Tag Archives: Abe Kôbô

Abe’s “Secret Rendezvous”


Abe Kôbô (1924-1993) was the major Japanese 20th-century writer whose work I long shied away from reading. I have found him an interesting figure in the memoirs of American Japanologists such as Donald Keene and John Nathan, and admire the three movies based on his novels made by Teshigahara Hiroshi (Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes, The Face of Another; I have not seen “The Ruined Map”), as well as the earlier Kobayashi “Thick-Walled Room”. I did not want to read an Abe novel that I had already seen adapted to the screen and hopes that the relatively short one that I chose, Secret Rendezvous (first published in 1977 in Japanese as Mikkai) would not be too sci-fi for me.

It was more sci-fi than I hoped, but not too much for me. A blurb from the Chicago Sun-Times on the back cover proclaimed that the novel “reads much as if it were the collaborative effort of Hieronymus Bosch, Franz Kafka, and Mel Brooks.” The Kafka I can see, though I know (from Donald Richie’s Japan Journals) that Abe was irritated that critics kept claiming that Kafka was an influence on him, that the prime western influence on him was, rather, Lewis Carroll. The mood and dry recounting of absurdities prefigured Paul Auster and recalled Edgar Allan Poe more than either Bosch or Brooks. There is some surrealist humor, but more like that in Philip Roth (especially the Philip Roth of The Breast and Sabbath’s Theater) than that of Mel Brooks.

What is like Kafka is that at the start someone is whisked away for no apparent reason. A major difference is that the someone is a woman, not the narrator, but the wife of the narrator. And it is medical rather than legal authority that is menacing.

An ambulance came for the wife at four in the morning though it had not been called and she was in perfect health. The mystery deepens after the narrator finds the hospital to which she was taken, but cannot find her.

An official who is always referred to as “the horse,” who seems to be more a centaur with a human diet and the ability to speak, gives the narrator security tapes to listen to in exchange for promising to write about his (the narrator’s) investigations.

Though continuing to try to find out what happened to his wife, the narrator is distracted by other very strange things going on at the hospital in the way of experiments on sexual arousal. There is a lot of female masturbation in the novel, and substitution not of single organs, but of half-bodies (the bottom half). There is also a thirteen-year-old nymphomaniac woman whose bones are melting (rendering her increasingly blob like). Heterosexual male fantasies, for sure. And very clinical (both the horrors and the failure to feel anything are prototypically heterosexual male…)

The book seems of great current relevance in anticipating heightened surveillance. The narrator joins the security apparatus centered in the hospital—one financed by selling recordings to aural voyeurs. The meaningful signal to noise ratio is very low, reminding me of present-day US surveillance biting off (collecting) far more than it can chew (make sense of or from): “The electronic surveillance system has swollen to unmanageable, mammoth size, and continues to absorb new information all the tie; even though no one is actually in charge of it any more, the mere suggestion that such a person might exist seems to inspire awe and submissiveness” (p. 117).

I neither liked nor loathed the novel and concluded that my original intuition that Abe’s fiction is not for me was right. Reading about him interests me more than reading him, the fate of too many writers, I realize. In a 1953 Paris Review interview, Nobel Prize-winner François Mauriac contended that “almost all the works [of fiction] die while the author remains…. There are almost no writers who disappear into their work. The opposite almost always comes about. Even the great characters that have survived in novels are found now more in handbooks and histories, as though in a museum. As living creatures, they get worn out and grow feeble… even Anna Karenina, even the Karamazovs. They need readers in order to live, and the new generations are less and less capable of providing them with the air they need to breathe.” This has become the case for Kafka, and at least for me, for Abe, too.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Face of Another


For most of the way (a long way! 124 minutes) through “Tanin no kao” (The Face of Another, 1966, directed by Teshigahara Hiroshi from a novel by Abe Kôbô), it seems less mysterious than the previous Abe/Teshigahara collaboration, “Woman in the Dunes,” but things become increasingly mystifying after a industrial manager whose face was scarred in an explosion gets a mask to wear. The accident and his self-consciousness (and an especially pronounced Japanese horror of visible disabilities) have made him no longer who he was. He feels that he has become a nonperson and jumps at the chance to become someone other than the man with the bandage-covered face.


From the very start (with a monologue of an x-rayed skull) I balk at the idea that there is a psychiatrist who specializes in fitting prosthetic devices on patients, and, later, that he has gone from fingers to a face with such technical success. Beyond that, Dr. Hori— played by Hira Mikijiro (who recently played the Goshirakawa emperor in “Yoshi-tsune”)—very much fits into the tradition of psychotic physicians (from Dr. Caligari to the one attempting to do something about his daughter’s scarred face in Franju’s “Eyes without a Face,” which has to have influenced this movie).

Mr. Okuyama, the man whose face is bandaged for the first hour of the movie, then masked for periods that cannot exceed twelve hours at a time (the phenomenal Nakadai Tatsuya) says that he “feels like a guinea pig.” He has very good reason to feel that way, because providing someone a new face that matches no past is an experiment for the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist has interests that seem leeringly voyeuristic, particularly in whether his patient will try to seduce the wife who has tried (unsuccessfully) to overcome her revulsion at her scarred husband. Arguably, the psychiatrist plants the idea.

Unarguably, he leers at the possibilities of a Nietzchean (nihilistic) freedom for the heretofore conventional salaryman to commit crimes, seemingly from the assumption that committing violent crimes is what anyone not held back by family, work associates, etc. is eager to do.

