- The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō by Abe Kōbō
Abe Kōbō occupies a slightly unusual position in the canon of Japanese literature. A prolific author of novels, short stories, plays and essays as well as a noted theatre director and educator, his work straddles the boundary between the height of shingeki (new drama) and the birth of the shōgekijō (little theatre) movement in the 1960s. Despite significant [End Page 284] critical attention—Donald, Keene, for example, has translated and published many of Abe's plays; scholars such as Margaret Key and Thimothy Iles have written about his work—Abe seems to have faded from critical interest among Japanese theatre scholars in the past decade. Such a move is unfortunate; Abe was not only a prolific and gifted playwright but also a critically important theatre director, educator, and theorist. In this vein, the recent translation and publication of many of his essays in The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō (translated by Richard F. Calichman) is a delightful addition to Abe's catalogue of works in English. This dense volume, containing twelve of Abe's essays on diverse topics and spanning over twenty-five years of his career will be fascinating reading for any scholar interested in Japanese theatre, literature, and literary theory.
Abe is known more as a novelist than as a playwright; works such as Suna no onna (Woman in the Dunes, 1962) and Hakobune sakura maru (The Ark Sakura, 1984) are far more prevalent within the Western consciousness than any of his plays. Moreover, as Calichman notes in his introduction, Abe has suffered in regard to other Japanese writers of his era. In comparison to authors such as Mishima, Kawabata, and Tanizaki, Abe's works fail to place him as uniquely "Japanese"; without samurai/geisha/cherry blossoms, Calichman notes, Abe suffers from "the politics of translation, in which 'western' readers and translators both actively—if unconsciously—sought out those texts of Japanese literature that appeared most exotic and different from themselves" (p. ix). Calichman introduces the essays and gives a broad outline of philosophical ideas contained within the text. It should also be noted that these texts are incredibly dense; Calichman is to be praised for his deft translation of such difficult source material.
The essays contained within the text are indeed highly philosophical; readers familiar with Abe's plays will find numerous parallels between the themes of his dramatic works and the ideas contained within the essays. They delve deep into areas of literary and political theory. The first essay, "Poetry and Poets (Consciousness and the Unconscious)" (Shi to shijin [Ishiki to muishiki], 1944) posits a central intellectual concern for Abe (and one that is subsequently explored in many of the essays), namely the question of individual freedom versus the homogenizing attempts of the modern world. Taking on ontological questions such as "Man's Being" (p. 9) and "What is Truth?" (p. 2), this essay is incredibly dense and difficult for those without a strong background in philosophy.
More useful for the literary and/or performance scholar is Abe's next essay, "Theory and Practice in Literature" (Bungaku ni okeru riron to jissen, 1954). Many Japanese scholars know there was a split in the [End Page 285] shingeki movement between artists who emphasized the political versus those who emphasized the personal and artistic. Examining the usevalue of literature, Abe makes an eloquent case for literature wherein the goal is "the liberation of mankind. This is not the psychological liberation of the soul offered by prison chaplains to condemned prisoners, but rather the real and concrete liberation provided by the liberation forces that opened the gates of the Nazi concentration camps" (p. 28). Quotes such as this place Abe strongly in the camp of those writers concerned not with a specific political issue but rather with those who believe in the possibility of literature to affect direct change.
Other essays in the text contain writings on intellectualization and...