Abe Kōbō wrote his first play, Seifuku (The Uniform), in 1955. He explains how he came to write the play as follows:
It was an accident. I had no intention whatsoever of writing a play, but I had no choice. It happened rather early in my career as a writer. I was asked by a magazine for a short story, but somehow I couldn’t manage to write anything. As the deadline approached, I became more and more frantic. At the time I still had trouble selling my stories, and I was worried that if I failed to meet the deadline, I would never again be asked for another. The night before the deadline I was absolutely desperate, when suddenly it occurred to me that it might be easier to work out something if all I had to do was to write dialogue, and I didn’t have to trouble myself with descriptions and the rest. I threw away everything I had written up to then, and in a great hurry composed a piece consisting entirely of dialogue. It took about three hours. This was my first play, called The Uniform. I had no previous experience as a dramatist, and Japanese magazine editors have an extreme aversion to publishing plays, especially by unknown writers. If I had told them in advance that I planned to write a play, they probably would have refused to print it. But with the deadline at hand, the magazine could not very well refuse to accept my manuscript. So, much against the editor’s wishes, they published it. Purely by accident, the play came to the attention of a producer who staged it. The production was rather well received, and I later had requests for plays from various theatrical groups. (in Keene 2003, 79-80)
At this time, in the 1950s, contemporary trends included simple commercial theatre catering to those who watched for pure entertainment; Shimpa, an interplay of Western theatre and Kabuki; and Shingeki (literally ‘New Theatre’). It was in the last category, Shingeki theatre — i.e. ‘realistic’ socially-motivated ‘proletarian’ plays, performed on a Western-style proscenium stage, with actors in contemporary clothing, with Western makeup and no masks, using ‘naturalistic’ acting techniques — that Abe initially wrote, though his style was still not exactly realistic, but always infused with surreal elements (ghosts, metamorphoses, the absurd, and so on). Shingeki theatre developed in the early 1900s (after the Meiji Restoration) out of Japan’s engagement with Western Theatre (through translations of Ibsen and Chekov, for example). Whereas Shimpa attempted to accommodate Western theatre into Japanese theatre (through adapting Western plays into Kabuki plays, for example), Shingeki rejected Japanese traditions completely. The first ‘shingeki’ theatre dedicated solely to staging modern plays, the Tsukiji Little Theatre, was erected in 1924, under the direction of Osanai Kaoru and Hijikata Yoshi.
Several of the playwrights and directors active during this period lived and studied abroad. A new form of political, socially-aware theatre developed out of the engagement these artists had with European political movements, especially Communism. The director and playwright Senda Koreya, for example, who staged Abe’s play Doreigari (in 1955 and 1967), studied in Berlin between 1927-31, where he was active in the German communist movement, and he brought Communist thought to the Japanese theatre scene, not only in his plays but also through such organizations as the Rōdōsha engeki hyōkai (Worker’s Council on Theatre). Rōen for short, this organization was, in Senda’s words, “essentially an independent organisation for providing opportunities for workers to see plays for less money […] We provide these opportunities to workers who are alienated and force-fed the leftovers of bourgeois culture” (Senda, quoted in Iles, 112-3). Even though plays often were censored to pass government inspection, playhouses were used as meeting places for party members to discuss party politics and to distribute pamphlets to theatre-goers. Shingeki theatre was considered by the Japanese authorities to be a subversive threat to the nation and it was not uncommon for Shingeki directors, playwrights, and actors to be arrested for ‘crimes against the state’ — the most infamous case being the mass arrest of 14 Shingeki practitioners (including Senda) in June 1940, followed by their sentencing on August 10 1942, and the subsequent suspension of their sentence after publicly recanting their socialist beliefs.
