a home, but how else would I experience such richness? I think leaving one’s comfort zone is to become vulnerable, which is obviously uncomfortable, but vulnerability also means openness, and openness means receptiveness to lessons and experiences that would not come otherwise. The level at which I can connect to another human when every conceivable social construct is stripped away is something deeper and more expansive than I could ever experience with another American. It comes at a very high price that often makes me sad, but it’s also absolutely extraordinary. For now, it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.
[I]t is a life experience for you. [As a] veteran expat for 12 years, I find it hard to tell the story without being self humiliating, so Id better not. But in a very short way, I became an expat to stay away from home. And now in Seoul, I actually find there’s no home. It is a strange feeling.
"It is some times easier to be labeled an outsider in a foreign country when you obviously are one than to feel an outsider in your home country when you outwardly aren’t one.
I’m an American citizen, but I’ve lived in England for 5 years at University of Cambridge, and Japan for three months.”
There may be those who are content to dwell in a corner of some conceptual fortress that others have constructed, but no one who has ever glanced outside can fail to notice the world is teeming with unregistered continents, unnamed lions, and ghosts that do not revert to tufts of grass –Kobo Abe (Bolton 2009:44)
Kobo Abe is remembered as one of the most interesting Japanese writers of the 20th century. His literary production spans many genres including novels, critiques, screenplays and theater, as well as musical composition and photography (these were occasionally exhibited in his novels and plays). The first exposure I had to Kobo Abe was through his novel, Face of Another (1964), a story about a man whose face is permanently disfigured in a horrific accident, which profoundly affected his ability to interact with the world. He creates a mask so realistic that no one would know it was not a true human face. The story not only presents existential themes, but was also clearly reflects the postwar realm in which it was written. Kobo Abe’s style of writing puts him in a league of his own. His talents as a writer and his intuitive insight as an intellectual made him a central figure of the Japanese avant-garde. Abe earned such awards as the Second Postwar Literary Prize in 1951 for his short story The Red Cocoon (1949), as well as the highly acclaimed Akutagawa Prize for Kabe (1951) in the same year. Outside of Japan, Abe was equally revered as a writer, receiving an Honorary Degree of Human Letters from Columbia University and being a frequently considered Nobel Prize candidate, culminating in a posthumous award after his death in 1993(Rollyson, 2004: 1).
This thesis is an in-depth explication and analysis of two of Kobo Abe’s theatrical works, The Ghost is Here, and Friends. I postulate that the themes of capital commoditization commodity capitalism and the degradation of humanity have distinct ties to Abe’s interpretation of the postwar Japanese setting. Both Friends and The Ghost is Here portray more overarching socioeconomic critiques, i.e. corruption within the modern capitalist systems and the dehumanization of society within those systems. The themes and issues present in the plays portray a highly sophisticated level of perception (on the part of Abe) on the many issues present within the postwar period. However, this paper will be limited to Abe’s writing of the late 1950s period of (which includes The Ghost is Here, 1958 and Friends, 1959 (Kobo 1993: 1)). In this period, Abe’s black humor and highly critical analysis of the capitalist and social systems are especially noticeable, likely the result of which he experienced through communist party doctrine. In order to more effectively analyze Abe’s works I will first lay out Abe’s background and the postwar Japanese absurdist theater context in which he was writing. I will also summarize various spheres of intellectual thinking in the postwar era. I will then present the framework being used to analyze Abe’s two plays.
I chose these two plays for three main reasons; one, because these plays were done within a limited span of the Japanese postwar period (the late 1950s) and a particularly important part of Abe’s life, i.e. when he was still part a member of the Japanese Communist Party. The two plays that I will be discussing are in art motivated by Abe’s reactions against or agreeing with certain ideals Abe presented throughhis involvement with the party. Abe’s view on his plays was that none of his works were definitive but rather, were always subject to change, a view that is most relevant to the analysis of Friends. Second, the plays share a common concept and execution. Kawamoto Yuzo states that, “up to a certain point in time, Abe Kobo’s plays had a definitive allegorical character” which Iles alludes to during Abe’s later progression into the dream state format of playwriting, a format which I have seen confirmed through my research (Iles 2000: 121). Unlike Abe’s increasingly “non-literary” forms of theater production, these two plays address abstract existential issues in an allegorical setting. Three, Abe’s characters consistently mirror Japanese attitudes during the postwar period (in this case, the late 1950s), questioning postwar ideals and inherent prejudices, and yet are also relevant in an international arena. Through these two plays he questions the contented complacency of these groups of people with regard to their own involvement with the local, national and international entities that dictate their existence. Abe also directly addresses the social interactions and implications of his characters’ actions. He analyzes their actions through capitalist endeavors (The Ghost is Here), and supposed “charity” under the guise of brotherhood (Friends). All of these aspects I will delve into more deeply with my analysis of each of the plays.
