Interview with Abe Neri
translated by Mark Gibeau
- On Haniya Yutaka
- On Hanada Kiyoteru
- Active Art
- What he gained from the Communist Party
- Glory of Revolution?
- On Ishikawa Jun
- On novels and theater: progress and depth
- For Aquatic Humans
Mrs. Abe Neri is the daughter of Abe Kobo. She is an obsterician and a mother of three children. She is now editing the Complete Works of Abe Kobo and preparing his biography.
Kato Koiti made this interview on Octber 27 1996, and Mr. Mark Gibeau volunteered to traslate it in English on April 6 1997.
On Haniya Yutaka
--I am currently researching Abe's early period. Haniya Yutaka
, Hanada Kiyoteru, Okamoto Taro and others experimented a great deal back then, I find it very fascinating. I was surprised to discover such an energetic period. I wonder if you have any recollections of that time.
Abe Neri: I don't know anything about that period. I was born in 1954.
--Oh yes, that's right. But I recall reading something about how you danced at a party at Haniya's home.
Neri: That was Abe Kobo, not me. My only memories are very fragmented. I am currently preparing a biography on Abe Kobo and last year I received an invitation to speak with Haniya Yutaka. When I went to interview him, I thought, "So this is the room where they had the dance party." I think that it was held in my pre elementary school days.
--Ah, so you were still quite young. I was thinking of a dance party
somewhere along the lines of "American Graffiti." What kind of a room was
Neri: It was a small six or eight mat room (approx. 150 sq. feet).
Probably about eight mats. I was quite surprised.
--So it wasn't really a dance party?
Neri: No, I think it was a dance party. Everybody danced to the gramophone.
--A record player! It seems that Haniya Yutaka was quite the modern boy. What songs did they play?
Neri: It's on my tape of the interview, but I'm afraid I haven't listened to it yet. A careless sort of person, I keep procrastinating. I haven't made much progress yet...
--When will the biography be coming out?
Neri:They keep trying to hurry me on it but I am going slowly. Since new stories and anecdotes keep coming out one after another I find that I am glad that I haven't finished it yet. It is becoming more and more obvious that there are a lot of places where I have made mistakes and misinterpretations, so I think that my plodding pace is best.
--Now that mention it, those familiar with that period are disappearing. Mrs. Isikawa too has passed away. I thought of asking Mr. Haniya for some help during the first year of Horagai, but hearing that he was in ill health I was unable to interview him.
Neri: When I visited him last year his condition had gotten so bad that he had to be interviewed in bed. There were strict time limits, so the interview was quite short. But he personally urged me to come for an interview as soon as I could, so I went.
--I hear that Kodansha is preparing his complete works.
Neri: So it seems. There were a couple of computers in his room at the
time, maybe being used for editing.
On Hanada Kiyoteru
--What are you thoughts on Hanada Kiyoteru?
Neri: I wasn't acquainted with Hanada Kiyoteru either but, as I have had to do some editing for the manuscript of the complete works I have been reading some of Abe's dialogues with Hanada. They are really quite funny, I laugh and laugh.
--Do you come up in conversation?
Neri: Not those kinds of stories. Hanada Kiyoteru is very interesting. If you said this he'd say that, if you said that he's say this. That sort of thing. Anyway, whatever you said would get all turned around. [laugh]
--I see. It seems that he was pretty well-known as a conversationalist. Do you recall anything about Okamoto Taro?
Neri: I don't know anything at all about that time. Remember, I was born in '54.
--Yes, that's right. Yoru no Kai (Night Association) was before your time.
Neri: I first learned about it from research I was doing after Abe Kobo's death. I thought "So that's the kind of thing he was up to..."
--I too have only recently begun learning about it, but it sounds as if it was a very interesting time.
Neri: Extremely interesting! I find it very hard to motivate myself to read modern criticism, but with what they wrote in that period, I find myself thinking, "Wow! This is really fascinating."
--In your opinion what is most interesting about that period?
Neri: Hanada started a lot of different movements, but his "active art" was really quite interesting. Art wasn't a matter of creating works, art was active. I think that it was an idea that Abe Kobo connected with quite well, it was quite an important matter. While I'm sure that they both had very definite ideas about what active art was, in concrete terms, they never spoke about it. Since I didn't think that they had any real idea as to what they were talking about I assumed that they were just saying difficult things to cover this up.
--Yet another cynic. [laugh]
Neri: I do tend to be somewhat doubtful. [laugh]
--So what is active art?
Neri: Well, that's an extremely fundamental matter, so I think its best to leave you doubting for today.
--Can you give us a hint as to what we should read?
