The Man Who Turned into a Stick

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Editor: Jennifer Smith
Date: 2002
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 14. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 18
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The Man Who Turned into a Stick

KOBO ABE 1967

The first performance of The Man Who Turned into a Stick was staged at Kinokuniya Hall in Tokyo in 1967. However, it was not until Kobo Abe directed the play in his own Kobo Abe Studio in 1976 that the play reached, in Abe’s mind, a level of completion. Whenever Abe presented The Man Who Turned into a Stick, a short, one-act play, he joined it to two other short plays; but in the 1976 version, a new and more specific sequence came to Abe’s mind, one he believed made the three-play set more comprehensive. The individual plays in the revised series were then given subtitles. The first play of the set, The Suitcase, was subtitled Birth; the second play, The Cliff of Time, was subtitled Process; and the third, The Man Who Turned into a Stick was given the subtitle Death.

Even with the subtitle suggesting a theme, The Man Who Turned into a Stick is not a play that is easily understood, and many people believe that that is exactly how Abe wanted it. Abe did not like to write plays for passive audiences. He wanted his audiences to work. He liked that his plays made people feel uncomfortable because he believed that it was through this discomfort that people would begin to question their own lives rather than perfunctorily accept their fate. In The Man Who Turned into a Stick, he not only presents obscure characters and dialogue that demand attention, he deliberately ends his play with one of the characters pointing directly at the audience and telling the people sitting Page 207  |  Top of Articlethere that they all resemble sticks. The audience must therefore participate in the play and consider its meaning on a more personal level.

Abe enjoyed complexities and ambiguities because he believed that it was through confronting uncertainty that people would break out of their rigid (or stick-like), preprogrammed thoughts. His plays are built upon dreamlike images, uneasy to grasp. As Abe told Nancy Shields in her book Fake Fish, “The more we become free from the framework of reality the more clearly we get the real experience which corresponds to the fake experience in a dream.” That this statement is not easy to comprehend is also typical of Abe. In essence, however, these sentiments are the backbone upon which The Man Who Turned into a Stick was built. In Abe’s metaphor, the rigidity of staunchly held beliefs that contradict one’s existence causes people to turn into sticks. A stick is dead and inflexible. By taking the ordinary object of a stick and personifying it, Abe hoped to shake his audiences out of their “fake dreams.”

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

On March 7, 1924, while his father was conducting research in Tokyo, Japan, Kobo Abe was born. Abe’s father, Asakichi, a citizen of Japan and a physician, had a medical clinic in Mukden, Manchuria, where he would return with his family one year after his son’s birth. Abe spent most of his youth living in a Japanese colony in Mukden with his father and his mother, Yorimi. According to Shields, who interviewed the playwright for her book Fake Fish, Abe remembered this city of his youth as a “terrifying place.” Abe reportedly told Shields that there were no laws in the streets of the city, and “sometimes children were sold as slaves.” This Manchurian city, as Abe describes, was made up of “barren spaces, city mazes, and solitary human figures.” These images, thrown together inside high, dirty walls that were built to keep the drifting sand of the surrounding desert from overtaking the buildings and the people who dwelled inside them, would forever mark the imagination of this future author of surrealistic fiction and drama.

In 1931, when Abe was seven years old, Japan invaded Manchuria. Fearing for his family, Abe’s father sent Abe and his mother to Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. There, mother and


Kobo Abe

Kobo Abe

son lived with Abe’s maternal grandfather, while Abe’s father accepted a medical grant to conduct research in Hungary. Upon his grandfather’s death, Abe and his mother returned to Manchuria, which was still in the throes of war. It was in Manchuria, while Abe was still an adolescent, that he discovered the magic of storytelling. Abe tells the story of how the winters were so cold in Manchuria that the students could not go outside. At first to entertain himself and then later the whole class, Abe recited the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. When Abe ran out of Poe stories, he began writing his own. “That was the first time I began to write the kind of story that could entertain other people,” he states in Fake Fish.

For his high school years, Abe once again returned to Japan. Upon graduation, he entered Tokyo University Medical School, partially as a response to following in his father’s footsteps but equally in response to the war. “The specific situation in Japan at that time,” Abe states, was that “those students who specialized in medicine were exempted from becoming soldiers.” In 1944, before attaining a medical degree, Abe left Tokyo and returned to Manchuria to work in his father’s clinic. A few months later, Abe’s father died of typhus. Abe’s last memories of Mukden were of a city “lined with coffin shops.” Abe would return to Page 208  |  Top of ArticleJapan with his father’s ashes and soon afterward complete his medical degree, which he would never use.

In 1945, Abe moved to a bombed-out part of Tokyo with his new bride, Machi Yamada, an art student and stage designer. In accordance with his pacifist views on war, Abe joined the Japanese Communist Party, believing that its philosophy matched his more precisely than any other political ideology. Although he would later denounce the Party for the disparity between its abstract principles and practical applications (as well as the censorship it placed on his creativity), his communist membership would later prevent Abe from gaining easy entry into the United States.

Abe is best known for his novels and short stories. His most popular and critically acclaimed work is Suna no onna 1962 (translated as The Woman in the Dunes, 1964), a story set in a nightmarish setting reminiscent of the barren Manchurian desert.

However, it was the writing of plays that consumed most of Abe’s later years. In 1973, dissatisfied with the production of his plays, Abe founded his own theater group that was named the Kobo Abe Studio. It was here, in 1976, that Abe produced the more familiar version of his play, The Man Who Turned into a Stick. As with many of his other productions, Abe’s wife created the set designs.

In Tokyo on January 22, 1993, Abe, at the age of sixty-eight, died of a heart attack. His wife died nine months later. He is survived by his daughter, Neri Mano, and three grandchildren.

PLOT SUMMARY

Beginning

The Man Who Turned into a Stick is a short, one act play. It is set on a busy city street in front of a department store in the middle of summer. Two characters are on stage, Hippie Boy and Hippie Girl. Abe’s script directions suggest that the hippie couple may be shown sniffing glue. Suddenly, a stick falls from above. The stick is an actual stick as well as an actor who plays the man who turned into a stick. Abe indicates that the actor playing the stick should manipulate the actual stick upon its falling. Man from Hell enters stage-left and Woman from Hell enters stage-right.

Hippie Boy is startled when he realizes how close he came to being hit by the falling stick and declares that even standing on the sidewalk can be dangerous. Man from Hell and Woman from Hell recite poetic lines referring to fate and the fact that another man has turned into a stick while Hippie Girl reflects on the incident philosophically, almost as if reading a Buddhist text. “Which do you suppose is the accident—when something hits you or when it misses?” she asks. Then Man from Hell and Woman from Hell continue reciting their poetic verses.

Hippie Boy picks up the stick and begins to tap out a rhythm. Hippie Girl tries to guess the song that goes along with that rhythm, then she looks up and notices a child on top of the department store (where, in Japan, there often is a type of playground). Both Hippie Girl and Hippie Boy guess that it was the boy who threw the stick down, with Hippie Girl believing it was an accident and Hippie Boy thinking the child threw it on purpose, trying to see if he could hit someone with the stick. At this point, Stick speaks his first lines. It is through these lines that the audience realizes that the stick is the father of the boy and that the boy is calling to him.

Middle

Man from Hell and Woman from Hell continue to talk in poetic stanzas until they meet at center stage. They both begin to question Hippie Boy and Hippie Girl about the stick. They want to know where the hippies found the stick. The hippies in turn want to know if the man and woman are police. The man and woman assure them that they are not with the police and ask the hippies to give them the stick.

