Surname is pronounced “Oh-ey” born January 31, 1935, in Ehime, Shikoku, Japan; died March 3, 2023; married Itami Yukari, 1960; children: three, including Hikari. Education: Tokyo University, earned degree, 1959.
Novelist and short story writer, beginning 1952. Judge and namesake, Kenzaburo Oe Literary Award, beginning 2005.
Akutagawa Prize, Japanese Society for the Promotion of Literature, 1958, for Shiiku; Shinchosha Literary Prize, 1964; Tanizaki Prize, 1967; Noma Prize, 1973; Jiro Osaragi Prize (Asahi Shimbun), 1983; Yomiuri Literary Prize, 1983, for “Rein tsurio” kiku onnatachi; Yasunari Kawabata Literary Prize, 1986, for Kaba ni kamareru; Ito Sei Literary Orize, 1989; Europelia Arts Festival Literary Prize, 1989; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1994; Order of Culture, Japanese government (declined), 1994.
NOVELS; IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION
Shiiku (novella; title means “The Catch”), [Japan], 1958, translation by John Bester published in The Shadow of Sunrise, edited by Saeki Shoichi, [Palo Alto, CA], 1966.
Memushiri Kouchi, [Japan], 1958, translation by Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama published as Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, Marion Boyars (New York, NY), 1995.
Kojinteki na Taiken, [Japan], 1964, translation by John Nathan published as A Personal Matter, Grove (New York, NY), 1968.
Man'en gannen no Futtoboru, [Japan], 1967, translation by John Bester published as The Silent Cry, Kodansha (New York, NY), 1974.
Pinchi ranna chosho, [Japan], 1976, translation by Michiko N. Wilson and Michael K. Wilson published as The Pinch Runner Memorandum, M.E. Sharpe (Armonk, NY), 1995.
Atarashii hito yo mezameyo, Kodansha (Tokyo, Japan), 1983, translation by John Nathan published as Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!, Grove (New York, NY), 2002.
Jinsei no shinseki, [Japan], 1989, translation by Margaret Mitusani published as An Echo of Heaven, Kodansha International (New York, NY), 1996.
Shizuka na seikatsu, Kodansha (Tokyo, Japan), 1990, translation by Kunioki Yanagishita and William Wetherall published as A Quiet Life, Grove (New York, NY), 1996.
Two Novels: Seventeen, J., translation by Luk Van Haute, introduction by Masao Miyoshi, Blue Moon Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Chugaeri, [Japan] 1999, translation by Philip Gabriel published as Somersault, Grove (New York, NY), 2003.
The Changeling, translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2010.
Death by Water, translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2015.
SHORT STORIES, ESSAYS, AND LECTURES; IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION
Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (collection), translation and introduction by John Nathan, Grove (New York, NY), 1977.
Hiroshima Notes (essays), translation by David L. Swain and Toshi Yonezawa, Marion Boyars (New York, NY), 1981, revised edition, 1995.
The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath, translation by Ivan Morris and others, Grove (New York, NY), 1984.
Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself: The Nobel Prize Speech and Other Lectures, translation by Hisaaki Yamanouchi and Kunioki Yanagishita, Kodansha (New York, NY), 1995.
Kaifuku-suru kazoku (essays), Kodansha (Tokyo, Japan), 1995, translation by Stephen Snyder published as A Healing Family, illustrated by Yukari Oe, Kodansha International (New York, NY), 1996.
Warera no jidai (title means “Our Age”), [Japan], 1959.
Okurete kita seinen (title means “Born Too Late”), [Japan], 1961.
Sakebigoe (title means “Screams”), [Japan], 1962.
Nichijo seikatsu no boken, [Japan], 1971.
Kozui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi, [Japan], 1973.
Seinen no omei, [Japan], 1974.
M/T to mori no fushgi no monogatari (title means “M/T and the Wonders of the Forest”), Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1990.
Aimaina Nohon no watakushi, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1995.
“THE FLAMING GREEN TREE” TRILOGY
Sukuinushi ga nagurareru made (title means “Until the ‘Savior’ Gets Socked,”), Shinchosha (Tokyo, Japan), 1993.
Yureugoku: “vashireshon” (title means “Vacillating”), Shinchosha (Tokyo, Japan), 1994.
Oinaru hi ni (title means “On the Great Day”), Shinchosha (Tokyo, Japan), 1995.