Neri: If you are aware of the problems, then anything will do. You could say that all of his work is affected. It is the most fundamental basis for his theory of consciousness.
-- Materialism provided a sort of inspiration for revolutionary forms of art among artists of that time. Hanada Kiyoteru is known for his mineralism and for such slogans as "from animate to inanimate." But it was materialism that provided a basis for this change of values, and it was this that provided artists with a new sense of direction after the reign of militarism.
According to traditional accounts, Abe Kobo's early works were written in faithful accordance with Hanada's form of materialism, but it seems to me that perhaps Abe Kobo had some influence on Hanada Kiyoteru as well. In other words, instead of the traditional "Master/Disciple" relationship, theirs was more one of two colleagues.
Neri: At present, my impression is that Hanada Kiyoteru was Abe's teacher. I think that this can be seen from transcripts of their dialogues, but in the very early days he was taken by the hand as he grew as a writer. He absorbed everything! With Hanada Kiyoteru or Mishima Yukio, whenever anyone said anything to him that was good, he would take it. He was a thief [laughing]. With his later works and certain theoretical points, there are a lot of places where you can say "Oh, he got this from there," and so on. There are sections of the essays he was working on towards the end, such as "On Creole" and his essay on American culture that appear to come from some of these early dialogues. These weren't just discussions for him, I think. His antennas were very sensitive.
--The inspiration for his Creole essay was in 1945!
Neri: So it would seem. Among the various exchanges of that time, there is a dialogue that suggests he was nursing an idea along those lines. It's really fascinating.
--And this material is coming out soon? I can hardly wait.
Neri: These days I am having a lot of trouble as there are so many places in these dialogues where I think, "This came from here," and "That came from there." I can't seem to narrow anything down.
What he gained from the Communist Party
--Abe Kobo was a member of the communist party. To exaggerate a little, outside of Mishima Yukio, almost all young writers of that time joined the communist party, later to quit during the purges. Abe Kobo and Hanada Kiyoteru joined the party together, fought the party leadership together, and around 1960, were purged from the party.
In Abe Kobo's case, he had for his teachers Isikawa Jun and Haniya Yutaka- both great believers in anarchism. But with those sympathetic to anarchism, there seems to be a thorough dislike for the kind of Marx/Leninist emphasis on the power of the state, or for the way in which members are expected to obey the orders of the party leadership, as in a military organization. That's why it has always seemed strange to me that, whatever influence Hanada Kiyoteru might have had on him aside, Abe would join the communist party.
Nakano Shigeharu has written in his book, Ko-otsu-hei-te (A-B-C-D) a great deal about the state of the party both before and after Abe and his fellow writers were purged from the party as well as why they had fought with the party leadership. However there has not been much written on why these writers had joined the party in the first place--excepting those who had "converted" from communism before the war and now dedicated themselves to the party in order to relieve their feelings of guilt. But simply taken in terms of age, Abe was much too young to have been a part of the "conversion" era. What was about the communist party that appealed to him?
Neri: There are a lot of complications related to his quitting the party, so I used to think differently, but since I have been involved with the compilation of his complete works and have read material from his early period, I have come to see a great many positive aspects to his membership in the party. I believe that the documentary aspects of Abe Kobo's works come from the communist party.
--Are you referring to the Kiroku Gejutsu no Kai (Organization of the Documentary Arts), formed by Hanada after he was forced from his position as editor of the literary journal Shin nihon bungaku (New Japanese Literature)?
Neri: More than that, I think that, when he was working for the party, he got to see a lot of reality. He helped conduct workers' literary circles in Kawasaki and worked for the unionization of an American arms plant. In the course of these activities he was gathering a great deal of information. The communist party still does some work like this but, anyway, he discovered a lot. With this sort of work there is an enormous potential for objectively gathering material.
For Abe Kobo, the journalistic aspect of adhering to the facts was very important. I think that it was in this respect that he benefitted most from his activities in the communist party.
--So he managed to steal the good things from the communist party as well! [laugh]
Neri: How he used the material he gathered is a different story but, at one point, he developed a very clear methodology for himself as a writer. This was before "Daiyon kampyoki" [Inter Ice-Age 4], right about the time of his "Too o iku" [Travelling Eastern Europe]. I think that it was around this point that Abe entered his "middle period."
--I see. It is difficult to say what in particular marks his "middle period." I think the division is generally thought of falling along the lines of his pre and post -Suna no Onna (Woman in the Dunes) works. But one definite aspect of this division would be his mastery of the journalistic style, and the new horizons that that opened up to him.
Glory of Revolution?