It is clear that Hippie Boy does not trust the man and woman. He calls them liars and accuses them of being the ones who threw the stick at him and now want to suppress the evidence. Hippie Girl intervenes, reminding Hippie Boy of the child on top of the roof. Woman from Hell confirms that there was a child on the roof and that the child was calling for his father. When Man from Hell attempts to explain why they need the stick and asks for the hippies’ understanding, Hippie Boy replies: “I don’t understand nothing.” To which Hippie Girl makes it clear that Hippie Boy is commenting on the gap between the two generations, then adds: “We’re alienated.”

While the man who turned into a stick bemoans his fate, the hippies and Man and Woman from Hell Page 209  |  Top of Articlehave a brief philosophical discussion on the topic of aims (or goals) in life. Man from Hell asks what Hippie Boy intends to do with the stick, to which the boy responds that he is “not interested in aims.” Hippie Girls adds: “Aims are out of date.” Man from Hell counters that since aims are out of date there is no reason for Hippie Boy to keep the stick. After circling around the theme of ambition to the point of confusion, Man from Hell concludes that it is “bad for your health to want something that doesn’t really exist.”

The hippies become distracted. To bring them back to the subject of the stick, Man from Hell offers them money for the stick. Hippie Boy refuses the offer, stating, “Me and this stick, we understand each other.”

The hippie couple then begin a dialogue about Hippie Girl’s sister, who has died. At the end of their conversation, Hippie Girl becomes confused and states, “Everything is wrapped in riddles.” Man from Hell interrupts them, once again bringing them back to the stick. Woman from Hell, who had briefly left the stage, returns, urging Man from Hell to hurry because the child is coming. She also informs him that the child saw his father turn into a stick and has told the officials in the department store, although no one believes him. At this news, the stick begins a monologue, reflecting on how he fell and questioning why he turned into a stick. At the end of the monologue, Hippie Boy suddenly drops the stick and looks at it nervously. He claims: “It twitched, like a dying fish.”

Woman from Hell points out the small child in the crowd. She tells Man from Hell that he is coming closer. Stick, speaking to himself, says that he can hear his son’s footsteps. Hippie Boy, meanwhile, remains scared of the stick. He thinks the stick looks a lot like him. He is uneasy and finally tells Man from Hell that he will give him the stick for five dollars. Before Hippie Boy leaves the stage with his money, he tells Man from Hell that the only reason he is selling the stick is because he doesn’t want to sell the stick. He then says: “That’s a contradiction of circumstances. Do you follow me?” Hippie Girl then repeats: “It’s the generation gap,” and the two hippies leave the stage.

End

From this point on, Woman from Hell and Man from Hell discuss the forms and regulations that govern their investigation of yet another person who has turned into a stick. They write notes on the incident, contact their headquarters in Hell, briefing them on their findings. When Woman from Hell confesses that she feels sorry for the stick, she is told by the man that “sympathy has no place in our profession.”

In the process of recording the event, the man and woman begin a philosophical conversation. The man refers to the stick as being capable and faithful. “In short,” he says, “the stick is the root and source of all tools.” He later adds that, “A stick remains a stick, no matter how it is used.... You might almost say that the etymology of the word faithful is a stick.” When Woman from Hell relates that this is the first time she has seen a specimen in the form of a stick, the Man from Hell reminds her that this is due to the fact that they never save stick specimens because they are so common. Then he continues by telling her that in the last thirty years the percentage of people turning into sticks, as compared to people turning into other objects, has increased. “I understand that in extreme cases,” he adds, “98.4 per cent of all those who die in a given month turn into sticks.”

The woman again feels an attachment to the stick when the man tells her to discard it. She wonders if it has feelings. She also thinks that maybe they should give the stick to the young boy so he can reflect on what has happened to his father. The man, contrasting her concerns, laughs at the thought of reflection on the part of the son. The man claims that the child is satisfied, as was his father, and that is the reason the father turned into a stick.

Man and Woman from Hell slowly leave the stage, on their way to another incident of a person turning into a stick. Stick then begins another monologue, with Man and Woman from Hell standing behind a curtain, seen only in silhouette. They return, once again, to speaking in poetic stanzas as Stick reflects on what has happened. Stick questions their presumptions that he was satisfied. Man from Hell then steps out from behind the curtain and points out that there is “a whole forest of sticks” in the audience. Woman from Hell goes over to Stick and tells him that he is not alone.

CHARACTERS

Hippie Boy

Hippie Boy is standing on the sidewalk outside a department store when a stick falls, barely missing

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MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

  • Although Abe’s The Man Who Turned into a Stick was never made into a movie, several of his other works were. Abe wrote the screenplays for each of these movies, all of which were directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara: The Woman in the Dunes (1964), which received a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. His Face of Another was produced in 1966, and The Ruined Map was produced in 1968 as The Man without a Map. The Woman in the Dunes is available on videocassette.

him. At first he is angry at whoever threw the stick down, then, as the play progresses, he becomes simultaneously attached to the stick and repulsed by it because it reminds him too much of himself. He thinks he looks like the stick and believes that the stick understands him.

In the beginning, Hippie Boy does not want to part with the stick, but in the end he sells the stick to the Man from Hell. Hippie Boy tells Man from Hell that the only reason he is selling the stick is because he doesn’t want to sell it. Hippie Boy represents the alter ego, or opposite, of Man from Hell. He is a symbol of rebellious youth, and he makes decisions based on emotions.

Hippie Girl

Hippie Girl is partnered with Hippie Boy, much like Woman from Hell is partnered with Man from Hell. She is somewhat subservient to Hippie Boy, who at one point tells her she is stupid and at another time tells her to shut up. Hippie Girl does not respond. She is also more emotionally involved with the little boy on top of the department store, whereas Hippie Boy is only angry with him, declaring that he hates kids. She also tries to explain Hippie Boy, in some ways, to the older couple. She reinforces Hippie Boy’s thoughts, for instance, by explaining Hippie Boy’s attitude by telling Man and Woman from Hell that the younger generation is alienated. At one point in the play, Hippie Girl asks Hippie Boy for a kiss, which he refuses. She then stands up for herself after the rejection, telling him that he needn’t put on airs. She then asks him to scratch her back with the stick, which he does reluctantly. When Hippie Boy becomes upset about his resemblance to the stick, Hippie Girl is very consoling, showing her emotional connection with Hippie Boy.

Man from Hell

Man from Hell works with his partner, Woman from Hell, reporting cases of people turning into objects (apparently upon death). Man from Hell stresses rationality, and he appears to be a mentor of the woman, who is in training. In his communications with the hippies, Man from Hell comes across as a parent, or authority, figure. However, when Woman from Hell suggests that they give Stick to the young boy, Man from Hell expresses no sentiment whatsoever. He represents logic and discipline. He is detached from the people with whom he must associate. The only hint of softness in his tone occurs when he calls headquarters and asks the person on the other end of the line to deliver a message to his wife. It is Man from Hell who, at the end of play, stands before the audience and tells them that he hopes they don’t think he is rude by pointing out that they are all sticks. “It’s just the simple truth,” he says, “the truth as I see it.” Man from Hell represents bureaucracy and the status quo.

Stick

Stick is the man who falls off the roof, leaving his son above, as he turns into a stick. He is dying. He displays his emotions when he thinks about his son, who has been crying out for him from atop the department store. Almost all his comments are emotional. He hears the conversations of Man and Woman from Hell as well as of Hippie Boy and Hippie Girl. When he observes what they are saying, he reacts emotionally. He does not understand why he has turned into a stick, or even why he fell off the roof. When Man from Hell suggests that Stick was satisfied, Stick questions this, claiming that he never felt satisfied.

