Kobo Abe - Kangaroo Notebook (1991)/Ruined Map (1967)/Secret Rendezvous (1977)
Review published 8/02/2021 Kangaroo Notebook by Kōbō Abe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"Help me help me help me please, please please won't you help me please." A group of child-demons, part of the Help Me! Club, sings this a bunch over the novel.
While reading this book I wrote a jingle to go along with the "help me! club"'s jingle. It goes:
4/4, C Major, one note per syllable. The first 6 notes on each line are staccato, the last note is held for the quarter note. I imagine instrumentation would be something like the grating hellscape of the "It's a Small World!" ride at Disneyworld.
In the same way that a Japanese reader pointed out that Abe's sex hospital catastrophe novel "Secret Rendezvous" sounds like Yosuke Yamashita Trio's "Arashi" (1977), I think much of Kangaroo Notebook is meant to have the score of "It's a Small World (but worse)", outside of the Pink Floyd references.
The novel follows a man (curiously I think the fact it's a man is only confirmed by the implied death article at the end of the book). The man says the 1920s were "way before I was born", and his parents died around 5 years, ago, so my guess is the protagonist is nearing retirement age (since the book is set at least past 1987 according to the Pink Floyd references).
You can see other reviews for plot summaries, but to me the gist is that this book weaves between two worlds - the fugue/hallucination/dream state of the protagonist, and less frequently, a sick ward at a hospital. I think that there's a throughline with previous Abe books in that this book is about the disorientation/dissolution of identity of a protagonist, but in this case, the space in which the protagonist undergoes that (e.g., the dunes in Woman in the Dunes, the hospital in Secret Rendezvous, the city in Ruined Map, mines in Ark Sakura) - is not a physical space, but a mental one. In this case, a dream-like world formed from the protagonists memories, entered and explored via a near-death state.
I don't really know what gets the protagonist into the hospital in the first place (One could say that maybe the sequence mentioning the kangaroo notebook is a hallucination or recollection of the protagonist's job). But I get the sense that the protagonist is probably a pedophile of some sort, who manipulated (but not to the point of any touching) a girl. Maybe he feels guilty or maybe he's sincerely just pathetic enough to still long for this girl (I'm vouching for the latter because the protagonist doesn't demonstrate any self awareness about his views towards young girls), but in any case, his nurse reminds him of the girl, and he sees the girl multiple times during his dream-trip to a hot springs in 'hell'.
The stuff he sees in the dream world are usually related to fixations or things in his life - the Daikoku book and his father, the department store, an encounter with Americans obsessed with "population control". My guess on the children's choir is probably related to his tendencies, being attracted to events in which children are being publicly consumed (e.g. childrens' sporting events, choir).
The stuff at the end with the girl and the train station and the 'circus' not coming also felt like something in favor of the pedophile interpretation, the girl lamenting about the 'circus not coming'... between that and the songs at the end about children hunting down kidnappers, there's a general tone of 'adults manipulating children'.
Well, the man is implied to die at the end, and he has cuts on his legs where his 'radish sprouts' were (which supports the whole reality/dream interwoven narratives). I think the death here is more metaphorical... some kind of justice for the youth suffering at the hands of weird adults, symbolized in a man dying of unknown causes at an abandoned train station (perhaps, dying in the past?)
Sexualization of minors is huge in Japan - it's a cornerstone in a large portion of their media (Anime, Manga, Idols, Music, Games). It's literally everywhere and is totally normalized, even to the point that many Anglophone consumers usually just go along with it since it's almost impossible to avoid (A few examples from games off the top of my head: the Lalafell race in FF14, Qiqi in Genshin Impact, Renne/Tita/various other minors in the Trails series). It's not that people who play or make these games are necessarily pedophiles, but it's more that it's clearly a selling point that *works* for some reason, and so developers continuously replicate these types of characterizations/storytelling, seeing them as the norm. (For example, every Trails game pretty much has sexualized high schoolers, or child soldiers overcoming their trauma. The 'youthful body' is used as a canvas for ridiculous backstories disrespecting, say, actual child soldiers!, gross/crude jokes, and most of all, twisted/unrealistic beauty as a selling point)
I don't really know the history of these problems but I wonder if Abe was thinking about trends in popular culture in the post-war period? I don't know how far back pedophilia in Japanese media goes, but I'm sure the trend was there by the 80s.
Overall, the structural gimmick of this novel was interesting. A non-self-aware pedophilic man, without much purpose in life (based on his job) slips into this journey through his past and memories, leaving and entering the journey without much explicit recognition within the novel, with symbols and people reoccurring, eventually leading to his death.
Maybe this in some ways is a condemnation but also plea for help for the gender problems in Japan - the salaryman, subjected to workplace standards and expectations, forced to do meaningless tasks, seeking escape and comfort in messed up media. The woman, dealing with societal oppression and expectation at every corner, being sexualized at all ages.
I think this novel mostly comes off as 'weird' to a majority of readers, which IMO is a totally legitimate reading. I think that, as a work of art, it means that it kind of fails, if its themes were around gender/etc in Japan... Still, I found it memorable/funny, and it's pretty short, too.
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Review published 7/26/2021 The Ruined Map by Kōbō Abe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I had a lot of trouble following this novel until I made a rough timeline and map (haha). I was surprised that it takes place over 4 days, with the meat of the action happening on the middle two days.
The characters in this book take on a game NPC-like quality, I think many were doubly-intended as a symbol in a fiddly social network of symbols. What I came to as an interpretation was this.