SHORT STORIES; IN JAPANESE
Oe Kenzaburo shu, [Japan], 1960.
Kodoku na seinen no kyuka, [Japan], 1960.
Seiteki ningen, [Japan], 1968.
Warera no hyoki o ikinobiru michi o oshieyo, [Japan], 1969, enlarged edition, 1975.
Oe Kenzaburo ( “Gendai no bungaku” series), [Japan], 1971.
Mizukara waga namida o nugui-tamau hi, [Japan], 1972.
Sora no kaibutsu Agui, [Japan], 1972.
ESSAYS; IN JAPANESE
Sekai no wakamonotachi, [Japan], 1962.
Oe Kenzaburo zensakuhin, [Japan], 1966 67.
Jizokusuru kokorozashi, [Japan], 1968.
Oe Kenzaburo shu (“Shincho Nihon bungaku” series), [Japan], 1969.
Kakujidai no sozoryoku, [Japan], 1970.
Kowaremono to shite no ningen, [Japan], 1970.
Okinawa noto, [Japan], 1970.
(Editor) Mansaku Itami, Itami Mansaku essei shu, [Japan], 1971.
Kujira no shimetsusuru hi, [Japan], 1972.
Dojidai to shite no sengo, [Japan], 1973.
Jokyo e, [Japan], 1974.
Bungaku noto, [Japan], 1974.
Genshuku na tsunawatari, [Japan], 1974.
Kotoba no yotte, [Japan], 1976.
Kaiko takeshi, Oe Kenzaburo shu, [Japan], 1975.
(With N. Yujiro and Y. Masao) Chushin to shuen, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1981.
Shomotsu: Sekai no in yu, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1981.
Yomu koi, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1981.
(With others) The Catch and Other War Stories, Kodansha International (New York, NY), 1981.
(With N. Yujiro and Y. Masao) Bunka no kasseika, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1982.
Hiroshima kara Oiroshima e: 82 yoroppa nohankaku heiwa undo o miru, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1982.
Kaku no taika to “ningen” no koe (title means “The Nuclear Conflagration and the ‘Voice’ of Man”), Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1982.
“Rein tsurio” kiku onnatachi (title means “Women Listening to the ‘Rain Tree’”), Shinchosha (Tokyo, Japan), 1982.
Ikani ki o korosu ka (title means “How Do We Kill the Tree”), Bungei Shunju, (Tokyo, Japan), 1984.
Nihon gendai no yumanisuto watanabe kazuo o yomu, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1984.
(With Y. Ryosuke) Sekai no 40-nen: sengoo minaosu, soshite, ima, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1984.
Ikikata no teigi: futatabi jokyo e, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1985.
Kaba ni kamareru (title means “Bitten by the Hippopotamus”), Bungei Shunju, (Tokyo, Japan), 1985.
Shosetsu no takurami chi no tanoshimi, Shinchosha (Tokyo, Japan), 1985.
(Editor) Fire from the Ashes: Short Stories about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Readers International (London, England), 1985.
Natsukashii toshi e notegami, Kodansha (Tokyo, Japan), 1987.
Kirupu no gundan (title means “The Army of Quilp”), Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1988.
(With Inoue Hisashi) Yutopia sagashi, monogatari sagashi: Bungaku no mirai ni muke te, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1988.
Atarashii bungaku no tame ni (essays; title means “For the New Literature”), Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1988.
Saigo no shosetsu (essays; title means “The Last Novel”), Kodansha (Tokyo, Japan), 1988.
Ooka shohei no sekai, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1989.
Jiritsu to kyoseio kataru: shogaisha, koreisha to kazoku, shakai, Miwa Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1990.
Chiryoto: kinmirai SF, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1990.
(With Takemitsu Toru) Opera o tsukuru, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1990.
Chiryoto wakusei: kinmirai SF (title means “The Tower of Treatment and the Planet”), Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1991.
Hiroshima no “seimei no ki,” Nihon Hoso, Shuppan Kyokai (Tokyo, Japan), 1991.
Boku ga honto, ni wakakatta koro (title means “The Time That I Was Really Young), Kodansha (Tokyo, Japan), 1992.
Jinsei no habitto, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1992.
Moeagaru midori no ki, Shinchosha (Tokyo, Japan), 1993.
Shinnen no aisatsu, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1993.
Shosetsu no hoho (title means “The Method of a Novel”), Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1993.
Shosetsu no keiken, Asahi Shinbunsha (Tokyo, Japan), 1994.