When Stick is thrown into the wet gutter, he exclaims that he would be surprised if he didn’t catch a cold, thereby acknowledging that he doesn’t fully realize his own condition: first, that he has been turned into a stick; and second, that he is dying. He also questions his condition when his son almost discovers him in his new stick form. The stick asks: Page 211  |  Top of Article“There was nothing I could have done anyway, was there?” Woman from Hell describes a stick as something that is used by people for some particular reason. To this comment, Stick replies to himself: “That’s obvious, isn’t it? It’s true of everybody.”

Stick represents people who are too rigid, who get stuck in certain patterns in life and cannot break free of them. Stuck in this way, they might as well be dead, for they no longer experience life with a fresh view.

Woman from Hell

Woman from Hell’s job is to record, in an unemotional way, the occurrences of people turning into objects. Woman from Hell is in training and at times must be reminded what to do. Woman from Hell also tends to become emotionally involved with the people she studies, as contrasted with her partner and mentor, Man from Hell, who is pure logic. Woman from Hell empathizes with the man who has turned into a stick and with his son. She feels badly about throwing the stick in the gutter and wants to give it to the young son. When Man from Hell expresses doubt that he or she really exists, being no more than the dreams of dying people, Woman from Hell states: “If those are dreams, they are horrible nightmares.” At the end of the play, Woman from Hell tries to comfort Stick, telling him (after Man from Hell points out an audience full of sticks) that he is not alone. “You’ve lots of friends,” she tells him. Woman from Hell represents the formation of bureaucracy. She registers details but maintains empathetic relationships with the things she studies.

THEMES

Alienation

Alienation is a theme that runs through most of Abe’s work. In The Man Who Turned into a Stick, alienation is represented as Hippie Girl and Hippie Boy, the younger generation. Their alienation is specifically expressed by Hippie Girl when she declares that there is a generation gap between her and Hippie Boy and the man and woman from hell. Hippie Girl also delivers the line: “We’re alienated.”

These are obvious examples of Abe’s theme. There are more subtle ones, however. There is the problem of communication between the father (the stick) and his son. The father has fallen away from the son and turned into something unrecognizable. The son calls out to his father, but the father cannot respond because he has turned into a stick.

As a stick, the man can hear the other characters speaking but they cannot hear him. When Man from Hell states that the man was turned into a stick because he was satisfied, Stick disagrees but cannot protest. Taking this further, Stick cannot elucidate a comprehensive evaluation of his life even to himself. He questions Man from Hell’s assumptions, but does not offer any answers. This represents alienation in the sense of being separated from one’s own thoughts.

This kind of alienation from self is also depicted when Hippie Girl tries to remember her sister and the nicknames her siblings called her. She becomes confused when she tries to bring up memories, suggesting that she is confused about her own identity. She says that everything is wrapped in puzzles, intimating that this also includes herself.

Another form of alienation is the conflict between inner and outer realities. This is conveyed in the dialogue between Man from Hell and Woman from Hell. Man from Hell is determined to record only the facts of reality. He trains Woman from Hell to take down the time of day, details of location, the identification number of the latest victim, and what he describes as truthful descriptions of the objects they examine. Woman from Hell, on the other hand, is torn between recording these rational descriptions in order to do her job well and expressing her emotions, which make her empathize with the people she meets in the course of her work. Man from Hell believes that her emotions are a distraction and that she should learn to control or eliminate them.

Satisfaction

Man from Hell states that people turn into sticks because they are satisfied. This suggests that Abe believes satisfaction to be a negative thing, as sticks are stiff and lifeless. For Abe, satisfaction represents the status quo or, worse yet, stagnation. It is a state of mind that is frozen, accepting things as they are without searching for improvement.

Whereas Man from Hell states that the man was changed into a stick because he was satisfied, it is interesting to note that the Man from Hell also appears satisfied. He is very rule-oriented and teaches

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TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • Abe stages his play The Man Who Turned into a Stick as a series of three one-act plays. Read the other two plays (The Suitcase and The Cliff of Time) and write an analysis of how these plays fit together. Do you find a common theme? Do the plays reflect the subtitled themes of birth, process, and death? In reading the plays together, does it give you a better grasp of what Abe was doing in The Man Who Turned into a Stick?
  • At the end of his play, Abe has the Man from Hell character turn to the audience and state that he sees a forest of sticks out there. If you were sitting in the audience, how would you respond? Write a letter to Abe stating how you interpret this accusation. How does it make you feel? Do you agree with the assessment? Does it waken you to some new realization about your life?
  • Two of Abe’s characters are described as hippies. Change the description of these characters to bring them up to date. What would their names be? How would their attitudes differ in their communications with the other characters? Rewrite the portion of the play where these two characters are on stage, using a modern definition of rebellious and alienated youth.
  • Abe is often compared to Franz Kafka. Read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, in which a man turns into a bug. What are the themes of Kafka’s story? Are these themes similar to any of the themes in Abe’s The Man Who Turned into a Stick? Enlist a few volunteers to sit on a panel to discuss the two works. Research the backgrounds of these writers, the overall themes of their writing, and how these factors influenced their respective stories.
  • Research the history of Japanese imperialist rule in Manchuria. Then write a fictionalized account of Abe’s adolescence as if it were true. You may want to focus on one week in his life, covering what it must have been like to walk through the streets in constant fear of being kidnapped or to ride on the train and see heads stuck on the ends of poles. Find out what the landscape was like. Decide if you want this story to take place during the harsh winter or another season. Remember that Abe was a loner, so you might want to include interior dialogue.

Woman from Hell not to deviate from the rules. He does not question what he and she are doing and goes about his business with no inclination to change anything. While Man from Hell points at the audience and judges it as a forest of sticks, he does not consider himself to be part of it. Man from Hell also scoffs at the idea that either the man (who turned into a stick) or his son were capable of reflection, and yet there is nothing in the play that suggests that Man from Hell has reflected on his own life. If, on the other hand, he has, there are no signs that he is anything but satisfied with what he has seen.

Aimlessness

Hippie Boy and Hippie Girl launch into a discussion about aims in the play. They state that they have no aims. “Aims are out of date,” states the girl. Man from Hell tries to use their aimlessness to his advantage by persuading the hippie couple to give the stick to him.

Having an aim is one of Man from Hell’s more positive attributes. He has a job to do and his aim is to make sure that that job is completed according to regulations. Whether this is a positive attribute in Abe’s mind is unclear. By his name alone, Man from Hell does not fit a positive description. Yet, it is Man from Hell who tries to awaken the audience by pointing out their lack of idealistic aims, thus assuring that they will be turned into sticks.

In the conversation with Hippie Girl, Man from Hell appears to contradict his own goal-oriented Page 213  |  Top of Articlepersonality. He tells Hippie Girl that she is making too much of nothing when she starts daydreaming about the potential advantages of having aims (thus contradicting her original statement against them). Man from Hell refers to aims as “nothing.” He then concludes, “it’s bad for your health to want something that doesn’t really exist.” Rather, Man from Hell suggests, it is better to feel uncertainty and anguish about not having aims, for “they’re a lot better proof that you are there, in that particular spot, than any aim I can think of.”

Once again, it is unclear if Man from Hell is delivering this rhetoric for the girl’s benefit or for his own. If he succeeds in confusing the girl, he might also succeed in attaining his aim, which is to gain control of the stick.

