Reviews / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

Kobo Abe's Beasts Head for Home and the Question of Home

by Lawrence Lacambra Ypil


Abe Kobo (author), Richard F. Calichman (translator), Beasts Head for Home: A Novel, Columbia University Press, 2017. 224 pgs.


Kobo Abe's 1957 novel Beasts Head for Home can too easily be read as an historical adventure fable. Focusing on the experiences of its young protagonist, the novel traces the attempt of Kuki Kyuzo to escape Manchuria and return to his homeland after Japan is forced to give up its colonial stronghold after its defeat in World War II. Kuki's escape, however, is complicated as he finds himself subject to the whims of the tumultuous changes of power that dominate the landscape through which he traverses. He is first held captive by a band of Soviet troops, then eventually gets caught up in the conflict between the Chinese Nationalists and the Communists. All the while, Kuki is forced to renegotiate his relationship to his heritage, as he is compelled to first hide and then subsequently reveal (and tragically be rejected for) his Japanese identity—it is this struggle which perhaps becomes the true subject matter of the book. Having been born in Manchuria, Kuki's attempt to return to Japan is actually an attempt to return to a country he has never seen. And while his suffering at the hands of the Soviets and then the Chinese is largely explained by the post-war context in which he finds himself, his eventual failure to step on Japanese soil at the end of the novel, barred by what one may call his compatriots, touches on deeper historical currents and more complicated questions of nationhood and identity.

What may appear then as a mere post-war survival story, Beasts Head for Home becomes a productive site for reflection on the nature of borders. In his beautiful introduction to the novel, this is precisely what translator Richard Calichman excavates, providing a frame with which to read the book. Is it possible to love a novel for its introduction? Perhaps it is, for what Calichman does so deftly is examine the very elements which constitute our sense of identity and home. Specifically, he focuses on four aspects which become sites of distress: the presumed unity of identity, the stability of family (via the mother), the tentativeness of the nation-state and the assumed distinction between the human and the animal. By examining the story of Kuki, Calichman reveals how Abe shows that the very elements through which we establish a sense of borders around which a home can be built ultimately become the very sites with which this sense of home is interrogated and broken down. Through the slippery transferring of Kuki's names, the shifting of the mother figure as a parallel to the protagonist's search for home, Kuki's simultaneously tight and tentative hold on his Japanese identity and his ultimate reduction to a beastly state by virtue of his experiences on the road, Abe explores the tentativeness of the notions of home and stability.

Perhaps what can be added to the elements already outlined by Calichman is the role the landscape plays in the drama. If there are any moments of beauty and awe in the novel, they are found in the descriptions of the landscape that Kuki encounters. However, this sense of awe is always imbued with a sense of horror, too. Homelessness becomes a sight of reckoning with the natural world, a natural world which provides a persistent threat to Kuki's security and an affront to his wholeness. Embodied in the landscape is thus the very state of powerlessness and restlessness into which the displaced is thrust: "In this vastness, humans appeared exceedingly small, and for at least a four kilometre radius there was nowhere for these small humans to hide. To sleep there or here amounted to exactly the same thing. If one refused to sleep here, one would be forced to travel beyond the horizon in search of somewhere else."

Ultimately, this landscape becomes the site of an encounter between the self and its very otherness:

The night was filled with sounds. There were sounds that existed in reality and those that did not. The fluttering of the wind, the howling of beasts and the screeching of birds all truly existed. As if plagued by nightmares, the beasts made incessant howling sounds that, Kyuzo suspected, must have been terrifying even to themselves. Yet it was the voices that had no real existence that were the most hostile. The wing flapping of countless phantoms. How could one possibly escape the phantoms created by one's own desire to escape?

It is therefore not the otherness of the "out there" which Kuki encounters—an "out there" established by the fleeting dichotomy of home and not-home—but the otherness that is at the heart of Kuki's subjectivity itself. This subjectivity is shaped not by stability but by a desire and restlessness to return home, to escape the not-home, creating a cycle that both feeds into and nurtures the very displacement it seeks to resolve. By encountering the landscape, we encounter the very homelessness that is at the heart of home.

In a time when the world is increasingly faced with an obsession with borders and anxieties regarding what is called the "refugee crisis," this timely new translation of Kobo Abe's novel provides a necessary coming to terms with the experience of the ravages of war on the displaced. Through Kuki's tragic search for home, the novel nurtures a sensibility that is sensitive to questions of trauma and homelessness. The book also seeks to provoke a re-examination of the very elements on which we stake our obsessions with stability, and unity, with regards to identity and belongingness. Abe exposes these beliefs as fleeting, tentative and contradictory, and highlights the futility of trying to cling to certainties about who we are, where we are from and where we ultimately belong. Through the story of Kuki Kyuzo who by the end of the novel arrives at a Japan that is defined less by land than by water, a Japan he ironically has never left because he never possessed it, Abe exposes the very fluidity with which our sense of belongingness, even ownership, must continually be tested and reckoned with.

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