(With Günter Grass) Gestern, vor 50 jahren: Ein deutch-japanischer briefwechsel, translation from the Japanese by Otto Putz, Steidl, 1995, translation from the German by John Barrett published as Just Yesterday, Fifty Years Ago: A Critical Dialogue on the Anniversary of the End of the Second World War, Alyscamps Press (Paris, France), 1999.
Nihon no “watakushi” kara no tegami, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1996.
(With Kawai Hayao and Tanikawa Shuntaro) Nihongo to nihonjin no kokoro, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1996.
(With O. Yukari) Yuruyaka na kizuna (title means “Collected Essays”), Kodansha (Tokyo, Japan), 1996.
Doitsu to nihon no sengo bungaku o kakeru, Orijin Shuppan Senta, (Tokyo, Japan), 1997.
Watakushi to iu shosetsuka no tsukurikata (title means “Essays about the Methods of Oe's Writing “), Shinchosha (Tokyo, Japan), 1998.
(With Subaru Henshubu Hen) Oe Kenzaburo, saihakken, Shueisha (Tokyo, Japan), 2001.
(With Andre Siganos and Philippe Forest) Nostalgies et autres labyrinthes: entretiens avec Andre Siganos et Philippe Forest, translated from the Japanese by Sylvain Cardonnel, Asako Yoshioka, and Andre Siganos, Cecile Defaut (Paris, France), 2005.
Oe Kenzaburo, sakka jishin o kataru, Shinchosha (Tokyo, Japan), 2007.
Oe Kenzaburo Karatani Kojin zentaiwa: Sekai to Nihon to Nihonjin, Kodansha (Tokyo, Japan), 2018.
(With others) “Inoue Hisashi” o yomu: Jinsei o ko?teisuru manazashi, Kabushiki Kaisha Shueisha (Tokyo, Japan), 2020.
Also author of The Perverts (fiction), 1963; and Adventures in Daily Life (fiction), 1964.
Kenzaburo Oe became one of Japan's first authors ever to receive national recognition for his writing while still a university student. When he was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1958 for his novella Shiiku (“The Catch”), the twenty-three-year-old became one of Japan's most popular writers. Now acclaimed as one of the greatest Japanese writers of the twentieth century, Oe won the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Oe was born in 1935 in the forested mountain region of Shikoku Island in southern Japan. His father died in 1944. He studied comparative literature at Tokyo University, taking a degree in French literature in 1959. A master of languages, he read French, Russian, Chinese, English, and Russian, and was particularly influenced by French and American authors—from Rabelais to Sartre and from Herman Melville and Mark Twain to Norman Mailer. It was from Rabelais, according to translator David Swain in the commentary included in his translation of Oe's Hiroshima Notes, that Oe learned the image system of grotesque realism, “a mode of literary expression that has enabled Oe to eschew the traditional Japanese literary habits of indirection and suggestive innuendo and to develop instead a more universal style of dealing directly with reality as experienced yet without sacrificing subtlety.”
Oe was politically engaged since his student days when he led demonstrations against the reestablishment of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. He was consistently protested war, nuclear weapons, racism, and even the nearly sacrosanct “Emperor system.” Masao Miyoshi wrote in the San Francisco Review of Books that Oe's “passion for the underclass of the earth cannot be challenged.” Western literature also greatly influenced Oe's writings. At Tokyo University he studied the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as the works of Blaise Pascal and Albert Camus. His favorite American authors include Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Norman Mailer. Oe was most inspired by Mark Twain's character Huckleberry Finn, whom he has used as a model for his own fictional heroes.
Oe's interest in the political and the absurd are reflected in two of his earlier novels which have been more recently translated into English. Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids is set on the island of Shikoku, Oe's “peripheral” birthplace. It takes place during World War II, as a group of juvenile delinquents are evacuated from a reformatory to a remote village. The boys are mistreated by hostile peasants until the villagers, fearing plague, abandon them. The adolescent narrator tells how the boys band together, caring for each other as well as an abandoned girl and a Korean boy. When the villagers return, they attempt to hush the boys about their abandonment at the hands of those meant to protect them. All but the narrator give in, and he is hounded and chased out of the village “insanely angry, tearful, shivering with cold and hunger.” Julian Duplain, writing in the Times Literary Supplement wrote: “As a story of misled innocents, Oe's novel draws clear parallels with imperialistic Japanese military policy in the Second World War, as well as providing a rallying cry for antiauthoritarian resistance. To Western readers, the directness of emotion—for example, the boys' honest esteem for one another—sometimes sounds simplistic.” A Kirkus Reviews critic found Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids to be “more shaded, more graphic, and angrier than Lord of the Flies, but the fierce anger is transmuted by Oe's art into literary gold—an anguished plea for tolerance more wrenching than any rant could ever be.”