Death

Abe has subtitled this play Death. In the play, there is the imminent death of the man who has turned into the stick, but there is also an overtone of imminent mortality for everyone. It is through the awareness of death that Abe hopes to awaken his audience. Abe’s own life was marked with many scenes of death, from the war in Manchuria to his father’s death, and the aftermath of bombing raids on Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. His awareness of death prompted him to see life with fresh eyes. Shields writes, “Abe’s ability to see ordinary things in extraordinary ways enabled him to suggest to his audience that they could do likewise.” By having a man fall off the top of a building and turn into a stick, and then have the audience watch as the man (now a stick) slowly succumbs to death, forces the audience to consider their own mortality. In considering their own deaths, people are compelled to look at the nature and condition of their lives, to reflect on the quality of their life choices.

STYLE

Abe’s youth outside of Japan in the stark and war-ravaged deserts of Manchuria, his background in medicine, and his residence in a bombed-out section of Tokyo have all influenced the way he looks at the world, and thus the way he writes and constructs his plays. Unlike many of Japan’s previously noted authors, as well as some of his contemporaries, Abe presents images that are urban, desolate, and somewhat distrustful of traditional Japanese society.

Much like a surgeon who must distance himself from his patients, Abe removes himself from the emotions of his characters to the point of seldom giving them personal names. Although Abe lived most of his adult life in Japan, his plays are written without specifically identifiable settings—they are non-descriptive and could occur anywhere in the world. In this respect, J. Thomas Rimer, writing in Dictionary of Literary Biography, compares Abe’s approach to the style of Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov, who, coincidentally, was also trained as a doctor.

There are many different descriptions of Abe’s style of writing. It has been called avant-garde, which in his day referred to the alienated characters he created who were forever seeking meaning in a seemingly apathetic world. His writing has also been labeled science fiction, in terms of his creating futuristic settings that address questions that concerned him in the present. Early in his career, Abe became fascinated with the promises of Marxist philosophy, and his work was subsequently imbued with a propagandist tone. Abe’s novels and his plays also possess absurd or surreal elements, creating hallucinatory, or dreamlike, images. He has also been called an existentialist, his works displaying, as Rimer states, “an ironic questioning of all established values.”

A consistent pattern in Abe’s work is the use of metaphor. Almost all of his narratives are built around a single metaphor and, as William Currie describes, “are developed with a kind of dream literalism.” Abe presents the metaphor in somewhat realistic terms, but, as the play unfolds, the only thing that holds everything together is a sense of the irrational. “I [Abe] tend instinctively, in a sense, to make the ordinary the starting point of all my thoughts. But at the same time, I dislike that as well, so I create monsters, to surprise.”

Later, in an interview with Shields, Abe mentions that he enjoys Anton Chekhov but believed that Chekhov’s plays were also “satisfying as literature.” They could be enjoyed without seeing them in performance. For Abe’s play, this was not Page 214  |  Top of Articletrue. “I write novels, so I have the means of expressing what can be expressed in novels. I want to express on the stage something which is at once original and can only be expressed on the stage.” Toward this end, Abe added elements to his plays that could only be presented in live performance. These components were added not only to enhance the flavor of a live performance but also to shock his audience. Often included were the sounds of someone going to the bathroom or the noises of a gurgling stomach. “Smells, too, are significant in Abe’s oeuvre,” writes Shields, “and tend to be disgusting.”

Abe’s style is not easy. His plays are puzzles that are difficult to understand; better yet, they are more like dreams that no one fully understands. Abe’s philosophy of drama was not to present everyday images that would entertain his audiences. His style was to make his audiences think. “Unless the theater regains the power to realize on stage those more abstract things which are impossible to see in everyday reality,” Abe tells Shields, “audiences will find theatrical productions more and more boring.” Abe elaborates on this challenge in an afterword to the published script of his play: “In performance it is essential that the style, rather than the words, be emphasized.”

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Manchuria

During the almost twenty years that Abe lived in Manchuria (from approximately 1925 to 1944), Japan’s imperialist expansion in Asia achieved one of its most infamous moments. Having defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), the Japanese established themselves in China and began transforming Manchuria by first setting up a puppet Chinese government, then building an industrial and military complex there. By the end of World War II, Manchuria had become the most industrialized region in China.

This transformation was not a humanitarian effort. There were horrific atrocities that occured in a hostile take-over of one cultural group by another, with severe physical punishment and torture used to control dissent. Abe recounts one childhood memory of riding in a train, looking out of the window, and seeing a large dump ground that was surrounded by stakes on which heads of dead people had been placed as a reminder to others of what would happen if they were deemed criminals. Abe, in Shields’s book, referred to these heads as “‘anonymous figures,’ whose stories would never be told.” These images of death would stay with Abe, informing his plays as well as his life, by constantly reminding him of his own mortality. “I feel that both novels and the stage offer an opportunity to give voice to the shouts that I heard from the dump ground,” Abe adds.

Japanese Theatre

One of Abe’s contemporaries, Koreya Senda, once complained about the influence of traditional theatre on drama in Japan, stating, in Shields’s book, that “all we had to work with was a group of actors who could only deliver lines in chanting, Kabuki fashion.” This reference was made in the name of the traditional Japanese form of theatre, which was so different from Western drama to which Abe was most attracted. Japanese theatre is a very old tradition, going back to the fourteenth century, and the form is very rigid, especially when compared to modern European and American drama.

For example, the first Japanese theatre form, Noh, is a stylized and prescribed performance that combines music, dance, poetry, and drama. The characters in Noh plays, as well as their movements and gestures, are specifically dictated by an ancient form and structure. The actors are highly trained to represent an artistic expression of quiet elegance and grace, as they play out the roles of gods, warriors, beautiful women, and supernatural beings. Accompanying the actors is a chorus of eight people who sit to one side of the stage narrating the story, expressing the thoughts and emotions of the characters, and singing the characters’ lines. Although not as popular as it once was, Noh theatre continues to flourish in Japan and around the world.

In the seventeenth century, a more relaxed form of drama evolved from the Noh tradition. Sometimes likened to vaudeville or burlesque, Kabuki theatre presents stories of larger-than-life heroes as well as ordinary people in more comic (and often more sensual) settings. As a matter of fact, sensuality

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COMPARE & CONTRAST

  • Early 1900s: Korean, Russian, and Japanese forces fight over Manchuria in a series of wars. In the decade prior to World War II, Japan exerts military control over the land and establishes Manchuria as the most industrialized section of mainland China.

    Middle 1900s: Japan loses its rights to Manchuria after World War II. Chinese Communist forces take control of the area when Russia threatens to invade.

    Today: China’s interest in Manchuria wanes and large-scale unemployment ensues as state-controlled businesses stagnate.

  • Early 1900s: Japan’s economy is largely based on textile goods. Later, as imperialist ambitions increase, the Japanese economy becomes even stronger with the manufacture of heavy war machinery.

    Middle 1900s: After a total collapse of its economy coming as a result of its defeat in World War II, Japan emerges as a major industrial power, manufacturing machinery, automobiles, and steel.

    Today: Japan is the most industrialized country in Asia and is the second-greatest economic power in the world, second only to the United States. Japan’s economy is now based on technological goods such as electric and electronic appliances.

  • Early 1900s: Expressionist playwrights like Karel Capek (Czechoslovakia) and Eugene O’Neill (U.S.A.) influence dramatists around the world with their use of minimal scenery, talking machines, and characters as types, rather than as real people, to convey the dehumanizing aspects of a technological society.

    Middle 1900s: The Theatre of the Absurd reflects a widespread sense of the utter meaningless in life through the work of such dramatists as Samuel Beckett (Ireland), Eugene Ionesco (France), and Edward Albee (U.S.A.), who influence many young, international playwrights.

