In the Japanese avant-garde, a new theme emerged in the early 1960s. And by the 1980s, it was a mainstream phenomenon. The best example of this is the work of Abe Kōbō—one of Japan’s most acclaimed postwar writers. Abe was described as the Franz Kafka of Japan. For Abe, normal daily life was just a façade; reality was surreal, and what seemed real was fake.
A Cynic of the State
Abe’s biography helps explain his contempt for conformity and convention. He was born in Tokyo in 1924 and grew up in the Japanese puppet-state of Manchukuo—in Mukden, Manchuria—where his father was a physician. He attended medical school starting in 1943—partly to honor his father, and partly to avoid the draft—but he was a terrible student.
He was drafted in 1945, but the war ended before he had to report for duty. Abe and his family were in Manchuria when Japan surrendered, and his father died during a typhoid epidemic in the winter of 1945. When Abe and his family were finally repatriated in 1946, their ship was held in quarantine within sight of Japan for 10 days as cholera raged on board.
So, Abe grew up deeply cynical of the Japanese state. Conformity to the state meant complicity with deceit, deception, disease, and death.
Abe Kōbō and the Communist Party
Like many 20th century intellectuals, Abe joined the Communist Party, hoping that Marxism would provide an alternative to capitalism and fascism.
However, by the late 1950s, Abe found it impossible to be a good comrade. After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Russia stopped suppressing news of Stalin’s atrocities. Then, in 1956, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary. Abe refused to follow communist party doctrine, and in 1962 he was expelled from it.
So, by the early 1960s, Abe was an almost pure cynic and pure existentialist. For him, all systems of authority—communist, fascist, capitalist—were masks for exploitation, oppression, and deceit.
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The Woman in the Dunes
Abe’s most famous work from this period is his novel Suna no Onna, or The Woman in the Dunes, published in 1962 and made into a film in 1964. The film won a special jury prize at Cannes and is considered a masterpiece. That said, it is a surreal and disturbing work.
The protagonist in The Woman in the Dunes is a male schoolteacher and amateur entomologist. He takes a trip to the beach to collect insects in the dunes. There are vague hints of a romantic relationship gone sour, but he has no strong attachments. He misses the last bus back, and some locals offer to find him a place to spend the night.
With a rope ladder, they lower him into a pit. At the bottom is a ramshackle house where a woman (who never gets a name) sets him up for the night. The following morning, the man can’t find the rope ladder out of the pit. He’s been kidnapped, and he’s expected to work digging out the sand from the pit. Otherwise, the shifting sands will collapse the house and the locals will deny him fresh water.
He briefly manages to escape but falls into quicksand. The locals find him, pull him out, and put him back in the pit. Over time, the man slowly loses his previous identity as a teacher, and he and the woman become lovers. He also becomes obsessed with an experiment to extract pure water from the sand, so he’s not beholden to the locals.
When the villagers take the woman—now pregnant with the man’s child—to a doctor, they mistakenly leave the rope ladder in place. Seeing the ladder, the man climbs out to escape. But then he realizes that he no longer has any connection to anything outside the pit. So, he climbs back down into the pit to live out his days.
A Work of Surrealism
The Woman in the Dunes is a surreal piece but also allegorical. The man’s previous life in the outside world was meaningless. He can find as much existential satisfaction in the sand pit as in the outside world. His connection with the woman is raw and often cruel, but somehow authentic. And beyond those human connections, the man finds intellectual satisfaction with his experiments to obtain water from the sand.
The irony is that he is obsessed with pure water because that would give him independence from the villagers. However, he could be completely independent by just leaving the pit. The question is: where would he go? So, the film is a metaphor for the paradox of wanting existential fulfillment and a sense of belonging.
Abe Kōbō’s ’Friends’
Abe revisited those themes in his 1967 stage drama, Friends. It’s the story of a single man whose apartment is invaded by strangers who insist they are his family. They push their way in, and the man cannot get them to leave. Even worse, he can’t convince anyone that they’re not his family. When the man calls the police, the ‘family’ just acts as though they are the man’s parents and siblings, and the man is just having a mental episode.
The police don’t want to get involved in a nonviolent family squabble, so they leave. Like the protagonist in The Woman in the Dunes, the man is trapped, but this time it’s in his own apartment. No one believes his complaints, and no one sees him as a sane individual. His fake family is more believable than the truth, or perhaps just less complicated.
Like The Woman in the Dunes, Friends is a surreal quest for authenticity. But the outside world isn’t just heartless—it’s terrifying.
Common Questions about Surrealism in the Works of Abe Kōbō
Abe Kōbō is one of the most acclaimed Japanese postwar writers. He was born in Tokyo in 1924.
Like many 20th century intellectuals, Abe Kōbō joined the Communist Party hoping that Marxism would provide an alternative to capitalism and fascism.
Friends by Abe Kōbō narrates the story of a single man who is invaded by strangers in his own apartment. They insist that they are his family. He tries to get the strangers out of his house, but he can’t, and worse, he can’t convince anyone, even the police, that these strangers aren’t his family.