The pivotal event in Oe's life and work was the birth of his brain-damaged son in 1963. As a strong bond developed between Oe and his son, the writer penned several partially autobiographical novels in which the protagonist is the father of a brain-damaged child. The first of these, A Personal Matter, is the story of a twenty-seven-year-old man nicknamed Bird, whose wife gives birth to a deformed baby. The boy, looking like a two-headed monster, appears to have a brain hernia, and the doctors tell Bird that the baby will probably die or be a vegetable for life. Bird is so horrified that he chooses to let the baby die rather than face life tied to a retarded son. While his wife and child are in the hospital, Bird runs off to the apartment of a young widow friend, where he escapes into a world of fantasy, sex, and alcohol. He loses his teaching job after being so hung over that he vomits during a lecture. Meanwhile, the baby, being fed only sugar water, refuses to die, so Bird takes him to an abortionist to have him killed. Suddenly, however, he changes his mind and returns the baby to the hospital. Doctors discover that the hernia is only a benign tumor, and after successfully operating, they announce that the baby will be normal, though with a low IQ. Bird finds a new job and is reunited once more with his wife and child.
The novel is not as pretty as its ending might suggest. Washington Post reviewer Geoffrey Wolff remarked that A Personal Matter “reeks of vomit and spilled whisky. Its surreal characters are all vegetables, cut off from history and hope. They define themselves by their despair. They use sex to wound and humiliate one another. They trick themselves with hopeless dreams of a new life, far away.”
In his own life, Oe, feeling much like Bird, went off on assignment to report on the international peace meeting in Hiroshima. His Hiroshima Notes records his views of the antinuclear movement from 1963 to 1965, focusing on the political bickering of the several factions and lashing out at their failure to recognize the real suffering of the victims of the atomic bombings. Oe drew strength from his encounters with the survivors, and particularly with Dr. Fumio Shigeto. His transforming experience in Hiroshima led him to approve the operation that saved his son's life, albeit with severe mental limitations. Virtually speechless, Oe's son nevertheless later demonstrated a remarkable talent for music composition. Despite continuing health problems and his mental impairment, he released two CDs in Japan that have sold well.
The Pinch Runner Memorandum tells the story of a group of student radicals who construct their own atomic bomb. A brain-damaged boy and his father, a former nuclear physicist, work with Oe and his own son to avert disaster. “The invention of this ‘pinch runner’ double,” Masao Miyoshi wrote in the Nation, “suggests the increasing complexity of a writer in positioning himself in his story—and the world.” A New Yorker critic found that “Oe's writing is bold, savage, and often very funny. … This complicated book is above all a heartening display of the explosively constructive power of imagination.”
Oe's A Quiet Life, published in Japan in 1990, is a semifictional account of three nearly adult children, one mentally disabled, who are left to cope alone when their parents move to the United States for eight months. A major theme of the novel is the anxiety of the caregivers over the feelings and needs of the mentally impaired family member, Eeyore, whose communication is rare and often ineffective. They consistently leap to the worst conclusions. When Eeyore writes a musical piece he calls “The Abandoned Child,” his brother and sister immediately assume the reference is to Eeyore and his father, which Eeyore is only belatedly able to explain is not the case. “Yet,” noted Lindsley Cameron in the Yale Review, “the question of the father's guilt is never really resolved. In fact, the novel is in a way a long exploration of that question, and some of its most strongly felt passages condemn the claims of exceptional individuals to exceptional privileges.”
The transformation of suffering is also the theme of Oe's novel An Echo of Heaven, which recounts the life of a Japanese woman, Marie Kuraki, whom Oe and the novel's narrator first knew as a teacher of foreign languages and literature in a Tokyo university. Marie marries and has two sons, one severely brain-damaged. As teenagers, the boys commit suicide together, and Marie's estranged husband turns into a drunken wastrel. The novel focuses on Marie's efforts to rise above these tragedies, as she works first with a theater troupe, then with a semi-Christian cult in California, and finally on a peasant commune in Mexico. The commune's leader, in a ploy to hold his project together, plans to transform Marie, a persistent unbeliever now dying of cancer in her late forties, into a saint to be revered by the peasants. Zia Jeffery, writing in the Nation, saw the novel as Oe's ironic backward glance at his own career as an artist being transformed from a man “into a martyr, then an image of a martyr and finally into kitsch.”