    Today: There is a trend in modern plays to reflect realistic themes such as gay lifestyles, multicultural interests, reflections of Holocaust and Hiroshima survivors and their children, the political struggles of Apartheid, the devastation caused by AIDS, and cultural conflicts of post-Colonialism.

became such a dominant theme that, in 1629, women were eventually banned from appearing on stage, as government officials noted that some of the actresses were using the stage to promote prostitution. Thereafter, young boys took on the female roles until 1652, when they too were banned for the same reason. After that point, only mature men were allowed to play all the roles, a practice that, although no longer enforced by law, continues into modern times. Kabuki remains very popular in Japan, with Kabuki actors enjoying the same popularity as Hollywood movie stars.

Although Kabuki plays have evolved to address more contemporary themes, with dramatists such as Mishima Yukio (1925-1970) adding modern innovations, the structure is still highly stylized and the elements of music and dance, exaggerated movements, and extravagant makeup confine the type of drama it produces. William Currie, in his article “Abe Kobo’s Nightmare World of Sand,” confirms the conflicts Abe felt in trying to adapt his style of writing to the traditional theatrical form: “in range, depth and style, the works of Abe Kobo represent a considerable departure from the writing of almost all the Japanese novelists and dramatists who preceded him.”

Effects of World War II

Hiroshima lost over 200,000 people when the atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945. Page 216  |  Top of ArticleAnother 70,000 people died three days later, when an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. These incidents marked more than the end of the war. They marked the people of Japan as helpless victims, both physically (in the form of radiation burns from the bombs) and psychologically (with the awareness of their own mortality).

Besides the devastation and destruction caused by the bombs, Japan also came under the cultural and economic influence of the United States. Western culture infiltrated Japan, causing the younger generation, which included Abe and his peers, to stray from the rites of traditional Japan and embrace the new—and more individualistic—concepts of the West. Along with the influence of Western culture came the anguish of alienation, the search for self-identity, and the sense of living the inauthentic life—concepts that were very foreign to traditional Japanese culture. After World War II, the experience of cultural dislocation and problems of identity were addressed by a new generation of leftist writers such as Abe, who used narrative and dramatic techniques developed from Western modernism.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

Abe’s The Man Who Turned into a Stick received very little attention outside of Japan. Although it was not a hit with the traditional theatergoing crowds in Japan, the play did receive an outstanding reception, given its surreal and avant-garde themes, settings, and style, as well as it having its main production held in Abe’s small studio that seated only sixty people. Despite the fact that the play was used by Abe at his Kobo Abe Studio “as a studio exercise by the most junior members of the troupe,” it still played to over one thousand spectators.

Donald Keene, writing the Introduction to Abe’s play The Man Who Turned into a Stick, states, “The play was a popular as well as an artistic success.” Keene then relates, in a more general statement about Abe, that besides being respected as a writer

Abe’s commitment to the theatre has gone far beyond creating plays of literary excellence; he is profoundly concerned with techniques of acting, the effectiveness of gestures and speech, even the mechanisms of stage lighting and sound effects[.] He is, in short, a truly professional dramatist.

There are no specific reviews of this play written in English. However, there are studies of Abe’s work written by academics. J. Thomas Rimer, in his book Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Traditions: An Introduction, writes that “Abe has always been a fashionable writer. His early work, especially in the theater, shows the powerful influence of Marxism, so important in the Japanese intellectual scene during the early postwar years.” Rimer also compares Abe’s writing to Franz Kafka’s and further states that it is “most conspicuously ‘avant-garde,’” and adds that his “literary strategies emphasize wit and satire.” Rimer, this time writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, credits Abe with not only changing the face of Japanese theatre but also, through his plays, attracting international attention.

Abe’s protean literary activities during complex postwar times in Japan helped strengthen creative currents drawn from international developments in literature rather than from purely Japanese sources... [and] helped attract international attention to issues in postwar Japanese life.

However, Rimer also brings up the fact that, because Abe shed “too much of the Japanese literary tradition,” Japanese audiences regarded him as an inauthentic mirror of their culture. Meanwhile, Western critics paid little attention to Abe’s writing for basically the same reason: “Abe’s concerns and obsessions resemble those of other contemporary writers around the world.” In other words, Western critics expected Japanese writers like Abe to reflect a more specifically Japanese world. Rimer concludes his article by stating that, although Abe may not have received a lot of critical attention in his time, his influence is being felt in a new generation of Japanese writers, thus making Abe’s work a “harbinger of a broad new Japanese sensibility.”

Currie compliments Abe’s use of metaphor. He writes that Abe

uses strong, universal metaphors in such a way that they become a basis for his narrative art. By using metaphors, Abe expresses complex ideas not by analysis, nor by making an abstract statement, but by a sudden perception of an objective relation. This relation is expressed in one commanding image.

Many of Abe’s other plays received critical acclaim and won awards. One such play, The Ghost Page 217  |  Top of ArticleIs Here(1958, 1967), even traveled to East Germany where it played for two years. The Man Who Turned into a Stick was the first play that Abe himself directed.

CRITICISM

Joyce Hart

Hart has degrees in English literature and creative writing and is a freelance editor and published writer. In this essay, she examines the dramatic and psychological techniques Abe uses in his play to enthrall his audience.

Kobo Abe’s The Man Who Turned into a Stick is a play that, despite its idiosyncratic features, its nameless characters, and practically nonexistent plot, has the power to not only capture its audience but to touch upon issues that merit attention even forty years after it was written. There is something very personal about Abe’s writing that makes members of his audience pay attention to every line and sometimes even squirm in their seats as they recognize themselves in his play. Abe is a master of knowing how to grab his audience’s attention and then exposing some of their more intimate thoughts and emotions. He accomplishes this without their knowing what he has done or how he has done it.

Anyone who has read Abe or attended one of his plays does not have to be told that they are difficult to understand. However, in spite of the challenge of his disjointed plots and obscure meanings, his audiences tend to leave the theatre excited about what they have just seen. As Shields writes, “Abe’s fervor infected everyone with a sense of contagious excitement. It did not matter if the actors, audience, or even Abe himself did not completely comprehend his creation.” Abe’s drive to create plays that are completely new, so new that even he might not understand their meaning, is an act of courage. That might be part of the reason why his plays attract attentive audiences, but there is more going on in his plays than new angles and perspectives, innovative tricks, and far-fetched characters. Although the overall ambiance of an Abe play makes the audience feel like they have entered a dream, Abe has put a lot of rational thought into the creation of his fantasies. He knows how to keep his audience tuned in to the action on stage. He is more than a writer. He is a combination of orchestral conductor, dramatist, and psychologist: wooing his audience with his charm, he pretends to entertain them while he divulges some of their deepest secrets.

Abe begins his play The Man Who Turned into a Stick with stage directions that suggest that the young hippie couple (Hippie Boy and Hippie Girl) could be shown sniffing glue. So the curtain opens with an image of rebellion, risk-taking, and somewhat disorienting recklessness. Granted, a glue-sniffing scene in the twenty-first century might seem a bit tame, but modernize the element to a more radical, modern drug, or cheap high, and the impact is there. With this first image, before any dialogue has been spoken, Abe broadcasts more than could be explained in several minutes of conversation. Of course, Abe did not know how his audience might interpret this opening scene, but he knew it would grab their attention and set them on edge, ready for a night of theatre unlike any they had experienced before.