--The other day I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Odagiri Hideo and I asked why it was that so many writers joined the communist party immediately after Japan's defeat and whether they had really believed that the communist revolution would really happen. He said that there were some writers who believed, but for most of the writers it was that, with the fall of militarism, Japan had become free. They felt, however, that sooner or later the ruling classes would recover and everything would go back to how it was before. So they decided that, while they were free, they would do whatever they wanted without a second thought. They wanted to push things until it would no longer be possible for things to go back to what they were. So they joined the party.
I was surprised to discover that the communist party was viewed as a symbol for freedom, but when I think about everything leading up to the writers' expulsion from the party, I think that freedom probably was a major factor in their joining the party. Do you think that this can be applied to Abe Kobo?
Neri: Until he found out about what the Soviet Union was really like, I don't think that he felt threatened at all by party leadership. When he finally did get this information he probably came to see the communist party more as simply being a new power structure.
--So in the beginning he had a very idealistic belief in revolution?
Neri: I think that there was such a time. I think that, for him, revolution was more of an anarchistic event.
On Isikawa Jun
--Speaking of anarchy, what about Isikawa Jun?
Neri: I never knew him personally, but he was often a topic of conversation at home. He was seen as a kind of benefactor. Later he was seen more as a teacher.
--Was there anyone else who was considered a kind of teacher?
Neri: No, only Mr. Isikawa. As a teacher.
--In what way was he a benefactor.
Neri: Well, when there wasn't any food, Abe would go to his house, receive some assistance. [laugh]
--That story always comes up in biographical notes. [laugh]
Neri: And Mr. Isikawa appraised Abe's works. He had a lot of enemies back then.
--Didn't Hanada Kiyoteru and Haniya Yutaka serve the same function as well, in terms of appraising his works?
Neri: Well, Hanada was more of an instructor rather than one who appraised. Abe Kobo absorbed Hanada Kiyoteru completely. If you look at his earliest works, and compare them to Abe Kobo as he is more generally known, you would think that they had been written by someone else. His writing and dialogues--just a complete turn around. We mentioned that he had been quite simple and honest in the beginning, but he gradually adopts the stance of someone slightly warped.
--I see. I see.
Neri: And from that point he never took the view that you should praise other people's works. It was like he felt that people really came out when being counter attacked. I think that this methodology of mentally shaking up the other person was something that he took from Hanada.
I think that Abe Kobo had a perfect understanding of Hanada Kiyoteru's concept of Active Art and he put it into practice. As his disciple, Hanada was very fond of Abe. That he understood his ideas so well, and was actually able to employ them.
--Hanada has written an essay called Sabaku ni tuite (On the desert) and essays on other Abe-esque themes. Do you think that it would be correct to say that this is an indication of Abe Kobo's having an influence on him?
Neri: Isn't it that he deliberately allowed himself to be influenced? He encouraged Abe by showing him that he was being influenced by him. Hanada Kiyoteru was not stupid, and Abe Kobo was well aware of that too. There is that form of communication going on.
--Ah... I see. So with someone like Hanada Kiyoteru, even his method of praising becomes somewhat twisted. Now that you mention it, despite having such an intimate relationship, there are only three pieces where Hanada Kiyoteru has written on Abe Kobo. I always thought this rather strange, but after our conversation it makes more sense to me.
There was a fourteen year difference in age between Abe and Hanada and a twenty-five year difference with Isikawa, but, with this in mind, you would say that there wasn't the same kind of absorbing relationship with Isikawa Jun?
Neri: Mmm... there was a feeling of distance, you see. I wonder if it wasn't more a feeling of being recognized by a very highly respected person?
--One could say that Abe absorbed Hanada and later surpassed him. If this
is the case, it must have been rather awkward afterwards.
Neri: Isn't looking at their relationship in that way pointless? Some ideas are received and some are rejected. That the flower blooms is what is important. Isn't it best to study the positive aspects? I'm sure that Hanada Kiyoteru was very happy to see Abe's success, and Abe was very happy to have pleased Hanada Kiyoteru. Things like which of the two was greater are completely irrelevant.
--You're absolutely right. It is shoddy criticism.
Neri: With the complete works of Abe Kobo and Haniya Yutaka coming out soon, I think that people of today will be able to see what kind of people were around after the war.
On novels and theater: Progress and Depth
--The Abe Kobo studio will resume operations next year. What are your feelings on the relationship between Abe Kobo and drama?
Neri: I recently made a wonderful discovery. I was reading Owarisi miti no sirube ni (Signpost at the end of the road) when I noticed that drawn with very dramatic scenery. For example, when entering the room in the opening section the lamp is on and the floorboards are creaking. This could be put on the stage just as it is. The other day Theater X put on Sakura no sakura gentaiken. This is another example of a novel being put on the stage just as it is. I thought that it was extremely distinctive, but I don't think that any of the critics took note.