While Abe’s novels and involvement in movies with Hiroshi Teshigahara also have a strong postwar Japanese rhetoric running through them, and have been the primary source for most of Abe’s critical attention, I focus on Abe’s work in theater. I am analyzing the theater of Kobo Abe because his theater is not only an important aspect of his work as a writer, but also because Abe’s theatrical productions worked directly from events happening during the postwar era. Abe had a very distinct vision for the content of his productions and how they should be performed; theatre became a center point of his life’s work i.e. writing, direction, and production (Shields, 1996:44). Within each of Abe’s plays I have found an interesting and incredibly useful conversation regarding the Japanese ethos on how their country was changing with, and as a result of, globalization and modernization during the postwar era. During the late 1950s, the discourse that runs throughout Abe’s work concerns the negative aspects of capitalism and communist brotherhood that were present in the modernization and westernization of Japan. Reflecting both Abe’s ideals and opinions and the public’s position within the intellectual discourse of the time, the postwar discourse encompasses a wide range of topics and thus proves to be not only a foundational aspect of my essay, but also problematic. With this in mind, I will later define and incorporate only specific aspects of the Japanese postwar discourse that is present within the contextual and analytical sphere of Abe’s work. Abe’s use of the theater was in reaction to various postwar Japanese themes, as well as to propagate social and political change; therefore I will take into account certain major events in Japan, such as the economic changes of the high growth era and the Japanese place in global society, normative social opinions (both with regard to relative current events and overarching social opinion, i.e. day to day activities), and Abe’s personal development during the above periods. Themes such as seclusion, imprisonment, violence and manipulation are also prevalent in many of Abe’s plays and can be directly connected to postwar themes and issues in Japanese society. While these themes have a much wider scope of reference they are still pertinent elements of Abe’s plays and will thus be taken into account within my analytical scope as ways to examine how Abe comments on and interacts with Japanese society.
Another catalyst for focusing on Abe’s theater, as opposed to other theater personalities of the time, is the international quality of his work as a writer. Abe’s plays were the first to gain acclaim outside of Japan (Keene 1993: xiii). One major distinction for Abe, as a writer, is that he grew up outside of Japan in Manchuria, which may contribute to his “outsider” perspective of the Japanese situation, as well as his place within it. Abe frequently recalls the bleakness of the Manchurian landscape, as well as how the town in which he lived was set up like a labyrinth, which came to embody for him a sense of danger, seclusion and isolation from the rest of the world that this place represents. Abe was never formally trained as a writer; rather, like many artists such as Chekhov, Kato Shuichi, Soseki, and Ogai, he got a degree in medicine (Takaya, 1979: 11). Given Abe’s range of interests and analytical mind, his degree in medicine is not terribly surprising. He loved and excelled at math and science and felt an obligation to follow in his father’s medical career path. Though Abe never used his degree, his analytical style recalls his former training.
I address selected postwar Japanese themes in this section to better integrate the issues that Abe was addressing within his theater in the late 1950s. The various issues and ideals present in Japan were not exclusive to Japanese wartime memories and how Japan interpreted to war years, but also fully incorporated how Japan was progressing, addressing social injustice, radically transitioning to a new political system, and embracing the work of newly emancipated intellectuals. Issues such as the nostalgic re-association with rural Japanese lifestyles and the advancement of capitalism were all central themes and issues in the postwar and Abe’s works. In addition, the issue of the commoditization of people not as valuable citizens but as materials to be utilized, liquidated and discarded for profit, are also addressed in The Ghost is Here (Iles 2000:127-129). The postwar mentalities of Japan spanned over thirty years and more or less found their end at the close of the Showa era in 1989 (Gluck 1993: 65). Abe’s work too changed with the progression of the postwar years and his earlier work during the late 1950s is categorized as the darkest of humor, contrasting with much of his later work, which is less dark. Both The Ghost is Here and Friends portrayed more overarching social themes (which were exemplified through his large cast of characters). It was not until his later years that Abe shifted his focus to individuals within a social context.