Shingeki would eventually be replaced as an outmoded theatrical (and political) artifact by the evolutions in experimental theatre of the 1960s (i.e. Angura, or Underground theatre), and Abe would later distance himself from both the political agenda and the conventions of Shingeki theatre (which is not to say he assimilated into Angura theatre, either, which he found too reactionary, nationalistic, essentializing, stemming from a post-war need to re-emphasize lost Japanese traditions). Nevertheless, it was in this environment that Abe began writing plays. Hence, Abe’s plays in this period rejected traditional Japanese theatre in favour of Western theatre conventions, and were proletarian social allegories critical of ‘The Nation’ and of all forms of exploitation — Capitalist, Colonialist, Imperialist, and so on. Contributing to this rejection of Japanese tradition and criticism of ‘The Nation’ was Abe’s own personal history. Growing up in Manchuria, then in Hokkaido, Abe was always (geographically, culturally) positioned somewhat outside the mainstream, unable to identify with the essential image of ‘Japan’ as it was officially constructed in his school textbooks. Incongruities in his understanding of reality and the images of national belonging led to suspicions, even hatred of nationalism. Moreover, in Manchuria, he witnessed, as Donald Keene writes, “the lawless behavior of the Japanese troops in Mukden after the surrender. He felt such disgust on witnessing the crimes perpetuated by Japanese soldiers on Japanese civilians as to make him wish to renounce his identity as a Japanese” (Keene 2003: 73). The Uniform is thus in large part a social allegory that addresses Japan’s inability to return to its former ‘pre-colonial’ innocence after the Second World War: its main character, the Man in Uniform, is a ghost, stranded at a port in North Korea in 1945.
Since Abe’s relationship with Japan — its national identity, its colonial history, its traditional theatrical conventions — was antagonistic, it is problematic to simply call Abe’s theatre ‘Japanese theatre’. Timothy Iles writes that his allegiances were more within “the broader context of world literature” (5). Initially for Abe, Communism was an element of his internationalism. He joined the Japanese Communist Party in 1949 (Keene speculates upon this date, in 2003: 73). For Abe, Communism was, and Keene writes, “a political stance that would favor a removal of the barriers of nationalism that separate country and country or people and people” (73). Timothy Iles’ argument in his extended work on Abe’s prose, drama, and theatre is that Abe was not interested in any form of rigid community — whether it be fascism, Japanese nationalism, or even Communism. He was expelled from the Communist Party in 1961, after having written a book on his travels in Eastern Europe, wherein he criticized the way in which socialist ideologies were corrupted by state practice (Keene 2003: 79). In the same year that his membership in the Communist Party was revoked, Abe published Suna no Onna (Woman in the Dunes). Timothy Iles relies heavily on this work to show that Abe’s ideal was the formulation of a community that was flexible, adaptable, and still allowed for individual expression — in other words, a community different from the rigidly enforced belonging of Communism, as well as the totalitarianism of the Japanese nation state, and the selfish individualism of Western Capitalism, and the isolated alienation of Sartrian existentialism. “This is Abe’s fundamental, immutable goal”, Iles writes: “the discovery of new forms of community in a world become different through the changed circumstances of urban, mechanized existence” (2000: 34). In Suna no Onna, the protagonist’s imprisonment by the people of the dunes can easily be read as an allegory for Communism, and Iles argues that his dream of “new cities composed of loose collectives of ‘barrel-houses,’ ships containing whole families able to float on the encroaching sands” was Abe’s “new model world populated by individuals able to come and go as they please” (2000: 12). Abe’s political agenda shifted, and he bore no particular allegiance to any theatre community. Hence, Uchino Tadashi suggests that Abe was virtually erased from the map of theatre criticism, as he deviated from both shingeki and angura (Uchino 1994: 219). A common entry into Abe’s biography is, as we have mentioned, to make reference to the liminality and instability of his upbringing, how he was raised in Japan-occupied Manchuria (in Mukden) and then in American-occupied Japan (in Hokkaido, Japan’s ’frontier land’), how neither Japanese nor Chinese language or nationality were native to Abe — biographical facts which impacted upon his writing, its obsession with the Other, with loss of identity and with an alienation inherent to modern existence. It is fitting, then, that Abe occupied a liminal position within Japan’s theatre scene as well, conflicting at different times with either one or the other of the dominant trends of shingeki and angura.
His initial adherence to a borrowed Western form of ‘realistic’, political theatre in the 1950s (in the form of Shingeki) gave way to the individualistic and experimental theatre of the 60s and 70s — especially after the formation of his own Studio, the Abe Kobo Studio, in 1973. This marked a movement away from Shingeki, and away from ‘realism’ and leftist proletarian ideology, towards an avant-garde theatre of bodies, movement, images and sounds.
Iles, Timothy. 2000. Abe kôbô: An exploration of his prose, drama and theatre. Fucecchio (Firenze), Italy: European Press Academic Publishing.
Keene, Donald. 2003. Five modern japanese novelists. New York: Columbia University Press.
Uchino Tadashi. 1994. Shingeki to angura no aida. Yuriika 26, (8): 219.