Yukio Mishima and Kobo Abe are among some of the most internationally famous Japanese authors, but for quite different reasons. Although both deal in their books with themes of isolation and shocking sexual or violent material, Mishima deals with isolation in terms of being an alienated Japanese person and becoming further alienated from society as time progresses while Abe describes the sensation of being alienated due to a lack of Japanese aesthetics. Mishima’s debut into the international literary scene was Confessions of a Mask, a semi-autobiographical account of the life of a latent homosexual man. Abe’s most famous work is The Woman in the Dunes, which details the misery of a bug collector trapped in the leaky shack of a woman at the bottom of a sand pit.
One would consider them contemporaries, since Abe, born in 1924, was only a year older than Mishima, but their styles differ so much that one cannot find an article online that relates the two authors together. Confessions of a Mask, with its scenes of masturbation and sadomasochistic fantasies, veers radically from traditional Japanese aesthetics, which always tend to brush over the sexual act and portray it as either a fulfillment of love or utilized for comedic effect. Mishima does neither, choosing instead to display a tortured and twisted character who gradually ceases to attract the reader’s sympathy. However, he also wrote Noh and Kabuki plays, though he mixed the traditional Japanese theater themes with contemporary settings. Before international acclaim for him began, he had gained some early fame in his own country, starting with his first published short story at the age of 12.
Abe, on the other hand, found much of his inspiration in Western works, as evidenced by modern comparisons of his works with those of Franz Kafka and Alberto Moravia. The sexual encounters in The Woman in the Dunes are eerie rather than outright disturbing, but the entire story smacks more of a nightmare than a disturbing account of an actual occurrence. The narration focuses on the main character’s bouts of frustration in the first half of the novel as he struggles to escape captivity in the dunes when his captor is convinced that he is the one not thinking rationally about the situation. It brings to mind Kafka’s The Trial, where a presumably innocent man becomes caught in a corrupt justice system and continually struggles, to no avail, to rectify his circumstances.
This brings to mind a thought: is it better to achieve international success as an international author and be isolated from the culture and society of your home country or achieve limited international success as a national author and yet still find yourself somewhat isolated from the rest of your society even as you are deeply invested in that society’s culture? Is it only international authors whose works should be valued in the comparative literature or world literature fields or should more domestic authors be given more credit for producing great national works?
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