A useful way to make sense of various postwar points of view is to think in terms of generations and intellectual ideological separations. In approaching postwar mindsets, it is important to keep in mind generational and age differences, as well as ways in which one can retroactively construct the historical interpretation of those mindsets. The first perspective I take into consideration is from William W. Kelly and his analytical technique involving analysis of the postwar with regard to various generations’ perspectives. I take into account the generational aspects of postwar Japanese society because each generation approached the internationalization of postwar Japan in very different ways. Abe, being born in 1924, fell in more closely with the First Generation Japanese (those born during the Meiji/Taisho Era, 1931-1945), even if his age slightly exceeded it, because he experienced the (approximately fifteen) years leading up to the war (Kelly 1993: 197-198). This generation experienced Japanese society as it was constituted after the invasion of Manchuria, and was more familiar with the militaristic nationalism that prevailed in the Showa era. This generation was young enough during World War II in Japan to be reciprocates of suffering during the war, but not old enough to have personally inflicted the suffering. This generation would later be characterized by their workaholic tendencies and strong ties to the progression of the Japanese family in society, as well as Japan’s position on the international stage (all of which strongly exemplify Abe’s character)(Kelly 1993: 197). The secondanalytical device I borrow from Carol Gluck and her explanation of those intellectuals (whom she calls “Custodians of the Past”) who retroactively interpret the Japanese postwar condition. These intellectual groups were divided into four groups, one of which included the “progressive intellectuals” who were defined by their direct activity, articulation and influence in the postwar discourse (Gluck 1993: 70-79). Abe is more closely associated with this group because of his work in the theater, which gave him a stronger and more active role in the Japanese creative community.
It is also important to take into account the nature of Japanese Absurdist Theater at the time, so as to better understand Abe’s place within it. While Abe felt himself to be outside of the Japanese modern theater movement, he was nonetheless an integral part of its definition on an international level. Absurdist Theater holds an extremely interesting niche within the Japanese postwar environment. The absurdist theater of Japan addresses the existential themes and overarching issues (such as loss, isolation, anger, and sadness) that one might expect. Their European counterparts such as Sartre and Beckett, among others, were addressing absurdist Theater. However, Japanese Absurdist Theater was distinguishable from the rest of the absurdist world because of Japan’s geographical and philosophical place in history. This allowed for a vibrant microcosm that facilitated a vastly different kind of absurdist progression within the realm of theater from that of Europe. The major difference is not in the way it mimics the absurd reality but rather lies in the fact that the realities that are being portrayed are qualitatively different because of the cultural differences present between Japan and the west. As Goodman explains, while European Absurdist Theater has been greatly defined by the historic progression of European theater, Japanese Absurdist Theater lacks that same definitive quality, but rather comes as a result of westernization and (in part), serves as an assessment of similar European Absurdist [missing word] as well as an introspective analysis of themselves (Goodman 1972: 369). In short, the production of Japanese Absurdist Theater was an extension of the Japanese questioning their place within the globalization and modernization of their country with respect to western powers.
Abe was not only a potent part of this movement within Japan, but used the the concerns of this theatrical tradition in unique and interesting ways. This changed the way many of the theater systems within Japan operated with regard to training and acting styles, as well as allowing for new, riveting, difficult and more in-depth ways to look at the issues of the period through absurdist theater. This is evident in his works The Ghost is Here and Friends, and was most likely exacerbated by his involvement in the Japanese Communist Party and his critique to the Shingeki movement, which addressed the increased emphasis on westernized styles of play writing and production through critiquing or impersonation (Iles 2000: 116). Abe was able to produce such radically different styles of theater because he had been cut off from the theater world, claiming, “If I’d known anything about plays at all, I don’t think I could have written them” and until he had written his first play he had never seen a theater production (Iles, 2000, 125).
Page 1 of 15