On Day 1, the detective enters the world of the novel and begins his investigation. On Day 2, the detective investigates places related to the missing husband, hindered by unhelpful characters. It ends in the brother's death in a chaotic fight scene set in a workers' encampment near a river.
Up to that point, the brother had been protecting the wife from the outside world. On Day 3, the detective becomes markedly more aggressive and unreasonable, maybe from the near-death experience at the riverside (a ghostly setting of aggression and pent-up oppression)
I think at this point it becomes clear that the story of the "social network" of the missing husband - comprising of: the wife, the wife's brother, Tashiro (the husband's co-worker) - that story can be read as an allegory on the detective's life up until the events of the story.
That is, on one level this book is a fairly fruitless investigation, but on another level the detective is following the disappearance of a husband who can be seen as analogous to the detective himself.
Some things that led to this interpretation - the wife decides to get a job AFTER the brother dies. The brother is strangely omnipresent and skilled, and always protective of the wife. The brother reads to me as an overly defensive force restraining another force (pick your interpretation - the book seems to point towards a worker's relation to the rat race of the quickly growing 1960s Tokyo.)
If we view those four characters as some aspect of the detective's mind - then Tashiro seems to be some kind of paranoid, obsessive, mad character who can't make up his mind on whether he's a liar or not, but ultimately exits the book via suicide.
With the brother dead, husband gone, wife more proactive, and Tashiro dead - the detective finally 'breaks free' from his Job as a detective (and his past as an office worker / husband of a fabric store owner). Removed from his job, the landscape he's in (where he began the investigation) becomes meaningless. Without social context or motivation, any given city space becomes a collection of mostly random signs and people.
Days 1/2 and 3/4 neatly divide the book in half. I found the "NPCs" that the detective meets on day 3 - his ex-wife, a Taxi driver, the paranoid Tashiro, a Highway, and a Funeral, to be pretty interesting Meeting the ex-wife gives context to the detective's past and what he broke away from, the Taxi driver speaks loosely about people finding new jobs or lives in the city (alluding to the missing husband and the detective's lives). Purposelessly driving on the Highway (but not escaping) is a visual setting with a handful of interpretations (there's no purpose for the detective outside the city, as long as he's a detective).
The places on Day 2 are more straightforward in the events that happen - offices, coffee shops, parking lots. I like that they feel like a 'regular detective story facade' to the more complicated settings of the book's second half. In a way, the contrast of locations here reminds me of my game Anodyne 1 and the contrast of the game's back half/deeper layer and the game's first half (which of course has origins in the 'deeper' areas of the game Yume Nikki vs. the immediately door-nexus-accessible areas).
Overall, while I suppose what has happened and happens to the detective is bleak, the city portrayed is so detailed with its array of characters, that I feel like the detective is bound to find some kind of new life within the myriad of tiny social networks and layers.
Stylistically... I don't like this as much as Abe's later work. It's quite dark and detailed, most people speak strangely outside of some occasionally enlightening monologues, and it's really hard to remember where you are without drawing a map. There's not as much humor to lighten up the otherwise labyrinthine, foggy tone. Still, a really unique structure and layer of symbols, so I liked it!
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Review published 7/12/2021 Secret Rendezvous by Kōbō Abe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
for fun i looked at some japanese reviews of this. one mentioned that the book's development and climax feel a lot like some of the yosuke yamashita jazz trio's work: I do not know this trio's music, so I looked into it. here is a link to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UO1p1... . I think the description is apt.
Have you ever played a game and tried to make a map by hand? But the game doesn't really lend itself to being mapped by hand well. Anyways, sometimes you end up with doors and corridors intersecting with each other in impossible ways. Trying to navigate a game with that kind of map is fairly similar to the experience of this novel.
Just now Thomas Bach (the CEO of the Olympics - (If you're not familiar - an ad company who organizes an annual advertisement festival off the backs of workers and taxpayers in various countries)), whoops, there's a long parenthetical again.. Thomas Bach called the Japanese people the "Chinese People". I always wonder how one goes from being a middling white high school student, to an absolute work of art like Bach.
Secret Rendezvous gets at that process a little - the transformation of a bright young child into a bureaucratic corporate worker - where the protagonist increasingly goes along with things into the hospital, slowly shifting his sense of normal until it's far off from any baseline reality.
That is to say, our protagonist - Mario - (not his name, of course - he has no name - but he sells Jump Shoes for a living, so, Mario.) Mario's search for his wife in a hospital soon turns into a blind lets play of a surreal 3D game (Crypt Underworld, Goblet Grotto, LSD Dream Emulator... etc...). In the sense that trying to muster an image of the hospital in this book is a hopeless cause. Corridors morph into underground malls, aboveground parks, offices with secret passageways..
I get the sense Mario's dedication to his job isn't really his life's calling despite his competence, so quickly his identity slowly splits into three: that of a hesitantly compliant chief of security for the hospital, a paranoid husband searching for his wife, and a man who wants to protect a girl being used for sexual experiments.
Anyways, no one in this hospital knows what the hell they're doing. People out to kill Mario stop in their tracks because he issues the command to stop (and is wearing a chief of security coat.) People don't enter a bathroom stall until Mario scrapes off the word "MEN". Pursuers turn into picnic friends. Everyone in this novel is a broken Skyrim NPC, their AI bugging out as they try to gravitate towards any sense of meaning (usually forwarding the perverse sexual goals of a few of the characters.)
Bewildered by the messy spatial logic and twisted organization of the hospital labyrinth, he gets his ass kicked and wakes up in some empty, dusty, dark version of the hospital, where he admits defeat and asks to be admitted as a patient. Poor Mario.
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