The mask is molded in part by the wearer’s facial expression—so that it looks more like Nakadai Tatsuya than the man from whom it was impressed, but the psychiatrist keeps saying that the mask will make the man fit it rather than the other way around. Mr. Okuyama’s life and expectations of relationships with others (including conjugal relations) have been unsettled by the accident and hideous scarring, but, unlike Rock Hudson in “Seconds,” John Frankenheimer’s movie from about the same time, Mr. Okuyama was not seeking a new existence.

It is possible that Mr. Okuyama believed that his wife (played by Kyô Machiko, star of “Rashomon,” “Ugestsu,” and “Gate of Hell”) would not recognize him. To me this was highly improbable. For one thing I recognize Nakadai’s voice (from other movies). How could his wife not? For another, his body, including its size and shape and smell were unchanged. Moreover, there were practically no Japanese at the time as tall as Nakadai. Also, Nakadai’s huge saucer-like eyes are very distinctive. Although highly improbable to me, this assumption by Mr. Okuyama does lead to a great speech by Mrs. Okuyama. Isn’t that enough justification? I think so. Similarly, a more average-looking Japanese lead might have increased the plausibility of not being recognized by his wife, but only a little, and would have sacrificed the smolder and biting sarcasm that Nakadai brought to this and other parts in the golden age of Japanese cinema (and beyond then, as the lead in Kagemusha and “Ran”).

Before the ending there is another aspect that I completely reject as being possible but don’t want to specify so as to avoid “plot spoiling.”

The viewer sees nothing and knows very little of what Mr. Okuyama was like before the accident, which makes estimating how changed he is difficult. There is also another story intercut to that of Mr. Okuyama and his remaker that involves a very pretty girl (Irie Miki) whose face is badly scarred on one side and an incestuous relationship with her brother. I think that the scarring is a residue form the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, though I don’t understand why it would have affected only one side and only her face…

There are some striking visuals in both stories, psychological complication, and some creepiness. I think it all goes on too long, even though I admire many of the images of cinematographer Segawa Hiroshi , who also shot “Woman in the Dunes” and “Pitfall”, the acting, and the ghostly Takemitsu score. (Takemitsu Tôru also scored “Woman in the Dunes” with music lacking harmonies and sounds not made by musical instruments.) The pacing is slow, even for a Japanese movie, and very, very talky, with diatribes from both the psychiatrist and from Mr. Okuyama (and quite an aria from Mrs. Okuyama). Still it is less static than “Woman in the Dunes,” which was a huge international success.

Teshigahara (1927-2001) made three more movies in the following six years (including “The Man Without a Map” based on another Abe (1924-93) adaptation of another of his novels and also scored by Takemitsu and also concerned with identity slippage and intimacy “issues,” then made no films for the next dozen (he was also a painter and sculptor), returning to shoot a nearly wordless 1984 documentary showing the extravagant works of Antonio Gaudí (who has a major Japanese following judging by the groups of Japanese who have been at La Sagrada Familia when I have), and then two historical dramas (all three with scores by Takemitsu).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


The Kobayashi/Abe “Thick-Walled Room”


All four films on the Criterion set of Kobayashi movies (Against the System) are very critical of Japanese conduct, during and after the Pacific War (WWII). Though drawn by Abe Kôbô from diaries of enlisted men imprisoned as war criminals, “The Thick-Walled Room” (Kabe atsuya heya) is quite clear that the central character, Kawanishi (Kinzo Shin), killed a civilian (Indonesian). The officer who ordered him to do so testified against him at the trial and is prospering out of prison in postwar Japan. The viewpoint of the film is very much that “conglomerates, the military and their minions that started the war” were responsible and that those responsible for the war and for the many atrocities committed mostly went unpunished, while ordinary soldiers were scapegoats. (There is a scene in which a general who was convicted of war crimes proclaims himself a “political prisoner” and disparages the soldiers convicted of committing war crimes as “common criminals.” And at least some of them seem to accept this condemnation of what they did under duress.)


“The Thick-Walled Room” was set in 1949, in the US-run Sugamo Prison, though the Americans (who mostly don’t sound American to me!) are not particularly venal and are not the main object of criticism. (There are also flashbacks of captured American flyers being beaten and killed by Japanese soldiers.) Though the US Occupation had ended when the movie was in Kobayashi’s opinion ready for release in 1953, it was held back by the studio (Shochiku) for another four years to avoid riling the conquerors — although I’m sure that its criticism of the Japanese political and military elite also scared studio officials and was probably more central to the decision to hold back release of the movie. The studio, Shochiku, demoted Kobayashi, who sought and received protection from his mentor, Kinoshita Keisuke and made a few blander movies before returning to ones critical of Japanese conduct and mores.


The film has some hallucinatory dream-memories, prefiguring both “Kwaidan” and “The Human Condition” (and Abe-written Teshigahara movies). Though not as harrowing as “The Human Condition” and “Harakiri” and having something of an upbeat ending, “The Thick-Walled Room” is pretty grim social criticism. A formula is suggested by Yokota (Mishima Ko), who leaked Kawanishi’s story to Yokota’s brother who wrote it up in a left-wing publication: “Prison isn’t a place to drive the sins out of humanity. It drives the humanity out of sinners.”

(Much later, in 1983, Kobayashi made a 277-minute documentary about the trials of higher-ups, “Tokyo Trial.”)


©2016, Stephen O. Murray