From this opening scene, Abe then has a four-foot-long stick “hurtling down from the sky,” and crashing to the stage, nearly hitting Hippie Boy. Not only does the stick startle the young hippie couple, it assuredly startled the audience. As the audience ponders what the stick might represent, Man from Hell enters from stage-left and, in a poetic, chantlike voice, recites lines about the moon being a knife that is “peeling the skin of fate.” Abe wastes no time garnering the audience’s attention. Before easing his audience into a slightly more comfortable mode, however, Woman from Hell announces, almost like a town crier, the somewhat startling news that yet another man has turned into a stick. There is, in fact, a man (referred to as Stick) on stage who matches his movements, as best he can, to those of the real stick that is now in Hippie Boy’s hands. With this introduction, Abe has arrested his audience’s curiosity. They are now wide awake with anticipation. They are primed and ready for the drama to unfold.

Next, Abe eases back into his chair, allowing his audience to catch its breath, as the hippie couple exchange lines about the rhythm the boy is tapping on the sidewalk with the stick. Then the girl looks up and exclaims, “Look!” and points to a young

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WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • Abe’s work and style are often compared to Franz Kafka, a writer born in Prague in 1883. Two of Kafka’s better known works include The Metamorphosis(1915; English translation 1937), in which a young man wakes up one morning to find that he has been changed into a large bug. The theme of this book, as with most of Kafka’s work, is the individual’s feelings of inadequacy and isolation in modern civilization. The other book, The Trial (1925; English translation 1937), involves a young man accused of a crime he did not commit, much less understand. He is eventually released but must return to court to repeatedly prove his innocence. Both novels explore the psychological terrors that many people experience in modern-day life.
  • Another writer to whom Abe is compared is Alain Robbe-Grillet, who was born in Brest, Brittany, in 1922. Robbe-Grillet wrote about characters who had little or no previous history and no conventional names to identify them, as do the characters of Abe’s plays. Robbe-Grillet’s most famous work is the novel Les Gommes (1953; translated as The Erasers, 1964). This book is a type of murder mystery, which covers a supposed twenty-four-hour period that begins when a bullet is fired from a gun and ends with the bullet entering and killing its victim.
  • Three other popular plays by Abe include Fake Fish (1973), a play about fish who dream of being men and men who dream of being fish; Friends (1965), in which a smiling but unidentified family invades a man’s life and drives him to suicide—Abe’s statement against the traditional Japanese communal values; and Green Stockings (1974), a play about a man who, in an attempt to transcend his everyday existence, steals stockings, panties, and brassieres from other people’s clotheslines.
  • Abe’s most popular work of fiction is The Woman in the Dunes (1964). In this story a schoolteacher, who is also an amateur entomologist, sets out to find a rare insect. While searching in vast, unnamed sand dunes, the protagonist comes across a primitive colony of people whose daily task is to haul sand out of their submerged living quarters. The schoolteacher eventually becomes entrapped and is kept prisoner there. When he finally escapes, he no longer has the desire to return to his former life.
  • Jacob Golomb’s In Search of Authenticity: Existentialism from Kierkegaard to Camus (Problems of Modern European Thought) (1995) is a study of the writings of Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, existential philosophers and novelists who examined mankind’s responsibility in determining what is right and wrong, a subject (and philosophy) that Abe often referred to.

(unseen) boy, on the roof of a tall building. She surmises that the boy threw the stick. Hippie Boy responds derogatively, stating that he hates all little boys, while Hippie Girl is concerned that the young boy might fall over the edge. Abe has caught the audience’s attention again. He had lightened up for a couple of lines, but now he introduces more tension: first, the Hippie Boy’s straightforward announcement that he hates little boys, an unpopular sentiment; second, there is the idea that the little boy might fall, arousing concern in the audience. At this point, with everyone looking up, hoping for the young boy’s safety, Stick speaks. As his monologue progresses, the audience begins to relate to him. He is sensitive, concerned, confused, and loving. He is, in other words, like most members in the audience. He is the quintessential Everyman.

When Man and Woman from Hell meet at center stage (they have been slowly walking in from opposite sides of the stage) they begin a dialogue Page 219  |  Top of Articlewith the hippies. Through their exchanges, Abe hints at his themes of alienation, death, passivity, and aimlessness. He creates short conversations that focus on these themes, but he intersperses slightly off-balanced dialogues that don’t make a lot of sense. For instance, immediately following a somewhat lengthy description of Man from Hell’s sentiments about the benefit of uncertainty and anguish in one’s life, Hippie Girl turns to Hippie Boy and asks: “How about a kiss, huh?” It is as if Abe wants to catch the audience off-guard. He has turned and caught them catnapping, something he cannot allow them to do. So he throws out a line that will again wake them up. After all, who can resist the mention of a kiss?

Apparently, Hippie Boy can—and does. Hippie Girl is put off, but offers a compromise. Why doesn’t Hippie Boy scratch her back with the stick? By now, the audience has associated the male actor with the stick. The man has been talking for the stick and has matched the stick’s motions as best he can. The audience has identified the stick with the man and must wonder how the boy will scratch the girl’s back with Stick? Will he use the stick or the male actor? The audience must figure this out. Again, Abe lures the audience into the act, forcing them to think through the motivations of the characters and anticipate what the author has planned next.

The girl bends over in Hippie Boy’s direction, implying that she is ready for him to scratch her back. Hippie Boy inserts the stick (the real stick) down the back of her dress. In likewise fashion, Hippie Girl then scratches Hippie Boy’s back with the stick. Hippie Boy enjoys the scratching so much he emits strange, ecstatic noises and announces that he hasn’t had a bath in a long time. Here Abe inserts humor. It is used as a respite, an opportunity for the audience to relax and laugh at nonsense. However, it does not last long. As soon as the audience begins to laugh, Abe turns their emotions around and makes them confront anger. Hippie Girl throws the stick down in disgust and exclaims: “You egoist!” Just when the audience thought that Abe was letting up the pressure, he catches them again. This time he catches them in a puzzle. What is wrong with Hippie Girl? What does she mean by calling Hippie Boy an “egoist”? What is going on? In throwing out questions at his audience, Abe keeps them connected to his play. Nothing is answered or explained, of course, leaving the audience to work through the confusion, creating their own answers.

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“THE PLAY PROGRESSES, WITH ABE CLENCHING AND SQUEEZING THE NERVES OF HIS AUDIENCE, THEN RELEASING THEM FOR SHORT PERIODS OF TIME, ONLY TO GRAB THEM AGAIN WITH NEW, UNSETTLING ELEMENTS.”

The play progresses, with Abe clenching and squeezing the nerves of his audience, then releasing them for short periods of time, only to grab them again with new, unsettling elements. Stick speaks. He is very emotional. His son is crying out for him. Stick knows that this is the last he will see of his son. Interspersed between the monologues of the dying stick are Abe’s reflections on modern life, as expressed by the other characters in the play. The audience, now completely rapt with anticipation, wonders why the Man from Hell has asked for their attention. Their minds are open, and Abe is about to leave them with a message that will remain with them for quite some time.

Toward the end, the play takes a turn toward the serious. Hippie Boy, while holding the stick, senses his own resemblance to it. He feels the life flowing out of it, and it startles him. The reflection on the boy’s part is flitting, at first, for the conversation quickly changes direction, returning briefly to comedy, with Abe orchestrating a discordant rhythm that keeps the audience perturbed as the characters switch from jokes to irrational actions to moments of reflection. Hippie Boy’s identification with the stick continues to weave its way through the play until, in astonishment and confusion, Hippie Boy gladly hands over the stick to Man from Hell. Hippie Boy, Abe demonstrates, does not like what he feels. He does not want to see himself as a stick.