Oe put the capstone on his autobiographical work about his son with Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age, in which he traces the boy's development from childhood to young manhood. Employing images from nineteenth-century English poet William Blake, Oe “performs a kind of literary onanism,” according to Andrew Irvin in the Philadelphia Inquirer Online. As Irvin further noted, with this work Oe “has looked inward and found the seeds of artistic invention in his own books.” Again, Oe tells the tale of a famous Japanese author, known only as “K,” and his mentally disabled son, nicknamed Eeyore. With his father away on a business trip, Eeyore acts erratically, becoming depressed and even violent. When K returns, he tries to get closer to his son to understand his mood swings; he finds succor and guidance in a strange place: the poetry of Blake. Adam Mars-Jones, writing in the Guardian Online, noted that “for most of this book, Oe takes from Blake the marvelous discovery that the most extreme expressions are sometimes the least distorted.” Mars-Jones also found Oe's novel “fascinating and even rewarding,” though he also noted “it isn't easy to take in.” In a Publishers Weekly review, a contributor remarked that Oe writes with “depth and passion” about his relationship with his son. The same reviewer felt that Oe's book is “deceptively modest” and “powerful,” and that Oe is a “master at the height of his literary powers.” Similarly, Booklist reviewer Ray Olson described the novel as “Oe at his best,” in both an “intellectual treatise” and a “moving family memoir.”
Winning the Nobel Prize in 1994 marked the beginning of a new artistic era for Oe. His first novel after winning the prize, Somersault, “concerns an austere, embattled, and eventually self-destructive religious cult,” according to a Kirkus Reviews critic. Published in English in 2003, the novel is inspired by the 1995 events surrounding the Aum Shinrikyo cult, and Oe moves away from the autobiographical stance of so many of his works featuring the relationship between him and his disabled son. In this book, artist and art professor Kizo, who is suffering from terminal cancer, falls in love with a boy, Ikuo, whom he met years earlier. Now the professor and his friend are enlisted in the effort to revive a religious cult discredited a decade earlier for terrorist plans. In the course of this work, they become involved with a strange girl, Dancer, who was earlier involved with Ikuo, as well as with a full panoply of characters inside the cult, all jockeying for power. Olson, writing again in Booklist, called Somersault a “thick stew of sexual and more parareligious than religious incidents.” Olson also felt that the novel resembles the work of “late Dostoevsky.” Shirley N. Quan, reviewing the title in Library Journal, thought it “reads like a social/spiritual/religious commentary,” and is a “highly literate piece.” Commenting on the length of the work—576 pages—a reviewer in Publishers Weekly noted that Oe “has attempted to create a sprawling masterpiece, but American readers might decide there's more sprawl than masterpiece here.” Similarly, the Kirkus Reviews critic found the first half of the novel “tedious.” However, according to the same critic, the second half, detailing the reemergence of the thriving cult, creates a “series of increasingly complex relationships and tensions.” Interestingly, even in this nonautobiographical novel, Oe's son makes an appearance in the guise of a musical genius who has suffered brain damage.
After writing about the role of the Japanese military in Okinawa's mass suicides at the close of World War II, Oe was sued for defamation by a war veteran and another veteran's surviving family. The court ruled in favor of Oe in 2008, but during the three years in which he was involved in the lawsuit, Oe was largely unable to write. Prolific once more by 2010, Oe wrote the novel The Changeling. The story features renowned author Kogito Choko, whose brother-in-law, Goro, is a director. On one his new tapes, Goro pronounces that he is going to the Other Side but that he will still continue to speak with Kogito. The odd statement becomes chilling when, soon after hearing it, Kogito learns that Goro has committed suicide. Kogito inherits Goro's tapes, and they inspire him to search out his and Goro's respective pasts. The decision sends him on a journey that spans from Japan to Berlin. “Oe skillfully leaves a number of questions hanging without coming across as evasive,” Christopher Tayler wrote in the London Guardian. “He then pulls off a sudden change of perspective that adds further question marks to what's gone before, shifting the emotional centre of the story back to Goro's suicide and incidentally revealing that the book's earlier strain of what one might take as Japanese misogyny was to some extent a double bluff.” Despite these commendations, Tayler concluded: “Unfortunately, the reader's sense of not possessing important chunks of the background to this allusive, personal yet political novel is amplified by Boehm's translation.”