Also, in one of Abe's dialogues, he says, "When I first emerged [as a writer] people said that my works were very dramatic." When Abe graduated his fourth year of junior high school and was about to enter his first year of high school he was forced to take a year off as he had gotten sick with tuberculosis. He said that, during that year, he had read all of the books in the house. Among these books was a complete works of drama. It would seem that, in his mind, he was putting on plays. Of course a comparison of the novel and the plays on the stage will show differences, but there have been critics who recognized that Owarisi miti no sirube ni was written with a dramatic structure in mind. I was quite surprised that it had been viewed in such a light.
--Hmm... At long last the complete works of Abe Kobo will become a veritable treasure house for Abe Kobo research...
Neri: Owarisi miti no sirube ni was written with the rather difficult philosophical concept of being in itself in mind. But with the increased complexity and depth of essays on the dramatic aspects of the work, it is getting to the point where anyone can understand it.
--Do you see it as expressing itself through corporeality (sintai kankaku)?
Neri: Not corporeality. There is a division between the right brain and the left brain. I think that, when a left-brained novel is developed on the stage, it becomes more right-brained. Abe Kobo's later novels became completely right-brained. As a result, his readers also changed. Now readers are strongly stimulated by his later works and this is also why some readers consider his older works, such as Suna no Onna (Woman in the Dunes) as being rather boring.
Neri: A typical example of this is a response to an article printed in this year's  February edition of Newsweek. A long-time art critic for the New York Times contributed an article dealing with the plague of the word processor. It was something to the effect that, when the great Abe Kobo and others started using word processors, their imagination faded. In the next issue, however, there was a wonderful rebuttal by a young college student. His reply was very convincing and his language very fluid. In a very circumloquacious style, he wrote with a great deal of humor. I think that this alone is enough to settle the matter of who won and who lost. [laugh]
There are a lot of young people like that. The young people helping with the complete works are like this.
For Aquatic Humans
--That sort of thing really puts left-brained people like myself on the spot.
Neri: Ha ha ha... Well, there are more and more right-brained people every day. Even looking at children I see that there are a lot of them who are completely right brained.
We have one child who is in sixth grade, and his Japanese is a mess. He doesn't care how strange his vocabulary is, he uses words that he just makes up. His Japanese is falling apart. I try to correct him, but since it comes naturally to him, it doesn't get any better. He has many friends and all of them do it. I was completely blown away.
--Just one or two people is one thing, but all of them! I wonder if Japanese isn't being "Creole"-ized. Abe Kobo, in his later years, was approaching that kind of world, wasn't he?
Neri: I think so. I think that these people will grow to become deeply mystical. Kind of related to this, Abe Kobo's last work, Tobu Otoko (Flying Man) was found to have been renamed Supuun mage Shonen (The spoon-bending boy). Bunko co. is going to republish it under that name.
--So Tobu Otoko was renamed to Supuun mage Shonen, changed back to Tobu Otoko, and now will be made Supuun mage shonen once again?
: That's right. Next February the final version will be coming out
. In finally settling on Supuun mage shonen as the title, I wonder if Abe wasn't sending some kind of message to the new world.
--So he wrote not in reference to the once-fashionable "new race" but rather in response to the true meaning of the words "new race"?
Neri: That's right. Its aquatic humans from Daiyon Kampyoki (Inter-Ice Age 4), breathing with gills. In fact we have three of them ourselves but... [laugh]
--Well, as for using gills to breathe, I don't think that my right-brain capability is really up for that. I guess that I've been completely left behind.
Neri: Welcome to the club! Maybe it would be best for you to sit down and quietly read through Suna no onna. [laugh]
I just remembered this but, when I was an elementary school student, there was a lot of talk at home about marketing research done on Abe Kobo. ***It seems that he was quite big with readers of comics.*** It really got to him.
--Comics? When you say marketing research, you mean that it was done by the publishing company?
Neri: Yes. This was when Mishima Yukio was still alive. Mishima's novels were seen as being "popular literature." Oe Kenzaburo was good with weekly magazines, and Abe Kobo was popular among readers of comics.
--Fascinating. I imagine that, in the future, young readers will discover an Abe Kobo that we can't even conceive of. Thank you very much for taking the time to meet with me today.
Following this interview yet another, final manuscript was discovered wherein the title was changed back, yet again, to Tobu otoko (Flying Man), because of this the re-publication by Sintyo Bunko co. has been delayed. (Apr 6 1997)
Copyright 1997 Abe Neri
This page was created on April 6 1997; Updated on Sep21 1997.