It is during the last section that the play delivers most of Abe’s message. The dialogue is fairly straightforward, with no comedic interruptions. Abe partially explains the metaphor of the stick and the reasons why the man has turned into one. Then he has everyone but Stick leave the stage, with the Man and Woman from Hell seen in silhouette as they stand behind a curtain. They begin reciting poetic Page 220  |  Top of Articlestanzas again as Stick contemplates the reasons for his present condition. Without stepping out from behind the curtain, Woman and Man engage in a brief dialogue, wondering how a stick would scratch himself if he had an itch. The audience is lulled into believing that the play has reached its conclusion. However, Abe has a few more tricks up his sleeve. The audience is in for another surprise. Abe is not quite finished with them.

Man from Hell suddenly reappears on stage and walks over to the audience. He stands, pointing his finger at individuals in their seats. Then he says: “Look—there’s a whole forest of sticks around you.” With this, Abe has done it again. The play, in essence, has finished, but the final message has yet to be delivered. Abe is not going to let the audience go home, believing they can sneak out of the theatre unnoticed. Abe is like a teacher, and Man from Hell is handing out Abe’s take-home exam. The play has delivered Abe’s message, only now he wants to make sure that the audience understands that he was talking directly to them. There was only one man in this play who turned into a stick, but in the audience there are many more potential victims. Man from Hell then delivers his last lines: “I wouldn’t want you to think I’m saying these things just to annoy you.... It’s just the simple truth.”

Just in case the audience didn’t get Abe’s message, he has Woman from Hell console Stick by telling him, just before the curtain falls, that he is not alone. “You’ve lots of friends,” she says. With these words, Abe leaves his audience alone. At least he leaves them in the physical sense. His play, his thoughts, his quirky images, and his disturbing questions go home with every member of the audience. If there are questions in their minds, and most assuredly there will be questions, Abe leaves the members of the audience to answer them on their own.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on The Man Who Turned into a Stick, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Erik France

France is a librarian and teacher of history and interdisciplinary studies at University Liggett School. He also teaches basic writing at Macomb Community College near Detroit, Michigan. In the following essay, he discusses elements of existentialism and the Theatre of the Absurd in Abe’s play.

In a darkly playful and bizarre manner, The Man Who Turned into a Stick forces its audience to think about the purpose of life in a crowded, technology-saturated society. Subtle conflicts between characters inspire one to explore the meaning of life and death as an essential aspect of the human condition. As the play opens, the title character jumps off the roof of a department store located above a busy subway or train station in Tokyo. His suicide creates the play’s situation and plot. However, one cannot determine whether the ensuing action and dialogue are “real.” As the Man from Hell suggests, it is possible that he and his partner-in-training “constitute no more than the dreams that people have when they are on the point of death.” Such ambiguity gives the play disturbing and unsettling force. Conceptually, the bleak themes of existential despair and death in Kobo Abe’s The Man Who Turned into a Stick can be placed within a historical context.

The philosophy of modern existentialism and the closely related Theatre of the Absurd came into their own in the wake of the destruction and trauma caused by World War II. This horrendous conflict, raging from 1939 to 1945 in Europe and the Pacific, killed millions of men, women, and children. It left the survivors, particularly those who lived in areas where the fighting was most intense, disoriented and devastated, in a state of shock. For many, religious leaders seemed incapable of explaining why or how God or a Supreme Being could allow such an atrocity to occur. Many intellectuals and artists lost faith in either God or the idea of rational human progress. Existentialism flourished in the wake of such twentieth century horrors as the European Holocaust and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, events that provided ample evidence of mankind’s capacity for inflicting—and enduring—tremendous suffering. Emerging in Paris, which had been occupied by Nazi forces from 1940 to 1944, existentialist writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1960) stated that modern life is pointless and absurd, without real meaning. In their view, God or a Supreme Being has apparently abandoned humans to their own devices. The best one can do is bravely face the absurdity of life and act accordingly.

Following World War II, the Theatre of the Absurd developed and explored the theme of existentialism. Sartre and Camus wrote plays as well as novels and essays and books of philosophy, but Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1954) is probably the best-known example of Theatre of the Absurd. In this genre, characters frequently experience alienation, a feeling of separation from society and place. They often come to realize that their lives Page 221  |  Top of Articleare pointless. Once they reach this conclusion, they either continue on without much hope or try some desperate and often irrational act such as suicide. To keep audiences from fleeing to the exits in despair or denial, Theatre of the Absurd playwrights often use humor—usually bizarre and often nonsensical—to provoke laughter, even if the laughter is nervous or anxious. The Theatre of the Absurd made its maximum cultural impact in the 1950s and 1960s, a period of recovery from World War II. Tellingly, Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. Kobo Abe’s The Man Who Turned into a Stick, first staged in 1967, fully resonates with elements of both modern existential philosophy and the Theatre of the Absurd.

Modern Japan, the setting of Abe’s play, has undergone radical and startlingly rapid change in less than thirty years. Once the principal Asian military power, Japan suffered firebombings of its major cities, atomic attack, and military occupation by the United States and its allies. It then became transformed into a technologically advanced and rapidly developing economic power. Throughout this time, Japan was served by a disciplined workforce that accepted personal sacrifice as a rule. The Man Who Turned into a Stick represents this workforce, the necessary ingredient that made modern post-war Japan possible. He, like most Japanese workers, pays a heavy price for Japan’s “success.” The Man from Hell explains that the Stick “has put up with every kind of abuse, until its whole body is covered with scars, never running away and never being discarded” and therefore “should be called a capable and faithful stick.” Similar characteristics could also describe those who led and served under the Japanese war machine of the 1930s and 1940s. From Abe’s point of view, as expressed by the Man from Hell, capability and faithfulness are not particularly enlightened attributes for humans. Indeed, when placed entirely at the disposal of others without question, they eventually contribute to one’s sense of alienation from the world. In the Stick Man’s case, it leads him to such despair and desperation that he flees his son and leaps off a roof. Life has become so unbearable that an act of suicide seems heroic and liberating by comparison. For once he does something for himself. This seems irrational, perhaps, but taking responsibility for one’s actions despite the absurdity of life is a heroic gesture, an act that constitutes one of the hallmarks of existentialism and Theatre of the Absurd. In life, one makes self-defining choices, even if they lead to one’s own death.

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“LIKE A STICK PRODDING THE AUDIENCE TO EXAMINE ITS BELIEFS AND VALUES, THE PLAY FORCES DIFFERENT GENERATIONS TO BECOME AWARE OF HOW THEY LIVE THEIR LIVES.”

Free will is an essential aspect of existentialist thought. The very act of transforming a man into a stick seems absurd on a rational level, but this transformation makes more sense on a subconscious and symbolic level. The quality of workers’ lives is so poor that they are worth no more than sticks to be used as tools. The outlook is bleak. The Man from Hell points out to his partner that “the percentage of sticks has steadily gone up.” Workers’ lives have become so dehumanized that they require no judgment or punishment when they die. Without hope while they live, they have no faith in Heaven or a redemptive afterlife. Yet Hell exists, at least in a dying man’s consciousness. If there is a God or Supreme Being, he has abandoned humankind to its own devices. According to Hell’s textbook: “The Master has departed and the earth has become a grave of rotten sticks. That’s why the shortage of help in hell has never become especially acute.” Here and throughout the play are echoes of Sartre, Camus, and Beckett.