In a more equivocal assessment, Bookslut Web site reviewer Adrienne So commented: “A lot of fiction writers ask themselves this question: Is my work readable? By ‘readable,’ I refer to literary gimmicks; things like archaic allusions, meta-fictional self-references, and convoluted plot lines. Most writers use these gimmicks sparingly, knowing that a reader will only tolerate so much … before they throw in the towel.” She went on to note: “Like his protagonist, however, Kenzaburo Oe is not the kind of writer who takes his readers' sensibilities into consideration. He writes the novel he wants to write, and readability be damned. As long as you can reconcile yourself to the fact that Oe is smarter, more talented, and way more well-read than you are, you can happily set yourself to decoding the multiple layers of meaning in The Changeling over and over and over.” Michael Dirda, writing in the Washington Post, however, panned the book, observing that “while The Changeling obviously contains elements of mystery, psychological fiction and bildungsroman, it sadly lacks a clear and compelling narrative line. People who seem to be significant suddenly drop out of the story. Key plot elements are never clearly resolved. Chapters ramble and digress, and the prose is often cliche-ridden.” Based on this, he wrote: “I'd never read any of Oe's fiction before The Changeling, and perhaps I've been unlucky in choosing to discover him in this late work. Even though the novel is full of intriguing elements, it never really springs to life.”
More laudatory praise for the novel was proffered by critics in the Los Angeles Times, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal, among others. Indeed, Scott Esposito, writing in the Los Angeles Times, pointed out that “The Changeling strongly evokes the author's 1967 novel, The Silent Cry, which also began with a suicide and then combined themes of Japanese nationalism, postwar occupation, city versus country and a left-behind friend's quest for answers. In this latest novel, Oe's examination of Japan's uneasy coexistence with nationalism is not as penetrating, but his understanding of relationships and art has grown deeper and more nuanced, and his narrative technique has blossomed in a new and satisfying way.” Library Journal contributor Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., was also impressed, commending “the magical way in which Oe weaves inquiries into the haunting nature of the past with questions about the nature of human identity.” A Kirkus Reviews critic remarked: “Once again introspection and autobiography are transmuted into compelling fiction in the latest from Japan's 1994 Nobel laureate.” Olson, reviewing The Changeling in Booklist, offered additional applause, declaring: “Oe deeply ponders love, sex, art, friendship, family, and death in a rich, psychologically acute rhapsody of narration.” The novel is “teeming with intimate and harrowing passages,” a New Yorker critic asserted, resulting in a “ruminative, elegiac quality.” According to a Publishers Weekly contributor, The Changeling features a “deft mix of high intellectual reflection and absurd slapstick scenarios is polished to a high gloss.”
In Death by Water, published in 2015, aging writer Kogito Choko travels to his hometown after experiencing a long period of writer's block. He hopes to find answers to questions he has about the death of his father, who supposedly drowned in a river. An old trunk may contains secrets about Choko's past. Meanwhile, a local theater troupe is planning to put on one of his plays.
Janice P. Nimura, a contributor to the New York Times Book Review Web site, suggested: “True Oe devotees may find [a] thrill in Death by Water, but thrilling or not, it remains a thoughtful reprise of a lifetime of literary endeavor. It's like the story of the emperor's new clothes, only with the man in question gazing calmly at his audience and declaring yes, it's true, he's completely naked and he wouldn't have it any other way. You have to admire his serene and total conviction, even if you flinch from the view.” Guardian Online reviewer Steven Poole noted that Oe writes “in a meandering, looping, and often stifling fashion.” Poole continued: “Even once one has accepted the occupational hazard, in reading Japanese books in translation, of American slanginess … it challenges the reader's patience.” However, Poole concluded: “The ending is quite some coup.” Writing on the Independent Web site, James Kidd commented: “Death by Water is a pretty peculiar book. The central mystery and grand themes (the ambiguities of Showa-era Japan, the artist's relationship to the past and present, suicide, gender) are absorbing. The unmistakable echoes of Oe's own life are intriguing.” “It's vintage Oe: provocative, doubtful without being cynical, elegant without being precious,” remarked a Kirkus Reviews critic.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Cameron, Lindsley, The Music of Light: The Extraordinary Story of Hikari and Kenzaburo Oe, Free Press (New York, NY), 1998.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 10, 1979, Volume 36, 1986, Volume 86, 1995.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 182: Japanese Writers since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1994, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Forest, Philippe, Oe Kenzaburo: Legendes d'un romancier japonais, Editions Plein Feux (Paris, France), 2001.
