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Getting to Know Kobo Abe

Kobo Abe (1924-1993) is remembered as one of the great Japanese writers of the 20th century.

Abe published 15 novels, all of which were bestsellers in Japan. Long considered Japan’s foremost living novelist, his death in 1993 inspired people to rediscover his other works as well, among them poems, short stories, essays, and plays.

His dedication to the absurd, his sense of humour and his nightmarish plots have seen him compared to Camus, Ionseco, Beckett, and Moravia. Indeed, his work has often been described with that favorite of all literary adjectives, “Kafkaesque.”

But Abe was a unique talent, versatile and visionary. Fortunately, enough of his work has been translated into English that we can get a strong sense of his powers.

Here’s a reading list to get you started, with eight novels (in order of their original publication), a collection of essays, and a collection of plays. 

Image: a scene from the Abe play Slave Huntingoriginally published in the July 6, 1955 issue of the magazine Asahi Graph 

Beasts Head for Home

In the aftermath of World War II, Kuki Kyuzo, a Japanese youth raised in the puppet state of Manchuria, struggles to return home to Japan. What follows is a wild journey involving drugs, smuggling, chases, and capture. Kyuzo finally makes his way to the waters off Japan but finds himself unable to disembark. His nation remains inaccessible to him, and now he questions its very existence. Beasts Head for Home is an acute novel of identity, belonging, and the vagaries of human behavior.

The woman in the dunes

Dazzlingly original, The Woman in the Dunes is one of the premier Japanese novels of the twentieth century. Niki Jumpei, an amateur entomologist, searches the scorching desert for beetles. As night falls, he is forced to seek shelter in an eerie village, half-buried by huge sand dunes. He awakes to the terrifying realisation that the villagers have imprisoned him with a young woman at the bottom of a vast sand pit. Tricked into slavery and threatened with starvation if he does not work, Jumpei's only chance is to shovel the ever-encroaching sand - or face an agonising death.

The Face of Another

The narrator is a scientist hideously deformed in a laboratory accident - a man who has lost his face and, with it, connection to other people. Even his wife is now repulsed by him. His only entry back into the world is to create a mask so perfect as to be undetectable. But soon he finds that such mask is more than a disguise: it is an alternate self - a self that is capable of anything. A remorseless meditation on nature, identity, and the social contract, The Face of Another is an intellectual horror story of the highest order.

The Ruined Map

With The Ruined Map, Abe crafted a mesmerizing literary crime novel that combines the narrative suspense of Chandler with the psychological depth of Dostoevsky.

Mr. Nemuro, a respected salesman, disappeared over half a year ago, but only now does his alluring yet alcoholic wife hire a private eye. The nameless detective has but two clues: a photo and a matchbook. With these he embarks upon an ever more puzzling pursuit that leads him into the depths of Tokyo's dangerous underworld, where he begins to lose the boundaries of his own identity. Surreal, fast-paced, and hauntingly dreamlike, Abe’s masterly novel delves into the unknowable mysteries of the human mind.

The Box Man

In this eerie and evocative masterpiece, the nameless protagonist gives up his identity and the trappings of a normal life to live in a large cardboard box he wears over his head. Wandering the streets of Tokyo and scribbling madly on the interior walls of his box, he describes the world outside as he sees or perhaps imagines it, a tenuous reality that seems to include a mysterious rifleman determined to shoot him, a seductive young nurse, and a doctor who wants to become a box man himself. The Box Man is a marvel of sheer originality and a bizarrely fascinating fable about the very nature of identity.

Secret Rendezvous

Secret Rendezvous recounts the bizarrely erotic and comic adventures of a man searching for his missing wife in a mysteriously vast underground hospital.

From the moment that an ambulance appears in the middle of the night to take his wife, who protests that she is perfectly healthy, her bewildered husband realizes that things are not as they should be. His covert explorations reveal that the enormous hospital she was taken to is home to a network of constant surveillance, outlandish sex experiments, and an array of very odd and even violent characters. Within a few days, though no closer to finding his wife, the unnamed narrator finds himself appointed the hospital’s chief of security, reporting to a man who thinks he’s a horse.

The Ark Sakura

A classic about isolation and the threat of a nuclear holocaust, The Ark Sakura is as timely today as it was at its original publication.

In this Kafkaesque allegorical fantasy, Mole has converted a huge underground quarry into an “ark” capable of surviving the coming nuclear holocaust and is now in search of his crew. He falls victim, however, to the wiles of a con-man-cum-insect-dealer. In the surreal drama that ensues, the ark is invaded by a gang of youths and a sinister group of elderly people called the Broom Brigade, led by Mole's odious father, while Mole becomes trapped in the ark's central piece of equipment, a giant toilet powerful enough to flush almost anything, including chopped-up humans, out to sea.

Kangaroo Notebook: a Novel

In the last novel written before his death in 1993, Abe proffered a surreal vision of Japanese society that manages to be simultaneously fearful and jarringly funny. The narrator of Kangaroo Notebook wakes one morning to discover that his legs are growing radish sprouts, an ailment that repulses his doctor but provides the patient with the unusual ability to snack on himself. In short order, the unraveling protagonist finds himself hurtling in a hospital bed toward the very shores of hell. Abe has assembled a cast of oddities into a coherent novel, one imbued with unexpected meaning.

The Frontier Within

Featuring twelve essays from Abe's prolific career, including "Poetry and Poets (Consciousness and the Unconscious)," written in 1944, and "The Frontier Within, Part II," written in 1969, this anthology introduces English-speaking readers to Abe Kobo as a critic and intellectual for the first time. Demonstrating the importance of his theoretical work to a broader understanding of his fiction—and a richer portrait of Japan's postwar imagination—Richard F. Calichman provides an incisive introduction to Abe Kobo's achievements and situates his essays historically and intellectually.

Three Plays by Kobo Abe

The three plays collected here, Involuntary Homicide, The Green Stockings, and The Ghost is Here again reveal Abe’s deep love of absurdity in the face of universal concerns. In Abe’s drama, the effect of his absurdity is, arguably, heightened, as it reinforces the artificiality of its theatrical context. These plays also reflect the writer’s deep interest in crime and mystery.

Kobo Abe is a writer worth talking about, but isn't talked about enough. Once you've gotten acquainted with Abe and his work, please join the discussion. Let us know your thoughts, and share any tips you have for new Abe readers. Thanks.


Katie is a reader, editor and note taker who works as a Content Writer at Bookwitty. Originally from Wisconsin, she's at home in Dublin.