Two other characters provide an alternative to the Stick Man’s way of life. Hippie Boy and Hippie Girl represent the counterculture that developed throughout the 1960s in reaction to the established values of the time. The counterculture movement made a lasting impression on the United States during the Vietnam War and soon became a worldwide phenomenon. Hippies defied the accepted social norms, yet they defined themselves simply by being against these norms rather than offering an alternative. Hippie Girl says blithely, “This is the age of the generation gap. We’re alienated.” With this pronouncement, the playwright indicates that hippies are just as alienated as people who live by the more accepted social rules and expectations. The hippies live aimlessly, which bothers Hippie Girl somewhat. Her sister has died recently and she feels unsettled. She suggests that some aims in life Page 222  |  Top of Articlewould be a good thing. The Man from Hell replies in typical existentialist fashion. “The uncertainty you feel at the thought you have lost track of whatever aims you once had—they’re a lot better proof that you are there... than any aim I can think of,” he tells her. In existentialism, mental anguish is a necessary part of understanding the absurd nature of human life no matter how it is lived. Hippie Boy acts disagreeably, trying to assert his uniqueness. But he feels anxious after Hippie Girl tells him that he resembles The Man Who Turned into a Stick. Hippie Boy cannot help but feel more disturbed when the Man from Hell follows up her observation: “Let’s suppose for the moment you do look like the stick—the meaning is not what you think it is.” Hippie Boy thinks he’s been clever by selling the stick for five dollars, but immediately after he makes the deal the Man from Hell says rather menacingly, “It wasn’t just a stick you sold, but yourself.” In folklore, making a bargain with the Devil or his minions frequently leads to the surrender of one’s soul. Later, when the Woman from Hell asks her partner what will become of the hippies, he says: “If they don’t turn into sticks maybe they’ll become rubber hoses.” He seems to be saying that, in the end, it makes no difference.

Much of the subtle conflict in The Man Who Turned into a Stick results from the interaction between Hippie Girl and Hippie Boy and between the Man and Woman from Hell. The girl and woman show more compassion and hope, which their male counterparts try to dash through quips and commentary. Hippie Boy calls Hippie Girl “just plain stupid,” while the Man from Hell chides his partner for being too compassionate, too sentimental. Hippie Girl thinks that some aims in life would be worthwhile. The Woman from Hell thinks that The Man Who Turned into a Stick should be given to his son. “Don’t you think that’s the least we can do?” she asks. “At least it ought to serve as a kind of mirror. He can examine himself and make sure he won’t become a stick like his father.” But her partner refuses to do so. Still, their own fate is no better. After all, they reside in Hell—or in a figment of the dying Stick Man’s imagination. The Man from Hell even has problems back at Headquarters. He’s forgotten his keys and his wife might be mad at him. The Voice from Hell tells him over the walkie-talkie that he’s “hopeless.” Elements of existentialism and Theatre of the Absurd are found throughout The Man Who Turned into a Stick. Kobo Abe bluntly and repeatedly announces that no one can escape the human predicament. Like a stick prodding the audience to examine its beliefs and values, the play forces different generations to become aware of how they live their lives. As if this is still not clear enough, in the final moments before the curtain falls, the Man From Hell advances toward the audience and says “Look—there’s a whole forest of sticks around you... All those sticks. You may never be judged, but at least you don’t have to worry about being punished.” This pronouncement is merely “the simple truth, the truth as I see it.”

Source: Erik France, Critical Essay on The Man Who Turned into a Stick, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

SOURCES

Abe, Kobo, The Man Who Turned into a Stick: Three Related Plays, translated by Donald Keene, University of Tokyo Press, 1975.

Currie, William, “Abe Kobo’s Nightmare World of Sand,” in Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel, edited by Kinya Tsuruta and Thomas E. Swann, Sophia University, 1976, pp. 1-3.

Iwamoto, Yoskio, Review of Kangaroo Notebook, in World Literature Today, Winter 1997.

Keene, Donald, Introduction, in The Man Who Turned into a Stick: Three Related Plays, translated by Donald Keene, University of Tokyo, 1975, pp. vi-x.

Rimer, J. Thomas, “Abe Kobo,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 182: Japanese Fiction Writers Since World War II, Gale Research, 1997, pp. 3-10.

Rimer, J. Thomas, “Tradition and Contemporary Consciousness,” in Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Traditions: An Introduction, Princeton University Press, 1978, pp. 261-65.

Shields, Nancy K., Fake Fish, Weatherhill, Inc., 1996.

FURTHER READING

Goodman, David. G., trans, and ed., After Apocalypse: Four Japanese Plays of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Cornell University Press, 1994 (reprint).

A collection of modern Japanese plays that looks into the spiritual, political, and moral questions that faced most Japanese during the postwar era.

Iles, Timothy, Abe Kobo: An Exploration of His Prose, Drama and Theatre, European Press Academic Publishing, 2000.

This is one of a very few books written in English that is totally focused on Abe’s work. Iles offers a comprehensive study, interpretation, and criticism of both Abe’s fiction and his plays.

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Keene, Donald, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, Columbia University Press, 1984.

This book, written by the noted scholar and translator of Abe’s works, offers an extensive study of Japanese literature, including drama. Keene has translated the works of many major contemporary Japanese writers.

Mishima, Yukio, Five Modern Noh Plays, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1981.

Using the traditional form of the Noh play, Mishima, a famous novelist, explores modern existential questions. Modern audiences often state that Mishima’s work haunts them long after they have experienced his plays.

Takaya, Ted T., ed., Modern Japanese Drama: An Anthology, Columbia University Press, 1979.

This collection offers an overview of modern Japanese plays that were written and produced in Abe’s time. Included are plays by Abe, Yukio Mishima, and other contemporary Japanese dramatists.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"The Man Who Turned into a Stick." Drama for Students, edited by Jennifer Smith, vol. 14, Gale, 2002, pp. 206-223. Gale Ebooks, https%3A%2F%2Flink.gale.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX2693900020%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dpoul45153%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3D5726a354. Accessed 18 Sept. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693900020

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  • Absurdity
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 220-222
  • Aimlessness
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 212
  • Alienation
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 211
  • Alienation
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 208
      • 14: 211
      • 14: 213
      • 14: 216
  • Asia
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 206
      • 14: 208
      • 14: 213-216
      • 14: 220-221
  • Avant-garde
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 213
      • 14: 216
  • Death
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 213
  • Death
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 207
      • 14: 209
      • 14: 211
      • 14: 213-214
      • 14: 216
      • 14: 220-222
  • Dialogue
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 206
      • 14: 209
      • 14: 211
      • 14: 217-220
  • Drama
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 213-216
      • 14: 220-222
  • Dreams and Visions
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 207
      • 14: 213-214
  • Emotions
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 211
      • 14: 213-214
      • 14: 217
      • 14: 219
  • Europe
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 214-215
      • 14: 217
  • Existentialism
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 220-222
  • Fate and Chance
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 206-209
      • 14: 213
      • 14: 216
  • God
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 220-221
  • Hell
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 208-209
      • 14: 211-213
      • 14: 217-222
  • Humor
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 219
  • Imagery and Symbolism
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 207
      • 14: 213
      • 14: 216
  • Money and Economics
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 209
      • 14: 214-216
  • Monologue
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 209
  • Narration
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 213
      • 14: 216
  • Nuclear War
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 215-216
  • Philosophical Ideas
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 208-209
      • 14: 213-214
      • 14: 220-221
  • Politics
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 214-215
  • Religion and Religious Thought
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 214
  • Satisfaction
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 211
  • Setting
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 213-214
      • 14: 216
  • Trust
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 208-209
  • War, the Military, and Soldier Life
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 213-216
  • World War II
    • The Man Who Turned into a Stick
      • 14: 214-216