Literature Lover's Companion, Prentice Hall (Englewood, NJ), 2001.
Napier, Susan J., Escape from the Wasteland: Romanticism and Realism in the Fiction of Mishima Yukio and Oe Kenzaburo, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1991.
Oe, Kenzaburo, Hiroshima Notes (essays), translation by David L. Swain and Toshi Yonezawa, Marion Boyars (New York, NY), 1981, revised edition, 1995.
Oe, Kenzaburo, Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself: The Nobel Prize Speech and Other Lectures, translation by Hisaaki Yamanouchi and Kunioki Yanagishita, Kodansha (New York, NY), 1995.
Penguin International Dictionary of Contemporary Biography, Penguin Reference (New York, NY), 2001.
Reference Guide to Short Fiction, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Rubin, Jay, editor, Modern Japanese Writers, Scribner (New York, NY), 2000, pp. 277-293.
Short Story Criticism, Volume 20, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Wilson, Michiko N., The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo: A Study in Themes and Techniques, M.E. Sharpe (Armonk, NY), 1986.
Booklist, February 1, 2002, Ray Olson, review of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!, p. 908; March, 2003, Ray Olson, review of Somersault, p. 629; March 1, 2010, Ray Olson, review of The Changeling, p. 48.
Entertainment Weekly, March 22, 2002, review of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!, p. 104.
Guardian (London, England), June 12, 2010, Christopher Tayler, review of The Changeling.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1995, review of Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, p. 261; February 1, 2002, review of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!, p. 134; February 1, 2003, review of Somersault, p. 172; April 15, 2010, review of The Changeling; August 1, 2015, review of Death by Water.
Library Journal, December, 2002, Shirley N. Quan, review of Somersault, p. 180; April 1, 2010, Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., review of The Changeling, p. 69.
Los Angeles Times, March 7, 2010, Scott Esposito, review of The Changeling.
Nation, May 15, 1995, Masao Miyoshi, review of The Pinch Runner Memorandum p. 696; September 30, 1996, Zia Jeffery, review of An Echo of Heaven, p. 34.
New Yorker, February 6, 1995, review of The Pinch Runner Memorandum, p. 38; March 29, 2010, review of The Changeling, p. 101.
Publishers Weekly, January 28, 2002, review of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!, p. 267; January 6, 2003, review of Somersault, p. 36; November 30, 2009, review of The Changeling, p. 26.
Rain Taxi, summer, 2001, Jason Picone, review of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!
Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 2002, Amy Havel, review of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!, p. 145.
San Francisco Review of Books, March-April, 1995, Masao Miyoshi, article about author, pp. 8-9.
Times Literary Supplement, May 12, 1995, Julian Duplain, review of Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, p. 21.
Washington Post, June 11, 1968, Geoffrey Wolff, review of A Personal Matter; March 25, 2010, Michael Dirda, review of The Changeling.
Yale Review, April, 1997, Lindsley Cameron, review of A Quiet Life, p. 150.
Bookslut, http://www.bookslut.com/ (February 11, 2011), Adrienne So, review of The Changeling.
Japan Times Online, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/ (April 2, 2016), Iain Maloney, review of A Quiet Life.
Guardian Online (London, England), http://www.theguardian.com/ (August, 4, 2002), Adam Mars-Jones, review Of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!; (December 18, 2015), Steven Poole, review of Death by Water.
Independent Online (London, England), http://www.independent.co.uk/ (December 21, 2015), James Kidd, review of Death by Water.
Los Angeles Times Online, http://articles.latimes.com/ (March 7, 2010), Scott Esposito, review of The Changeling.
New York Times Book Review Online, http://www.nytimes.com/ (October 2, 2015), Janice P. Nimura, review of Death by Water.
Philadelphia Inquirer Online, http://www.philly.com/ (May 12, 2002), Andrew Ervin, review of Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!
Washington Post Book World Online, http://www.washingtonpost.com/ (March 25, 2010), Michael Dirda, review of The Changeling.